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Imaginary Documents: Inventing Traditions in Aleksei


Fedorchenko's Cinema.

Article · January 2019

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Serguei A. Oushakine
Princeton University
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T he Con t e mp or a r y
Russi a n Cine m a R e a de r
2005 -2 0 16

Edited by R i m g a i l a S a ly s

BOSTON / 2019
Silent Souls*

O v siank i

2010
75 minutes

D irec tor: Aleksei Fedorchenko


S creenplay: Denis Osokin
Cinematography: Mikhail K richman
Ar t D esign: Andrei Ponkratov
Produc tion: Meri Nazari, Igor´ Mishin, AprilMigPic tures, Mediamir
Fund, 29 Februar y
Cast: Iur y Tsurilo (Miron), Igor´ S ergeev (Aist), Iuliia Aug
( Tanya), Viktor S ukhorukov ( Vesa, Aist ’s father)

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Silent Souls

Imaginary Documents: Inventing Traditions


in Aleksei Fedorchenko’s Cinema *

The document has always enjoyed a peculiar status in Russian


cinema: rarely considered for its own importance, the cinematic
document is often seen as a “weapon,” as an expressive tool to fight
an aesthetic battle. In Dziga Vertov’s “unplayed” cinema (neigrovaia
fil´ma), the emphasis on factography and the unmediated portrayal
of life-caught-unawares was supposed to act as an antidote against
the prosthetic psychologism and narrative straightjackets of the
formulaic cinematic genres of the time.1 The same distancing from
dominant expressive canons and formats seems to be at stake in the
current investment of Russian New Drama in the use of verbatim.
The “uncombed” (and often violent) speech of teatr.doc has usefully
expanded the scope of discursive ethnography of Russian society,
providing a welcome alternative to highly stylized plots and strictly
policed formats of glam-literature and film of the last decade.2
Aleksei Fedorchenko’s films assume a special position in this
newly inspired interest in the document. Since 2004, he has been
producing a stream of films that deliberately blur the clear-cut
distinction between the real and the imaginary, and between the
documentary and the fictional. Of course, this approach is hardly
new: real fictions (and fictitious realities) have become a major
organizing framework for various performative projects. What

* A shorter version of this essay was published in Kinokultura 31 (2011).


1
For details, see Elizabeth Astrid Papazian, Manufacturing Truth: The
Documentary Moment in Early Soviet Culture (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois
University Press, 2009) and Andrei Fomenko, Montazh, faktografiia, epos:
proizvodstvennoe dvizhenie i fotografiia (St. Petersburg: Izdatel´stvo Sankt-
Peterburgskogo gosudarstvennogo universiteta, 2007).
2
Birgit Beumers and Mark Lipovetsky, Performing Violence: Literary and
Theoretical Experiments of New Russian Drama (Chicago: Intellect and The
University of Chicago Press, 2009).

137
Serguei Alex. Oushakine

makes Fedorchenko’s engagement with the document interesting,


though, is his profound investment in deploying conventions
and features of documentary genres for creating worlds that
never existed and situations that never occurred. While being
deeply illusionistic and mimetic, his “documentary fairy-tales”
(as he defines his films)3 point to no original that they allegedly
reproduce. All of his films are deeply embedded in history and/or
ethnography, yet Fedorchenko always manages to turn history and
ethnography into something else. From his very first film on early
Soviet space programs, First on the Moon (Pervye na lune, 2005) to his
latest film on the Soviet avant-garde, Angels of Revolution (Angely
revoliutsii, 2014), Fedorchenko has mocked and undermined all the
historical premises and ethnographic assumptions that made his
films plausible in the first place.
Fedorchenko’s cinematic biography began rather accidentally.
An economist and engineer by training, he started his professional
career in the late 1980s in a “closed” military plant in the Urals,
computerizing its accounting system. Drastic economic changes in
the country forced him to start his own business; for a while, he
was a salesperson, selling everything from chocolate to processed
cheeses. His first position at the Sverdlovsk Film Studio, a company
with a long history of successful documentary films, was in
the economics department: Fedorchenko was helping the new
management to revive the studio that was looted and bankrupted
during the privatization frenzy of the 1990s. Later, he supplemented
his first-hand knowledge of cinematic processes by studying in the
script-writing department (stsenarnyi fakul´tet) of VGIK, the leading
cinema school in Russia.4

3
For more detail, see an interview with Aleksei Fedorchenko: Irina Semenova,
“Real´nyi volshebnyi mir,” Iskusstvo kino 10 (October 2010), accessed August
25, 2017, http://kinoart.ru/archive/2010/10/n10-article13.
4
Ibid.; Natal´ia Bondarenko, “Moi fil´my—eto skazki dlia vzroslykh.” Ogonek
34 (August 30, 2010(: 43, accessed August 25, 2017, https://www.kommersant.
ru/doc/1490171. See also the official site of Fedorchenko’s film production
company 29 February, accessed August 25, 2017, http://29f.org/o-kompanii/
managers/aleksei-fedorchenko.

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Silent Souls

Fedorchenko’s first full-length feature film, First on the Moon,


was a 75-minute mockumentary about an “unknown,” successful
voyage to the moon conducted by the first Soviet “cosmopilot” in
1938.5 His second feature film, Silent Souls (Ovsianki, 2010) is also
a mockumentary of sorts. Yet, unlike in his début, here Fedorchenko
moves beyond the retrofitting of familiar plotlines and visual
conventions (of the USSR’s heroic history) with new content.
Instead, he creates an ethnographic trompe l’œil by inventing
a realistically detailed story about entirely invented customs of
the actual Merya people. What is unsettled here is not a particular
plot or myth, but rather the very desire to find ontological certainty
and identificatory stability in a tradition carefully protected from
the influence of the present. As Silent Souls suggests, traditions are
indeed invented, made from scratch, and constantly woven into
the fabric of the daily life. Rather than providing an emotional
template, they mystify social relations. Instead of suggesting a clear
direction in an uncommon situation, they obscure already available
paths.
This skepticism about the value of history can, of course,
be expected from a director who approaches the document as
a source of artistic inspiration rather than evidence of authenticity.
Yet Fedorchenko is no Sergei Kurekhin,6 and Silent Souls is not
a campy variation of the Lenin-was-a-mushroom genre. The point
of Fedorchenko’s trompe l’œil is not to defamiliarize the already
known, but to imagine a counterfactual yet plausible past. To
frame it differently: Fedorchenko does not just limit tradition to its
deconstructive potential. Also, and perhaps more importantly, his
emphasis on the fictitious, fabricated—and therefore changeable—
nature of tradition helps move beyond the obsessive (and often

5
See Alexander Prokhorov’s review of the film in KinoKultura (2006), accessed
August 25, 2017, http://www.kinokultura.com/2006/11r-firstmoon2.shtml,.
6
Sergei Kurekhin (1954–96), musician, composer, actor, and scriptwriter,
was known for his hoaxes and mystifications. His 1991 television broadcast
“Lenin—grib,” a satire on the Lenin myth (Lenin used hallucinogenic
mushrooms and ultimately turned into a mushroom) and pseudo-scientific
documentaries, went viral.

139
Serguei Alex. Oushakine

parasitic) fascination with forms of the past by inventing new points


of origin. As the director explained in an interview: “We invented
the mythology of the Merya people from scratch. We wanted to offer
them a mythology that would not offend this people; the customs
that could have existed.”7
This reference to the Merya people could, however, be
misleading. Taken for a ride by Fedorchenko’s trompe l’oeil, The
Boston Globe described Silent Souls as a “cinematic field guide
to Merya traditions,” as a restorative ethnographic project of
sorts.8 Restorative it is not: Silent Souls uses the fabricated “ethnic
peculiarities of the disappeared people,” as The Boston Globe puts it,
to tell a basic existential fable about death and love. Taken together
with such films as The Lover (Liubovnik, Valery Todorovsky, 2002),
and How I Ended This Summer (Kak ia provel etim letom, Aleksei
Popogrebsky, 2010), Silent Souls contributes to the emergence of
a strange post-Soviet genre of the “pietà of our times,” in which
traditional gender roles are completely reversed.9
All three films use the death of a woman to initiate a story
about two men sorting out their complicated relationship with each
other. In The Lover, the widower becomes engaged in prolonged and
painful exchanges with his wife’s lover. In How I Ended This Summer,
the sudden death of the protagonist’s wife results in a convoluted
psychological fight between the widower and his male intern. Silent
Souls has nothing in common with the exalted emotional drama
presented in The Lover, nor does it provide anything similar to the
thrill of the psychological nightmare of How I Ended This Summer.

7
Mariia Kuvshinova, “Rezhisser Fedorchenko sozdal v fil´me Ovsianki novuiu
mifologiiu,” RIA Novosti, September 4, 2010, accessed August 25, 2017, https://
ria.ru/culture/20100904/272274687.html.
8
Colleen Barry, “Silent Souls revives ancient Merja traditions,” The Boston Globe,
September 4, 2010, accessed August 25, 2017, http://www.boston.com/ae/
movies/articles/2010/09/04/silent_souls_revives_ancient_merja_traditions.
9
See reviews by Birgit Beumers (http://www.kinokultura.com/reviews/Rlover.
html) and Mark Lipovetsky and Tatiana Mikhailova (http://www.kinokultura.
com/2010/30r-leto.shtml), accessed August 25, 2017.

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Silent Souls

Yet, like these two films, it places the unlikely figure of the widower
at the center of a story about coping and survival.10
This re-emergence of the trope of “men without women” is
important. Unlike early Soviet variations of this theme, perceptively
discussed by Eliot Borenstein,11 the narrative disappearance of
the woman in post-Soviet cinema is compensated neither by
a rediscovery of the value of masculine camaraderie, nor by utopian
visions of the global collective. Instead, the erasure of the woman is
presented here as a menacing sign, as a symptom of the impending
collapse of the man.
Silent Souls is based on a story published in the literary
magazine Oktiabr´ in 2008, in which Aist Sergeev describes a road
trip with his boss, Miron.12 The trip is a funeral ritual: Miron’s wife
suddenly died, and—as is common among the Merya people—her
body should be cremated so that the ashes can be scattered in the
river. Structured as a collection of non-dated diary entries, this
allegedly autobiographic story is a thinly disguised mystification.
The reader (and the film viewer) learns at the very end that the
monologue is narrated by Aist from under water: after cremating
the body of Miron’s wife, the car with two men falls (accidentally?)
from a bridge into the river. The story, in other words, turns into the
message of a ghost, a post-mortem auto-obituary.13

10
Sociologically, the emergence of this genre is puzzling: the figure of widower
is anomalous, given the available data about life expectancy in Russia, where
in 2011, life expectancy at birth was 64.0 years for Russian men and 75.6 years
for Russian women. Study on Global Ageing and Adult Health Wave 1. Russian
Federation National Report, December 2013, 9, accessed August 25, 2017,
http://apps.who.int/healthinfo/systems/surveydata/index.php/catalog/68/
download/2042.
11
Eliot Borenstein. Men without Women: Masculinity and Revolution in Russian
Fiction, 1917–1929 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001).
12
Aist Sergeev (Denis Osokin), “Ovsianki,” Oktiabr´ 10 (2008), http://magazines.
russ.ru/october/2008/10/se12.html.
13
A similar narrative device was used earlier in yet another post-Soviet quasi-
documentary. In his Private Chronicles. Monologue (1999), Vitaly Mansky
created a (fictitious) postmortem biography of the last Soviet man by
montaging endless cuts of disparate home videos, which were sent to the

141
Serguei Alex. Oushakine

Written by Denis Osokin, the story/screenplay provides


a poetic backbone for Fedorchenko’s inventive play with the ideas
of unlocalizable authorship and fluid pasts. The term ovsianki (the
Russian title of the film) refers to finches or buntings, small birds
which Aist buys in the beginning of the film and takes with him (in
a cage) on the journey (Fig. 1). The maiden name of Miron’s wife
was Ovsiankina; her nickname was “ovsianka.” The viewer will

Fig. 1. Aist buying buntings.

never learn the exact importance of this parallel, but some scenes
provide clues: the cremation ends with a shot of a couple of buntings
suddenly appearing on a tree branch. And the fatal car accident on
the way back home is also caused by the buntings: released from
the cage by Aist, they “rushed to kiss the eyes” of Miron as he steers
the car.
The instability of symbols, the consistent transformation of the
mundane into the metaphoric and vice versa is hardly accidental.
And Fedorchenko emphasizes this semantic liminality further by
his choice of crucial images: every major scene begins or ends with
a shot of a bridge or a road whose starting points and destinations

director by people from all over the former Soviet Union. For a discussion
of this documentary, see my essay “Totality Decomposed: Objectalizing Late
Socialism in Post-Soviet Biochronicles,” The Russian Review 69 (October 2010):
638–69.

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Silent Souls

are rarely specified (Fig. 2). Epitomizing the key message of the
film, these endless (and origin-less) roads and bridges stand as

Fig. 2. A bridge.

materialized metaphors of the importance of the process of linking,


connecting, bringing together different parts of one’s life and one’s
history. Traditions and rituals—cultural bridges of sorts—are
indeed constructed, but the process of such construction is neither
automatic, nor autonomous. It requires some vision; it needs
some will; and it demands some perseverance. The film’s biggest
contribution is its convincing (and long-overdue) suggestion to
make a paradigmatic shift—from laments about lost traditions to
their creative invention.

Serguei Alex. Oushakine

143

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