Problem kids of the Putin era in films by Valeria Gai Germanika

Young Russian director Valeria Gai Germanika is a female version of Larry Clark – in the course of her relatively short cinematic career she has been mainly preoccupied with telling stories of adolescence. In the pre-Pussy Riot era, both content and form of her films were a subject of much controversy in Russian community. She was making her own ‘pussy riot’ in the sphere of cinema, long before the notorious punk-rock collective. Germanika focuses less on such components of youth as first love and friendship, and more on its darker aspects such as the first cigarette, first bottle of beer, first sexual and drug experiences. Germanika has started her career as a documentary filmmaker, exploring youth in her early films, Devochki / Girls (2007) and Mal’chiki / Boys (2006). Her recent work is mainly fiction that is thematically akin to her documentaries, and its style relies heavily on the aesthetics of the factual image. The look of her films provokes a lot of debates as to whether the “truth” Germanika claims to show has any artistic value.

Valeria Gai Germanika. Photo: RIA Novosti

Valeria Gai Germanika. Photo: RIA Novosti

Her first and internationally acclaimed feature film Everybody Dies But Me / Все умрут, а я останусь (2008) is a coming of age docu-drama revolving around three teenage girlfriends, Zhanna, Vika and Katya, who live and go to school in a suburb of Moscow. The film opens as the girls bury Vika’s cat in the yard. It is believed that wakes awaken libido, and indeed the girls’ hormones are raging, all the more so as their teacher announces a discotheque to be organized at their school. This narrative point– the school discotheque – symbolically acts as a rite of passage to the adult life. And although it seems that nothing can disrupt their sweet and passionate friendship, which they childishly vow to endure “forever”, or at least “until growing up”, as this event of life importance approaches, both them and their friendship are put to a test.

Still from Everybody Dies But Me,

Dostoevsky believed that in the work of art the face of creator should not be seen. In the case of Germanika, it clearly reveals itself, as she seems speaking for herself and sharing her own, relatively recent, personal experiences through young protagonists of her films (Germanika was only 24 when Everybody Dies But Me was shot). As she puts it herself: “I am a director-documentarian, I make films about what I know and what I saw, basing on my personal experience. Moreover I shoot my films where I used to live, I can’t do it otherwise. [speaks about Everybody Dies but Me shooting locations] It was my block, moreover it was a farewell to my block” (source).

Due to the engaging immediacy of hand-held camerawork, Variety claimed that camera is another character in Germanika’s works. One can add that Germanika herself is another character in her works. Valeria admits that when she’s shooting, she is there, in the world of her characters, capturing it from within (source). There is indeed very little distance between the author of the film and its characters both in Everybody Dies But Me and her TV series School / Школа (2010):

In the course of Obskura’s series of articles on the image of youth in late Soviet cinema, it became apparent that the directors of perestroika very often employed youth as a tool to channel their fear and uncertainty about the things to come, as well as to explore a variety of social ills and historical traumas of the late Soviet society. Apart from that, the history of the Soviet youth cinema in general is rich with examples that thoroughly explore the conflict between generations. In Soviet youth films there are always two clearly defined dramatic centres opposing each other — that of fathers and sons. Both sides have at times utopic and old-fashioned, at times perverse and radical moral stands, values and beliefs that they express and are ready to fight for. It is the clash of these two world views that is at the core of the narrative in most cases.

Vera and her father

Fathers and sons. Still from Little Vera (1988)

In this connection it is important to mention that another claim frequently made against Germanika’a youth films is that they lack the old as time conflict of fathers and sons, that they are films about children made by children (source). Indeed, all adults in Germanika’s film are apathetic and uninvolved; and youngsters, although engaging in different activities that at a stretch can be labelled as self-actualization and rebellion, lack individuality and motives, characteristic of the young protagonists from the Soviet era. They are rebels without a cause as well as without much thought. This tendency partly can be already noticed in youth cinema of perestroika, abundant with passive and degraded Mentors whose moral stands, values and beliefs were annihilated by the social change perestroika brought about. But the youth of Soviet cinema is indeed most often depicted as striving, although most films are rather pessimistic in regards to the future of the young. However, let us not forget that Germanika has started her career as a documentary filmmaker. Hence, one can argue that she is not interested in creating imaginary ideologies and implanting beliefs and motives where in reality they are absent. Possibly, her authorial view on the present day situation is voiced by the teacher character in Shkola, who remarks: ‘Last time I met an individual was back in the 1980s’.

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