Earlier this year, the Sundance Film Festival made an unusual decision: to add a television series to its line-up. Last week, an inaugural film festival in Omsk, an industrial city on the southwestern tip of Siberia, followed suit by screening three episodes of a television series to be aired this autumn.
The programme, Salam Maskva (Hello Moscow), is the first gritty crime series in a country where television adaptations of Sherlock Holmes and the detective fiction of Boris Akunin are widely popular. The show marked the first foray into television by lauded film-maker Pavel Bardin. His debut feature Russia 88 was released in 2009 and remains one of the most insightful explorations of neo-Nazis in Moscow to date.
The series, which follows Moscow-based detectives Rustam and Sanya, deftly captures the city’s underground life while providing a colourful portrait of its migrant populations and simmering racial tensions. The jury, gripped by its strong dialogue and striking images, awarded it prizes for best script and best cinematography.
Still from Doctor (2012), Vladimir Pankov
I, like the many other journalists, directors, actors and producers there, had flown to Siberia especially for Movement: The First National Film Festival of Debuts. The state-backed festival was also a first for Omsk. It was a major event for the city and crowds flocked to see the odd celebrity walk down the red carpet. Although it is easy to mock how provincial it all felt, the cultural significance of holding such an event outside of a city such as Moscow or St Petersburg outweighed such thoughts.
With a population of 1.1 million Omsk is not an insignificant place. Dostoevsky once spent time here as a prisoner, and today it’s home to one of the largest oil refineries in the world, owned by Gazprom Oil. Although a stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway, if it wasn’t for the festival, I can’t imagine I’d want to spend much time here. But will the film festival change that?
This was my first time in Siberia, albeit to the very south of it. It felt like any other provincial town I had visited in Russia — it had a small city centre with streets named after Lenin and Marx, the odd theatre and administrative building, and Soviet apartment blocks as far as the eye could see. Yegor Ulanov, an actor at the Omsk Drama Theatre who moved here from Krasnoyarsk, a city much further east, pointed to the state of the roads and the regular power cuts to assure me that we were very much in Siberia. Indeed, the next day, our minibus passed a convoy of cars beeping their horns and covered in posters with slogans such as “Where are the roads?” and “Build some roads in Omsk”. A few minutes further out from the city centre and there are no roads at all — just mud, litter and drunks.
“Omsk is a taste of what’s possible”
Back in Omsk, the city’s inhabitants had snatched up the free tickets for the film screenings. It was a surprise to many festival guests, including myself, to see cinema halls so full of open-minded locals watching whatever film they had managed to get a ticket for. As one colleague pointed out, if they tried to show some obscure documentary or short film for free in Moscow, no one would go. When I moaned to Stas Tyrkin, the main programme director, about how so many of the films I wanted to see were showing at the same time, he pointed out that they had to be screened in the evenings when locals had finished work.
Unlike so many other film festivals, the organisers of Movement made the locals a priority. They didn’t just fly culture out to the provinces from Moscow, as is often the case with other film events, that often appear to be put on for the enjoyment of those in the industry. The improvement of the regions through culture had been on the political agenda for some time now, but good examples are few and far between. Omsk is a taste of what’s possible.