49th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, 4 – 12 July 2013: East of the West Competition
This year the FEDEORA jury decided to award an exceptional debut, Corrections Class (Klass korrektsii, Russia-Germany) by Ivan I. Tverdovsky, with a special mention. A couple of hours later the statutory East of the West jury announced the same film as their winner. Ivan I. Tverdovsky, aged 25, definitely is a talent to watch. He studied in the class of Aleksey Uchitel` at VGIK, the Moscow film school and since 2009 has made several short documentaries, the last one called Space Dog (2013). His first feature film reveals him as a director with both a warm heart and a cool, unwavering gaze. The plot of his film tells the story of teenage love in a school environment, yet everything is a little different in this film.
The film starts with Lena Chekhova’s first day at a Moscow school, having been taught at home before. Brusquely the teenager is ushered away from the opening of school celebrations as she has been assigned to the “corrections class”. This is a special class for all those with special physical or teaching needs. Lena suffers from myopathy, which confines her to a wheelchair.Several remarkable films at this year’s Karlovy Vary festival were about the coming of age and the different rites of passage this transitional period requires. If Richard Linklater’s time-lapse epic Boyhood (USA, 2014) concentrated on the ups and downs of parent-child relationships in patchwork families, several European films stressed the absence of parents and addressed the horizontal tensions between teenagers. Blackmail, threats and bullying seem to be the naturally given in these brutal youth cultures – no matter whether in England, Ukraine or Serbia.
In the British film Sixteen by Rob Brown (UK, 2013), screened in the Forum of Independents section, a former Congolese child soldier faces threats of violence from both fellow pupils and the local drug dealer. These threats bring back memories which he hoped to overcome in his new English home as an adopted child – when his peers discover his past, a new round of bullying begins. Interestingly it is his mother and her belief in him, which protect him from a bad outcome, persuading him to testify against criminals. Total absence of any adult or other supervision reigns in the dark and disturbing film The Tribe (Plemya, Ukraine, 2014) by Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, screened as Special Events, where violent gangs engage in the prostitution of their classmates. Just as Correction Class, it starts with a shot depicting a rite of passage related to school life – the graduation at the special deaf-mute boarding school where the protagonist is sent.
The film Barbarians (Varvari, Serbia/Montenegro/Slovenia 2014) by Ivan Ikić depicts teenage life without any guidance from home or school. The only authority for teenagers in this Serbian town is held by the coach of the football team. Even though the protagonists are fans of the local football team, they insult its African player. Barbarians, which received a special mention from the main East of the West jury, is a semi-documentary which is hard to watch as there seems no hope for the protagonists – the making of the film itself seems to have opened a perspective for the non-professional actors, though. Crude Barbarians has one common motif with the more subtle Corrections Class: addressing the problem of public quality of teenage sex which is disseminated on social networks.
Interestingly Tverdovskii who had been a documentary filmmaker until Corrections Class, first planned to use children from real correction classes exclusively. In the course of the production, he limited their participation to supporting figures such as Olia, the dwarf girl. When Lena enters the room of the corrections class we expect to witness the same kind of teenage bullying as we saw in The Tribe or Sixteen. To our surprise the youngsters in Corrections Class are different! They seem to have found their own ways to cope with the dismal situation of being excluded from normal classes. And, most importantly, we are relieved to see that they do not reproduce the behaviour of normal teenagers abusing those who are different. Tverdovskii shows his corrections class as a caring group, supportive of each other. When Lena arrives at the class the others find it easy to accept the new girl with her winning smile. The boys start competing for her attention and the privilege of pushing her wheelchair, and the girls slip into an easy friendship with her. We start believing that the school bully after all is not only the product of an inadequate school system.
Outside of school most of the group’s meetings take place in a wasteland beside railroad tracks. The group gathers around a camp fire – an episode which corresponds with another recent Russian film, Leviathan by Andrei Zviagintsev (2013). Zviagintsev presents us with a beautifully lit shot where teenagers gather in the ruins of a church around a fire. These images of the protagonists in exteriors seem to picture modern Russian society as one composed of different tribes in search of community, protection and warmth. Both films though hint at the fact that tribal coherence cannot be more than a teenage phase. And both films analyse the present state of Russian society turned archaic when relying on tribal forms of belonging. These Post-Soviet tribes, after all, are neither governed by ideology or ideas – such as communism or Christianity. It is tribes, not political parties, which rule in politics.
The harmony between the groups in Corrections Class is disturbed when Lena forms a romantic relationship with her classmate Anton who suffers from epilepsy. Now the rest of the group turns against them. Facing the new concept of a couple in their midst, the community falls apart as jealous passions are aroused, and the friendly bunch becomes a horde of wild animals without any moral restraint. Things take a turn for the worse when the school cleaner finds Anton putting cream onto Lena’s legs and the school staff becomes involved after hearing of this “perverse sex”. Events come to a head beside the railway tracks when the boys attempt to rape Lena, while a girl from the group records the event on her mobile phone.
Railroad tracks play an important role in the film, as a site of gathering, and bonding but also one of violence. It’s here that the members of the group test each other by lying between the tracks “the right way” in the path of a high-speed train. When one pupil of the corrections class does not arrive on the morning Lena attends school for the first time we find out that he had laid down across the tracks the other way. The railroad could be a vehicle to leave – but it seems there is no other place that these young people could go. So they either are corrected by the school, or they fail and choose to end their life on the tracks just as Anna Karenina did in Tolstoi’s novel.
Tverdovskii drew strong performances from his young cast. Masha Poezzhayeva (Lena) and Filipp Avdeyev (Anton) both act at the Moscow theatre Gogol Center and at the Kirill Serebrennikov “7th Studio”. Unforgettable is the older generation: the heroine’s mother and the two women who govern this school: the cleaning lady who is worried about the possible prodigy of two children from the correction class spoiling the genetic makeup of her country, and the vile headmistress (Natalia Domoretskaya) who reminds the viewer of the nurse in Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1974). Corrections Class would have deserved a prize for best director if that prize existed in the East of the West section.
The film addresses several themes, some of them universal, some specific such as the uneasiness of Russian society when it comes to difference, whether disabilities and non-standard sexuality. Tverdovskii in his film manages to address more than the issues of the Russian school system and the dire situation of disabled citizens who are discriminated against and receive little help from state institutions – being forced to rely on “tribal” solidarity. Corrections Class is also a film about the helplessness of children and parents facing the power of a school headmaster who has absolute control over the pupils’ lives assigning them either to correction or normal school life. In the figure of the headmaster the film shows us the ugly abuse of power which is given to individuals by the very institutions they form and represent. Tverdovskii provides us with a powerful image combining all these topics – that of newly installed tracks for Lena’s wheelchair which prove useless.