By Daniel Bickermann. Russia can look back on one of the proudest cinematic traditions in the world: Eisenstein, Kuleshov and Vertov constituted basic cinematic grammatics and montage styles in regard to dramaturgy and documentary filmmaking. The increasing pressure of the Sovjet government meant the end of this tradition, at least until first Stalin’s death and later the era of Glasnost and Perestroika would lead internationally renowned master directors like Andrej Tarkovski, Alexandr Sokurov, Elem Klimov or Alexej German, Sr. to finally be able to realize their own visions.
The downfall of the Sovjet empire also marked a central milestone for the Russian film industry. Censorship rules dropped over night, international movies flooded into the country unhindered, ticket prices were following the free market and, most important of all, a multitude of new private production companies, distributors and film networks joined the surviving state-owned studios (of which Mosfilm surely was the most prominent). At the same time film production numbers took a sharp dip, from an average of 80 films annually during the Gorbachev years to only 20 movies nationally produced in 1996. Massive state subsidies and tax incentives would then increase this number back to 65 films annually within a couple of years, with blockbuster projects like Timur Bekmambetov’s NIGHTWATCH leaving the traditional artistic approach behind in favour of playing to modern cineplex audiences all over the world.
In the first years of the new millennium the ticket sales for Russians films at home skyrocketed within a short time to four times the former numbers. This also speaks to a new generation of consumers having gotten used to higher ticket prices and to the new Russian cinema. The industry is also booming due to an increased production of TV and documentary features, an improved system of subsidies and securities for production financing and a couple of film schools steeped in tradition but highly modernised (among them the Russian State Institute of Cinema VGIK in Moscow, the oldest film school in the world).
Throughout its history, cinema has been the prevalent art form in Russia, which lead to a lot of well-curated and just as well-attended festivals. As should be expected from a highly centralized country, several of these festivals can be found in Moscow; but besides them is a tightly woven net of feature, short or documentary film festivals covering at least the European and Caucasian part of the nation with the world’s largest land mass – from St. Petersburg to Kansk, from Sotschi to Kasan, from Volgograd to Nishni Novgorod. Their focuses range from gay and lesbian film to the highly regarded art of animation. There are also several short film festivals which have sprung up over the last couple of years even in comparatively small cities. But as the short film industry is regularly ignored by the public film finance institutions, some of those festivals are already on the brink of closing down again. But the recent boom of the film industry has nevertheless affected young and amateur filmmakers: The numbers of film clubs are on the rise, and these give young directors the chance to present their works to an interested audience.