Our Own

[Свои]

Russia, 2004
Color, 100 minutes
Russian, with English subtitles
Director: Dmitrii Meskhiev
Script: Valentin Chernykh
Cinematography: Sergei Machil'skii
Cast: Konstantin Khabenskii, Sergei Garmash, Mikhail Evlanov, Bogdan Stupka, Anna Mikhalkova, Fedor Bondarchuk, Natal'ia Surkova
Producers: Viktor Glukhov, Sergei Melkumov, Elena Iatsura

The title of this film presents a challenge to the translator. Svoi has been translated—somewhat unsatisfactorily—as Us, Ours, and Our Own, all of which can be confused with nashi. The director's preference is Our Own, and this is perhaps as close as one may come to rendering the term in English. With this film, Meskhiev calls into question the definability of svoi even in Russian. Ambiguity pervades the term when it stands alone; it requires clarification through a subject position because the term hides a relative belonging that begs the question: whose own?

A Soviet Union divided by World War II establishes the historical location for the film's interrogation of this idea. The vast, bucolic landscape is inhabited by Soviets but dominated by Nazis, as the camera captures when German forces march prisoners of war through the countryside. Svoi, however, is not a category easily marked by citizenship. Soviets kill Soviets just as brutally as Nazis kill Soviets. The initial Soviet-German opposition becomes further complicated after three POWs—an old NKVD officer, the Jewish commissar Lifshits, and the young sharpshooter Mit'ka—escape to the nearby village of Blinovo, Mit'ka's peace-time home.

Once there, they are hidden in the barn by Mit'ka's nameless father, a complicated figure, who reveals himself gradually. At first, it is unclear whether he is at all glad to see his own son, suggesting the bonds of family are as fragile as the bonds of citizenship. He immediately discloses that, as the village head, he cooperates with the Nazis, confirming both that the refugees are not in a secure place and that Soviet documents do not signify some mythic national loyalty. He explains his animosity towards the state by recounting his biography: deemed a kulak, he was exiled to Siberia; having escaped and returned to Blinovo a decade before using forged documents, he was received in good faith by the village and appointed its head—no one even considered turning him in to the authorities. This moment introduces the first concrete allusion to village community as a category of svoi.

The position in which Mit'ka's father finds himself is one of negotiation: can he protect the fugitives, including his son, without jeopardizing the village? While he works out whether he should aid or dispose of the escapees, he locks them in his barn, which simultaneously constitutes refuge and a new imprisonment. Through their escape and the time spent in the barn, the three men develop a new bond of svoi based on cooperation for survival, and Mit'ka soon comes to privilege this level of svoi over the family bond, plotting with the fugitives rather than with his father. At the same time, the father begins to take risks, even allowing the NKVD officer and Lifshits into his home. When Lifshits falls ill, the father nurses him and confesses that, although he does not support the Soviet regime, he does not sympathize with the Germans. Substantiating the implicit idea of svoi as village community, he explains that he was selected as the village head because the people knew that he would protect them. His father-protector position extended from his own family to blanket the entire village, and eventually to envelop Lifshits as well. Body language and visible tension have until this point in the film characterized the father's conflicted relationship with the NKVD officer, another nameless father-protector, a political father and defender of the symbolic state-family. It is precisely the father's verbal acknowledgement of this role, however, that allows the viewer and the NKVD officer, who overhears the conversation, to understand the nature of their opposition. The svoi of the state is incompatible with the svoi of the family or village, and yet both struggle to prioritize themselves within the hierarchy of svoi, unconsciously enacting violence on other levels.

Female characters in the film are incorporated as svoi quite differently from male characters. As is signaled both visually and verbally, women are cows, inhuman property. At several crucial moments in the film, women temporarily change hands as commodities, bought with affections or stolen as IOUs. Ania transcends the familial svoi when she sleeps with the NKVD officer, though she does not become part of the political svoi. Katia made a fatal digression when she betrayed Mit'ka and carried on an affair with the regional head. When she returns to Mit'ka, the regional head imprisons the father's daughters in order to pressure him for information, politicizing personal property. These moments serve to strengthen bonds rather than break them; they force and reinforce a distinction between different svoi.

The film resolves no stable definition for the idea that is its focus. Rather, it suggests that svoi is not merely "ours" defined against "theirs," but an attempt to name and organize "our" identity. It is an unstable and dynamic concept as such, a process of negotiating a hierarchy.

Dmitrii Meskhiev

Dmitrii Meskhiev was born in 1963 in Leningrad. He is the son of the cinematographer Dmitrii Davidovich Meskhiev. Before entering The State Institute for Filmmaking (VGIK), Meskhiev worked as a camera-operator's assistant for Lenfilm Studios. He graduated from the directing school of VGIK in 1988. He also makes television series and commercials.

 



Filmography:

1987 Fellow Worker, diploma film
1990 Gambrinus [Gambrinus] 1991 Cynics [Tsiniki] 1993 Above the Dark Waters [Nad temnoi vody] 1995 Exercise No. 5 [Ekzersis No. 5], short in compilation film The Arrival of a Train [Pribytie poezda] 1997 The Bomb [Bomba] 1998 American Bet [Amerikanka] 1999 Woman's Property [Zhenskaia sobstvennost'] 2001 Mechanical Suite [Mekhanicheskaia siuita] 2003 Lines of Fate [Linii sud'by], mini-series.
2003 Diary of a Kamikaze [Dnevnik kamikadze] 2003 Particularities of National Politics [Osobennosti natsional'noi politiki], co-directed with Iurii Konopkin
2004 Our Own [Svoi] 2004 The Princess and the Paupers [Printsessa i nishchie], mini-series

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