An earlier version of this article was previously published on the website The WIP. It has since been updated as the film Putin’s Kiss will appear on DVD on December 31.
By Jared Feldschreiber
Danish director Lise Birk Pedersen’s documentary Putin’s Kiss, a hit at Sundance, where it won the World Cinema Cinematography Award in Documentary—a tale of shifting loyalties and political manipulation—is especially relevant as Vladimir Putin swings into his third term as Russia’s president. Early on in this morality tale, young Masha Drokova, a teenage spokesperson of the stridently nationalistic Russian organization Nashi Movement, learns quickly the dangerous methods its leaders employ against their political opponents, cynically characterized as “enemies.”
Seduced by the movement’s perks, offered in return for her loyalty, Masha quickly strikes up a friendship with a liberal journalist Oleg Kashin. His comparison of Nashi with the Hitler Youth forces Masha to choose whether to stay within the movement, as she uncovers its sinister methods, particularly toward Kashin, or follow her heart. These dangers are integral to the political milieu of Russia in the Putin era.
Many outsiders see Putin as a modern-day dictator, but contemporary Russian politics requires historical context. “When Putin came to power, he was seen as normal and seemed young and strong enough to manage the country,” says Olga Khvostunova, a visiting scholar at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, who once worked as a colleague of Oleg Kashin at the influential Russian newspaper Kommersant. The film’s portrayal of the political milieu within Russia is “accurate in depicting the political situation of the youth policy. It captured precisely the idea that the young should be educated, based on Soviet methods, in a summer camp. This used to be very popular in Soviet times,” she adds.
Indeed, the Nashi Movement was created in 2005 by Putin’s Youth Affairs department as a means to drum-up nationalism and loyalty to the state among young people. But, as the film demonstrates, Nashi seeks to eradicate those it sees as political enemies, like Oleg Kashin who is savagely beaten by unknown assailants as captured by surveillance video. “He jaw was broken in two places, and he does not walk well and is [still] missing lots of teeth,” Pedersen said at a New York screening. The director illustrates the dangers of contemporary Russia, where journalists are treated as political foes, rather than as government watchdogs.
The film fails to address complexities of Russian politics and the dialogue among its protagonists often seems perhaps played up for the camera. “The audience does not really see her doubts. [Director Pedersen] should have asked more questions,” says Khvostunova. Pedersen admits she never knew whether Masha would change after Kashin is beaten up. “Before she spoke to Masha, she conversed with others, and found Masha’s story to be the most interesting,” Khvostunova says. The audience never learns whether Masha is completely disenchanted with the movement or if she retains dual loyalties. “After all, she may have just changed her mind,” says Khvostunova. “Masha is not a celebrity.” While the film may have given “an expose of youth manipulation, ‘politics’ in Russia is not seen as a subject in the political agenda. Politics is essentially, what Putin says.”
Pedersen admitted her lack of knowledge of Russian culture in an Indie-Wire interview: “I don’t speak Russian and secondly making any film in Russia, speaking the language or not, is not a walk in the park. But I think the biggest challenge was how to balance the many levels in my story. I had the ambition to tell the big story about modern Russia through the eyes of my young protagonist with a classic coming of age style. But as the film progressed, I realized how the film also became this very symptomatic story of the bad political climate we find in Russia these days…” The film seeks to explore relevant and timely observations about contemporary Russia and its politics, however fails to deeply delve into the complex relationships among politicians, journalists, protest movements and citizens.The film succeeds in hinting at the shifting loyalties and political manipulation rampant in today’s Russia.
“If I knew that I would be in the movie, I would not have agreed, but I was sure it was just an interview, and this interview lasted for six months,” Kashin now says. “Eventually I starred in this film, and it was an interesting experience.” Reflecting on the current state of journalism in the country, “you can be a freelance writer only if you lead your own blog. All the major media outlets are owned businessmen loyal to the Kremlin, and even formally independent media are under their control,” he adds.
As for the current anti-government sentiment within the country: “I hope the protests are the beginning of something bigger. And yet as a journalist, it is unfulfilling,” Khvostunova sighs, describing the deep psychological and philosophical strain on those embark on a career in the media in contemporary Russia.
Jared Feldschreiber is an editorial associate at World Policy Journal
[Photo courtesy of Kostyukov]