Culture, Film review, Films, Russia

I won’t come back (Я Не Вернюсь) – A fable on screen

I recently came across a Russian film called I won’t come back, or Я Не Вернюсь (Ya ne vernus) in Russian. It took a while to decide which one to watch, from a list of films by the likes of Pedro Almodóvar and Michael Haneke. And I chose to watch the film by an unknown Estonian director Ilmar Raag. But after watching it, I can say the much-cliched phrase that you’ve only failed when you stopped trying. Failing, in this context, is not knowing the world of the parallel cinema, not knowing about a different world away from glitzy Hollywood and Bollywood, not witnessing life in another part of the world so less represented in the media. I won’t come back is a powerful film about two orphans fighting their corner in the world and their desperate search for love. The harsh realities of life, laced with short tales providing a poetic, magical, getaway from the sombre undertone of the storyline, and a brilliant cinematography spanning the vast expanse of the Russian countryside to the Altai mountains in Kazakhstan — the result of the eclectic mix is unforgettable. And above all, I won’t come back portrays career defining performances by Polina Pushkaruk and young Vika Lobacheva.

Russian trailer for the film
(Source: YouTube)

Polina portrays Anya, who grew up in an orphanage, and she becomes a lecturer in an university. There, she falls in love with a professor, but he has a family with children. One day she was accused of hiding drugs she didn’t know about, and she escapes the arrest. To avoid being taken in custody, Anya goes to an orphanage claiming she’s fifteen, and there she meets Kristine, a thirteen-year-old girl, who is bullied by other inmates. Anya defends her, and Kristine began to trust Anya. When Kristine tells Anya that she knows a secret way out, Anya runs away one day, only to find Kristine following her, pleading to take her to her grandma in Kazakhstan. Thus begins the voyage to Kazakhstan, with very little money between them. They had to hitchhike. On the way, Anya receives a call from Andrey, that all charges against her were dropped and she should come back to the uni. Thus begins the clash between the two characters, both desperate to find a tie, a sense of belonging and being loved — Anya, in her lover and Kristine, in her grandma. Anya tries to send Kristine to Kazakhstan in a train but fails. Through various dramatic sequences, it emerges that these two girls needed each other, more than they agreed to admit. But when Kristine said to Anya, she refused to admit it, resulting in Kristine running away and hitchhiking alone in a car leaving Anya behind. After a day of searching for her, Anya finds her alone, walking along the snow covered road in the upcoming winter. Anya finally realises how much she loved Kristine and decided to travel to Kazakhstan. Then in a sudden twist of fate, as they waited for a car, a drunk driver skids and hits the shed where Kristine was resting, killing her instantly. Anya in her grief realised that she’d become an orphan again, and lost the only human being who loved her unconditionally. The film then shows resolute Anya telling Andrey that she’s not coming back, and finally reaches the village in the Altai mountains. Kristine’ grandmother mistakes Anya to be Kristine, and Anya carried on with the lie, to finally find a place to call home.

Ya ne vernus a magical film, despite its dark and sad undertone. A number of scenes were truly emotional, and Polina and Vika made those instances realistic as though the tension between them was palpable. Instances worth specific mention are the time when Anya leaves a howling Kristine in the cemetery petrified of the wolves, or when Kristine kept asking Anya to admit she loved her but Anya kept refusing. Perhaps the most heart-rending scene was when Kristine suddenly dies. With the two girls finally agreeing to go to Kazakhstan, and the viewers expecting a journey to Kristine’a grandmother for a happily ever after, the suddenness of her death left us speechless. Perhaps Anya’s grief in the film moved at a faster pace than the viewers realising that Kristine, the eccentric and dreamy teenager is actually dead. No miracle is happening, Anya won’t be taking her to a farm where Vika would be treated and recover.

Yet, despite the dreary backdrop throughout the film, it also highlights the strength of a relationship. The mythical interjections in the film, mostly by the dreamy Kristine, gave the film a fantastic aura. These short intervals of fantasy take the viewers’ attention away from the harsh reality of the central theme. Scenes like Kristine introducing herself to Anya telling there are an eagle and a dog inside her who talk to her all the time, or that she had wings but they were broken and she couldn’t fly anymore because God only gives you wings once. We’ll remember Kristine pouring soda on the road so the road sends them a lift, and that of the swan and the girl kept us hoping that there is something positive happening to these girls. We see the relationship between Anya and Kristine evolve with a background of the out and about places in Russia, captured by the fabulous cinematography — from a busy city to the Altai mountains, from a dark, snow-laden cemetery at night, to busy service stations. The film presented slices of Russian life and culture through various imageries, perfectly blended into the storyline, such as the tale of the swan, as they walked past a deserted lake. As much as the unforgettable character portrayals of Polina Pushkaruk and Vika Lobacheva, the cinematography by Tuomo Hutri was a treat.

“There was a girl in the orphanage. One day she ran away from everyone. She came across a lake and saw a swan. She asked the swan to take her away. So the swan picked her up in his beak and flew away. The swan put the girl in his house. But he went away to see his kids and the girl saw him less and less. One day the girl jumped in the water. But she didn’t drown and turned into a fish. The swan came back and couldn’t see the girl. He began to cry. The fish-girl could see the swan but she couldn’t speak to him. From that day, the fish would come up to the surface every day and see her swan cry”

However, it’s the the relationship between the characters of Anya and Kristine — the turmoils and their love, is the tour de force in Ya ne vernus. Anya’s character is shown as an intelligent young woman, finding her place in the world putting the life in the orphanage behind her. However, as much as she appeared confident in professional life, she seemed helplessly desperate in her personal life. She was looking for stability throughout the film, and that’s why knowing that she had no hope of getting Andrey leave his family for her, Anya clung on to him. Her only hope, still, was to stay in the city she was living and pray that Andrey leaves his wife and family one day. Until then, at least she can still be in an affair with him. Kristine, on the other side, had nothing in the city. She has no relatives, she’s bullied by all the inmates of the orphanage. All she had was a small tin box, inside which was a crumpled photo with an address of a remote village in Kazakhstan, where her grandma lived. Living in a shelter knowing that she had a living relative made her flee one shelter to another until she met Anya who, unlike others, was ready to stand up to anyone harassing Kristine. Kristine saw her like a big sister, she felt loved and cared for. And she felt secure. But her ultimate goal was to reach Chemolgan, the village in Kazakhstan where her grandma lived. It appeared as though one of these girls will have to make a sacrifice or will be separated forever. If Anya goes to Kazakhstan, she’ll never see Andrey again, and if she went back to the city, Kristine will not see her Grandma. It was as if the destiny was playing a cruel roulette with their fate, where whichever path they chose, they will lose one significant person in their life. The director Ilmar Raag depicted through some unforgettable scenes how Anya opened up her feelings towards Kristine, and that the feeling she felt towards Andrey was slowly fading away.

Polina Pushkaruk was phenomenal in portraying the role of Anya but it’s the young Vika Lobacheva who stole the heart away of the viewers. She made the character of dreamy and feisty Kristine very real to the audience. It was amazing acting by a young actor and I wonder why she wasn’t nominated for the best young actors. I was surprised to find out later that Vika Lobacheva actually spent a large part of her childhood in social care. Ya ne vernus is an exceptional film, magically woven by talented Ilmar Raag and supported by the lead actors Polina and Vika. Adding the cinematography featuring the vast expanse of the Russian countryside, it made I won’t come back one of the phenomenal films I’ve watched recently. Many would argue that this may be classed as a road movie, but I’d strongly oppose that notion. It’s true that a large part of the film is about the journey for the two women towards Kazakhstan, but it’s much more than a road movie — it’s a tale about finding home and love. To me, it was a fable, a string of magical moments joined together to a bleak storyline. I’m glad that I made the choice to watch Я Не Вернюсь (Ya ne vernus) over the other films I was tempted by, or else I would have missed this rare gem. It was a lesson, that sometimes it’s worth following a hunch, and not just for choosing which films to watch.

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Politics, Russia

Alexander Litvivnenko murder inquiry and Putin’s rogue state

A man looks at a portrait of ex-spy Andrei Litvinenko by Russian artists Dmitry Vrubel and Viktoria Timofeyeva in the Marat Guelman gallery in Moscow May 22, 2007. Moscow cannot extradite former KGB agent Andrei Lugovoy to Britain on charges of murdering fellow ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko because of a constitutional ban, the Russian Prosecutor-General's office said on Tuesday. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin (RUSSIA) - RTR1PYPQ

A man looks at a portrait of ex-spy Andrei Litvinenko by Russian artists Dmitry Vrubel and Viktoria Timofeyeva in the Marat Guelman gallery in Moscow May 22, 2007. Moscow cannot extradite former KGB agent Andrei Lugovoy to Britain on charges of murdering fellow ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko because of a constitutional ban, the Russian Prosecutor-General’s office said on Tuesday. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin (RUSSIA) – shared from The Guardian

Russia never failed to amaze me, from the Soviet Union during my childhood years, whilst reading the fables and folklore from the snow laden land, to now, knowing more about the state after the Iron Curtain was lifted, through various media coverages and current affairs, and all such information merge into a collage with stark contrasts. With its contradictions, Russia is in many ways similar to India, yet in many ways is miles apart. During my childhood, whilst marvelling at the utopia that all people lived as equals there, and that Lenin and Stalin were demigods, protecting the interests of the proletariat without a shadow of blemish on their persona, Russia was painted as the El Dorado, by our local communist press. Even when my beloved Tintin uncovered the oppression of the Bolshevik state, I was greatly miffed at Hergé and wondered whether he took sides with the capitalists. Then came the teenage years, with Rocky and Rambo dominating the silver screens, including many other films and books featuring the Cold War and showing that the Soviets were the actual bad guys there. I didn’t believe it, and treated most of it as they were represented — a work of fiction. Around the same time, however, the end of Communism and falling of Berlin Wall marked a new chapter in Russian history, which not only split the Soviet Union, but it also left all communist parties across the world in utter disbelief. The ripple of that seismic change in the global political equation also reached the east Indian state of West Bengal — one of the few states remaining as the last bastion of Indian communist movement. The fall of Soviet Union left indelible marks in the future of the party command, as there were no ideals to follow, no role models left. During my early adulthood, the keenness to learn more about communism kindled the fondness towards Russia, yet the search for more information was in vain without the access of computers and Internet. The next decade reaching up to my thirties, Russia remained a state that I adored before and still did, place of economic hardship and political oblivion, a state that is more humane than the Capitalist America and Britain ever was, and I always remained a supporter of Russia in games, sports, contests over the capitalist countries.

Until then, the images of Russia invoked a feeling as the land of Communism, and Siberia and Santa Claus. Of lake Baikal, of Ural Mountains, of Steppe and Tartars, of Volga and Vodka. Of leaders with undoubted integrity like Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev. In my thirties, I had access to more information through my researches and media — information that would starkly refute my rose-tinted vision of Russia, Soviet leaderships and the Bolshevik Revolution itself. The secrecy weaved by Lenin had turned the country into the Iron Curtain by Stalin, adding to it the atrocities during the WWII or the Katyn massacre, the Marxist dream probably was already slipping away. From WWII until the fall of Soviet Union, the state was mired with atrocities, espionage, distrust and suspicion.

With the wake of the CIS, and subsequently the Russian Federation, following the dissolution of the other member states, the communist idealist views were dead, but the ghosts of the practices from the Soviet era remained unchanged and with time, the power of the state was devolved into a number of powerful business leaders and the ex-secret service officials, the epitome of which is the charismatic president Mr Putin. Despite the highly censored media, there were instances of gross human rights violations, provocative actions at the international territories, secret assassinations, intimidations and at worst, annexing part of a foreign territory of Crimea through a dubious referendum. The presence of Russian Mafia in many of the European countries dealing arms to extortion made the threats to rest of the Europe palpable. With the corrupt officials at the helm, the presence of state sponsorship to such dealings is irrefutable. The assassination of Alexander Litvinenko exemplifies one such tale of secret assassination, state protection of the Mafia, and throttling the voices against the government. An incredible read, this report can only highlight the audacity of the events that unfurled on that fated 1st November 2006, and Russia’s complete disregard to the diplomatic relations.

Alexander Litvinenko: the man who solved his own murder

On 21st January, the high court in the UK released the verdict on Alexander Litvinenko assassination, that it was the Russian state who “possibly” murdered a UK citizen and an MI6 informer. However, the proofs and alibis scream loudly of the involvement of the prime suspects Lugovoi and Kovtum (Lugovoi has recently been awarded the state honour by Putin. And the source of the Po-210 isotope, which is a highly controlled substance and could only be sourced from the state run labs or reactors, corroborating the allegations. The case is open and shut, that the murder was definitely been carried out by the Russian state, with direct orders from Vladimir Putin. What changed the outcome of the report is unknown, possibly the lack of circumstantial evidences or the reluctance of the UK government to be on the wrong foot with Russia whilst dealing with ISIL or Iran’s sanction uplifting.

Russia was an enigma, and still is, and it has given the world great scientists, artists and thinkers. However, the present government has now been reduced to a bunch of corrupt officials from communist era, pimps and the thugs, who jettisoned their communist ethos of improving the lives of the others, and instead exploit the lives of its citizens and plunder the national wealth. At the same time, the methods of spying, interrogation, intimidation adopted in the Communist era to thwart the capitalist threat has now become the mechanism of the rogue state to continue its reign of torture, secret assassinations, extortion and trafficking whilst continuously flouting at the UN regulations.

People around the world still worship Putin, still rejoice how he shuts down the leaders of the capitalist countries, how he is a man of character and how a leader should be. Some people still like Hitler. That doesn’t make them right, nor do their fuzzy feelings justify the lives claimed by these “angels of death”. To conclude, here is the parting shot from Alexander Litvinenko on his deathbed, to his assassinator:

“You may succeed in silencing me but that silence comes at a price. You have shown yourself to be as barbaric and ruthless as your most hostile critics have claimed.
You have shown yourself to have no respect for life, liberty or any civilised value.
You have shown yourself to be unworthy of your office, to be unworthy of the trust of civilised men and women.
You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life.
May God forgive you for what you have done, not only to me but to beloved Russia and its people.”

And the outcome of the inquiry may not be significant in terms of how much it would affect Putin, and Russia will claim the report was politcally motivated; but almost 10 years after his assassination, Alexander Litvinenko proved to the world the true colour of the Russian president…
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Expedition, Nature, Siberia

A treatise on a journey Verkhoyansk, the coldest town on earth

Verkhoyansk: an anthology of snow laden dreams
(as seen on a documentary on National Geographic in 2002)

 
Siberia, the coldest plain in the world – a world of dreams, fantasies and coldness that gives a tourist an essence of the glorious days of yesteryears and the very Darwinian concept of existential struggle. Starting from the base of ALTAI MOUNTAINS, KAZAKHSTAN, it spans over the ARCTIC CIRCLE, and its width almost same as Asian Russia; from the URAL MOUNTAINS, it spreads over to the KAMCHATKA ISLANDS on the northern Pacific. This land is so enormous in size that it can alone accommodate the entire Europe, USA with some spaces still left. An area over a colossal five million square miles, it has always been an integral part of Russia – in its history, culture, socio-economic behaviour and other facets as well. Siberia is still bearing the heritages, from middle age tribal cultures to the Czar monarchy in twentieth century. For time and again, SIBERIA has been a land of prosperity, the western region giving birth to the most advanced stream of humankind, the Aryans. Though having an extremely adverse weather, not at all conducive for survival of human beings, this plain may seem like a stolid patch of an endless ennui, but underneath it flows the warm, stimulating spirit of its people and places, reminiscent of the past glories. Geographically most of its area is formed by the central plateau region outlined by Yenizei River in the west to Lena in the east. In this region across the banks of Lena, far over the Arctic Circle, on the northern side of the central mountains, is situated the town VERKHOYANSK, the coldest known city in this world, an overall temperature recording well below –50oC and a lowest recorded temperature ever in a city of –71.8oC. An American traveller, who had grown an attraction towards Russian language and their culture set to visit Verkhoyansk alone.

The journey begins at Moscow, the beacon of Russian architecture and its conservative Czarist reigns, from where he will set for the Trans-Baikal region, the town of IRKUTSK. Standing at the shore of LAKE BAIKAL this town bears the memories of the communist reigns of the twentieth century. It is an architectured city, and quite a large one, with most of its residents descended from Mongol predecessors. LAKE BAIKAL, world’s largest sweet water lake, is about an hour away from the centre of the Irkutsk. In the winter times, when the venture is made, it is covered with about a feet of ice. This Baikal Lake makes a huge contribution to the people living near the lake; they flourish with the aid of this lake, as it is the source of their income, food and every means of life. This lake has so much impact on every aspect of Russia that in the Russian universities a subject called BAIKALOLOGHY is introduced concerning Baikal history, science, its lives etc. The temperature around Baikal is –20 to -30oC in winter. The chilly weather permeates even the warm winter gears, but the local residents are accustomed with the wintry bites of cold. The people residing near Baikal often go to the lake for fishing by spears. They just break the ice layer and when a fish passes by, it is pierced by the javelin-like spear. However, the size is not much to boast about. The journey of IRKUTSK is over and now the destination is several hundred miles farther, on the verge of ARCTIC CIRCLE, to the town of YAKUTSK, the path will be traversed over railroads, the historical TRANS-SIBERIAN RAILWAY.

The TRANS-SIBERIAN RAILWAY is a self-evident part of RUSSIA, an epoch making phenomenon that happened to the country years ago, world’s longest railway and one of the few things that would strike everyone’s mind whenever thinking of RUSSIA. This Railway, starting from the cities of Manchurian Provinces extends of the order of thousands of kilometres before terminating in the shores of Pacific Ocean. Everyday this train transports thousands of people to one part of the plain to the other parts. The journey passes through types of landscapes of mountainous southern area, then the central plateau region passing through which the train enters the icy terrains, where no sign of plantation or else will be seen, from cacophonous cityscapes to the most desolated ice-filled terrain, the contrast is exceptionally striking, panoramic views are inexplicable. One day later the train reaches the much-awaited end, YAKUTSK. At the average temperature around the –20oC mark, life is not very comfortable here. Its residents, predominantly descendants from their Mongol, Yakuti and Tartar ancestors although learnt over the years to cope with this cold bites of winter. The population amounting little over than 10,000, they mostly earn breads by factories situated there and some at the outskirts of the city. The areas around Yakutsk bear a long past, of Russian religion and culture. During 1991 when the communist government fell on Moscow, the Lenin statue was beheaded; the head of the Lenin was borrowed by the Yakutsk city officials from the government and kept in front of the town hall there. Up to there, the voyage was a cosy one, the chill was still infiltrate inside the skin, although minuscule. Moreover, the travellers will not encounter any kind of obstacles up to this point, except the cold. Now the time of those luxurious rides are gone and they have to start anew to confront many impedances.

From Yakutsk they will travel by heavy-duty trucks, first to the town of ULAN UDE; this ride that should take about a nights journey, takes 2-3 days sometimes due to the bad roads there. Eventually there are no such roads there and the traveller was well aware of that, so he took resort to a local professor at the University of Yakutsk. This professor came from herdsmen of ULAN UDE, when the Russian collective farming policy had been employed throughout the Russia; the low profile people were shown the light of education, appointed to the fast growing schools, given proper education and then were made to hold some office according to their qualifications. Likewise, this professor was a teacher of sociology; he agreed to the proposal of this American because this will provide an opportunity to meet his people in ULAN UDE. The journey to ULAN UDE was a very worrying one. It took double the actual time required to reach there; their truck’s tyre got stuck into the mud of a river, it was the truck where they kept all their gears, foods etc.; so they had to wait for a second truck to arrive from Yakutsk, to pull the first truck from the mud. ULAN UDE is a very small town and as it lies very close to the Arctic Circle; weather gets much cooler than the earlier places. This town, as all other Russian counterparts thrived during the reign of communists, factories opened, several school and colleges were made, people’s lives were lifted from the misery of the Czarist periods to a new altitude, a new freedom. During advent of that epoch a lot of new townships were built and people came there from the countryside for education, job and were enlightened by a dream of classless world, moved the heaven and earth to materialise the dream. But with the fall of USSR came the disaster so sudden that nobody was able to catch-up; funds dried up, with a shattered dream people return to their native places, made these townships some barren places where very few people stayed, who cut all their roots while moving to these areas at earlier times and therefore have nowhere to go now.

At the outskirts of the town, about few miles further lies a REINDEER FARM. The number of factories in ULAN UDE is almost nil, and thus most of the few educated people are teachers in the city schools or do some petty jobs. Most of the residents of this town moved to the areas surrounding it, to their native places, where most of them raise families by the occupation of their ancestors, REINDEER FARMING. On the eve of the day the traveller reached ULAN UDE, they went to a reindeer farm that falls on the way of the VERKHOYANSK. From a few hundred yards away from their house lies the wide snow-covered area, where they keep their beasts. A few trained dogs are placed near the boundary to deter any of the reindeers to escape from the farm. Trees become very rare in these regions, but the farm is located in the vicinity of a place full of trees. A family keeps normally over 50-60 reindeers, which provides them food, garments from their skin, and money by selling their skins as well. In this polar region filled with a snowy surrounding, people have to come way down the road, to Ulan Ude to procure food for the reindeer and for themselves as well. From this point onwards the team have to cross the Verkhoyansk Mountains, an eerie piece of land where the whole area is clouded with mist and sunlight cannot be seen even at midday throughout the year, a place filled with big trees. At the base of the mountains, from where the band of trees start, the Arctic Circle is supposed to be crossed and after scaling these mountainous slopes, starts the final part of the journey, the ultimate test for endurance. The town Verkhoyansk is not very far off, but the path is full of obstacles; now they have to make their rest part of the voyage by dog-pulled sledges. The temperature dropping exponentially, and even with full gears on, it is very hard to stop the shiver within. About a hundred miles from the mountain, the travel has come to its final halt, the town of VERKHOYANSK, world’s coldest city.

Reasonably, the population of this town is not very much, just a few thousands. When the winter unfurls its vicious tooth and claw, mercury swooping down to about –50oC, supply of food and clothes are cut short; it is barely a conducive condition for human beings. Their main sources of income are farming and in the main town some small office jobs, teaching etc. People around there are always clad in heavy furry clothes made of animal skins. In this city was recorded a lowest temperature of –67.5oC in the year of 1975. That awesome figure brought the town a repute of being the coldest ever city having a handsome, however small, amount of human dwelling. However, people living less than a miles away from the centre of the VERKHOYANSK, claims that a place in their proximity recorded a lowest temperature of –71.8oC. That made a few controversies concerning whether to declare the latter place the coldest one, but presumably, the assertion was a fake one, as there was no physical evidence to substantiate the fact. However, the local people were firm in their statement and made a statue at the place where they claim to have recorded that lowest temperature; the statue is known by ‘pole of cold’ to the local people.

Over the Arctic Circle near Polar Regions, where the sunlight, even in summer, seems like a distant gloomy lamp lurking just over the horizon, the spine-chilling cold is evident; but the spirit of people around there, their warmth, livelihood that keeps them going on and survive this extreme hostilities of nature; that is the true essence of Siberia.
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