The last time I was at the Moscow International Film Festival, in 2001, I lost my rag in frustration when faced with some logistical problem that was taking too long to be fixed. Trying to mollify me, a Russian colleague said, with long-suffering Slavic wisdom, "Leslie, this is Moscow, not Cannes".
Three years on, I've come back to Moscow for the 26th edition of the festival, with that warning still ringing in my ears. The Russians are not big on efficiency, a fact I am reminded of before I even leave London, when it takes 11 hours of queuing at the Russian embassy to get my visa.
Once I get to Moscow, there are further frustrations. It's impossible to get anywhere near Meryl Streep, who's in town to collect a Lifetime Achievement Award at the closing-night ceremony. The press officer is not around and no one knows for sure when she'll be back...
Then there's the shuttle bus laid on to transport guests between the many cinemas around Moscow. Finding the battered minivan is easy enough, but since its schedule is irregular, I have to rely on a combination of the Moscow metro (only 22p a ticket, but you have to read Russian to know where you're going) or the favourite Muscovite method of transport - flagging down any old car in the street and haggling over a rouble price for getting from A to B.
Most problematic of all, not every film is subtitled in English. Some require you to wear inefficient Khrushchev-era headphones to listen to a deadpan Slavic voice reading the lines from a roughly translated script, often out of sync with the original dialogue. This somewhat impairs my viewing pleasure during Russkoye - a smart-mouthed adaptation of stories by the novelist Eduard Limonov. The Russians were laughing their heads off at the backchat, but for me much of the humour was lost somewhere between the translation and the interpreter's monotonous drone.
On the upside, it turns out to be a particularly strong year for Russian movies. A Second World War-set drama named Us is awarded the top competition prize by a jury headed by Alan Parker. Directed by Dmitri Meskhiyev, its deconstruction of heroism forms a riposte to the older generation's uncritically nationalistic films about the war.
The international Fipresci critics' jury rightly honoured Marina Razbezhkina's Harvest Time, a drama set on a collective farm in the Soviet past. One of the films I liked most was Estonia's Revolution of Pigs, an extraordinary crossbreed between American Pie 2 andIf - I salute Alan Parker and co for giving it the festival's grand jury prize.
As illustrated by Return, released in UK cinemas last Friday, and the upcoming Koktebel, which opens this December, Russian cinema is in a resurgent phase at the moment. Meanwhile, however, local Russian film fans are dismayed that Moscow's Museum of Cinema is about to lose its tatty but popular venue. I went along to an exuberant demonstration in support of the museum with Sam Klebanov, the co-head of Russia's leading arthouse distribution outfit, who is a sort of local equivalent of Jonathan Ross. While Sam rouses the crowd through a megaphone, a friend of his tells me a rumour that Return, which received no state funding, is now being used by the Minister of Culture as a stick with which to beat the director Nikita Mikhalkov (Burnt by the Sun), who wants massive government funding to make his next film. In Russia, everything is about politics and money.
That, and partying, of course. I have a blast on Saturday night at Petrovich, a club that serves up kitschy Russian disco and horseradish vodka. I get back to my hotel at 4am to meet the car the festival is sending to take me to the airport, but it never shows up. No matter, by this point I'm well versed in the art of haggling over the price of a hitchhiked ride.Reuse content