Russian documentary captures anti-Putin pranksters in action
March 4, 2012 | 2:26 pm
Russia held presidential elections Sunday, and amid reports of irregularities, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin claimed victory after early returns showed him with 63% of the vote. Opposition groups have threatened protests Monday, and the outcome seems sure to add kindling to the fire that fuels art group Voina, the country's premier political pranksters.
As documented in the new film "Zavtra" (Tomorrow), Voina's mission is to stick a finger in the eye of the establishment. The group, whose name means "war" in Russian, has a handful of core members and an amorphous set of more than 200 activist accomplices. They perform what could be called radical acts of creative outrage, such as throwing stray cats around a Moscow McDonald's, staging mock hangings in supermarkets and jamming gum into the locks at a Putin campaign office. Voina posts amateur video of its activities online, which is where they caught the eye of Russian competitive ice dancer-turned-documentary filmmaker Andrey Gryazev.
"The first time I saw a Voina action on the Internet, I came to the decision that their work had potential," said Gryazev. "That these ideas should be distributed beyond the Internet, that there were possibilities for them to become known through television and in newspapers. ... Through my film, I wanted to bring them to a larger audience." That audience turned out to be at February's Berlin International Film Festival, where "Zavtra" had its premiere.
Gryazev said he had to earn the trust of the outside-the-law street activists by making about 50 mini-films of their actions, and posting them online. "It was a symbiosis in the sense of 'I'll help you, you help me.' " Voina members try to live without money -- they don't pay rent, and they shoplift food and supplies. Gryazev had to live by those rules while making the film: He said he slept on the floor in the group's squat, ate members' purloined food and spent only about $2,000 -- almost all of it on train tickets between Moscow and St. Petersburg. In all, he spent a year and a half with the group, recording some of its most infamous performances, and keeping his project a secret.
Among the actions depicted in the film is a precision-timed mega-graffiti work from June 2010 that turned a rising St. Petersburg drawbridge into a phallic retort to the nearby offices of Russia's Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB. Though the paint was quickly removed by the authorities, a video of the stunt has been viewed countless times. The stunt even won a contemporary art award sponsored by Russia's Ministry of Culture, which was, naturally, rejected by Voina, which said it would give the prize money to political prisoners.
Much of "Zavtra's" plot concerns a Voina action called "Palace Revolution," and the months of practice and planning that preceded it. The group overturned a police car, set up in a scripted video as a scheme to rescue a child's ball that had rolled underneath. Thanks to "Palace Revolution," two of the group's main members, Oleg Vorotnikov (Vor) and Leonid Nikolayev, face multiyear prison sentences for hooliganism.
The breakout star of the film is the child whose ball gets stuck under the police car in "Palace Revolution." He's a charming toddler named Kasper, and he's the son of Vorotnikov and Voina member Natalia Sokol, known as Koza. Whether he's turning over his own toy police cars, gumming large hunks of "borrowed" supermarket sausage, waking up group members by sprinkling them with a watering can or being taken into state custody briefly when police arrest his parents, Kasper is more than just along for the wild ride. While shoplifting, vandalizing and protesting, it sometimes feels as if Vor and Koza are using their baby as a prop, excuse or even a shield.
Gryazev insists that Kasper's parents and the other members of Voina have the boy's best interest at heart. "Essentially, everything the group has done has been for Kasper. For his future, so that he will be able to live in comfortable conditions, that he will have laws, or perhaps it's better to say an absence of laws of the sort that we currently have in Russia, so that in the future he will be able to enjoy absolute freedom."
With Koza a fugitive and the case against Vor under review for the third time by the Russian public prosecutor, it's safe to say that future is yet far off.
Given Voina's nature, it's perhaps no surprise that in advance of the film's debut, the group reportedly claimed that it was unauthorized and inaccurate. Gryazev insists that as an auteur, he has the right to show his own reality, even starting "Zavtra" with this disclaimer: "This film does not claim to be historically accurate. Some or all of the events depicted here may or may not have happened in reality. "He freely admitted that the film is a mix of traditional documentary techniques, re-enactments and scripted scenes, and he said "Zavtra's" subjects often played to the camera, both acting and overacting.
Voina has its enemies and fans alike. British street artist Banksy pledged proceeds from one of his prints, more than $100,000, to the group, and Voina, including Kasper, now nearly 3, has been invited to help curate the Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art this spring.
This is the third documentary released by Gryazev, who says he now splits his time evenly between ice skating and filmmaking. His previous two movies, "Sanya and Sparrow" and "Miner's Day," both look at life and hardship in contemporary Russia, and have been critically acclaimed in festival appearances. "Zavtra" has been booked for festivals in Latin America, Australia, Britain, Portugal and Spain.
Check out the trailer below:
-- Susan Stone in Berlin
Photo: A shot from "Zavtra." Credit: Courtesy Berlin International Film Festival