This semester, the Whitney Humanities Center will pay tribute to the legacy of a Russian film director whose work covered war, corruption and fraternity.
Tonight, the first in a semester-long series of films by the late Aleksei Balabanov will be screened at the Whitney Humanities Center. Subtitled “Crime and Transcendence,” the series will show ten of Balabanov’s films. A number of Yale’s institutions — including the MacMillan Center and the Film and Media Studies Program — are co-sponsoring the series in conjunction with the Russian corporate conglomerate Renova. Anna Nieman, a scholar of Balabanov’s work, said that the organizers’ choice to begin with the 1997 film “Brother” was a “perfect” choice, as she called brotherhood a unifying thread in Balabanov’s widely varying repertoire. Balabanov directed over a dozen films before his death in 2013.
“[Balabanov] was able to put a nationalist, a gangster and a member of the liberal intelligentsia in the same row in a theater,” Nieman said, adding that his films forced differing groups “to recognize each other as members of one society, [and] to face the existence of a massive discord within it.”
Slavic languages and literatures professor Marijeta Bozovic, one of the series’ organizers, explained that Balabanov’s work appeals to sophisticated film critics as well as to the average moviegoer. Film & Media Studies chair and Slavic languages and literatures professor John MacKay, whom Bozovic credited as the series’ main organizer, highlighted that all but two of the films will be shown on 35-millimeter film, which is the original medium in which the films were made.
MacKay said that after a bit of digging, he managed to find Moscow-based foreign film distribution company InterCinema, which owns all of the original 35-millimeter film prints that will be presented during this series. The first batch arrived by mail two weeks ago, and more continue to be shipped overseas to Yale. MacKay added that films in the series will feature introductions as well as post-screening discussions led by Yale faculty and graduate students, including Germanic Studies visiting professor Henry Sussman, Theater Studies professor Dominika Laster and Film and Media Studies visiting professor Oksana Chefranova.
On Feb. 4, for example, Bozovic will introduce and lead discussion for the film that she considers Balabanov’s premier work: “Of Freaks and Men,” which focuses on capitalism, film and pornography in St. Petersburg at the turn of the 20th century.
The series is one of several events this semester that are part of a longer-term Russian Studies project spearheaded by MacKay, Jackson Institute senior fellow Thomas Graham and History professor Paul Bushkovitch. The project also includes a series of public lectures and meetings called “Contemporary Thinkers Program: Focus Russia,” which will include a visit from Russian ambassador Sergey I. Kislyak, as well as a conference in April called “Rethinking Early Russian History.”
Nieman pointed out that the current conflict in Ukraine and Russia exhibits many of the feelings of Balabanov’s characters.
“The final phrase of the father in ‘War’ — ‘Wish I could rise up and go to war!’ — is being actualized right before our eyes,” she said. “Balabanov has been an odd man out of Russian cinema for much too long.”