On Rich Red Islands

[На Гранатовых островах]

film still

USSR. Mosfil'm. 1981. Color. 94 min.
Director: Tamara Lisitsian
Script: Genrikh Borovik
Cinematography: Mikhail Ardab'evskii
Music: Igor' Efremov
With Kirill Lavrov, Vladimir Sedov, Aleksandr Solov'ev, Liudmila Chursina
Russian dialogue. No subtitles.

Oil is discovered on the largest island in the fictional Republic of Rich Red Islands (which in Russian – Granatovye ostrova – evokes the name of a certain non-fictional republic that was in the headlines two years after the film was made). The US wants to get its hands on the black gold, especially since the islands are currently ruled by a leftist government. To this end the CIA engineers a secret invasion, to begin after a group of nosy US and European journalists has left the islands. But a storm forces the journalists' plane to turn back, making them inconvenient eyewitnesses to the presence of American troops. They are detained in a local hotel (run by a Russian émigré) and told they will not be released until they send a collective telegram to New York reporting that there are no foreign troops in the republic and that the overthrow of the government was the result of a popular, native anti-Communist movement. When the journalists refuse, a veteran American CIA "consultant" (who says that he is "like Che Guevara, but on the other side") attempts to influence them with a series of increasingly sinister manipulations. In the end, everyone involved – the journalists, the consultant, the Russian hotelier, and the citizens of the Rich Red Islands – realize they are mere pawns in the global whims of a much more powerful will: the US president himself and the interests he serves.

Lisitsian's engaging political drama manages to entertain while packing in a seemingly haphazard array of issues and stereotypes, including Nazi concentration camp doctors, Russian first-wave emigration, Viet Nam, the politics of the banana republic, femmes fatales, and morally deformed, overfed American mercenaries in white suits. The film's ideological subtext reflects official Soviet claims of solidarity with ordinary Americans (represented here by some the honest, if naïve, journalists who find themselves at the mercy of their corrupt, aggressive government). The film is a product of that brief yet volatile period in Cold War history following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the emergence of the Reagan Doctrine in Latin America in the early 1980s.

Tamara Lisitsian

Tamara Lisitsian (b. 1923) graduated from Grigorii Kozintsev's master class for directors at the State Institute for Filmmaking (Moscow) in 1959. In addition to directing her own films, Lisitsian has directed the restoration of major films of the early years of socialist realism – Fridrikh Ermler's Peasants (1934), Vladimir Petrov's two-part Peter the First (1937 and 1938).

1959 Sombrero
1977 Cipollino
1981 On Rich Red Islands
1984 The Secret of Greta Villa
1987 The Mysterious Heir

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