December 28, 2019

Russians on Oscar Shortlists

Russians on Oscar Shortlists
Still from Kantemir Balagov's Beanpole.

Russian cinema is not going through the best of times commercially-speaking: out of 68 films that came out this year and that were financed by the state only eight were commercially successful. And yet, three films by Russian directors were shortlisted for the Academy Awards this year (about half of the works on the shortlist are eventually nominated).

Critic Anton Dolin, chief editor of Iskusstvo Kino, called the news "colossal." "It's been a long time since something like this happened. Possibly never," Dolin wrote after the Academy published the shortlist in mid-December.

1. Beanpole (Дылда) is perhaps the most talked-about Russian movie at this year's festivals. Set in post-war St. Petersburg, Kantemir Balagov's film is a stark tale of war's effects on people's lives, specifically women survivors. Balagov, who made this (his second) film at 27 is arguably Russia's most meteorically rising young talent (his debut film, Closeness, was set in his native Nalchik in the 1990s and made a splash in Cannes two years ago). 

Beanpole, which comes to US theaters in January, received mixed reviews in Russia and, like other films about World War II that divert from the official canon of treating it as a singularly victorious page of Soviet history, risks official condemnation. Because of one love scene between two female protagonists, former anti-aircraft gunners, Balagov was accused of pandering to western festival juries – the film was even nominated for the "Queer Palm" award, an independent jury in Cannes. But Balagov said this irritated him because it oversimplified the relationship between the two women.  

Balagov said the film is an "anti-war manifesto" inspired by Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich's book The Unwomanly Face of War, which is based on the stories and plight of women soldiers.

2. St. Petersburg based animation artist Konstantin Bronzit was nominated for an Oscar with his previous short film We Cannot Live Without the Cosmos, a tale of two friends inseparable even after a space accident claims one's life. This year's selection is called He Cannot Live Without the Cosmos. Bronzit says he decided to give the new film a very similar title because it explores the same themes, only now the focus is on a child dreaming of becoming a cosmonaut.

The child is born wearing a spacesuit, and prepares to go into space despite efforts by his mother to make him "normal." Bronzit says his job as an animation artist is as lonely as it is for his characters to be in space: "you sit and draw on the computer all day long by yourself."


Bronzit has previously complained that his work receives no state funding from the Ministry of Culture. This year, however, the Fond Kino (Movie Fund), which hands out subsidies for film projects, announced that it would finance Bronzit's new film, Мусор ("Garbage"), a 3D film made with a Canadian partner.

3. The third shortlisted film crafted by a Russian film director is not actually officially Russian. Aquarela is a joint effort by production studios in Britain, Denmark and the United States. But Viktor Kosakovsky, who, like Bronzit, also hails from St. Petersburg, chose Russia's Lake Baikal for part of his experimental documentary about water.

In crucial scenes in the film, automobiles driving across the lake plunge through the ice – drivers accustomed to relying on a frozen surface to get to Olkhon Island by car are unprepared for the effects of a changing climate. The film also captures crumbling glaciers, waterfalls and hurricanes. 


Unusually for documentaries, the film has no voiceover. The film has a whopping 12 lines of dialogue. Some reviews remarked on the overwhelming natural sounds through the 1.5 hours, but most critics praised its visuals. The film is shot with a special camera able to capture 96 frames a second. Unfortunately, very few theaters have the capability to show the footage at its full quality.

As a bonus, the Czech short animation feature on the shortlist, Dcera ("Daughter") was made by Russian filmmaker Darya Kashcheyeva, who moved to the Czech Republic from Moscow several years ago to study animation. 



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