Like other older populations in the world, Russia has a low fertility rate compared with the global average. This skews the gender ratio, because older people are more likely to be female, while more younger people are male. On top of this, younger men in the former Soviet Union also have an unusually high mortality rate, which has widened the population’s gender imbalance, not exactly 2 to 1 but getting there. Far from gaining power by majority numbers in the post-communist country, Russian women have taken ten steps back. Men earn 30% on average more than women and the gap between rich and poor is the greatest in 100 years.
If a woman wants money and a home, chances are she’s forced to find a man to marry her. The competition for eligible men is fierce, leading some women to enrol in ‘Seduction School,’ the subject of a new documentary selected for the Sydney Film Festival.
It’s a Danish production but the creator is Russian writer/ director Alina Rudnitskaya, who has been documenting contemporary life in her country for over ten years. Her work includes Civil Status (2009), a 28 minute observation piece on the civil registry office in St Petersburg, while Fatei and the Sea (2018) explores a family engaged in marine life on a remote island at the edge of Russia.
In 2009, Rudnitskaya made a half hour documentary on the School of Seduction, titling it ‘Bitch School’. The new long form documentary of 2019 builds on the original and its strength comes from Rudnitskaya’s commitment to following up her subjects up to 6 years later and offering us sharp, almost intrusive detail. The result is a thoughtful look at Russian culture and the long-term impact on the lives of individual ‘graduates’ of Seduction School and their families.
The film’s full title is School of Seduction – Three Stories from Russia. After a broad opening sequence where we see girls trying to pick up sailors on shore leave, we follow Lida, Vika and Diana as they put into practice what they are taught at the School and how they fare in landing a man to marry.
Living with her mother in a cramped apartment, Lida’s bickering and arguing reveals her desperation to get out and have her own life. She’s having an affair with a married man but is scared of ending up alone as he is reluctant to leave his wife. Lida is coached by the rather creepy, pimp-like (male) teacher of the School, who encourages her to try childlike emotional blackmail. The behaviour is against the grain for Lida but she tries it and incredibly, it works. There is even footage, presumably from a hidden camera, as Lida plays the heartbroken, needy female.
The students are generally attractive women in their 20s and 30s. As filmed, the school curriculum includes modelling lingerie, classes in sensual dancing, encouragement to wear high shoes and revealing clothes, and instruction in doggy style sex positions.
“No one wants a brainy woman,” says one of the students. “No one wants a woman with issues.”
In contrast to the claustrophobic interiors of the school and the women’s homes, Rudnitskaya employs aerial panning shots of the city. Wall after high wall of apartment blocks enhance the sense of a prison with no way out. Subtly observed scenes with the women’s children invite us to speculate on what values are being modelled for the next generation.
Lida gets her white wedding and a baby. We catch up with her four years later, staying home and cooking, obviously boring her husband with conversations about recipes. Over a glass of wine with a girlfriend she says she suspects him of cheating but doesn’t want to look in case she finds out.
It’s all horribly 1950s ‘Mad Men’ style of gender relations. We hear that women are encouraged to have three children and be good wives and mothers to build Russian society. Subtle TV footage of Putin threaded through the documentary underpins the prevailing values, like Putin’s speech on International Women’s Day, lauding women for their beauty and being a support to ‘us the men’.
Diana is the School of Seduction teacher’s star pupil. “I like this look”, he says, referring to her little girl ponytail and cute frilly clothes. As a single mum escaping her alcoholic mum and tyrannical father by living with her senile grandma, Diana is desperate. She attends bars, then she tries going upmarket by attending a book launch and attracting the author into a relationship. 6 years later and Diana is alone again.
She enrols in another school, of etiquette this time, far more refined than the School of Seduction but creepy in its own way as the women are coached to embody Princess Grace of Monaco in dress and style, the ultimate fairy tale princess of the 1950s.
“Tragicomedy is my favourite genre”, Rudnitskaya says. “Everything in life is paradoxical in Russia where values have changed 180 degrees. You have to laugh to not be depressed.”
Despite the scattered light touches, there’s little to laugh about in this snapshot of post communism, Putin Russia.