Is It Easy To Be Young? The Burgler
No future in Riga or Leningrad

by Brenda Bollag

from Jump Cut, no. 34, March, 1989, pp. 32-33
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1989, 2006

For the Soviet cinema, the new policy of "openness" being packaged under the name of "Glasnost" has meant first and foremost the opening of the closets where banned films had been stashed and the rehabilitation of the generation of "damned filmmakers" who had directed them. A few of these directors, such as Sergei Paradjanov, Elem Klimov, and Andrei Tarkovsky, had managed to continue making films despite the obstacles continually placed in their paths and to remain the objects of considerable international acclaim despite fierce official opposition.

Others, such as Alexander Askoldov (director of KOMISAR/ THE COMMISSAR, 1967-87)[1] and Kira Muratova (director of KOROTKIE VSTRECI/ BRIEF ENCOUNTERS, 1967-87 and DOLGIE PROVODY/ THE LONG FAREWELL, 1971-87), were more efficiently banished from the studios and screens, remaining almost entirely unknown until two years ago. The Soviet cinema's belated coming-out party has been greeted in the West by an enthusiastic critical response and by the attribution of a number of important prizes in the major festivals: the Golden Bear, first prize of the Berlin Film Festival was awarded to Gleb Panfilov's TEMA (THE THEME, 1979) in 1987, the Prix spécial du jury of the 1987 Cannes Film Festival was awarded to Tengiz Abuladze's POKAJANIE (REPENTANCE, 1984), and Askoldov's THE COMMISSAR would win a Silver Bear in Berlin in 1988.

Now the works of a new generation of Soviet filmmakers are beginning to appear on the screen. Filmmakers like Yuris Podnieks and Valery Ogorodnikov, babies when Stalin died in 1953, were still children at the time that the Khruschev thaw was allowing their predecessors to make their promising debuts. They had the good fortune to come of age as filmmakers just as the Glasnost era was beginning. In their provocative first feature-length works, Podnieks and Ogorodnikov bring the problems of alienated Soviet youth to the screen in ways which scarcely would have seemed imaginable three years ago.

Podnieks' remarkably successful documentary VAI VIEGLI BUT JAUNAM? (IS IT EASY TO BE YOUNG? 1986) was produced by Rigafilm, national studio of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Latvia (population: 2,600,000). Annexed by the Soviet Union during WWII along with Estonia and Lithuania, Latvia in particular and the Baltic states in general have long been recognized for their relatively high standard of living (markedly superior to that of Russia and the other Soviet Republics), for the forcefulness with which they defend their independent national identities, for their tendency to resist the Moscow regime, and for the extraordinary richness of their traditions in documentary cinematography.

Over 20 million Soviet spectators have seen IS IT EASY TO BE YOUNG? Today many see it as the Glasnost film par excellence, as the work which incarnates more clearly than any other the spirit of the Gorbachov era. But when Podnieks began working on it in 1984, Chernenko was still in power and the age of Glasnost was still two years off. Predictably, the film encountered various types of opposition at various stages of its realization. When in 1986 Podnicks was told that the film could not be shown because it did not portray "typical" Soviet youth, he invited Politburo member Igor Ligatchev to a private screening. Ligatchev liked it and ordered its immediate release for screening in movie theaters throughout the country. Only after its favorable reception in Russia in a Russian dubbed version was the film finally authorized for projection in Latvia in its original Latvian version.

The film begins with scenes of an open-air rock concert held in the suburbs of Riga in the summer of 1985. On the train ride back to the city, excited young fans pillaged two railway cars, causing extensive damage. In violation of one of the Western media's strongest remaining taboos, Podnieks was allowed to film the ensuing trial of seven youths. In a scene which is nearly unbearable to watch, the judges announce the verdict: six of the defendants are fined and put on parole, while the seventh -- the only one to have pleaded innocent -- is given three years at hard labor. As the sentence is read, he turns towards his comrades and asks, "Is it me they're talking about?" He struggles momentarily to compose himself, and then breaks down as he realizes what is happening to him.

In another hard-hitting sequence, a young woman who attempted to commit suicide by throwing herself out of a window, but who involuntarily saved herself by grabbing onto a pole, is interrogated by a frighteningly callous board of examiners in a psychiatric hospital. Drug abuse, the threat of nuclear contamination, the cult of the Hare Krishnas, as well as general feelings of uselessness and despair are among the other problems which Podnieks explores with the same unrelenting directness, foregoing the use of a didactic voice-off commentary in order to let young people themselves address us. The difficult readjustment of veterans of the war in Afghanistan is another prominent theme. "I wanted to know what it means" says Podnieks "for a young person to acquire his vision of the world in a place like Afghanistan." One young veteran, decorated for his bravery on the battlefield, explains why he hides his medal: "I just can't get away from the idea that what we did there was dirty and inhuman."

Yet, despite its powerful immediacy and authenticity, IS IT EASY TO BE YOUNG? makes no claim to being an "objective" reflection of unadulterated reality. Rather, Podnicks openly admits to his role as deliberate manipulator of sounds and images, assuming a clear authorial stance not through the use of voice-over narration, but through the unabashedly stylized use of techniques normally associated with fiction film. The above-mentioned courtroom sequence, for example, is fragmented, intercut with other footage, and reconstructed by means of parallel montage to the rhythm of Martins Brauns' funky, upbeat musical score.

Like Podnieks, Ogorodnikov has a strong background in documentary filmmaking. In VZLOMSCIK (THE BURGLAR, 1987), however, he attempts to apply a number of its techniques and principles to the making of what is essentially a fiction film. Winner of the Settimana della Critica's FIPRESCI Prize at the 1987 Venice Film Festival, THE BURGLAR is a compelling portrait of the subculture of young rockers in Leningrad. In it, Ogorodnikov freely juxtaposes actors, non-actors, and rock musicians playing their own roles into a highly eclectic pastiche within which the borderline between the staged and the spontaneous is particularly hard to identify.

Although the film follows a fairly straightforward narrative line built around the characters of 13-year old Senka Lauskin (Oleg Elykomov) and his older brother Kostia (played by Konstantin Kincev, star of the Leningrad rock group "Alisa"), standard plot development is largely subordinated to the use of directly recorded fragments of unrehearsed reality. Here, like in IS IT EASY TO BE YOUNG?, as well as in Vadim Abdrasitov's PLUMBUM (1986), Sergei Soloviev's ASSA (1987), Aleko Tzabadze's PIATNO (THE STAIN, Georgian SSR, 1987), and in Sergei Bodrov's excellent NEPROFESSIONALI (THE AMATEURS, Kazakh SSR, 1984-87), rock music appears as a major thematic leitmotiv. Refusing the facile symbolism of a one-to-one equation between rock music and youthful rebellion, Ogorodnikov assembles everything from Strauss waltzes to tangos into a surprising musical collage, which underscores the clash of life styles and value systems among the film's characters.

Towards the end of the film, Senka is caught stealing an electric organ from the Palace of Culture. Deciding against the easily (melo)dramatic effect of a heavy prison sentence, Ogorodnikov opts to have Senka get off with a stiff reprimand. But although it ends with Senka's release, THE BURGLAR can in no way be considered a film with a happy ending. For the moment, Senka and Kostia are not in prison. But the acute feelings of aimlessness and of having no future which they share with their real-life counterparts in IS IT EASY TO BE YOUNG? will inevitably continue to fester.

The filmmakers of the "damned generation" are busily settling accounts with the past both through the release of shelved films made many years ago and also through treating heretofore untouchable episodes of Soviet history [cf. in particular Marina Babak's BOLSE SVETA (MORE LIGHT! 1987) and Abuladze's REPENTANCE]. Meanwhile, the first generation of Soviet filmmakers with no first-hand personal experience of the Stalin era clearly has its own problems to worry about. With the cynical lucidity of those who realize that they have been lied to about their own history, Podnieks and Ogorodnikov blithely transgress both thematic taboos and the traditionally rigid barrier separating documentary from fiction film. Thanks to their talent, their inventiveness, and their genuine concern for their young subjects, both filmmakers succeed in reconciling their commitment to the truthful and undistorted representation of reality with the desire to express an emphatically subjective -- and resolutely free-spirited -- point of view.


1. When two dates are given with reference to a single film title, the former is the date of its realization and the latter the date of its release for distribution.