Undoubtedly, Russia today takes one of first place in the world's number of videopirates. The Kremlin has signed the Bern international authors' rights convention. But Russian authorities doesn't control the pirates' audiovisual productions. Countless booths sell thousands CD, CD-ROM and videocassettes with Western films - mainly the newest which have just appeared in America, France or Italy. Of course, nearly 80% of this audiovisual production are American CD and action films with Stallone, Van Damme, Schwarzenegger and others Hollywood stars. The adroit shopmen, as a rule, have neither licences to the copyrights nor the right to sell or rent foreign CD or films, but the trade is very successful.
The purchase price of one videocassette or CD is nearly $2-4 dollars in the black market. The same cassette can be rented in hundreds of Russian cities and towns for half a dollar a day.
One Russian videopirate revealed to me the secret of his "firm's" operational efficiency. Once a month - or more often - Moscow agents leave for America to buy as many new DVD, laserdiscs as possible in the biggest video shops of New York, L.A. and others cities. (Videocassettes are less desirable because of their larger size, which makes it difficult to transport them abroad). Having gotten the batch, the agents return to Moscow where in several underground studios the American laserdiscs are copied onto videocassettes on a mass scale. In the course of this, the U.S. NTSC system is transformed into Russia's adopted system - PAL-MESECAM/VHS. The cassettes are translated into Russian by a staff of experts in English, a lot of whom have been occupied with this profitable business for 10-20 years.
Sometimes it happened that Russian videopirates can't buy a laserdisc of the latest screen hit quickly. Then the executive agent arms himself with a camcorder, goes to an American movie theater where, for example, Spielberg's new production is showing, and photographs the film straight form the screen. The quality of such a recording is, of course, much worse than that of a laserdisc, but the salable result can be brought to the Russian video market with maximum speed.
Audiovisual-pirates across the country know well in Moscow "offices" the converted cassettes or CD can be bought. Two or three times a month they come to Moscow, pick up the next lot of transfers and then copy them for consumers in their cities and villages. Piracy is not only the selling or renting of stolen videos, CDs or CD-ROMs, however. There is wide broadcast of Western cinema novelties by little private TV channels. (Even small Russian towns have two or three local private TV channels.) Each shows from two to six pirated videos a day. Besides, the cable owners get monthly income from subscribers, and the private-TV owners meet expenses by inserting commercials during the piratical video's broadcasts.
The broad development of audiovisual-piracy in Russia has, to my mind, one characteristic peculiarity. Being in an extremely difficult financial situation, many Russian viewers find in an everyday exposure to pirated films the only opportunity to feel themselves in another world even for a few hours, to escape from the surrounding misfortunes, hardships, etc.
Watching the screen adventures of Harrison Ford or Bruce Willis characters who, in peaceful well-being, enjoy ownership of cozy two-storied American cottages while they busy themselves with clarification of love affairs, Russians can admire the power of foreign technology in fantastic special-effects super-shows and, if only in dreams, find a place as heroes of an inaccessible life.
Some 20 years ago Russian authorities struggled severely not only with the audiovisual-pirates, but even with common spectators - anyone who had bought abroad an erotic cassettes or one containing Rambo's latest adventures. People could be imprisoned for illegally watching the Godfather or Caligula. Today audiovisual censorship in Russia is practically unknown. Up to 1987, the audiovisual stream in Russia was almost 100% controlled by strict regime. At the end of '80s the system, in place for 70 years had begun to disintegrate; in the early '90s it finally collapsed. Russian audiovisual pirates now reign boundlessly and completely, cutting into profits of the ordinary cinemas whose attendance is catastrophically down. Spectators filled only 2-7% of the seats in the average movie theater (exceptions: several modern Dolby Digital theaters in Moscow), even there was an American novelty on the screen. Russian viewers prefer the screen of their home TVs. Once Russia was called the Empire of Evil. I can only hope it will newer be the Empire of Audiovisual-Pirates...
9.9.8. Something About Russian Screen
The Outsiders: Two films by Sergei Bodrov
S.Bodrov, well reputed as a commercial screenwriter in the ‘70s, in the ‘80s became the real revelation among new directors. His films – I Hate You (1984), The Sweet Sap of the Grass (1985), Unprofessionals (1985), SIR: Freedom Is Paradise (1989) – received prizes in many Russian and foreign festivals. They told viewers about the problems of a generation of teenagers with unusual – for those times – frankness and artistic power. Bodrov showed that he could work with unprofessional actors; the reality of his films was enhanced by improvisation on the set, and by the subtly elaborated psychology of the leading characters.
Unfortunately, Bodrov’s Cardsharper (1990), a dashing story about professional card players, somewhat surprised his admirers with standard situations and diminished directorial effort. His I wanted to See the Angels, however, refutes the pessimists who hurried to relegate him to a level of minor importance.
I wanted to See the Angels can be linked to a fashionable stream of “unmasking” films with naturalistic themes. There are rockers on roaring bikes, Mafia gunmen, dirty basements, scenes of morgues and police, and the cold, comfortless nighttime Moscow’s streets. Moscow itself is shown from its black side. You do not see here the bright lights of New Arbat and fashionable supermarkets, but rather the plain outskirts whose houses sullenly twinkle with the weak-sighted windows of communal flats… nearly the film’s only scenery. There are also familiar main characters: the novice hired killer and street girl. In short, a number of dull clichés are present.
But it seems one can make a good film with such ordinary – for Russian cinema – characters and settings. Of course, it depends on the director’s talent. Bodrov managed to imbue this story of the bitter love of a Saratov boy (who comes to the capital to kill a Mafia debtor) and a rocker’s girl (who dreams of writing a letter to Madonna) with the sincerity of real feelings.
The general sensation after the film is hopelessness. Young outsiders can’t “find themselves” in a life that holds no prospects. Being romantics in their souls, they aren’t satisfied to sit as clerks in commercial shops for many hours or sell bubble gum in the Metro stations. One woman is attracted to the image of an “easy rider” flying on a bike along the freeway; another dreams about warm American beaches and communications from the famous pop-star. But these dreams stay unrealizable, as castles in the air; each of the characters has a better chance of going to the heavens by way a lover of women’s caresses – a hospital attendant – will out with the neatness of a professional, fill out the last medical report on the “client”.
This had no chance of becoming a Russian screen bestseller. As well as its heroes, the film itself was condemned to be an outsider. There are too many dramas and sad stories in Russian modern life to hope that a film telling about such joyless things in earnest and without sentimentality could achieve mass success.
In the same year of the release of the forlorn I wanted to See the Angels, Sergei Bodrov produced White King, Red Queen. The main character was played by French actor André Dussolier who became known for roles in the films of his more famous compatriot Alain Resnais .
White King… begins as a biting comedy of temperaments. A small Russian trade-union delegation comes to a Swiss town for a conference and stays in a little hotel. This gives the director cause to show the charms of poor Russians who once in a blue moon can fall greedily upon the West. There are dinners with tinned fish in the room, the sale of vodka “for a song”, wild joy upon the receipt of 20 or 30 dollars, an occasion for free refreshment, and so on. The heroine is a mature woman with sings of former beauty who dully begins a flirtation with an ex-TV commentator while their colleagues drink spirits from morning till evening. The situation of Russians who find themselves shameful beggars in prosperous Switzerland may be a little exaggerated; taking into account the almost comedic plot, however, it doesn’t seem a falsity.
Further on, the comedy turns smoothly into melodrama: an elegantly dressed man (Dussolier) appears in the hotel; 20 years ago he was a famous Russian chess player who moved to the West, and he has learned that his old love, by the whim of fate, is in Europe for several days… but, alas, one can’t step in the same river twice, the previous love can’t be renewed, and the Red Queen doesn’t find enough strength to stay with the White King.
This sad story with a gay beginning, although not claiming the psychological depths of Bergman or Antonioni, is made with European mastery. Bodrov skillfully observes the laws of the melodramatic genre with its heightening of emotions and expectant pauses, while accenting the differences in mentality, habits and image of his characters so as to make the film understandable and accessible to a European audience. Because of this some things at once obvious to Russian viewers are explained more distinctly and straightforwardly than we might expect, but this perspective takes into account the film’s distribution in the West.