BIFF 2011 #11: How I Ended This Summer (Kak ya provyol etim letom, Russia 2010)

Sergey (left) and Pavel outside the weather station

I saw this film at the end of a long tiring day. It think that is why I didn’t have quite the same ecstatic response to it that seems to be the case with so many audiences. It won the ‘Best of Festival’ prize at London last Autumn plus Silver Bears for the two actors at Berlin and it’s easy to see why it might be an arthouse hit in the UK.

Writer-Director Aleksei Popogrebsky has always been fascinated by polar exploration (see the interview in the Press Pack downloadable from UK distributors New Wave). After two previous art film successes (Koktobel, 2003 and Simple Things, 2007) he embarked on this extremely difficult shoot using a tiny crew and two actors transported to remote locations in Chukotka Autonomous Region. In the story these locations are on an island in the Arctic Sea and the two men are operating a polar weather station. The older of the two men is Sergey, a veteran of the service. His younger companion Pavel appears to be spending his first summer on the island and the two men are not entirely comfortable together. Sergey takes Pavel to be lazy and possibly careless. Pavel thinks the older man is too uptight. He plays video games, listens to his MP3 player and is skilled in dealing with computer readings. Sergey’s behaviour is more disciplined and his activity more physical. The boredom and the endless summer daylight are bound to affect both men.They know that they are on their own, that help of any kind can only come by  air or ship – and that bad weather and pack ice could leave them completely isolated.

The narrative turns on two events. First Sergey goes fishing for ‘Arctic Trout’. He is away in a small boat for a couple of days. This isn’t allowed of course, but Sergey knows that fresh fish will supplement their boring diet and that the break in routine will do him good. But while he is away, Pavel receives a radio call with urgent news for Sergey. He has to lie about why Sergey can’t respond himself. The news is shocking and when Sergey returns, Pavel fails to tell him about it. Once the lies begin, the relationship between the two men is doomed and what was a slight discomfort becomes the basis for psychological and then physical conflict.

The film is beautifully shot and edited (the cinematographer and sound recordist each have a background in documentary) and the generic elements of the thriller with two men in an unforgiving wilderness are generally very well-handled. Polar bears, especially in September, are a real hazard in this area – the director had a first-hand experience of one! Why then wasn’t I overwhelmed? I think that I wasn’t entirely convinced by the plotting but possibly more important I was irritated by the younger man. My sympathies were all with Sergey but the narrative seems to push us to if not identify with, then at least follow, Pavel. The director says that he doesn’t consciously build parables into his script, but that when they meet an audience, people may find parables. It did seem to me that Sergey represents the Soviet professional – someone who began working life before the break-up of the Soviet Union – and that Pavel represents the ‘New Russia’.

I’m willing to have another go with the film. I think that it is likely to do very well and it certainly is worth seeing. It might be interesting to compare it with Hollywood thrillers in regard to certain sequences. Shutter Island and Christopher Nolan’s version of Insomnia come to mind.

How I Ended My Summer is released in the UK by New Wave on April 22nd – here is a list of cinemas showing it.

One response to “BIFF 2011 #11: How I Ended This Summer (Kak ya provyol etim letom, Russia 2010)

  1. Adding a very personal response here, the film was mesmeric and fascinating. Sometimes ‘arthouse slow’ seems only to indicate the director’s disdain for his audience. This is not slow stylistically, but slow as vital content – the effects of living your life in a way so fundamentally removed from the modern world (when you are from the modern world) that a psychological alteration is inevitable. And Popogrebsky’s particular skill is creating a narrative with characters which, because they are living individually and internally, their internal ‘motivation’ cannot be readily revealed on screen through dialogue or action. Much has been made of the director’s documentarian approach – living literally in those conditions – as well as the factual basis of various aspects of the narrative, including the situation that triggers the central dilemma. It is ‘Herzogian’ in its extreme environment. But an interesting parallel would be Herzog’s documentary At the End of the World that took our poetic notions of living in the Artic world and showed us the everyday and prosaic of that existence.

    Popogrebsky’s view (like Herzog’s fictional one) is not concerned to show us the world as it is. Like all good poetry it is open-ended. But, countering that, my favourite comment from the director (in British mag Sight and Sound) is the deterministically economic – that he shot in his home region after a distributor told him his earlier film (set in St Petersburg) Simple Things had no particular Russian distinguishing flavour to sell it beyond its home country: “cinema can pretend it’s art, but it’s still a commodity, and a commodity must have a unique selling point.” Shooting at the edge of the world would give his film the individuality it needed to sell internationally. After the fact, as much as that might influence the decision to go, the reality of making the film was different: “we went there and literally risked our lives, not because we wanted to make a USP for the marketing department!” I love the contradiction – that you begin with the pragmatic the commercial – and you end (in this case, through 3 months of isolation and physical danger) with this beautiful, contemplative film containing its strange twists and turns. Somehow, Popgrebsky’s comments add nicely to the context for me – because I like the idea that somehow the film made him instead.

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