Little Old Ladies

[Старухи]

Little Old Ladies film still

Russia, 2003, 100 minutes, Color
In Russian with English subtitles
Director: Gennadii Sidorov
Screenplay: Gennadi Sidorov
Camera: Anatolii Petriga
Art Direction: Vladimir Iarin
With: Valentina Berezutskaia, Galina Smirnova, Zoia Norkina, Tamara Klimova, Bronislava Zakharova, Anastasiia Liubimova, Nina Kornilova, Sergei Makarov, Gennadii Sidorov
Production: Cinema Support Foundation (CSF), with the participation of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation
Awards: The Golden Rose (main prize for best film), Prize for best debut film, Prize of the Guild of Film Critics, and FIPRESCI prize (Kinotavr); Silver Prize at the Minsk International Film Festival (Belorussia); Grand Prix at Molodost' International Film Festival (Ukraine).

Gennadii Sidorov's debut film violates many established cinema conventions and repeatedly frustrates viewers' expectations. It combines documentary film practices with narrative devices from feature films; it strings together lengthy set-pieces (monologs and dialogs) shot using a static camera, interspersing them with action footage that relies on a dynamic camera; it makes extensive use of elderly (75-85 year old) non-professional actors―"little old ladies" gathered from a number of locations in the Russian hinterland―who worked without a script, improvising their lines from the director's general descriptions of specific scenes. Indeed, even the professional acting cast is extremely unusual: a group of Uzbek actors who play the role of a refugee Tadjik family even as they speak in their native Uzbek, an actor with Down syndrome (Sergei Makarov, who performs in a theater for the disabled), an elderly actress from a provincial theater (Valentina Berezutskaia, as Fekla, the-moon-shiner, the only "little old lady" with acting credentials), and the director himself in the role of an army major.

Shot in the remote regions of the Kostroma district, the film chronicles the death throes of a traditional Russian village, which lacks not just roads, gas lines, and electricity, but also any physical potential to reproduce life. It has been abandoned by the young and middle-aged, who return only to get drunk at the wakes that mark the death and funeral of another "little old lady." Together with the boy suffering from Down syndrome, these "little old ladies" are all that remains in the village, assisted periodically by an alcoholic army major in command of a tank division that is stationed nearby. Yet the "little old ladies" are far from helpless, engaging in all the activities associated with Russian country-life: farming and sewing, marinating and pickling, moon-shining and gossip-mongering.

Unexpectedly, an archetypal "Tadjik" refugee family is resettled in the village: a wise old patriarch, a healthy male, his young and fertile wife (pregnant with their first son), and their two young girls. The invasion from the east threatens to displace the Russian-ness of the village (its cultural heritage and social practices) inasmuch as the "Tadjik" family is the living promise of regenerating and replenishing the region. Even more threatening to the villagers is the extended family structure of their Asiatic (former) co-citizens of the Soviet Union: other "Tadjiks" will inevitably descend on them like locusts.

In response to these fears, voiced by the "little old ladies" during their gossip sessions, the boy sets fire to the "Tadjik's" hut, burning it and all their possessions. Stripped of their markers of ethnic identity―of their "otherness"―the "Tadjiks" suddenly become "ours." As critic Natal'ia Sirivlia has remarked: "What is striking is how precisely the speeches, reactions, and actions of these 'little old ladies' reproduce the very same model of behavior that once allowed Russians to colonize the enormous territory from the Black Sea to the Pacific Ocean. It always came down, first of all, to depriving the aliens of their independence, their national and cultural uniqueness, and after that―after they had been broken―to love them." And so the "little old ladies" divide up the members of the "Tadjik" family, providing each of them shelter in their respective huts.

The film's end has come in for severe criticism from most Russian film critics. In their view, it is an artificially imposed "happy end": as the "little old ladies" gather to celebrate the birth of the "Tadjik" family's son, the father activates a windmill generator he has built, which brings electricity back to the village. For these critics, the inauthenticity of the ending is demonstrated by the fact that the windmill turns in the wrong direction (something that Sidorov admits with a sly smile). But several other critics have pointed to a more radical interpretation of the end: the film reverses the prevailing Soviet myth that all progress moved from the center to the periphery, from west to east―a progress most visibly marked by the arrival of electricity ("Il'ich's lamp") in Siberia and Asia. In this film, it is the periphery that (re-)develops the Russian heartland.

Gennadii Sidorov

Gennadii Sidorov photo

Gennadii Sidorov was born in 1962 in Frunze (now Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan). He graduated from the Acting Department of the State Institute for Filmmaking (VGIK) in Moscow in 1986, where he studied in Sergei Gerasimov's and Tamara Makarova's workshop; and from the Film Directing Department in 1990 (an external degree), having studied in Petr Todorovskii's workshop. He made his debut as a film actor in 1986. He has worked as an actor, scriptwriter, director, and producer. Since 1995 he has been Chairman of the Board of the Cinema Support Foundation. In addition to producing his own films, he has produced Larisa Sadilova's Happy Birthday (1998) and With Love, Lily (2002).

1990 Night (diploma film)
2003 Little Old Ladies
2004: Prophets and Gains Debut Films at Pittsburgh Filmmakers STW [СТВ] Film Company Pygmalion Productions NTV-Profit Film Company

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