Russian Pics Grab Screen Time

Alissa Simon

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If you consider running-time alone, Russian content fills a considerable chunk of space in the official sections of the 2020 Berlinale.

This is primarily because of Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s mind-boggling large-scale simulation of the totalitarian Soviet system, the “DAU” project, which comprises 14 features — two are unspooling at Berlin, accounting for more than eight hours of screen time. “DAU. Natasha,” clocking in at two hours and 19 minutes, premieres in competition.

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Described by the DAU website as “a tale of violence that is as radical as it is provocative,” it follows two waitresses in a top-secret Soviet scientific institute who strike up a cautious friendship when one is seduced by a foreign visitor, until the ministry of state security intervenes.

Meanwhile, the Berlinale Special title “DAU. Degeneratsia” has a running time of just over six hours. The story unfolds at the same institute shown in “Natasha,” where scientific and occult experiments aimed at creating an ideal human being are taking place. The research involves all the employees: privileged quantum physicists, KGB officers, kitchen staff workers and politically radical test subjects. Berlin- and Paris-based The Coproduction Office is handling sales on both pics.

In contrast, Berlinale Special title “Persian Lessons,” a co-production between Russia’s Hype Film (“The Student,” “Leto”), Germany’s One Two Films and LM Media and Belarusfilm, offers a more traditional arthouse narrative. Set in a concentration camp, it tells the story of a Belgian Jew who pretends to be a Persian and finds himself giving Farsi lessons to one of his German captors. French company Memento has worldwide sales.

“The Foundation Pit” from Andrey Gryazev world-premieres in Panorama Documentary. Compiled from YouTube videos in which the people of Russia make a direct appeal to Russian President Putin, it provides a kaleidoscope of the mood in the country — from submissive pleas to pure rage about injustice and rampant corruption.

“In Deep Sleep” from feature debutant Maria Ignatenko premieres in Forum. It focuses on the feelings of loss felt by a seaman whose wife dies suddenly. REASON8 is handling sales.

Animation has always been a Russian strong suit. “My Galactic Twin Galaction,” a mixed-media piece from self-taught animator Sasha Svirsky, competes in the Berlinale Shorts.

Meanwhile, over at the Berlinale Series Market, “Pawns,” from husband and wife writers Michael and Lily Idov (“Deutschland 89”) and Metrafilms founder and producer Artem Vassiliev will be part of an exclusive pitch event. It’s one of 10 international series concepts selected for presentation to a sold-out house of potential co-producers and financiers.

“ ‘Pawns’ is set in 1965; it’s the story of Max, a young, cripplingly shy Soviet chess champion who gets recruited by the KGB for small errands (chess players being able to travel abroad), and discovers that his skills make him a natural field agent — the question is, for which side?” Michael Idov says. Where does the humor come in? Idov notes, “It’s not nearly as wacky as most spy comedies, but it does take a slightly heightened ‘Ocean’s Eleven’-esque approach — it’s more of an updated modern throwback to mod stuff like ‘The Ipcress File’ and ‘Funeral in Berlin,’ which to Lily and me was always the tonal sweet spot for spy action (minus the raging sexism).” And what kind of co-production partners would make the most sense for this project? “Since the action takes place in Berlin, Vienna and Moscow, we are envisioning the series as an international co-production with strong German and Russian presence,” he says.

“So we’re open to both potential distributors and more involved co-producers and partners.” Metrafilms is also open to talk with international buyers about “Aspiration,” Michael Idov’s second feature as a helmer-writer following “The Humorist.” The English-language film, now at script stage, is being packaged as a co-production between Metrafilms (Russia), Outrages Production (Canada), Vortex Pictures (Canada) and Handwritten Pictures (Germany).

At the European Film Market, the Created in Moscow brand, supported by the Moscow Export Center, brings together 17 production companies and distributors with more than 50 projects. Among them, multi-hyphenate Fedor Bondarchuk’s company, Art Pictures Studios, offers an EFM screening of the romantic drama “Ice 2,” which revisits the characters of 2018 hit drama “Ice” — renowned figure skater Nadya and top hockey player Sasha. Zhora Kryzhovnikov helms. Also screening is space/supernatural genre item “Sputnik,” helmed by Egor Abramenko, and family film “A Dog Named Palma,” directed by Aleksandr Domogarov.

Also part of Created in Moscow, the Central Partnership Sales House will preview its extensive catalog with promo reels, as well as screening the soccer biopic “Streltsov,” directed by Ilya Uchitel. Meanwhile, the Planeta Inform Group brings market shows of “AK-47,” genre item “Coma” and family film “Robo,” about the friendship between a boy and a robot.

Other Russian-produced titles screening at the EFM include the controversial sexually explicit drama “Fidelity,” helmed by Nigina Sayfullaeva, sold by M-appeal; Alexey Telnov’s fantasy “Time Guardians,” sold by Cinedoc; Pavel Lungin’s war-actioner “Leaving Afghanistan,” sold by Loco; Alexey Kamynin’s satiric comedy “Russian Spleen,” sold by Reel Suspects; Kostas Marsaan’s horror thriller “Ich-chi,” sold by Art Doydu; Roman Nesterenko’s period drama “The Oath,” sold by Igmar; and Vladlena Sandu’s thriller “Identification,” sold by GPM ETV.

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