The thing about Russia is that they never do anything by halves and the 15th Amur Autumn Festival is a perfect indication of this approach. In the border town of Blagoveshensk, with China just across the fast-flowing Amur River, there is an unusual festival that is enormous in scope, combining a competitive program of theatre performances with domestic and international film competitions.
The festival is overwhelming. There is just so much on, often at the same time and deciding what to see and having to battle the throngs of full houses to get a seat is an existential crisis. That said, it is a wonderfully well organised festival that strikes a good balance between being industry focused with literally hundreds of much feted stars of stage and screen intermingling for the duration of the festival, and an audience emphasis with numerous free, communal and street events along with masterclasses and half a dozen red carpet events where selfie-happy teenagers flock to meet local and international stars.
The theatre and film combination works well, with a number of festival guests appearing in both theatre productions and the competitive film program. Indeed, the crossover in Russia between film and theatre is institutionalised and not unusual.
The best theatre production was won by My Grandson Venjamin, a Jewish themed family drama set in the early 1980s featuring one of Russia’s best loved actresses, Lia Akhedzhakova.
The competition film program featured 11 domestic features with 7 world premieres, 24 shorts and 9 international films. The International Gran Prix was awarded to Paolo Virzi for Like Crazy and Best Director prize went to Cypriot Petros Charalambus for Boy On The Bridge. The Russian Grand Prix went to Springtime: The Childhood That We Did Not Know by director Alexei Romanov charging ahead on a wave of local interest for Yakut (or Sakha – Russian First nation) cinema. The prize for best director went to Ksenya Zuyeva for her searing family drama, Blizkii (Near and Dear Ones) and Best Screenplay was awarded to newcomer Oleg Ageichev for Dominika. The Audience Award was comprehensively won by Slava Ross (Siberia Mon Amour, 2011) for his emotionally powerful family drama Son and the disturbing treatment of children in Finland.
Alexei Romanov’s win highlighted the recent dominance of Yakut/Sakha Republic films at the awards ceremonies in many recent film festivals. Markedly different in pacing, composition, screen language and narrative concerns to all the other films in competition, this is in many ways a ‘festival film’ outside of the Sakha Republic but one that will attract a genuine local audience at home. It is a slow, painstakingly observed drama about a nine-year-old boy Mikita who lives as his ancestors lived for hundreds of years and his life is a daily struggle for survival in the harsh and unforgiving northern climate. All this changes as he comes of age during 1917 when the Revolution leaves a mark on the traditional way of life of his Yakut family.
The President of the Jury, Sergei Snezhkin wryly observed that “in Yakutia everyone is filming one another in different formats and platforms and then watch the results with gusto, but who is left to gather the gemstones?”
Reflecting on the film Springtime, I asked myself the more general question: why is Yakut cinema on the rise now? Annually some 15 feature films are produced, largely privately funded and intended for local community distribution. Around five of these films make it into the festival circuit and there has been considerable recent success. Much like the rise of Indigenous cinema there is a genuine interest, especially among festival audiences in traditional cultures, regional exoticism and authentic cinematic representations unsullied by commercial interests or established norms. The connection of the First Nation people to their land makes for a powerful protagonist – the landscape is at once brutal and simultaneously beautiful.