Film: Freaks and film-makers

Alexei Balabanov's films are full of prostitution, guns and madness. Russians don't want to know. He doesn't care.
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The Russians were so scandalised by the "heritage porn" subject matter of Alexei Balabanov's Of Freaks and Men that it was refused distribution, and publicly vilified. You can't see it in the UK, either. It may have wowed the critics at the 1998 London Film Festival, but no distributor was ever found for it. In fact none of Balabanov's films has been shown in this country, even though to my mind he's one of the world's great contemporary film-makers.

I have to say straight out that I think Balabanov is probably a very scary man, both from the cool, twisted nature of his extraordinary oeuvre and from the rare, slightly mischievous interviews he's given to Russian journalists. In reply to accusations of filth-peddling, he once said "I think dirt is a substance that has merely been misplaced".

Balabanov's films are strange and beautiful, full of disturbing dreamlike scenarios, full of death, prostitution, guns, seizure and madness. Their depiction of the past or alternative realities, usually set against the spectacular backdrop of St Petersburg, are often comments on the modern Russia of anarcho-capitalism and racketeers.

His unique sensibility is firmly rooted in the nightmares of Kafka (his 1994 version of The Castle is one of the best ever made), Beckett, Dostoevsky and Gogol, even though his movies are made like conventional, realist productions. He explores a peculiarly grinning, death's head form of alienation in his own unnerving way. He is, in some senses, Russia's David Lynch. The DavidLynch who carried on making Eraserhead films.

The sense of putting things in their place is important to the 40-year- old director, who is obsessed with form, perhaps dating from his days working for the Soviet army when he was a high-powered translator accompanying massive arms shipments to Syria, Yemen and Angola. It's funny where directors get their sense of order - Nicholas Ray studying architecture under Frank Lloyd Wright, Anthony Minghella in his parents' ice-cream parlour... Balabanov fielding crates of uranium-enriched shells under a baking middle-eastern sun.

He was born in the Urals, in the city of Sverdlovsk, studied languages in Gorky and from 1983-87 worked as a jobbing assistant director back at the Sverdlovsk Film Studios just as the Soviet film machine was grinding to a full stop. It seems that he travelled much in connection with his job ("the studio covered the whole of Siberia and further"), which gave him a kind of mystic affection for its wide and empty spaces, and convinced him, with an idiosyncratic kind of patriotic fervour, that "Russia is a very powerful country and the future is Russian".

The "elfin malice" that one Variety critic detected in his films (Happy Days, 1992, The Castle, 1994, Pribytie Poezda, 1996, Brother, 1997 and finally Of Freaks and Men, 1998) is evident in any encounter with Balabanov the man. He is given to making sweeping statements about the weakness of America and Europe, the craven uselessness of Darwinism ("there is no development of human kind at all and never has been been"), weird slavic xenophobia ("I am against things foreign"), and - when I managed to track him down in late-night Moscow the day an armoured column was rolling into Chechnya again - his disdain for the Chechens: "They are gangsters like the criminal blacks in America; they sell drugs and weapons and the men never work, they just want to fight."

Some people will be offended by such statements, but in his defence I can honestly say that I think they are the products of a profoundly odd man rather than a bigoted one, a profoundly odd Russian who, like many Russians, hasn't discovered the guarded PC language of the West.

Perhaps his biggest hit (in terms of box-office and festival prizes) remains Brother, which stars Sergei Bodrov (more familiar to us from Prisoner of the Mountains) as a young ex-army boy who travels into St Petersburg to meet up with his mafioso brother (played by the wonderfully unhinged, very bald Viktor Sukhorukov, a kind of Slavic Lindsay Kemp, and one of Balabanov's favourite actors, who reappears as the essence of all evil in Of Freaks and Men). The boy's easy transition into a killer makes for some disturbing scenes - including one of the most extraordinary assassination attempts (by one of Balabanov's reviled Chechens) that has ever been committed to film, where the climactic killing is accidentally missed by the camera as it follows one of the boy's diversions.

No wonder that Balabanov - perhaps scalded by the rejection of Of Freaks and Men (though he repeatedly claims indifference to the fate of his films, and almost never talks about them to journalists) - has sought refuge in commercialism. Sequels sell well and Balabanov commences filming Brother 2 in Moscow and Chicago next week. Yet what exactly is it about Of Freaks and Men that has so exercised his countrymen into hyperbolic denunciations?

As with his first film, Happy Days (that Balabanov gallows humour again), the story of a bewildered recipient of unexplained and invasive brain surgery being left to fend for himself in the cemeteries and tenements of the city, Of Freaks and Men is set against the fabulous buildings, bridges and streets of turn-of-the-century classical St Petersburg. The crook (played by Sukhorukov) has managed to get two Chekhovian bourgeois families into his power and sucks them all into his newfound money-making scheme - S & M porno films and pictures using women and Siamese boy twins. As it happens, there was no such early pornography industry in the Russian city ("I discovered this fact in a sex museum in Hamburg") and by perversely inventing it, Balabanov seems to be drawing attention, in his own inimitable way, to the supposed purity of that pre-Soviet time. I asked him whether he was affected by the criticism.

"I'm not upset," he said, in fluent English that seemed to echo as he spoke. "The people of Russia are very angry with everything, and they want positive things right now, not the negative things I make. They want Mikhalkov. But I only want to make negative things because that is how I was born."

This is, of course, the excuse of the scorpion in the fable, who stings the frog while swimming the pond: "I can't help it, it's in my nature" - but Balabanov has a point; comforting historical sagas, like Nikita Mikhalkov's The Barber of Siberia, seem more to the point in Russia these days. The last thing that people want in the surreal, cold, dangerous world of the modern Russian state is stories of cemeteries and madness and exploitation and death. They want the glories of the past and a promise of its return.

All of which Balabanov happily ignores. Recently, he has been working on a script about the British telecommunications engineers who were beheaded in Chechnya - which last week was revealed to have been a mafia hit from a rival phone company, rather than a nationalist kidnapping. "We always knew that it was mafia in Russia," he says sombrely; "now we are facing another war in Chechnya, the film is irrelevant and will probably never be made."

He says his next film will be "very human". I'm intrigued. Very human? I wonder what he could possibly mean. "I want to make a Nanook film, you know, the Yakuts, the eskimos in the north of Russia. There will be no scandal in this film; it will be a warm, human film."

I have visions of fur coats, warm fires and big smiles. "It will be set in a leper colony, perhaps in the 22nd century, or perhaps contemporary, I haven't made up my mind yet."

I'm not quite sure whether he's teasing me or not - but that's Balabanov for you, the man whose Beckettian sense of humour is as incomprehensible to his fellow Russians as carrion is to a starving man.

Kino Kino will be releasing `Brother' later in the autumn (details, 0181 881 9463). The ICA plans a season of Balabanov's films at Christmas