The first in a trilogy of New East Cinema screenings presenting significant recent works from Eastern Europe, The Fool is a modern day fable of the moral struggles against the callousness of the capitalist world. Set in an unnamed provincial Russian town, the film unravels the inevitable consequences of embedded double-dealing of the town’s bureaucratic elite. Having siphoned off public money to line their own pockets, the general population are left to live in abject poverty, accepting the inherent injustice without question, either too fearful or apathetic to speak up.
Faced with the discovery that a state social housing block is at the brink of collapse after years of neglect and accumulated disrepair, Bykov’s endearing protagonist Dima Nikitin, an architecture student and out-of-hours plumber called to the building to fix a burst water pipe, has only hours to coax the corrupt local government into action. With hundreds of lives at imminent risk, layers of entangled deceit, embezzlement and impeachment are exposed, and the story that unfolds is one of ethical self-reflection bound with a race for survival, as the bureaucrats attempt to cover their tracks and Nikitin’s life and that of his family comes under threat.
Nikitin’s integrity is unwavering, despite the browbeating of the characters around him – the town mayor and officials, his co-workers, his mother and wife, even the untrusting tenants of the dilapidated block. As such he takes on the role of The Holy Fool or yurodivy, a saintly figure of Eastern Orthodox asceticism who rejecting societal conventions and material possession defines the altruistic ideal to which we should be aiming. When Nikitin’s exasperated wife, issues him the ultimatum to choose between the safety of his family or that of strangers, he replies with defiance: ‘We live and die like swine because we are swine to one another’.
Borrowing its title from Dostoyevsky’s nineteenth-century classic, The Idiot (1869), Bykov reflects age-old antagonisms of moral principle confronting selfish personal interest. Rather than outright denouncing the state system, Bykov explores the inner moral turmoil of the individuals who through their collective actions, willingly or not, systematically undermine the possibility of democratic well-being of its citizens.
Drawing on his experience growing up in the Russian provinces, Bykov’s films no doubt paint a realistically murky image of a country torn between survival and personal greed. Yet through the almost suffocating dread that builds through The Fool there is an underlying optimism in his portrayal; a belief in the ultimate altruism underlying humanity. His characters, despite their years of self-serving ways, betrayal and ruthless deceit – and the murderous outcomes that ensue – every now and again let slip a glimmer of self-doubt, and in this Bykov presents a hope for change.
However, despite the film’s deeply moral message, filmmakers such as Bykov, attempting to portray the gritty realities that underlie everyday life in Russia, face increasingly stifling circumstances. State funding necessitates bureaucratic sign-off of film scripts, inevitably shaping the nuances of a film’s voice. At a surface level, swearing is prohibited; as Bykov jokes, “show me a plumber who doesn’t swear and I’d be very suspicious indeed.” Profanities are instead replaced with indignant under-the-breath mutterings. But state influence has much more profound impact as Russian Culture Minister, Vladimir Medinsky, announced that he will no longer finance what he calls ‘Russia-smearing’ films.
Unphased and fiercely independent, for Bykov this is simply a test of a director’s commitment, “do you want to make socially resonant films, or not? If you do, then a lack of culture ministry cash certainly shouldn’t stop you.” Refusing to be hostage to the situation he supports his meaningful works with income from more commercial productions and is setting up his own production studio so he doesn’t have to rely on Russian producers.
It is still a long-shot to imagine films such as those made by Bykov and the others in the New East Cinema series widely screened in cinemas in Russia, but there is nevertheless optimism about their potential agency. With 250 billionaires in a country where the average income is only 15-20k Rubles, filmmakers dealing with subjects that the Russian government would rather avoid, provide a very public platform to explore the relationship between layers of society and the problems facing them. Whilst the greed of the government officials in The Fool is both plausible and inexcusable, it is the apathy of the tenants that is the hardest to swallow; and it is perhaps those that identify with these characters that the film most attempts to speak to – the disheartened and undermined masses.
Whilst cinema tickets are far too hefty for people of regular incomes to afford, Bykov describes himself as an ‘internet director’; within only the first few months of being uploaded, The Fool was one of the most watch films online with over 20m views. Independent of market influences his films circulate online democratically, for provincial and city dwellers alike, infolding their deliberations into a wider cultural consciousness. By capturing the moment we live in, Bykov believes in the agency of art to instigate change, not through a rallying call to arms, but by undermining the ruling elite attempts to spin deceptive narratives; and through truth social change might be envisioned.
Sophie J Williamson
The New East Cinema series is a collaboration between the Barbican (@BarbicanCentre) and Calvert 22 Foundation, and is curated by The New Social, a cultural collective bringing contemporary cinema from Eastern Europe and beyond to London.
1. Still from Yury Bykov’s The Fool (2014). Courtesy of Filmlinc.