Saturday, 27 October 2018

Russian Resurrection Film Festival - a memoir about Vitaly Melnikov and a screening of his film MARRIAGE (USSR, 1977)

Royal Hunt, Russian DVD Cover
Back in the day, when I was working for Andrew Pike at Ronin Films, in the early 90s, a man called Nick Minaev, a bureaucrat, possibly KGB operative, posted to Australia by the USSR Government’s monopoly business, Sovexportfilm, turned up in our office in Canberra and said he wanted us to run the annual Russian Film Festival. 

This event had for years been the sole domain of the legendary Eddie Allison of Quality Films. Eddie had a lock on Russian cinema releases and was very close to various political forces on the left. When he learned what he had been done I don’t think he was that upset. He said he hadn’t made any money out of the festival for years. Neither, it eventuated did Ronin, notwithstanding some rebadging and some smarter advertising. The festival eventually transmogrified into today’s Russian Resurrection Film Festival which, according to its Website is shortly to have its 15thedition. 

Nick dumped a pile of VHS tapes on our desk and said “Choose what you want”. It was quite exciting to basically get a look over the current Russian production. Standouts from the pile included a new film, Zero City  by then young director Karen Shaknazarov, who later went up the ladder and is now head of Mosfilm. Another choice was a remarkable story about Catherine the Great titled The Royal Hunt  directed with great panache by the, to us, unknown Vitaly Melnikov. Ronin actually later put The Royal Hunt into general distribution. The star of the film was the great Russian actress Svetlana Kryuchoka. I later learned she was a feature actress in a number of Melnikov's films.
Svetlana Kryuchkova
 So, a year or so later I’m in Moscow, invited by Sovexportfilm to attend the newly re-established Moscow Film Festival. The event was a shambles, hardly any new films from anywhere and was only saved for me anyway when, spontaneously, the Director’s Union started putting on screenings of films not selected for the festival at its splendid Domkino building well away from the main events. I stopped going to the official venue and hung out at Domkino along with the likes of Ulrich and Erica Gregor from the Berlin Forum. The building also had the benefit of having a rather nice Italian restaurant on its top floor, managed by a somewhat forlorn young Italian whose brother had taken the lease on the place and then left the younger man in charge. It otherwise wasn’t doing much business.

Vitaly Melnikov
I mentioned to the people at Sovexportfilm that I wouldn’t mind going to Leningrad/St Petersburg and quick as a flash they had me booked on a train and into a hotel and the people from Lenfilm were alerted.  On arrival I was taken to the Lenfilm studio where they were delighted to hear my news that I thought the nascent reborn Moscow Film Festival was a bit of a flop at least that year. That pleased them no end. They wanted to know what films we had selected for our festival back in Australia and when I mentioned The Royal Hunt they were as pleased as punch because it was one of Lenfilm’s productions. …and the director Vitaly Melnikov was indeed on the premises. He had an office at the studio.

Quickly I was wheeled into Melnikov’s office. He was delighted to meet me. Delighted to know one of his films had made it outside the USSR and then proceeded to explain why he was unknown. His best films had run into trouble with the authorities and had been banned, suppressed, not released. He was a bit of a critic of Soviet conditions and his films had an edge that the authorities didn’t appreciate. He pressed upon me a pile of unsubtitled VHS tapes of what he thought were his best films and eventually, along with all my other VHS tapes, they were despatched into the rubbish bin unwatched. There was no email follow-up in those days and I never heard anything about Melnikov again. 

After The Royal Hunt Melnikov made another seven features, the last of them in 2012 when he was 84 years old. All up he made about twenty films and I suspect almost none have ever made it out of the former Soviet Union or the modern day Russia. 

But, at last, something has stirred, the Russian Resurrection Film Festival has unearthed one of Melnikov’s films from 1977, a comedy called Marriage.  I know nothing about the film except for what's in the program booklet  which says that its based on a Gogol story and is "a must watch for lovers of Gogol's classic literature and of quirky Soviet comedy." Some might say 'Soviet comedy' is a bit of an oxymoron.

It’s included in this year’s event as part of a selection devoted to celebrating he centenary of the Lenfilm Studios and among others in the selection of four are Iosif (Joseph) Heifits  The Lady with a Little Dog (1960) and the famous Innokenti Smoktunovsky Hamlet (1964).

As for Melnikov, it appears he is still alive so if he ever reads all this I wish him well and have the fondest memories of a morning in his office lo those years ago.

So on November 10 at 4.30 at the Event Cinema in George St I plan to see my second Vitaly Melnikov movie, a mere 30 years or so after the first. Looking forward to that.

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