Far from Donbass: Andrei Kartashov reports on the 4th Sakhalin Film Festival

film fever grips downtown Sakhalin

One advantage of spending time at a film festival is that you don’t have much time to read the news or social media. Or is it? When you finally get to have ten spare minutes and a wi-fi connection, everything that’s happened in the preceding 24 hours explodes on you with alarming headlines, end-is-nigh opinion pieces and near-hysterical Facebook status-updates. And the effect of bad news (there has been no good news in Russia for quite a while) is exacerbated by the density with which it appears before you. And then you close your laptop, turn off your phone and go to see a film, trying not to think of what you’ve just read.

Like elsewhere in the world, these days there are many film festivals in Russia. On the Edge, hosted in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk (pop. 181,728) is the easternmost of them. Even Vladivostok’s Pacific Meridian festival is a full hour away on a westward flight. Apart from the nearly-inaccessible regions of Chukotka and Kamchatka at the country’s north-east, in Russia there is no place farther from the current bloodshed in Ukraine than Sakhalin, a large (just bigger than Ireland, just smaller than Serbia), long island—angularly shaped like a Giacometti vampire—that’s 7,309 kilometres from Moscow but only forty from the north-western corner of Hokkaido, Japan.

Sakhalin was for many years the source of ill-tempered disputes between Japan and Russia, the Soviet Union only taking full possession following the Yalta conference of 1945 in the wake of Japan’s disastrous defeat. Russia had established effective control over the northern half of Sakhalin during the 19th century, but the terrain was deemed so inappropriate for living that the population only increased through forced resettlement of criminal convicts. During Tsarist times territorial expansion was a matter of prestige if nothing else. But, unlike other European powers, Russia managed to retain most of its imperial vastness—and ambition—up to the present day.

The country is still an empire,  and it still likes to think of itself as of one—in a way, the territory as such is secondary to the map, to the joy of seeing a huge pink blot on it and even painting a little bit more in Russia’s colour. Had there been fewer than seven time zones between Moscow and the country’s extremities, there would be no exultant national glee over the annexation of Crimea or the frenetic far-right rhetoric passed down from the Kremlin as a new official discourse for the country’s domestic and foreign policies. And there probably would be no war in eastern Ukraine, now dubbed Novorossiya (“New Russia”)—a name which was indeed used to denominate those territories back in Tsarist times, but now sounds like nothing but a threat.

Russian intellectuals do not generally sing along with the country’s newly found Empire-strikes-back consensus, yet they—we—don’t have a say in the era of “krimnash”, the word coined as a hashtag on Twitter: literal meaning “wegotcrimea”; Russian neologism of the year. We are silenced by censorship, but which is worse, we are ourselves silent: the time of speaking out disappeared with the wave of political imprisonments which followed the failed massive protests of two years ago.

After krimnash happened, Putin’s approval numbers hit 80%, rising from below 50% in 2012. The opposition has accordingly shrunken, and persecution of objectors continued. Earlier this year, Ukrainian director Oleg Sentsov was abducted from his Crimea home and has since been detained by Russian state security. Articles were written and petitions signed, but they didn’t help much. Sentsov is still in prison, and now we are on Sakhalin: watching movies, writing about movies and then discussing latest shocking news from Ukraine in the evening… in private conversation, of course.

As for the films themselves, the 4th SIFF had a nice programme that thoughtfully combined Russian and European titles with Asian ones, thus creating a dialogue between the East and the West—the centrepiece for that narrative probably being Tsai Ming Liang’s Journey to the West, where Lee Kang Sheng’s Monk, wandering slowly through Marseille, continues his meditative venture towards enlightenment started in Walker. The subject is quite fitting for a place that’s now a remote outpost of Western culture, historically squabbled over by Japan and Russia.

After the war of 1904-5 between the two countries, the southern and the more populous part of Sakhalin was for forty years known as Karafuto Prefecture, pre-Yalta. A small part of the nearby Kuril archipelago is still a matter of disagreement between Japan and Russia, the latter having de facto controlled it since 1945. “These are our islands,”proudly proclaims a huge billboard at a square outside the regional government’s office in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.

At nights this edifice becomes an open-air venue for the festival’s musical retrospective, and films like Pink Floyd: The Wall are projected onto a big screen against the local house of political power. The paradox of Russian authorities is that they witch-hunt any subversion but often fail to notice it when it’s right in their own back yard.

© Bryan & Cherry Alexander Photography / ArcticPhoto

A block away from the current office the former ‘house of authority’ is located: the richly ornate structure under a curved roof that housed the Karafuto government is one of the few Japanese buildings left on Sakhalin. Although the landscapes surrounding Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk could easily fit a Hokusai print, the town itself is remarkably Soviet in its architecture, the sullen Khruschev-era blocks sparsely blended with modern high-rise flats housing the region’s new elite.

The Soviets were merciless to the Japanese legacy, destroying almost anything at Sakhalin that could have reminded anyone of Karafuto. Only two or three houses survived the post-war reconstruction—and, needless to say, those are now the town’s main landmarks, and the locals can often be heard lamenting the loss of the island’s most distinctive features. Economically, however, the east Asian presence is palpable: local food stores import from South Korea, and the most common mean of transport is the (Japanese) right-hand drive car.

Even more importantly, Sakhalin is home to approximately 40,000 Koreans (out of a total around half a million) who contribute to the region’s cultural diversity. It’s Korea, by the way, with which another grim episode of Sakhalin’s history is associated: in 1983, Korean Airlines flight 007, a civilian Boeing, was downed by the Soviets over the island after being mistaken for a spy plane. All 269 people on board died. Sometimes history repeats itself—both times—as tragedy.

The isle is full of noises. While waiting for my bokumbap in a restaurant inside a Korean Culture Centre I stepped out on the porch to find a lively trickle of young Korean tourists chatting, and another house of culture next door: a Soviet-style “youth club”. A choir was audible from the open windows of the latter: first warming up, then blaring out a Russian folk song that oddly mixed with Korean speech in a momentary expression of the island’s social tapestry.

The scene recurred to me when watching the festival’s closing film, Mizuho Nishikubo’s Japanese animation Giovanni’s Island, set at the end of World War II on Shikotan, a part—undisputed—of the Kuril archipelago. Hirohito has announced Japan’s capitulation, and Soviet soldiers arrive on an island populated by the Japanese, bringing their families and taking one of the school’s classroom from local children to teach their own. In a memorable sequence reminiscent of Casablanca, both classes sing their native folk songs trying to holler each other out. But half an hour later in the film they swap, Russian children now chanting the Japanese song, and vice versa.

A naïve scene like this may only take place in movies that prove to be a robust refuge in times of war and hysteria. We may try to convince ourselves that we’re simply doing our job, that the show must go on—and so on. But frankly, “surrender” might be a better, more honest word to describe our posture. Outcried by the flag-waving jingoists of Putin’s new majority, we leave the battlefield and instead retreat into the cinema, into the film-festival: the ‘possibility of an island’ amid the vehement chaos that is Russia, 2014.

Andrei Kartashov
14th September 2014