Moscow Film Fest 1995: My First Trip to Russia and Being Guest of Mikhalkov

Moscow Film Fest 1995–The hottest ticket in the l9th Moscow International Film Fest was not for any specific movie–or film event–but for a boat trip on the Volga.

It was director Nikita Mikhalkov’s idea to take some 200 of the fest’s VIPs to Nizhny Novgorod, where his latest picture, Burnt by the Sun, was shot. With everyone wanting to go, speculations ran high all week as to who would make the final cut–call it “Nikita’s List”–for the luxurious weekend, during which festival activities in Moscow were interrupted.

Though president of the jury Richard Gere enjoyed the limelight, the fest’s unofficial star was undoubtedly Mikhalkov. Nothing better could have happened to him–or the struggling Russian film industry–than winning this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. As a tribute to his upcoming 50th birthday (in October), the helmer was honored with a retrospective.

“Moscow and St. Petersburg are magnificent,” the charming director told me, “but I wanted to show another side of Russia, the real provincial Russia.”

Nizhny Novgorod, renamed Gorky in 1932 after the famous writer who used to live there, was closed to tourism until 1991, when it reclaimed its original name.  A concerted effort is now under way to elevate the stature of Russia’s third largest city–and underplay the fact that dissident Sakharov was sent there in exile.

The entire town was on the streets to greet arriving guests, with a local band playing tunes of American band leader Glenn Miller as we all boarded the ship.

An elderly woman mistook me for being Sean Connery (the moustache, I guess?) and asked me to sign an autograph!

After a tour of the town’s Kremlin, there was a reception with the governor and other dignitaries. One of the trip’s highlights was a visit to Makarjev Island and its monastery, followed by a picnic by the water. For two days, there was non-stop entertainment, on the boat and off, to the tunes of gypsy, folklore, and Russian soul music–appreciated with outpouring Vodka and black caviar.

The main competition, in which 22 films vied for the top St. George Award, was rather weak. Vastly uneven, the movies ranged from works by veteran Japanese filmmaker Shindo (A Last Note) to well-made French (A French Woman) and Spanish (The Turkish Passion) melodramas to raw feature debuts from Singapore (Mee Pok Man) and Kazakhstan (The Hunter’s Family).

Fest directors were reportedly disappointed that they couldn’t get more–and better–Hollywood premieres. The studios were keeping their more prestigious movies for Montreal and Venice next month. The only U.S. entry, Boys on the Side, and other English-speaking pix, The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Country Life, had already opened in the West.

More interesting and original movies were exhibited in the sidebars, notably “Pre-Revolutionary Cinema,” “Russian Directors in Exile,” “Russian Classics on Screen,” “Unknown Cinema from the Former Soviet Union.” Series celebrating “25 Years of Berlin Festival’s Forum” and “U.S. Independents” (Charles Burnett, Hal Hartley) were also well-received.

There was plenty to see, though the major obstacle was getting to the theaters on time as the events were spread all over town. There weren’t enough shuttle buses, and Moscow seems to be a city where rush hours and traffic jams are ever-existing problems.

Though the festival wasn’t particularly well-organized, once you submitted to the “Russian way” of doing things you could enjoy the peculiar charms of the system. In what other festival an attractive interpreter would come to your table over breakfast and say, “Good morning, my name is Olga, I’ll be glad to escort you to the Kremlin if you’re free this afternoon.” No wonder the festival chose as its slogan a line from the famed novelist Dostoevsky, “Beauty will save the world.”