11 February 2011
Analyzing two scenes in Little Vera
In the context of “Global Cinema Dystopia,” it is interesting to look at a film such as Little Vera (1988). The political regime and climate of Russia at the time the film was made allowed a relaxation in the censorship and propaganda. The director, Vasili Pichul, saw the opportunity, in his first film, to present the real Soviet Union and not a glorified version of it. Through the lens of dystopia can be argued how Pichul decided to show characters and their lives in Russia. In this paper, it will be discussed how he achieves this representation of the real, by analyzing two key scenes of the film: the open-air disco scene and the family beach scene. And also how such scenes emphasis a departure from previous cinema styles and an introduction to new types of films the people of Russia could relate too.
The Russian film Little Vera directed by Vasili Pichul was released in 1988. It takes place at a poignant period in Russian history: the eve of the collapse of the Berlin wall and the beginning of the “perestroika” era. The people of Russia will soon be informed that much of their knowledge and beliefs based on the Soviet Union’s instruction were lies. Artists, particularly filmmakers, embraced the essence of “glasnost” in the regime. The diminished censorship increased their freedom of creativity and enabled them to break away from Soviet cinema. For the first time in decades, cineastes could show reality of everyday life, not a state-promoted illusory and propagandist image. The Russian term for such scripts and films is “byt.” Little Vera follows “byt”, in presenting an ordinary proletariat family in the deteriorating little industrial town of Mariupol. Vasili Pichul, the director, tells the story of a young woman, Vera, and of her family, in the context of their current environmental climate. He portrays the characters in a bleak and depressing manner, only stating the real, while denying Soviet film standards of an utopist regime and state. Instead of a mythical portrayal of Russian life, the spectator sees a dystopist representation of it. By depicting the lives of the real working class rather than an embellished proletariat, the collapse of the family, and presenting a helpless and hopeless youth, Pichul’s Little Vera ruptures Soviet cinema for the first time. Two scenes in this film are particularly useful in delineating Pichul’s approach: the open- air disco scene (9’44- 13’11) and the family beach scene (1:16’31- 1:20’50).
The open-air disco scene begins with a pan shot of Vera and her friend Lena. The camera starts off at the back of their legs showing their tacky fishnet tights. It keeps panning up to a close up of the rest of the back of their bodies, to then show them facing the audience, dancing and enjoying a song by Russian pop singer Sofia Rotaru. Firstly, this song is played over and over in the film, giving the impression it is the only musical option they have. The outfits the girls are wearing may be vulgar to us viewers, but are probably chic and fashionable to them. Vera’s attire is very recurrent in the film and also conveys the idea that it is the only “nice” things she own, or perhaps the only fashion available in Mariupol. The open-air disco itself is the only occupation for the young people of this town. These lack of choices and options portray the entrapment of the Russian youth in provincial towns; they are left with no dreams and no escape. This is also portrayed in the manner the scene is shot. The camera is hand held and there is a grey color filter, creating an impression of a dirty documentary on the Russian proletariat. After the shot of the girls dancing, the viewer is introduced to the character of Sergei, Vera’s future lover. The camera follows him from afar. It is shaky and pans behind the amps, really giving a feeling that we are spying, which is what the girls would want to do but they are crammed on the dance floor. Sergei approaches the girls and memorized by him, Lena agrees to dance. The crowd of people is dancing to the pop song. The camera is only filming the people from the bust up to the face. The scene is also shot at a fairly narrow angle, closing up on the characters, reiterating the impression of entrapment and claustrophobia. The presence of a large number of police officers strengthens this notion. In a continuous shot, the camera scrutinizes the police and by panning them up and down gives us a negative feeling towards them. It is assumed something bad is going to happen. Tension is building up, foreshadowing the fight that breaks in the crowd between all the boys. At this point of the scene it can only be said that all notions of communist values do not transpire. Where is the brotherhood and camaraderie? The Soviet myth usually portrayed in previous propagandist Russian films of a cohesive collectivity disappears. Visually, the audience is left in chaos, with the vision of deranged youth. The police raid the open-air disco, stomping and hitting the young people. They appear unfair and incompetent, assaulting the women trying to leave the fight. Vera is laughing at the whole scene as an officer catches her. She defends herself and escapes. She is not the stereotypical docile woman, but a rebel who challenges the rules. She is realistic. In this scene, we can see that Pichul departs from Soviet cinema by: portraying a violent and non-unified youth that could not care less of Soviet morals, presenting an incompetent and unfair authority/ control figures, and constructing a protagonist that does not fit the stereotype of propagandist Soviet cinema.
The family beach scene starts with a zoom out of the coast and the father’s truck coming to a stop. The camera is placed above, looking down on the family stepping out of their ride. It zooms in on Vera, following her walking away from her parents. She is to the right of the screen and at times out of frame. She walks too fast for us to follow her, almost as if she was trying to escape but she cannot. She is locked in the four walls of the screen. The camera is still hand held and the scene is composed of many continuous shots. This enhances the impression of reality and creates an effect of dizziness. The scene becomes claustrophobic even though the setting is outdoors. Vera is still trapped, even in the open air. She removes herself from the family curled up in the fetal position, maybe wishing to go back to a time where she was protected inside her mother’s stomach. At the same time her father, mother and brother are speaking of her as if she was not there and pretending nothing happened (her father is a drunk and stabbed her fiancé). They insist on this picnic equal to a masquerade. They want to bring order to the family and to fulfill the Soviet myth. But what is presented is a breaking of the family unit. The mother wants Vera to lie to the police for their well being over her daughter’s. There is also a breaking down of communication. The characters never speak to each other but constantly yell and insult each other, as if shouting would make them understood better. The last Soviet myth we can see being broken down is the proletariat. We are far from the glorious working class, ready to serve the collectivity and the state. Vera’s parents tell her they only had her to have the rights to bigger apartment. They never wanted another child, but in Russia at the time, living space was very difficult to obtain. Having a bigger family was the only way! This shows they have superficial morals and are not caring for their daughter. This is the opposite of what typical Soviet cinema usually represents. Vera is at the end of the scene standing above her parents who are sitting down. She is superior to them but with the lack of choices she has in her life here, will this last? Or will she be condemned to live the same life as her parents. Pichul’s point is that communism led people to become this way. But instead of portraying lies on the silver screen, finally a director was able to show the reality of the dystopia the Soviet Union created for its people instead of the utopia it had in mind.
Little Vera portrays the everyday life of the proletariat, “byt”. The open-air disco scene and the family beach scene provide a visual representation of the diminishing family unit and the youth that has lost passion and enthusiasm for the regime and life in general. Such a film presents an antithesis of the past; a fracture with Soviet cinema. The director does not provide an uplifting message, but shows the reality of the Soviet Union. There is no expression of hope for the people’s lives to get better. What is so depressing yet so great about this film is that nothing impressive happens. The people of Mariupol, Vera, and her family and her friends cannot even imagine a better life. There is no room for dreams or improvement just for the bleak daily routine.