Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky’s famed 70s sci-fi, is one of those masterpieces that has become so embedded in our cultural consciousness that references to it pop up again and again, its vision eternally relevant. Now, it has inspired Other Zones: a programme of bi-weekly film releases forming part of Russia’s 2020 Venice Biennale pavilion. Together, the features and shorts represent a new generation of filmmakers either from, or oriented toward Russia. Selected with the Covid-19 crisis in mind — which saw the physical Biennale cancelled and Other Zones forced entirely online — they explore themes of isolation and segregation, escapism and nostalgia, intimacy and retreat.
Based on Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s 1972 novel Roadside Picnic, in Stalker, “the zone” is a place in which natural laws no longer apply. Adventurers who break through the military cordon and the system of deadly traps which surround it and reach the room at the zone’s heart are granted their most authentic desire. Even in its day, it was hauntingly prescient. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred just seven years after the film’s release, creating its own exclusion area. It echoes, too, today’s public spaces, transformed by the invisible threats of a pandemic to a degree we need entirely new rules by which to negotiate them. As one character in the film says, the zone is feared “like the plague.”
[Tarkovsky’s “zone”] echoes, too, today’s public spaces, transformed by the invisible threats of a pandemic to a degree we need entirely new rules by which to negotiate them.
Vladimir Nadein, curator of Other Zones, and the head of the Moscow International Experimental Film Festival, is now overseeing the series from near-isolation in the woods outside Moscow. He rented a home there two months ago, leaving the city and its cultural scene as it ground to a halt in lockdown. “I have never lived this kind of life before. It feels a bit like Russian literature,” he jokes. “Authors in times past were sometimes sent out to live in small houses outside Moscow.”
This solitary pandemic experience has prompted Nadein to reflect on his own lifestyle, as well as alternative ideas of collectivity which might emerge from today’s compartmentalisation. “When you think about what led to the current situation, obviously nature is trying to say something to us,” he says. “I’m really trying to listen and be more attentive to the trees. I even got a dog. It’s creating a bigger picture of what we should do to change how we coexist with other species.”
This train of thought closely guided Nadein’s vision of Other Zones. “It made it very personal,” he says. “Of course, we are in different positions in different countries, but in a way, it’s the first time that everyone is experiencing the same thing.” He introduced the series online in a video from his hideaway, with trees and birdsong in the background. “What mattered to me was to explore spaces of estrangement; to find those leading solitary lives, secluded in disaster areas; to dwell on the freedom of travel and the spaces created or simulated its lack,” he said. “And to bring up togetherness, the intimacy that we are all missing so much, yet bearing in mind the methods of control that individuals and masses are exposed to.”
While Nadein believes nothing can fully substitute the “collective experience” of being inside a cinema, he appreciates that screening films online is an important leveler. “It’s great everyone can watch because of course not everyone can go to Venice to see the films, to the Biennale. You have to have money, and for a Russian audience it’s even more difficult [to access visas].
The season has a different film accessible every fortnight. It opened with Exile Exotic (2015) by London-based Sasha Litvintseva. To shoot the experimental documentary short, the director travelled to Antalya in Turkey with her mother, where a scale replica of St Basil’s Cathedral stands as a Disneyfied tourist attraction. As both are currently unable to return to Russia, this substitute is as close as they can get to a visit to Red Square. Its inclusion in the programme acknowledges that under virus restrictions we are all in some kind of exile, travelling only vicariously. “Today, you cannot get to any place. Your home and computer have to compensate for the whole world,” said Litvintseva in an online Q&A with Nadein from her own lockdown in Ireland.
Now available to watch is Transnistra (2019) by Swedish-born Anna Eborn, and following will be The Procedure (2017), by Polina Kanis. The first follows a group of teens living in the largely unrecognised, breakaway republic of Transnistria on the Ukrainian border. Another director might have fetishised the country as a Soviet time capsule, but Eborn focuses instead on how mobile tech and the internet connect one isolated part of the world with a more universal youth culture.
The second, The Procedure, was conceived as an art installation by the St Petersburg-born, Amsterdam-based Kanis, and takes us into the exclusion zone around a fictional museum, lying in ruins after an unknown disaster. Access to the outside world is permitted only after a routine body search procedure: a process sure to resonate with anyone undergoing the hand-washing and mask-wearing tasks of our new, socially-distant reality.
Nadein, who is in no hurry to hurl himself back into the chaos of Moscow, says his lifestyle reassessments may, as for many of his peers, have a long-term effect. “People should leave the cities,” he says. “Maybe when we get back to normal — but we don’t know what normal is, and the normal was obviously bad — I may decide I can’t stand it anymore, and have to return to the city. I cannot imagine half a year ago I’d have left, because I was so rushed I could not imagine even leaving my phone for one hour, or that I could jump out of that meat grinder. ButI think it could permanently change. And that could only have happened in this type of circumstance.”