The River


The River film poster

Russia, 2002, 50 minutes, Color
In Iakut and Russian with English subtitles
Director: Aleksei Balabanov
Screenplay: Aleksei Balabanov and Evert Paiazatian
Camera: Sergei Astakhov
Sound: Maksim Belovolov
Producer: Sergei Selianov
With: Tujaara Svinoboyeva, Mikhail Skriabin, Anna Flegontova, Vasilii Borisov, Maria Kanayeva, Spartak Fedotov, Masha Kychkina

Based on the novel by Polish writer Vatslav Serashevskii, The River is a traditional tragic love story that takes place in a less traditional setting—a leper community in Iakutia during the 1880s. Iakutia is located in Siberia along the Middle Lena River and at the Aldan and Viliui Rivers basins; it was annexed into the Russian empire during the 17th century. The plot largely revolves around a love triangle between two healthy women, Mergen’ and Anchik, and one ill man—Kilgerei. The addition of a deadly communicable disease and quarantine provide the film with its most significant themes: the politics of body and space.

The River film still

Despite the interesting choice of setting, character, and language, Balabanov’s film focuses only minimally on ethnographic features of the semi-nomadic Iakut people. Although their dress, living quarters, cooking tradition, hunting and agricultural practices, and legends are all featured in the film, these exoticisms function more to emphasize the Iakut’s peripheral existence and less to show off their traditional customs. The River does not portray everyday Iakut life. Already far removed from the “big world”—as one of the film’s characters calls Russia—this small leper colony represents a particularly ostracized subset of the Iakut community, which is physically separated by the wide river. Sick with deteriorating bodies, the leper colony is shunned even by their own: fellow Iakuts do not help them, do not bring them food, and, at times, even emulate imperial domination. For example: as starvation sets in at the leper colony, Anchik leaves to appeal for help from a nearby prince who lives on the other side of the river. While the prince is also a Iakut, he is also a member of the Russian colony, his economic and social status supplies him with a cruel and insensitive attitude toward the starving woman, whom he treats with as little respect as he treats his cow. As in the traditional maritime empire in which the metropole and peripheral colonies are separated by water, here, too, water delimits the subordinate from the dominant.

The diseased leper with his open oozing sores and disintegrating body can be read as a metaphor for the status of the peripheral ethnic colonies of the Russian empire. Just as their bodies become permeable, so too does their quarantined space. When the healthy Iakut body enters into the leper community, not only is the healthy body at risk, but so is the harmony of the community. None of the film’s characters, neither the sick nor the healthy, survive—disease, acts of vengeance, starvation, and the inability to swim lead to the complete erasure of this particular Iakut community. Balabanov’s post-Soviet filmic rendering of the story from the imperial past begs the question: will the Iakut people continue to be pushed to the periphery? Is their current fate similarly ailing?

On November 21, 2000 Tujaara Svinoboyeva—who plays Mergen’—died in a tragic car accident, after which the shooting of the film stopped. A year later, Balabanov cobbled together the pieces of film that were sufficiently complete and released The River despite it being unfinished. Voice-over narration in Russian by Balabanov sometimes makes up for the resulting holes in the plot. Unfortunately, certain interesting moments from the screenplay—for example, a dialogue about the differences between Russians and Iakutia—did not make it into the film.

Aleksei Balabanov

director photo

Aleksei Balabanov was born in Sverdlovsk on February 25, 1959. He made his directorial debut in 1989 with the documentary Egor and Nastia. His first feature film, Happy Days, was released in 1992 and won instant fame across Europe. Since then, he has directed seven films and is reportedly working on an eigth, the title of which is rumored to be The American. In recent articles on the director he is disparagingly labeled a Russian nationalist whose films have become increasingly anti-Western (read: anti-American). However, he is also championed as one of the best contemporary Russian directors whose films range from blockbuster hits to arthouse sensations. Balabanov presently works at STW Film Company in St. Petersburg, which he helped found in 1994 with producer Sergei Sel'ianov.

1992 Happy Days
1994 Castle
1995 Trofim from The Arrival of a Train
1997 Brother
1998 Of Freaks and Men
2000 Brother 2
2002 War
2002 The River
2004: Prophets and Gains Debut Films at Pittsburgh Filmmakers STW [СТВ] Film Company Pygmalion Productions NTV-Profit Film Company

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