I am standing in Khanty-Mansiysk. Population: roughly 85,000 people. Over one and half thousand miles east of Moscow. I have never before set foot in Russia, least of all a region as remote as the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Ogrug, of which the snow-blanketed town of Khanty-Mansiysk is the administrative center. So, why am I here, in this region the size and breadth of France yet virtually unknown in the West? Improbably, the rather modest oil town at its center has played host to a notable film festival, the Spirit of Fire, acclaimed within the country and virtually unknown outside it, for the past seventeen years; I am, perhaps equally improbably, its guest.
The light in a place like this will startle even the hardiest and most sleep deprived of festival delegates. When it first appears, it has the reddish quality of an apocalyptic nuclear flare. Then, rising from behind the shuddering tops of the firs that surround the festival complex, a metamorphosis begins. No coarse wind can be felt, no far-off engines of the city within earshot: the pale morning sunlight on offer combs inch by inch over the untrodden ice, snow, and hoar resting at the side of the walkways and off ahead, glistering, fulgurating like a burning jewel. In front of the hotel, dimly illuminated by the rising light, groups of festival guests huddle like penguins to smoke, no doubt with imminent plans to retreat to bed. I need hardly mention that it can, on occasion, grow rather cold here in Siberia. A banal observation, to be sure, though what else but this could I offer as a first dispatch from such a distant, mythologized place
The Spirit of Fire was initially conceived of by the great filmmaker Sergei Solovyov, who would later become its president, as a way to integrate Russian debut films into a program of international first or second features. This holds true up to today, sixteen years later, with an international selection distinguished by a genuine, uncharacteristic care, a program that moves outside or along the edges of the taste-patterns of international festival selection committees. Within this festival burned the promise of a truly polyphonic programming ethos, one where there is room for peculiarities and for eccentricities of taste. This was a contrapuntal program united not through the films’s production models, their funding hubs, through national cinemas, transnational movements, stylistic dogmas, weighty themes, overburdened styles, or pseudorealistic subjects, but through the necessity to diversify, to draw as much as possible from a breadth, an abundance, a plurality of sources. For a festival principally consisting of debuts, that is an unenviable task and laudable achievement.
Even the Crème de la Crème sidebar, a would-be hurrah for the best world cinema has to offer, shirked the prescriptions of global festival tastes. For instance, Oleg Mavromatti’s Semiconductor (2019) seemed closer in spirit to the likes of Unfriended (2014) than it did to anything that premieres in experimental sidebars like the Berlinale’s Forum. The latest in a series of films about vloggers by the exiled Russian director, this one is about a garrulous YouTube host tormented by an unknown poltergeist, a haunting born of her association with a sinister local “wizard.” Though the movie eventually succumbs to the theatrics associated with the genre—levitating objects, loud thuds off-screen accompanied by the protagonist’s shrieks, circuitous discussions with friends about the possible significance of this or that event—the opening stretches are imbued with a fanciful, Warhol-like tedium that is augmented by the fact that we are peering down at the protagonist and her surroundings from high on a selfie stick.
We observe Anna (the Internet personality Anna Den, playing a version of herself) as she wanders around a town in Belarus. Any background detail we observe is just that: background, blurrily swinging and lurching from view with each passing second. All, of course, glimpsed only in the movements of the selfie stick, the backgrounds dissolving into one another across edits, the film’s emphasis unceasingly on Anna’s face. The anxiety of being trapped in this set-up never disperses, emerging right from the outset as Anna naively interacts with the haggard wizard Kulyeibiakin in a deserted rail yard. He is disheveled and only half-coherent. It is later revealed that he lives nearby in squalid conditions, in what appears to be the basement of an abandoned factory. Anna’s tics—in particular, a nervous chuckle that she uses to momentarily defuse conversational voids—become overwhelming in these tense moments, as our lingering unease about Kulyeibiakin’s intentions has no outlet but through Anna’s reactions. Our identification with her is total. The closeness of the image and the literal lack of distance from the subject ensures this. No matter the intensity of the subject—and it gets quite intense—we remain only at arm’s length.
At the opening ceremony, Solovyov amused our international cohort with a proclamation that spring was finally upon the hardy people of Siberia. This was March 1st, the first day of the festival. And, as the Russians have it, the first day of spring! To us non-Russians, it was suddenly possible to grasp what Spirit of Fire is intended to signify. I could not help but note that in contrast to this jubilant declaration, there were many signs that spring was, indeed, still dormant. The red carpet outside was blanketed in four inches of snow. The cheering spectators that line it were embedded in their mammoth coats and their ushankas, clapping through their mittens. As we passed through the center of the town, children skated on ice alongside the roads and, on plastic sledges, down mammoth ice slides themselves erected from colossal blocks of ice. Stepping off the coach, the very air itself was cold enough that festival guests, struggling even in their Spirit of Fire-supplied parkas, hurried to smoke cigarettes furtively in porches and corridors, hoping not to be admonished by guards.
In an art gallery in Khanty-Mansiysk, Solovyov’s optimistic denial of the evidence plainly there before his eyes persisted: all but two of the paintings depicted blissful, sun-dappled pastoral scenes, like agreeable visions from George Eliot’s Midlands. Conspicuously, none of them reproduced the snowscapes you might have anticipated in a region that seemed, at least to an international guest, to be all snow all the time.
In Khanty-Mansiysk, I had little chance to chart a general survey of the national selections beyond one or two films. I got a little disoriented. The international films were shown in the smaller hall in the local School for Gifted Children and the Russian competition, as well as the shorts sidebars, in a larger space. Other screenings, including the popular Crème de la Crème section and a minor retrospective celebrating the work of Nastassja Kinski, who was in attendance, took place at other locations, including the festival center at which the opening and closing ceremonies were held.
To an international guest, the festival itself was difficult to navigate for a number of reasons. Despite there being a web-accessible English-language program, I found myself with no mobile data package, with no available speakers of English when visiting the town itself, and no WiFi at the cinemas to call for taxis to get from place to place (a festival shuttle ostensibly existed though I never managed to find it). At other festivals, such freedom from a reliance on technology can be liberating. Not, for the most part, in Siberia. Often entirely at the mercy of our generous hosts, who did everything possible to guide us assuredly through the three-day event, I realized how many of us take for granted our freedom to move uninhibited around a festival and assemble our own diet of films. Here, I found that the perilous weather and my shameful ignorance of Russian had robbed me of my autonomy.
Where at other festivals I suffer from an abundance of freedom, in Siberia I had to learn to accept my fate and be guided like a tourist from room to room, program to program. On occasion, I would try to take things into my own hands and inevitably would find myself lost and missing films. In Khanty-Mansiysk, where each movie shows only once over the course of only a few days, there is great pressure to make a success of your schedule and to grasp the essence of a place. Nevertheless, I left the city with no more of an understanding of its geography than when I arrived.
Much like many festival-weary critics, I frequently ponder the question the efficacy of the film festival form, of who these movies are for. No doubt it is an impossible question to resolve. Still, I find it is seldom addressed by the organizers of these events with any real consideration, perhaps because it is perceived as an irrelevant question. Even the most conscientious of film festivals sometimes seem estranged from from a tangible audience other than the journalists who attend them. They may tip their hat to engagement on some level, yet they also strive for the attention of an international contingent who can, it is thought, more accurately judge the acceptability of their selections. The most prominent example of this, of course, is Cannes, which is in fact (though not commonly known), not a public festival.
All festivals suffer from it. It is a divide that underpins much of the dislocation inherent in the very idea of film festivals in the modern age, places that seldom perform their historical function—namely, curating a selection of treasures from a world of cinema alien to a local populace. Naturally, it is an unforgiving job to find oneself tasked with and it is hard not to concur with the reasons for it being shrugged off. The less that is said about the prevalent and cynical “audience awards” that festival sponsors are so fond of pushing the better. Often accompanied by spirit-withering hashtag slogans to encourage social media saturation, these awards bonanzas are hardly a good indication of local engagement—arthouse blockbusters reign supreme when the results are tallied at these city-wide events erected ostensibly as bastions for an alternative cinema.
Yet too often there is a cradle-to-grave air of inevitability about a given film’s selection at a larger festival. There is often a cynical trade-off at work: is the festival, by defining itself in artistic terms that are almost as explicit as those of genre, cultivating these works or inadvertently producing them? These institutions are faced with an increasing demand for world premieres while being separated by mere months from the true leviathans of the festival scene. Therefore, the festivals by necessity forge their own particular ethos of cinema in order to dominate a specific sector of the industry. It becomes not merely a badge of honor to premiere your film at a certain festival but also in many ways a canny marketing move, a path to finding recognition in continuity with other, perhaps greater, films. As the festivals themselves grow, they begin not only to attract temperamentally-similar works but to influence them into being. What gets selected becomes a style to which accomplished filmmakers need only adhere, narrowing the scope of their work.
For all its strangeness, the Spirit of Fire project often seemed far closer to that mythic idea of a festival than others I have attended. At those, people like me are the rule rather than the exception. In Siberia, many local people attended screenings of even outré and experimental works. (Though it is worth noting that a sizeable contingent of Moscow- and St. Petersburg-based critics made up a portion of the audience at these screenings.) I was impressed that a rich, highly idiosyncratic program of international movies—lovingly curated by friend of the Notebook Boris Nelepo—was consumed by locals as if it was an accurate cross-section of the festival scene. These people often vocally engaged with the filmmakers and the screenings were generally livelier than at most smaller festivals.
To an outsider versed in the often-predictable rhythms of global festival programming, the international competition and the Crème de la Crème sections at Spirit of Fire were clearly reflections of a singular and distinctive taste: a raucous Indian horror movie (Tumbbad), a painfully sincere late work by a treasured auteur (Magic Lantern), a tenderhearted, highbrow sleepover movie (The World is Full of Secrets), two glacial art films marked by some of the sharpness, precision, craft of the best of the classical filmmakers (The Dead and the Others, Dead Horse Nebula), a hilarious, elusive, well-orchestrated police farce (Paul Sanchez is Back!), a brittle and prosaic historical drama by one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers (The Portuguese Woman), and a sparklingly sadistic Haneke-riff with an original pop soundtrack by Sia and Scott Walker (Vox Lux). That this selection was ostensibly accepted by Siberian cinema-goers as a cross-section of the international scene was for me a source of great private joy.
I cherish the belief that this festival’s recognition of the value of counterpoint and eccentricity in programming—even simply glimpsing the above list, it is evident that the Spirit of Fire team value such an admixture—is a principle to uphold and the reason that smaller festivals remain vital. In the face of a complacent, overstuffed, and oversubscribed international festival industry, they must rise to this task of organizing and curating a selection of movies for their audiences, rather than replicating the same tedious cadences that echo throughout the world of art cinema. Improbably, a tiny festival in Siberia has proven itself a congenial, enterprising example of exactly this fiery spirit.