The winners were announced on Sunday night and somehow—surprise, surprise—the only Russian film in competition won the Golden George. This despite a supposedly concerted effort to diversify the pool and attract more international industry interest in the fest. To me, this was very typical of things in Russia right now, where a big show is made of improvement or openness on the surface of things while insularity works behind the scenes so that the status quo – or the desired outcome—prevails. I can’t make a good argument against giving the top prize to Dreaming of Space—it’s well-made, and sensitive and wise about envy and desire. Of course it’s also uncourageous and unwilling to follow through on its own themes (exploration, liberation, curiosity, flight) without finally pinning them all on the grand, nationally empowering, film-killing-obvious moment when the Soviet Union sent a man into space.
Yet it was the best film in competition. How? Because most of the competing films were low-grade, cookie-cutter, “for film fest eyes only” fare, and simply lucky to be there (or anywhere). I can’t say that this stacked deck was intentional – I have no idea what kind of submissions were received – but I do know that Dreaming of Space was a late addition to the fest, and that its participation was requested by someone of significant power in the Kremlin. Director Alexey Uchitel wouldn’t name names, but he seemed happy to hint from how “high” the request came. If you can read Russian, the interview can be found on these pages. Though I’m pretty cynical, I can’t imagine a host government of any another major international fest intervening in such a way. Yes, it’s also true that 2 out of 6 jurors were Russian, and another 2 hailed from former Soviet territories, but anyone would have considered Dreaming of Space a top contender in this company. Dear Wendy deserved a certain respect, but its flaws are considerable, and the other decent films (The Porcelain Doll, The Outcome, Left Foot Forward On The Beat) are decidedly minor achievements. Ultimately, this was never about film. This was about Russian film. And about Russian film being exemplary of a resurgent Russia. That’s what the government’s paying for. I’m glad for the investment, because this area of the world certainly merits a major film festival. But I’d be even happier if film wasn’t just another sector ripe for intervention on behalf of leaders allergic to fair competition.