Russian movies regaining popularity with young audiences

As The Wall Street Journal reports, pirate copies of the film "Bimmer," by the Russian first-time director Pyotr Buslov, have found their way to Los Angeles and Hong Kong, and the STV television network - a co-producer of this new motion picture - is negotiating distribution deals with U.S.-based companies. "Bimmer" is to be screened at the Russian Film Week festival in New York later this month.

Critics in Russia describe the movie as one of the best debuts in recent history, comparing its director, the 27-year-old Buslov, to Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorcese. Since its release in early August, the film has brought in some $1.5 million in box-office proceeds-a record sum for the Russian movie industry in the post-Soviet era. Indeed, locally-made films accounted for a mere 6 percent of the total box-office returns in this country as recently as last year, with 71 percent falling on Hollywood makes' share.

"Bimmer" is just one in a string of recent domestic productions to offer stiff competition to American blockbusters, pushing them to the sidelines of the Russian film market after decade-long domination. Alexei Balabanov's "Brother" and "Brother, Part 2," Yegor Konchalovsky's "Anti-Killer," Alexander Rogozhkin "Cuckoo," Nikolai Lebedev's "The Star," and Valery Todorovsky's "Lover" are just a few examples. All the above features have been turned out by middle-aged filmmakers and become particularly popular with movie-goers of the 25-to-35 age group. But none of these successful movies can rival "Bimmer" in popularity. Younger and much less experienced than his fellow directors mentioned above, Buslov has nonetheless managed to draw the attention of high-school and college students away from Western-made flicks.

Until recently, fantasy has been the favorite genre with Russia's young movie audiences, with its brightest exponent being Peter Jackson's screen version of John Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings." Buslov's debut picture is as far away from fantasy as one can possibly get. Yet, this new silver-screen hit makes young people crowd movie-theaters, inspiring the creation of cyber fan clubs.

A graduate of the nation's No.1 film school, known by its Russian acronym VGIK, Buslov could not find a producer for his directorial debut (this is a problem common to all fledgling film directors). As a result, he made it with a shoestring budget of $700,000, filming by night on a set built in an unheated hangar outside Moscow. The lack of funds did not affect the quality of the production, however.

Telling about the shenanigans of a gang of car hijackers, "Bimmer" keeps the audience in constant suspense-an effect even established filmmakers find it hard to achieve. The music score has been contributed by Sergei Shnurov, viewed as an iconic figure by Russian rock lovers. The cast features young, little-known actors, but their portrayals of the modern-day Robbin' Hoods are quite convincing nonetheless. Judging from viewer feedback posted in online forums, the movie's main asset is the true-to-life way in which it shows Russia of the 1990's - the years of maturing for many of today's movie-theater regulars.

Buslov has first-hand knowledge of the reality he depicted first in his screenplay and then in his movie. A Siberia native, he spent his youth in Vladivostok - a port city plagued with rampant crime. He says many of his local friends ended up behind bars and that he, too, could have found himself in jail. The film's central characters-four young people-get into the criminal underworld unwittingly. They don't have any intention to murder, but car theft sends them further down the crime path. In the film, Bimmer-that's how the men dub the stolen BMW they make their home-serves as a metaphor for the characters' tough, impetuous lives.

Russian cinema used to be a major vehicle for communicating national values to the outside world. In the 1990s, however, it stopped being outward-looking, but focused instead on inner societal plagues, including prostitution, drug abuse, and banditry. It presented an exaggerated picture of the vices of Russia's society, leaving normal people out of sight. "Bimmer" is one more endeavor to reflect the societal psyche on the screen, but unlike its predecessors, this new film does not try to poeticize anti-social, marginalized groups of society. It bids farewell to the romanticized view of villains, turning back to positive characters, with whom most of the viewers could identify. Love and friendship are not alien to its personages, and they could have transformed from villains into heroes if only they had had the chance.

The national cinema will get back on its feet if Russian filmmakers find worthy protagonists and the government continues to support film production financially and morally. According to some forecasts, 70 feature films will be turned out in Russia before the end of 2003-as compared with last year's 68. If these predictions come true, the percentage of domestic productions in the total amount of motion pictures screened in Russia may well rise from 16% to 20% -- the threshold the Russian filmmaking community aspires to achieve.

Olga Sobolevskaya, RIAN

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