MOSCOW, Russia — The era ushered in by the collapse of the Soviet Union was one of the most chaotic the world has ever known. How do you translate that into film?
Two recently released movies are giving it a try, joining the growing discussion on the nature of the collapse, as the world begins to mark the 20th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s downfall.
April 14 saw the Russia-wide release of "Generation P," the film adaptation of a novel by the same name. Written by Viktor Pelevin and published in 1999, the cult novel is held up in Russia as the ultimate encapsulation of the mad 1990s: all sex, drugs, rock n’ roll — and advertising. (The novel was released in the United States as "Homo Zapiens" in 2002 and the film’s producers are currently working on securing a U.S. release.)
The film, a hyperliteral translation of the novel, follows lead character Babylen Tatarsky (played by Vladimir Yepifantsev) as he navigates the uber-capitalism thrust upon Russia with the collapse of the state-controlled economy. “Everything is for sale,” says Tatarsky, as he walks the streets of Moscow, lined with sad retirees selling their wares — or newly arrived Snickers bars — in a bid to get by. “It’s a special time,” he says. “It never existed before and never will again.”
What follows is the satirical tale of a man tapped by an advertising firm to sell the Russian public on the plethora of new products that have suddenly flooded into the country (the “P” in the title stands for “Pepsi”). He draws inspiration from the political crises and violent business disputes that were a mark of the time. To sell Parliament cigarettes, Tatarsky uses an image of the parliament being bombed by tanks called in by then-President Boris Yeltsin to stave off a challenge to his rule. For Tic Tacs, he shows a man sitting on a bench. As the man pops two mints into his mouth, a car blows up in the background. “The explosion of taste,” reads the tagline.
Eventually, Tatarsky is drawn into a game bigger than he ever imagined: The political and business scene in Russia is a farce, its main players simply virtual reality clones created by Tatarsky’s firm. Along the way, he dabbles with shrooms and LSD, communicates with Che Guevara and gets drawn into some bizarre Mesopotamian double reality.
What emerges is, essentially, a flat caricature of a complicated era.
Director and scriptwriter Victor Ginzburg disagrees. “It’s a serious, monumental work,” he said during a recent press conference. “It addresses a global 'Hamlet'-style question.” The difficult adaptation of the novel’s surrealism makes the film, he said, “very experimental.”
“I see it as the Russian answer to 'The Matrix,'” said co-producer Ivan Zasursky.
Yet the film lacks depth. The politics of the era were tumultuous and exciting, as Russia attempted to adopt a wholly new system of governance overnight. In the film, themes of political and cultural adaptation act as little more than an excuse to propel forward a chaotic plot that draws no larger lessons on the state of Russia, or human nature for that matter. (If the film raises a 'Hamlet'-style question, it would be: To stay 'til the end or not to stay 'til the end?) Even the visuals of 1990s-era Moscow are remarkably bland, differing little from what the capital looks like today.
Part of the problem may be that Ginzburg did not experience Russia in the 1990s. Though born in the country, the director moved to the United States as a child, spending the 1990s in Los Angeles. Perhaps as a result, his appreciation of the time feels cliche.
On the other side of the spectrum is “My Perestroika,” a new documentary by American filmmaker Robin Hessman. The film, which is currently opening across the United States, follows the lives of five Russian friends, from the Soviet anthems of their youth, through the confusion and excitement of their teenage years during the Soviet Union’s collapse, to the disillusionment of today. It’s a deeply intimate portrait of a nation, told through the stories of five people, supplemented by extraordinary archival footage of the Soviet Union’s last days.
“If I had any specific goal, it was to show how complicated and multifaceted this enormous period and transition was, both for the country and their generation and each individual,” Hessman said.
The 38-year-old Boston native arrived in Russia in January 1991, as the Soviet Union hurtled toward its momentous collapse. She stayed for eight years, studying film and working on the Russian version of Sesame Street.
“I remember feeling that no matter how much I read about the Soviet Union, nothing had quite prepared me for what it felt like to viscerally be there, and that’s why I decided to go into film,” she said.
“It was a very heavy and exciting time,” Hessman says of the collapse. “There was so much hope and optimism and palpable euphoria in the air. Even though materially things were hard, there was this idea that yes it’s harder, but it’s all worth it because things are changing.”
As the film progresses, we see the euphoria fade as disillusionment sets in. Several of the film’s characters speak out against the creeping authoritarianism of Vladimir Putin.
But “it’s a human film,” Hessman said. “It’s not a film about politics, it’s a film about people and what it’s like to be at a certain point in your life on the waves of this political change. ... It’s about people growing up in times of transformation.”
She hopes to debut it in Russia soon with screenings at the country's film festivals.
Though it’s hard to compare both films — one is fiction, the other a documentary — they are both, ultimately, about what happens when one reality is entirely replaced by another. Russian reality around the Soviet collapse was so surreal that “My Perestroika” better succeeds in illustrating that than the over-stylized story in “Generation P.”
Editor's note: This story was updated to correct information regarding the screening of "My Perestroika."