It’s not an easy time for the arts in Russia. Each day seems to bring with it a new law controlling free expression, the most recent manifestation of this being a ban on profanity in the arts. Despite the climate of censorship, Russia’s young generation of filmmakers is continuing to make films that portray the country with an honesty that’s praiseworthy. Recognising this tenacity, judges at the Karlovy Vary film festival in the Czech Republic last week awarded 25-year-old director Ivan Tverdovsky the top prize in the East of the West competition (for best film from Central and Eastern Europe) for his feature debut Corrections Class, a daring and unflinchingly confrontational social critique.
The documentary-style, improvised film focuses on a group of students with a range of physical or mental disabilities who are put into a special class in school, without any specially trained teachers but with the pressure of proving themselves capable of attending mainstream classes by the end of the year.
Resented rather than supported by the education system, the teenagers initially bond over their mutual alienation. Their frustration soon turns inward to brutal bullying as the budding romance of pretty, wheelchair-bound Lena (Masha Poezhaeva) with classmate Anton (Philipp Avdeev) challenges the secure dynamics of the group.
Film critic Carmen Gray spoke to Tverdovsky at the Czech spa-town festival a few days before his win.
The Calvert Journal: Your father made documentaries. What did you learn from him? Was cinema an important part of your life from a young age?
Ivan Tverdovsky: It's quite a strange story because when I was young he was against me becoming a director. I guess he understood by that time that it's not an easy profession. He didn't know I'd applied to study at VGIK, the Moscow film academy, and only after he found out did he start to become involved, asking to see my stuff and giving me advice.
TCJ: Your short Snow was about a teacher with a drug-addict daughter, and now Corrections Class sees a disabled girl desperately trying to integrate into society. What draws you to making films about people in danger of falling through the cracks of the system?
IT: I think the role of the director is to make a difference, to somehow have an impact on society, so I always try to choose topics that are somehow painful or important for me. Often I meet with people who go through something and can provide the basis for a film.
TCJ: In both films, institutions do not offer much help for characters less able to support themselves. Do you regard modern-day Russia as having a survival of the fittest mentality?
IT: This problem relates to all social institutions, including the fire brigade and police. When you dial 112, the emergency number, you have to wait nine minutes before somebody answers. But I don't think it's only a problem of the government or country as such, it's also a problem about people just not liking to help other people and only being interested in themselves, in their own stuff and their own homes. Corrections Class portrays an instance where the state actually formally gave up any care of such children. They decided there is no need to have any kind of specialised institutions and just created a special class within a standard school with teachers without any proper education who do not like the job or don’t know how to treat these children. This is really what has happened — it is laid down in the legislation of the country that the state government is not interested in helping.
TCJ: Your films employ a documentary-style realism, though Corrections Class has a touch of magical realism. Was it important for you to incorporate an element of hope?
IT: It was very important to have this kind of magical element in the film because otherwise it would just be a story about the first love that I or any member of my crew has experienced. We thought it would be more interesting to have the whole story lead to one particular event that would be of a cosmic, supernatural nature. Actually Lena's diagnosis was very severe, one with which people don't live to over 30 years, a situation really without any hope. We wanted to use the end as a sort of a parable.
“It has become almost a tradition to come up with new pieces of legislation from time to time and no-one knows what tomorrow will bring”
TCJ: Corrections Class is quite confrontational in exposing the harsher aspects of social behaviour. Are you concerned by the new laws curbing swearing in cinema?
IT: It has become almost a tradition to come up with new pieces of legislation from time to time and no-one knows what tomorrow will bring. Some of them are really absurd. For example in winter a law was adopted to ban the sale or wearing of synthetic ladies' underwear. In a way it's funny, but it's also scary. As for the legislation banning vulgar language in films, vulgar words are part of the language and even intelligent people use them. They help you express your emotions and are like the language's salt and pepper. If you want to shoot films about people's lives and are not allowed to show one part of life, it's like you're banning people from looking into the mirror and seeing themselves in pieces of art.
I hope that there will be some provisions put into the legislation that relate to non-commercial screenings or screenings at festivals. I agree about banning vulgar words in films screened on TV or for children, that's quite understandable. But in our country there are children, but also adults who want to see films. We used to have an age rating system that worked fine. We'll see what happens, but the state never sleeps and I'm sure it will come up with some more interesting pieces of legislation, maybe even worse.
TCJ: What reactions to the film have you had in Russia? I understand you showed it there recently.
IT: Yes, we showed it at the Kinotavr festival [in Sochi], plus there was another screening for Russian university students and we had a Q&A session afterwards. Immediately after the screening, the audience divided into those who were for the film and those who thought no way, enough shooting about these difficult things, you should also show that life is nice and easy. There was a really interesting two-hour debate about the film and it was interesting to see how the opinion of people changed throughout, from being negative to saying they understood and thanking us for making it.