That the Russians have arrived in London is impossible to ignore. Diplomatic relations between the Kremlin and Whitehall remain frosty, but London remains a magnet for wealthy Russians seeking an ideal of Western living. Next month, the London Film Festival opens with a glimpse of the murkier side of Russian life in the capital in David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, which centres on a sex-trafficking ring. But, in at least one respect, the so-called Russian invasion has yet to take hold. Aside from the odd retrospective at the BFI Southbank dedicated to the hoary old fathers of Russian cinema, Tarkovsky and Eisenstein, there has been scant opportunity to see new Russian film-making in UK cinemas.
All this is set to change this autumn with a new Russian film festival at the West End's plush Apollo Cinema, which opened yesterday. The eight features represent the work of new directors producing uncharacteristic films such as Piter FM, a rom-com in the mould of Sliding Doors set in the hippest environs of St Petersburg, and Mermaid, in which the whimsical heroine has the power to make wishes come true but cannot find true love for herself.
Although the British Council has been showcasing British cinema in Russia for six years, London has never hosted a similar event. The innovation is the brainchild of Svetlana Adjoubei, the director of Academia Rossica, founded in 2000 to promote Russian culture in London, who describes the films as "young, energetic, sometimes rebellious but still displaying typically Russian characteristics".
One highlight is Euphoria, an achingly beautiful portrait of an intense love affair. The 30-year-old director, Ivan Vyrypaev, already a celebrated figure for his plays Oxygen and July, won the Small Golden Lion at Venice for his cinematic debut. Another major film is The Island, a snowy epic set in a monastery about a monk with healing powers. As well as winning a plethora of international awards, the film has been adopted almost as propaganda by the Russian Orthodox Church, which has distributed it widely through their churches. In Goddess, the darling of Russian art-house Renata Litvinova directs and stars in an impressionistic tale as a detective searching for a girl, while Playing the Victim is a black comedy set in the absurdly bureaucratic world of the militia.
The next few weeks present myriad opportunities to get into Russian film. Four films will screen at the London film Festival – Alexandra, Alexander Sokurov's anti-war film about a grandmother visiting her son on the Chechnya front-line; The Lighthouse, a slow-moving family drama set in a village in the Caucasus; Cargo 200, a disturbing anti-Soviet tale from Aleksei Balabanov, whose Brother mobster films were smash hits in Russia; and The Banishment, Andrei Zvyaguintsev's follow-up to The Return, about a marriage unravelling.
In addition, next week sees the UK release of Day Watch, Timur Bekmambatov's sequel to Night Watch, a Moscow Matrix that broke all box office records in post-Soviet history when it was released in Russia in 2004. Made for only $4m, it out-sold both Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and Spider-Man 2 at home, eventually taking $16m. Day Watch has done even better, grossing $30m. Both are high-octane mixes of action and special effects, telling the tale of a battle between the forces of good and evil in a style that is at once highly derivative of Blade and Underworld and somehow uniquely Russian, due to its budget and setting.
It's all evidence of a boom period in the Russian film industry, the likes of which hasn't been seen since Lenin proclaimed in 1922: "Of all the arts, for us, cinema is the most important." Used for decades as propaganda, film-making underwent a slump in the post-Soviet years as state funding collapsed and the relentlessly bleak vision of life in Russia peddled by film-makers (labelled chernukha, or "black stuff") saw audiences desert the draughty Soviet-era cinemas in droves, preferring to watch television in the comfort of their own homes.
Thanks to a state-sponsored drive, there was a fifty-fold increase in revenue from Russian film distribution from $7m in 2000 to $350m in 2005. Last year, of $412m generated, some $109m of revenue came from Russian films, which are building up their stake in the domestic market to around a quarter. But viewing figures across Russia are still low, with only 0.6 tickets sold per inhabitant last year. Although the last five years has seen a tenfold increase in the number of cinemas, 60 per cent of the Russian population still have no access to modern cinemas – and won't have for another five years.
In these circumstances, it is little wonder that piracy continues to flourish. The share of illegal producers in the market for DVDs might have dropped from 90 per cent to 75 per cent, but in the cinema-less regions it remains rife. This is partly because copyright laws were only passed in 1993 and partly because many Russians associate piracy with samizdat, the noble tradition of underground, independent, illegal publishing and recording.
Despite these problems, there is undoubtedly a spirit of optimism at large in Russian cinema – whether it is in the lo-fi emulation of Hollywood special effects, the coming to terms with the country's past and present conflicts, or the romantic notion of love as redemption that drives several of the films. At last, the future looks bright.
Russian Film Festival, Apollo Cinema, West End (0871 220 6000; www.academia-rossica.org/films), to 3 October; 'Daywatch' opens on 5 October; The Times BFI 51st London Film Festival, 17 October to 1 November (www.bfi.org.uk/ whatson/lff/)Reuse content