Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Windows

By Chris Herrington

MARCH 29, 1999:  Hollywood is a mirror factory. It’s an industry currently governed by the assumption that what we desire most out of movies is to see ourselves reflected back, and for the reflection to be flattering. It’s an assumption that guides how films are made (or not made), how they’re marketed, and where they’re shown (or not shown). Ours is a cinema that separates us, that promotes our solipsism and that reinforces our xenophobia. So it’s a shame that Hollywood films, and the boutique indies that are usually about as much of an alternative to Hollywood orthodoxy as Democrats are to Republicans, are all most theatregoers are allowed to see — because films can make great windows.

Anna, a documentary from Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov that has recently been released on video from New Yorker, is a terrific window film. Both intimately personal and epic in its historical sweep, it provides a look at the fall of the Soviet Union that differs from any most Americans have ever experienced, no matter how committed they might be to CNN or PBS.

Anna is director Mikhalkov’s daughter (Mikhalkov is perhaps best known in the States, if at all, for his 1994 film Burnt by the Sun, which won the Oscar for best foreign-language film), and the film juxtaposes her growth from age 6 in 1980 to age 17 in 1991 with the twilight of the Soviet Union. When Mikhalkov began this project, a deeply polemical and ambivalent home movie, during the repressive Brezhnev era, it was an illegal act. Home-movie cameras were not allowed, so the film was shot with professional equipment, and the film itself had to be either smuggled in or bought on the black market.

Mikhalkov’s method is to interview his daughter once a year during this period, asking the same five simple questions each time: What do you love most? What do you hate most? What scares you? What do you want more than anything? What do you expect from life? At age 6 Anna is a typical child — sweet, silly, completely unselfconscious. Her great fear is a witch and she hates borscht. By the next interview, at age 7, her answers have changed dramatically. Anna has started school, and, as was required, has joined the Young Pioneers — a sort of Communist youth league. Her answers over the next several years seem to reflect not what she is really thinking, but what she is expected to think.

“What do you want more than anything?” Mikhalkov asks his 7-year-old daughter as she stands on the hillside field of the family’s country estate. “To be intelligent … ,” she answers, “ … and to behave well.” Not satisfied with this answer, Mikhalkov presses her, posing the question again, and she replies, “To give good answers.” There is a disturbing realization that political doctrination has taken hold, and her answers over the next several years take on a frighteningly distanced consistency. The adolescent Anna fears War, and desires Peace. As one Russian premier after another dies (Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko, all within a three-year period), young Anna mourns the passing of each great leader, even if she gets confused about who is who. These annual interviews become a kind of cautious battle for Anna’s mind and soul, her behavior backing up Mikhalkov’s claims about the artifice needed to prop up a failed totalitarian regime, resulting in a gap between its citizens public faces and interior lives.

Using archival footage, Mikhalkov traces the Soviet regime through Brezhnev to Gorbachev to its collapse. Mikhalkov is deeply critical of Soviet Communism, but is, at best, ambivalent about the changes that democratization has brought to his country. It is perhaps instinctual to identify with a protagonist in a film, and Mikhalkov is our tour guide in this strange land. But resisting this connection to Mikhalkov is one of Anna’s greatest challenges. Do we agree with him? Do we like him? He’s an aristocrat, and, though no friend of the Soviet regime, his patriotism seems to point back toward Czarist Russia rather than toward the promise of Westernized freedoms. His choice to document only the most decadent and ridiculous of Western cultural influences (televangelism and sub-Duran Duran New Wave) shows a troubling conservative streak, but his fear of cultural imperialism damaging a specifically Russian sensibility is understandable.

As the film ends, with Russia in a state of upheaval that seems to have only worsened in the intervening years, Mikhalkov interviews his daughter for the last time. Now 17 and preparing to move to Switzerland for college, she stands in the same field as she did when she was 7, and answers the same questions. She’s a pensive, timid teenager now, but one who is coming to grips with her country’s deceitful past and dangerously unstable present. She says that the land itself is most important to her, the very field she stands on, and insists that she will return to Russia after school, but can’t hold back tears while saying so.

“Why did Anna, a young girl aged 17, in need of nothing, start crying as she talked about her country?” Mikhalkov asks in his voice-over narration. But he leaves the question unanswered. Instead he turns toward his younger daughter Nadia, standing in the field, and the same age as Anna when this film began. “What scares you?” he asks. “I’m mainly scared of school,” the young girl replies. And so the film ends with the promise of a sequel, and another chapter in the story of what Mikhalkov calls “our great and unfortunate land.”

(New Yorker Films, 1-800-447-0196)

Weekly Wire Suggested Links

Page Back Last Issue Current Issue Next Issue Page Forward

Film & TV: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24

Cover . News . Film . Music . Arts . Books . Comics . Search

Weekly Wire    © 1995-99 DesertNet, LLC . Memphis Flyer . Info Booth . Powered by Dispatch