February 15, 2007

Berlinale Dispatch. Miss Gulag.

Adrienne Hudson on a doc that's screened in the Panorama section.

Miss Gulag Miss Gulag [site] by Russian-American director Maria Yatskova documents the annual beauty pageant in a Russian prison camp for women. Yatskova follows three women in different stages of their lives: one who will be stuck in the camp for years to come, one who is on the verge of parole and one who as been out for a few months.

Throughout the film, I kept thinking that this was something I'd more expect to see on, say, the French-German television channel arte. In other words, it wouldn't really have to be seen on the big screen. When Yatskova and the two producers got up on stage after the film to answer questions from the audience, the director explained that she came across just a short article on this beauty pageant on the internet one day and immediately felt the desire to make a movie about it. That's great; the idea itself does have a lot of potential. The women she chose to focus on are indeed interesting characters, and the pageant is a strange event in what is, as the father of one of the girls calls it, basically a third world country.

But the idea, unfortunately, isn't enough. Maybe if the film crew hadn't had such limited access, the movie might have turned up more surprises. Let's face it, we are all attracted by extremes. Unfortunately, however, every person involved had to sign a contract to ensure they would not show certain areas or happenings at the prison camp; otherwise, they would have to face the punishment of - how chilling - a sentence of five to seven years at the very same camp.

Even though it didn't grip me, I wouldn't call Miss Gulag tedious, as it apparently was to the guy next to me. He kept on readjusting in his seat, sighing and looking over his shoulder, trying to catch his buddy's eye, obviously only sticking around because of him. Usually, I would have been annoyed, but I actually felt more humored and sorry for the guy getting himself into such an increasingly desperate state. So, no, it wasn't close to that bad for me, but I did feel this was more something I'd zap to and watch part of to wind down with and then eventually drift off.

I felt a bit guilty about that when an elderly woman stood up during the Q&A and announced in a strong voice with a heavy Russian accent how speechless she was. This group of people was able to display a truth never seen in the Russian media. The film would never have been possible for her generation, she said. I tried not to feel guilty; it's obvious that different movies are going to mean different things to different people. I acknowledge the value of Yatskova's work, even if I'm not thrilled by it.

Another aspect that doesn't exactly help the movie is the production company's limited means. Unfortunately, almost all the material was heavily pixeled, including the lettering of the inserts that seperate the movie into chapters. Each time the narrator, Yatskova herself, came on, you could hear the microphone being turned on and off, and at times you could here the microphones were subjected to noises too loud for them.

All in all: Check it out if it's on TV some day and, if you're really interested in the topic, perhaps there'll be a DVD.

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Posted by dwhudson at February 15, 2007 11:41 AM


When do we get to hear about the new Rivette? I'm dying here!

Posted by: muteprotest at February 15, 2007 11:58 AM

I understand. But it screened for the press just a few hours ago and premieres tonight, which is why you haven't heard anything about it yet.

I'll go ahead and give you my letter grade before commenting later, when my head clears: B+, with a qualification: this is not one to be seen while experiencing recurrent waves of festival fatigue. Several members of the esteemed press corps didn't last through the 2 hours and 17 minutes, and many who didn't leave could be heard snoring throughout the theater. But for those of us pumped up on caffeine, a film that looked difficult at first becomes delightful and then, towards the end, quite suspenseful.

Posted by: David Hudson at February 15, 2007 12:17 PM

Hear, hear! The Rivette would be at least a B+ in my book, too... and yeah, it was a little unsettling to see so many walkouts in the screening upstairs from where David caught it.

I'm still digesting what the uninitiated wouldn't necessarily grasp from Rivette (I'm working on a theory that both marries the film and proclaims it a narrative antithesis to the equally Balzac-infused "Out 1"), but what some must have dismissed as a dry-as-stale-toast period piece had some of the meatiest, most complex relationship dynamics between two onscreen characters I've seen since I can't remember when. And that primary-colored cinematography! That choreographed dance of words and bodies! That amplified ambient sound!

Minor Rivette is still a major work, indeed, but I'll have to write about this when I've had more time to think it through (and I'm not so bleary-eyed from the rest of the fest).

Posted by: Aaron Hillis at February 15, 2007 12:46 PM

Thanks so much for the feedback, guys!

On the whole, the work from Rivette's "late period" (meaning roughly Up, Down, Fragile to the present) seems to have cooled the ardor of even his more devoted followers (Rosenbaum especially). This downgrading apparently stems from Rivette's perceived abandonment of what Saul Austerlitz calls "the subversion and complication of film narrative" represented by his earlier films.

Aaron's wonderful comments regarding the new film's "choreographed dance of words and bodies" seem quite applicable to Rivette's last two films as well; all of which makes me wonder if perhaps we shouldn't be examining the current phase of Rivette's output from a fresh angle, leaving aside (momentarily, at least) questions of narrative accessibility & duration.

Plus isn't there a four hour director's cut of
Va Savoir as yet unreleased on video?

Posted by: muteprotest at February 15, 2007 6:06 PM