Out of the Ashes

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Review of 'Roads to Koktebel', directors Boris Khlebnikov and Alexei Popogrebsky

The death of a mother, the loss of livelihood and a 2,000 km journey to something different - this is the story of a man and his son as they make their way, however they can, from Moscow to Koktebel and hopefully a new life. It is also a story about Russia.

The Russian and Ukrainian countryside provide the backdrop to what could, only approximately, be described as a Russian road movie. Man and boy travel to the Crimean coastal town of Koktebel on foot, stowing away in a freight train and hitchhiking. Staying warm and fed is precarious and they are forced to rely upon piecemeal work and the hospitality of strangers. Their journey is dictated by circumstance.

At one point the two are housed by an old eccentric, Mikhail Alexandrovich, while they mend the roof of his dacha. Their stay spirals into a nightmarish haze as the father is lured to drink and the son is sent to the loft to read for hours at a time. They flee the dacha when the father is shot by Mikhail in a drunken misunderstanding.

The cinematography is minimalist and unforced, mixing a realist style with the surreal flights of fancy of the young boy and the drunken delusions of Mikhail Alexandrovich. It utilises a loose narrative that is sparing, sometimes haltingly real and at others richly poetic. The metaphor juxtaposes the difficult reality of the father and son and provides Koktebel with humour and beauty and a style that is deeply moving in its simplicity. The dialogue seeks to tell the story, but not to drive it.

If the father represents everything that is still tied to 'old Russia', its society and values, it shows a Russia that struggles with decline - unemployment, homelessness and alcoholism. It shows a place that has been set adrift by death and it is easy to imagine that it is the death of Stalinist Russia that the directors have in mind. The son, while thrust into this situation, refuses to be subjugated by it. His youth and imagination mean that he is not tied to the past but determined to search the future for something better. This is symbolised by Koktebel and intertwined into the narrative through his fascination with flying.

In the relationship between son and father lies a sometimes tension, sometimes dynamism that provides the focal point for the film's ideas. There is one particular moment where this dynamic is summarised. The son shows his father a worm in an apple that he is eating. For the father the worm is outrageous. In contrast the boy sees the worm not as the cause of decay and ruin, but imagines it as the butterfly it will be. Both characters are written with subtlety and compassion and Koktebel offers hope despite the many obstacles they face.

This is Khlebnikov and Popogrebsky's first feature-length film and has already received much acclaim inside and outside Russia - in festivals from Toronto to Palm Springs to Sofia. At Cannes it was screened as the Fipresci Revelation of the Year, the 'best of the best' among young filmmakers.