The prospect of losing your main source of funding might worry most filmmakers. But for Yuri Bykov, a 33-year-old auteur responsible for some of the bleakest films to come out of Russia in recent years, it’s a challenge he is more than ready to rise to.
“[Russian Culture Minister Vladimir] Medinsky says he will no longer finance what he calls ‘Russia is shit’ films,” laughs Bykov, as he sits in a south Moscow post-production studio. “But in some ways it’s a test of a director’s determination. Do you want to make socially resonant films, or not? If you do, then a lack of culture ministry cash certainly shouldn’t stop you. It won’t stop me, anyhow.”
Medinsky and other Kremlin officials irritated by hard-hitting portrayals of provincial corruption and brutality on the big screen are unlikely to be pleased by Bykov’s determination to continue, but for the world of cinema it is undeniably good news. So far, Bykov has directed, written and composed the soundtracks for three perfectly weighted films, each one darker than its predecessor. His first, To Live (2010), told the story of a middle-aged, out-of-shape pigeon shooter and an epileptic gangster who are forced into an improbable alliance after the latter falls out with his partners in crime. The second, The Major (2013), revolves around a police officer who knocks down and kills a young boy while speeding along an ice-crusted road early one morning. The officer’s fateful decision to enlist his colleagues in a cover-up triggers a chain of violence that results in the deaths of four more people, including the child’s mother and father, before the day is out. Bykov not only wrote, directed and composed the music for The Major, he also took the main supporting role, portraying a cruel and cynical investigator who pursues his fellow officer’s abuse of the law to its terrible conclusion.
“I make films about the masses, that the masses, as a rule, don’t watch”
But it was Fool, released late last year, which took Bykov to a new level. The story of a young, idealistic plumber, whose attempts to save the largely indifferent residents of a crumbling tower block trigger a murderous response by the corrupt mayor and her allies, Fool reflects modern Russian reality in all its grim absurdity. “Kafka meets The Sopranos,” was how Variety described the film. Critics at the Locarno film festival in Switzerland were equally impressed, awarding Fool a number of prizes, including the best actor award for Artyom Bystrov, who plays the doomed plumber. Bykov altered the film’s concluding scenes on a number of occasions ahead of the final cut, but eventually decided against a happy ending. “That just didn’t feel right,” he says.
“Fool is a model of today’s Russia,” he continues. “The corruption and apathy and so on. It’s important to point out, though, that while there’s a lot I don’t like about what’s happening in our society today, I think it’s a story that could happen anywhere where there is a big gulf between the rich and the poor. As a piece of filmmaking, I don’t value Fool as much as The Major. But as a social statement it seems it came out a lot stronger.”
Bykov’s film was inevitably compared to Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Golden Globe-winning and Oscar-nominated Leviathan. But while both films tackle head-on the issue of provincial corruption, the similarities stop there. Leviathan was set amid the stunning natural beauty of Russia’s far north, while Fool takes place in Tula, a small city to the south of Moscow. Shot largely at night, there is little, if anything, to distract from the relentlessly depressing plot. Dialogue is stark, and to the point. “We live and die like swine because we are swine to one another,” the plumber tells his wife towards the end of the film.
“Leviathan has a wider, more abstract meaning, and is infused with biblical themes,” says Bykov. “As for me, I’m more interested in very concrete issues. Some people might accuse me of being less of an artist for this, but this is how I work. I grew up in a very working-class environment and the problems of the working man concern me far more than the suppression of the rights of intellectuals.”
Born in 1981 in the Ryazan region, some 120 miles to the southeast of Moscow, Bykov later moved to the Russian capital, where he studied at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography, one of the world’s oldest film schools. After graduation, he produced an award-winning short film, The Boss, whose brutal yet thoughtful plot was an indication of what was to come.
From where he is sitting, Bykov, unshaven and dressed in a hooded top and jeans, can just about make out the former apartment of Soviet-era director Andrei Tarkovsky. But Bykov is no fan. “I appreciate that he made good films,” he says. “But I’m a simple kind of guy, you know. For me, his metaphors were far too forced. I never re-watch his films.” Instead, Bykov’s great passion is for American films of the 1970s, especially the work of Sidney Lumet. “Dog Day Afternoon is a strong and articulate film that, for me, is right up there,” Bykov says. He also confesses an enthusiasm for John Carpenter, the American film director responsible for Assault on Precinct 13. Like Bykov, Carpenter also provided the soundtracks — usually moody, synthesizer-based melodies — for his own films. “Carpenter’s career might not have turned out exactly as he expected,” Bykov says. “But for me, his early films were almost the epitome of independent film-making.”
“Show me a plumber who doesn’t swear and I’d be very suspicious indeed”
Independence is important to Bykov. Fool was dedicated to the memory of Aleksei Balabanov, the late director who made films such as Brother and Cargo 200, both of which whipped up storms of controversy in Russia. But Bykov’s decision to dedicate his latest film to Balabanov was born more of an appreciation of the director as a symbol of independent filmmaking, rather than outright admiration.
“Balabanov was both misanthropic and nationalistic,” says Bykov. “But I dedicated the film to him because, whatever you may think of the man, he was an uncompromising, independent film director. And for that reason alone his memory should be honoured.”
Although Fool has been snapped up by Berlin-based sales production company M-Appeal, none of Bykov’s films have, as yet, been widely screened in the west. Not that Bykov is concerned by his relative lack of fame beyond Russia’s borders. “I’m not so interested in what happens to my films in the west,” he says. “That’s not because I have anything against the west, but because I feel that I’m more understandable to a Russian audience. I understand that my place is here.” Disarmingly modest, Bykov also describes himself as an “internet director.” “I have to confess that I make films about the masses, that the masses, as a rule, don’t watch,” he laughs.
Russia’s blanket ban on swearwords in the arts means film directors such as Bykov face an uphill struggle in their attempts to depict the gritty realities of everyday life. “The people at the culture ministry are convinced that you can make great art without swearing,” he says. “They look at the old Soviet films and books, at all the classics, and that’s their proof. But it’s almost impossible to make authentic films about modern life without swearing. Show me a plumber who doesn’t swear and I’d be very suspicious indeed.” To get over this obstacle, Bykov has simply resorted to muffling obscenities in his films: “That way, at least the audience knows the character is swearing.”
But Bykov is philosophic about such difficulties. “We have to get by with what we have. It’s not realistic to expect these old guys — or guys who think in an old-fashioned way — to share our ideas about modern filmmaking. Anyway, a new generation will come through eventually. We should be more concerned about educating them.”
Despite his commitment to independent filmmaking, Bykov is ready to work with mainstream studios to support himself and his family. “Auteur films don’t earn anything at all in Russia,” he says. Accordingly, he has recently finished directing Method, a TV series very loosely based on Dexter, the US series about a psychopathic blood splatter analyst. Method will screen on the state-run Channel One later this year. At present, however, Bykov is finishing off work on a high-budget, 3D film about Alexei Leonov, the Soviet cosmonaut who was the first person in history to spacewalk. “It’s a typical mainstream movie,” shrugs Bykov. “This is just a different way of working for me. They didn’t let me anywhere near the screenplay, though.” He laughs. “They won’t let me anywhere near the screenplays for mainstream stuff.”