Russian experimental film: dive into a wild world of new avant-garde cinema

19 February 2017

What do you do when you’re passionate about an art form that is criminally underrepresented in your country? This was the position that the Russian artist Katya Chitova and the actor Vladimir Nadein found themselves in when bonding over a shared enthusiasm for experimental film. Their response was to create in 2016 the Moscow International Experimental Film Festival (MIEFF), Russia’s first international event dedicated to all things radical and avant-garde onscreen, with Chitova as curator and Nadein as director. Now, ahead of the second iteration of the festival, Chitova is presenting a programme of experimental Russian film in London at the Calvert 22 Space, running from 23rd – 26th February, featuring UK premieres of new works by Pavel Pepperstein, Polina Kanis and Evgeny Granilshchikov.

The response has shown that Russia is ready for experimental film to take off

Hosted over three days in an old textile mill, 2016’s inaugural MIEFF featured Russian premieres of works from the British Film Institute and Film London’s Artists’ Moving Image Network, lectures, theatre pieces, and a screening of Dziga Vertov’s 1929 radical documentary Man with a Movie Camera with a new score by electronic composer OID. Chitova says she was pleasantly surprised when luminaries of Moscow’s art scene – including the Kandinsky Prize-winning Pavel Pepperstein — stepped in with advice, contacts and participation.

“Despite [experimental film’s] rich history in Russia, the audience for this form of art does not expand much further than art critics, academics, artists, gallerists, industry professionals and their friends,” Chitova explains. “There are not enough independent film curators. Artists are not used to screening their work in a cinema space.” Working in London had exposed Chitova to the world of experimental film, whetting her appetite: “It was a revelation and a triumph each time I joined the audience at a local cinema to watch a well-curated screening of experimental films.”

The response to MIEFF, though, has shown that Russia is ready for experimental film to take off. Nadein and Chitova received 3500 competition entries from 98 different countries, and the duo have since travelled to Los Angeles as well as London to showcase the best of the young filmmaking talent from their home country. The two young directors who were featured in 2016 – Polina Kanis and Evgeny Granilshchikov – are now coming to Calvert 22 Space. Two films by Granilshchikov (Ghost (2016, UK premiere) and Unfinished Film (2015)), and two by Kanis (Formal Portrait (2014) and Workout (2011)) will be screened in rotation. Whether dealing with romantic dislocation, the rigours of labour or the digitisation of everyday life, Kanis’s and Granilshchikov’s work provides a window onto a fresh new brand of Russian artistic vision.

“Compared to conventional filmmaking, this form of art is more abstract, unpredictable and forgiving.”

The programme also features UK premieres of two films by the internationally acclaimed multimedia artist Pavel Pepperstein, Pink Widow (2017) and Sound of the Sun (2016). Pepperstein has recently begun to produce more and more film work and Sound of the Sun – which sees a rogue group of scientists commandeering landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower to broadcast solar soundwaves across the globe – finds him in a typically playful and perplexing mood.

“Compared to conventional filmmaking, this form of art is more abstract, unpredictable and forgiving, and Pavel practices these qualities with great pleasure,” Chitova says. The engagement of such a grandee of the Russian art world with experimental film can only help the practice to grow, too. “Pavel’s international practice and credibility helps to show that it’s not necessary to be a trained film director in order to give yourself permission to make great films.”

“When explaining what experimental films are I often resort to saying who makes them,” she concludes. “Not necessarily or solely filmmakers, but sculptors, photographers, architects, cinematographers, artists and even dancers, who at a given point in their practice found film to be the most convenient medium to express what they need.”

Watch extracts from the short films screening this week at Calvert 22 Space below.

Pavel Pepperstein

Pavel Pepperstein is an artist, writer, critic and art theorist born in 1966 in Moscow. From 1985 to 1987 he studied in the Department of Set Design at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. In 1987 he co-founded the experimental artistic group Inspection Medical Hermeneutics.

Since 1989 Pepperstein has been an independent artist and writer. His paintings, drawings and installations can be found in the Tretyakov State Gallery in Moscow, in the Russian State Museum in St Petersburg, in the George Pompidou Centre in Paris, in the Albertina museum in Vienna, and in private collections both in Russia and abroad.

Sound of the Sun (2016, 27 min)
The plot of the film centres around the research work of a group of scientists, who base their approach on the hypothesis that light is in fact essentially sound, and focus their attention on what they call “the sound of the sun”. Employing complicated technology, they conduct a secret experiment, in which the sound of the sun is amplified and then rebroadcast via the illegal use of tall structures such as television towers in Berlin and Moscow or the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The sound is not detectable to conscious human awareness, but its amplified presence affects the behaviour of different people in an unpredictable manner. A number of agents set out in search of the transponders relaying this solar sound, since a tide of inconspicuous mass insanity is gradually engulfing various groups of the population.

Film still from Sound of the Sun (2016), dir. Pavel Pepperstein. Courtesy of the artist

Film still from Sound of the Sun (2016), dir. Pavel Pepperstein. Courtesy of the artist

Pink Widow (2017, 13 min)
A woman is traumatised by loss, interrogated by a therapist figure and consoled by a nun in unsettling play on the figure of Jackie Kennedy, widow to JFK, where the line between cruelty and kindness becomes blurred.

Evgeny Granilshchikov

Artist and independent film director born in Moscow. Winner of the Kandinsky Prize for “Young Artists: Project of the Year” in 2013.

Unfinished Film (2015, 26 min)
We don’t know where the characters are going in this re-enactment of everyday life in the noughties, but there is a feeling of alarm hidden behind their simple actions.

Ghost (2016, 27 min)
The daily rhythm of the lives of two young people is interrupted by the hero’s recurrent disappearances.

Polina Kanis

Video artist born in Leningrad. Winner of the Kandinsky Prize in the “Young Artist” category in 2011 and the Sergey Kuryokhin Award for Contemporary Art for “Best Media Object” in 2016. Winner and shortlisted artist for various prizes in the Innovation Prize for contemporary art.

Workout (2011, 11 min)

An aerobics class in Moscow’s Neskuchny Garden becomes a strange hybrid of new age cheer and totalitarian Soviet aesthetics. “Breathe! You can do it!”

Formal Portrait (2014, 8 min)
The engine roars, the pole is prepared, and performers obediently come together to form a flag – an unseen ceremony for a victory that may never happen.

Russian Experimental Film Pop-up, in partnership with the Moscow International Experimental Film Festival, will run at Calvert 22 Space from Thursday 23rd – Sunday 26th February, curated by Katya Chitova. On these dates, films by Polina Kanis and Evgeny Granilshchikov will be screening on rotation between 11am – 5pm. More info can be found here.

The UK premiere of two short films by Pavel Pepperstein is a ticketed event on Saturday 25th February. Book your tickets here.

Text: Samuel Goff