I have used italics for film quotes and bold italics for director’s quotes mainly from http://www.kinoglaz.fr/u_fiche_film.php?num=60 in French or the extras from the DVD. I have used the spelling of Baboussia used on the DVD cover but there are different spellings online.
It would be easy to dismiss Baboussia (2003). A French Russian coproduction it did not have general EU release but the DVD with French and English subtitles is available. The French reviewers rated it from 5 to 2 stars and it won the Grand prix du public et Prix Arte aux Rencontres Internationales de Cinéma à Paris 2003. The DVD cover shows a close up of the face of a young woman. In the snow-covered background there is the small shapeless form of a woman. The DVD and the website kinoglaz.fr include interviews with the director Lidia Bobrova (born 1952). She had directed a handful of films unknown in the English-speaking world.
I viewed it with J.G. ahead of the film group. It left both of us frustrated and dismissive and J.G. commented that the director was confused. We shared the irritation at the sustained shots of the Russian countryside in summer and winter and specially at the folksy song, dance and drinking that is stereotypically seen as Russian. To Jane the film was reminiscent of the recent Dardennes Brothers’ Two Days and One Night. In that film a worker seeks solidarity from her fellow workers to keep her job. It is revealed that most of them have good reasons for not being able to help. To me it was Make Way for Tomorrow and Baghban that came to mind.
Basically it is the story of an old woman Tosia, who because her daughter is disabled and then dies needs to be rehoused. Her neighbour expects visitors, her sister falls and breaks a hip, her son-in-law has a new life after the death of his wife, and her grandchildren, bar one, live a modern life that cannot accommodate her. It is the most disadvantaged grandson, Tolik who is willing to welcome her but he does not own his flat and his wife fears eviction. In the middle of the night Baboussia leaves and goes out into the cold. Her great-grandchild Olya, traumatised and rendered mute by the war in Chechnya regains her speech.
We both remarked that the film has two distinct parts. The first one is about rural, folksy Russia where peasants in traditional costumes sing, dance and get drunk at a village fete ; where old women sing together and young boys in uniform dance in formation at a concert. The second part shows the cold environment of modern urban Russia where a tramp cannot live on his pension, a young woman can make a career in Moscow and put work before family, and where there is no place for an old woman. We remarked on the fact that Baboussia was the only non actor in the cast and as such did not ‘act’. We thought that the reasons given by the different people for not giving the old woman shelter were not treated in a judgemental way. We noted some interesting cinematic devices but on the whole did not find great interest in this film.
It is when I explored Bobrova’s interviews, and heard the contributions of the members of the film group that the film acquired some surprising qualities. I think that although not great, the film could be useful for understanding the gap between directors’ intentions, the final product and the way a group of old women reacted to the film.
Images of Russia : Bobrova states: Baboussia personifies love, people’s souls, a certain image of Russia. I must admit that I have a weakness towards the landscapes of my film… The area is extraordinary, the light splendid. The Russian countryside is more than a location it is as important as the characters and leaks into their beings. (my translation of an interview in French (see below) .
This explains the long slow pans of the Russian countryside. Forests, lakes, open spaces wooden houses and outbuildings often in summer light or under the sparkling snow. Apart from contrasting with the cold snow-covered urban landscape of imposing houses, tower blocks and rows of new houses of new Russia, these long sequences do not serve any narrative purpose. This can also be said of the protracted scenes of the village festival: the folk dances and songs, the concert. The soundtrack is mainly of Russian folk music. There are many references to recent Russian war history as they affected the main character: the battle of Stalingrad during which Tosia dug trenches, two references to the Afghan war in which her twin grandchildren died. The Chechnya war is the cause of her grandson, Tolic , being made homeless in Russia and of his daughter being traumatised. This last war is also present in news clips on radio and television.
The grandmother Baboussia (Tosia): Here the representation is complex and incorporates two main aspects: some realistic scenes where B is a convincing grandmother but also B as an idealisation of Russian motherhood. Baboussia has a smooth round face with no obvious lines and a thin-lipped mouth. Her triangular scarf, is always tied under her chin. Her face is rarely expressive. She is placed in a rural setting, with a history. She has lived the Soviet regime and now is in modern Russia.
B. as grandmother: Two hand-held camera pans of the interior of her home establish her as grandmother of five children. These pans signal the passage of time. At the end of the first pan from right to left she is seen working dough in the kitchen while the children are playing and fighting. With energetic pushing and carrying she gets rid of the noisy boys outside and pacifies the baby to permit the older child to work on her exams. The second shot panning from right to left many years later shows the same wall as in the first interior, covered in photos. One of the photos cornered by a black ribbon shows two young men in uniform. It is this thought that makes a discreet tear roll down B’s face at the display of young boys in uniform dancing in formation at the village festival. A brief flashback to the Soviet times shows that she was the grandchildren’s carer while their parents Ivan and Vera worked hard away from home. A shot shows Tolic falling and crying “Babussia” rather than calling for his Mum or Dad. This image is reproduced when in the concluding scenes the adult Tolic falls while running after B. when she leaves. We also see in the last scenes that B. looked after great-granddaughter Olya and taught her to read and count.
B. and her disabled daughter. It is unusual in films that adult children die before their parents. (see Since Otar Left for an exception). In this case Vera has had a stroke and we understand that Ivan her husband cared for her for a while. The initiating event in the film is his declaration that having to go to hospital he cannot look after Vera and her mother. Vera is to go to her daughter Taia and Tosia to her sister Anna. It is only in these early that scenes we hear Tosia’s voice. She protests against Ivan pronouncements:
I: You will leave the gas on and half the house will blow up or flood with water. B: I am not that helpless. I do still look after myself. I: You can hardly move around. You need care yourself. B: I am still on my feet. I won’t give my daughter away. I: You women won’t manage without me. *
The two women in tears comfort each other. B to her daughter who is crying: Oh I pity you but the decision has been taken.
B and her sister Anna: The contrast between the two sisters is telling. Anna is an active old woman. She is seen harvesting and looking after her farm. She has to deal with a drunkard son and does so in a very physical way, even beating him with a broom. She sings and jokes. She is part of a community. She is judgemental of her neighbour’s son who is still in love with her daughter Lisa, a television reporter in Moscow.
B and grief: Vera dies while B is staying with Anna. The mother’s grief is not ignored. We see her lying in bed motionless, unresponsive. She refuses to eat and communicate with her sister. These few scenes are intercut with scenes of Anna’s drunkard son and his friend talking about evil and the loneliness of Christ . One morning B. sits on the side of the bed and asks for breakfast. Thereafter she wears a black cape covering her head and her upper body and she is passive more like an icon.
From grandmother to Russian Icon: It is important to refer to the director’s intentions as she declares them to understand the switch from active grandmother to the symbolic self- sacrificing old woman. Bobrova describes in great detail her search for the right face to represent her main character: a face that embodies the Russian’s soul… a face that is carved by fate. She did not think that an actor would have the emotional impact needed, and it is by chance that she came across a collection of ethnographic photos of old peasants and found there the face that corresponded to her imagination. Here her story is more interesting than her film. Having traced the isolated village of the old photograph, she arrived there in a four by four only to find that the old woman was very old and she looked like a witch, her jaws hanging toothless. But her daughter looked like her mother in the photo and she was chosen, after the consent of her seven children, to act in the film. Filming had to take place in the area because far from being a passive old woman the she had to look after her two cows, one pig and a farm.
Guilt: It is half way through the film that Lisa, Anna’s daughter makes her appearance. Here again reading or listening to Bobrova’s interview is revealing. : This is not a story I invented, it is based on real life, on very real characters, the story of my relatives, I am directly involved in the story and I have a feeling of guilt for not having the right attitude in my life. Lisa arrives to take care of her mother’s medical care and to find somewhere to live for her aunt. The emotional focus shifts from the old woman to the young professional modern woman from Moscow. Lisa rejects the advances of her childhood love and sets about trying to find somewhere to live for Baboussia. We see her visiting a succession of family members and requesting shelter for her aunt. Baboussia herself waits patiently outside the different interiors. It is Lisa who bears the rejections, it is Lisa who gets more and more desperate. It is Lisa who bursts out in tears at the cruelty of the situation. The feeling of guilt is palpable.
Brobova declares: My goal is not to oppose the good “old Russians” of the countryside to the bad ‘ new Russians’ of the cities. Indeed the need for Victor to have a life after caring for his disabled wife and Taia’s powerlessness in her husband’s small flat are treated with sympathy. We do not see Luba but it is her husband, in front of a big house and a 4×4 car, who shows resentment about not being given more than his fair share of the proceeds of the sale of B’s house when he needed it. On the other hand the refusal of rich and successful grandchild Lubia is balanced by unfortunate Tolic’s warm welcome.
God endured and told us to endure: Tolic is the younger of the grandchildren. He was bombed out of his house in the Chechnya war and came back to Russia: ‘a refugee in his own country’. His daughter, traumatised lost her power of speech. The mother seems burnt out by the state of her daughter. The family live in a rented house and the mother is anxious about letting B. stay in case of eviction. B’s arrival is greeted enthusiastically by Tolic who tries to stimulate his daughter by reminding her that B. taught her to read and count. B’s voice is finally heard: ‘She cannot remember. She was only 5’. B. hears husband and wife quarrelling about her staying . While everybody is asleep she puts her coat and scarf on and goes out into the night. The little girl goes to her parents bedroom and utters : she is gone, she is cold.
Baboussia sacrifices herself for her family. The act of going away constitute in fact a sacrifice for the good of her relatives. This capacity for sacrifice is a trait of the Russian nation. In the film this bear fruit and it is here that I can see hope for my country. It is impossible not to see in these last scenes a spiritual if not religious subtext. Throughout, Satan is very much part of Victor’s drunken discourse. Christ also makes an appearance in the dialogue between him and his friend when they are drinking next to the unresponsive grieving B. When Anna complains about the problems of her son, B consoles her “God endured and told us to endure“.
I have tried to disentangle the different themes of the film. The documentary style scenes of B in her grandmother role, her sister Anna’s life with a drunken jobless son, the family problems of rehousing an old woman when circumstances change are realistic. They are however drowned out by the more general themes of Old and New Russia, Rural and Urban Russia and the underlying message that ‘the meek will inherit the world’ .
Please see some old women reactions to the film. Click on film group on the menu bar.
Bobrova quotes in French from the interview in kinoglaz.fr Baboussia personnifie l’amour, l’âme du peuple, une certaine image de la Russie.
Je dois avouer que j’ai aussi un faible pour les paysages de mon film : le traîneau filant sur la neige, l’arbre couvert de givre dans la nuit, près de la fenêtre. La région est extraordinaire, la lumière est splendide. La campagne russe est plus qu’un décor, elle est aussi importante que les personnages et déteint sur leur caractère.
Baboussia se sacrifie pour sa famille. Le fait de partir constitue en effet un sacrifice pour le bien de ses proches. Cette capacité de sacrifice est un trait de caractère de la nation russe. Dans le film, il porte ses fruits, et c’est là que je vois un espoir pour mon pays. Lidïa Bobrova
…mon propos n’est d’opposer des gentils « vieux Russes » des campagnes à de méchants « nouveaux Russes » des villes.