Russian Films and HIV: What Are They Like And Why Are There So Few of Them?


Our film critic and editor of the website Yegor Belikov has talked about the representation of HIV and people living with it in the Russian cinema. We publish a shortened version of his lecture and links to the films he mentions.

I write a lot about films on various marginalised social groups, so I started to think: do Russian films on HIV exist at all? I was surprised that there are such films. In fact, like any other art, they say something about society, even though it is not clear whether they say anything specific. If directors make films about the times that we are living in and our everyday life, and bring up HIV and AIDS in this context, then they probably do really imply something by this. That is why talking about films on this issue in the Russian context would mean talking about how HIV and AIDS are seen by at least the small group of people who make films in our country.

Just so you know, apart from Russian films, we are also going to talk about those films that were shot, for example, in Ukraine or Belarus, but having their characters speaking Russian at least in some of the scenes.

The first film is called "Orange Love" ("Oranzhevaya lyubov"). It seems quite symbolic to me and, besides, it's the liveliest of all. It was made by Alan Badoev, a director from North Ossetia, who mainly does music videos. No wonder the film looks a lot like a music video, with short montage sequences, quick cuts, and an unexpected lighting design. Overall, everything appears quite bright. The film was shot in Ukraine in 2007. Alexey Chadov stars in it, and Ukrainian actress Olga Makeeva plays the girl his character loves.

By the way, she speaks Ukrainian, while Chadov speaks primarily Russian but answers her questions in Ukrainian. The plot should remind us of any thriller film, where people are locked in a room together. The guys hook up during the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and even though it is not explicit, it is clearly implied. They come across an ad in the newspaper saying that an apartment will be given as a gift to two people who truly love each other. So they approach the man who placed the ad. The man has come up with a game similar to "Saw". He puts them into an apartment. According to the deal, they have to live there locked until he dies. After that, they will get the apartment and some of his savings. They have to spend all this time there alone, and the camera will be shooting them continuously.

Before moving into the apartment, they have to take tests for various diseases, but they will receive the results only after two weeks. Of course, in the first two weeks, they continuously have frenzied sex, which is shown as a clip cut. When the test results are slipped under the door, it turns out that she is HIV-positive. That is the pickle — they realise that they are locked alone with each other. Then they rush around, hide from each other in different rooms, fight, and there is something else going on...

This was meant to be an independent, art house film; that is why it is not entirely clear what exactly is happening. It has a complex plot and broken chronology. At the very end, the character played by Chadov finally meets the landlord, who is also HIV-positive, and asks him: "Get me infected too." Then there is a scene when they cut their hands, shake them, and this way the guy becomes HIV-positive, although we understand that this cannot happen in reality since HIV is not transmitted like that. The guy comes back to his beloved one all excited, and tells her that from now on, nothing can stop their love, because he now also has HIV. But it turns out that her result was false-positive. The film ends at that point.

Obviously, this is a story about how people cannot get along with each other at all, and how love does not always mean that you can live together. It is especially interesting in the context of Russia and Ukraine because it is as if these countries cannot live in the same apartment. One can think of different interpretations for a long time, but the question is why in this situation, Badoev uses HIV as a separator and as a barrier between people who have HIV and those who do not. That is wrong and, frankly speaking, pretty degrading.

Another film that I would like to talk about is "Living" ("Zhit") by Vasily Sigarev. It was shot in 2011. I think this is the best film in which the issue of HIV is brought up. Notably, the problem is explored quite interestingly, although it is not the main topic of the film. Here, it is not HIV that kills, but us who kill ourselves or each other.

This extremely depressing film is the author's statement about how to cope with the death of a loved one. There are several storylines at once. The story we should be most interested in is the one connected with the character of Yana Troyanova. She plays the HIV-positive girlfriend of an HIV-positive guy. They are both social outcasts who live in some kind of a grotesquely wretched Russia. The boyfriend, played by Alexey Filimonov, is then killed by bullies in a train.

It is not entirely clear from the plot how the characters got HIV. This is not revealed during the film, and is handled very tactfully. The idea is that they are just ordinary people living with this disease. This is quite important, because there are many characters with HIV in the global cinema, and the directors prefer to visually accentuate their disease by depicting them as pale and weak dying people. This is the case with Tom Hanks in "Philadelphia".

In "Living", which I think is the only good Russian film that brings up HIV, this is depicted differently. The character is not killed because he has HIV, although he is taken down by evil fate anyway. He just as well could have escaped it if it hadn't been for the bullies in that train. To put it simply, someone dies of AIDS, and someone is trying to live with it. And it is important that this encouraging message could be read in a film. In "Living", it is readable. The characters have to go on with their lives, because they have to live for someone else. This is quite a beautiful idea.

Again, the film is awfully scary, depressing and existential. What can you say about living after death, and not even your own death? How to live your life, which seems to have just stopped short?

There are actually quite many strange films about HIV in which the virus is depicted as something that is simply there and that inevitably kills someone. For example, there is a little-known film starring Sergei Bezrukov called "City Without Sunlight" ("Gorod bez solntsa"). Bezrukov plays an artist who is the most stereotypical drug-addicted artist that you can think of.

Interestingly enough, Bezrukov agreed to play this particular character right when he was in the prime of life. At that time, about 15 years ago, he looked like a man who was never going to die.

In the story, the protagonist's sister is also a drug addict. They shoot up together. The character of Maxim Averin, a righteous man working in a tobacco factory, is trying to "save" them.

"Living" by Vasily Sigarev is the best film that brings up HIV. Here, it is not HIV that kills, but us who kill ourselves or each other.

But the most interesting thing is that while Bezrukov's character is the only one who has AIDS in the film, the author quite clearly implies that the man is a complete mediocrity, and it's not worth even talking about him, because he is only engaged in some kind of performance art. During his performance, he smears paint over himself for a while, which is obviously an impression of numerous performances by other performance artists, including Marina Abramovic. Then he "dies", they put his body in a coffin, and make an imprint of his face on a cake.

In other words, it is implied that Bezrukov is ready to die, and lives thinking about his death, because no one needs his art, which is not art at all, but some garbage. It is quite clearly stressed in the film that he has AIDS, and that he will definitely die. By the way, everyone breathes a sigh of relief when he is finally gone.

This film clearly shows that at the beginning of the 2000s, HIV-positive people were invariably viewed as the dying ones or the dead alive. I'm surprised and happy that this has finally changed in the more recent works, particularly in the "Call DiCaprio!" TV series. However, in this series, HIV and AIDS are again understood purely as an evil fate that inevitably must kill the protagonist, played by Alexander Petrov, even if he does not die of the illness. The fact that the director Zhora Kryzhovnikov eventually kills the main character seems to symbolise what the Russian cinema is striving to emphasise that HIV and AIDS inevitably kill.

As a counterexample, I'll talk about "Heart's Boomerang" ("Serdtsa bumerang"), a film by Nikolai Khomeriki that I have already mentioned in one of my texts for AIDS.CENTER. In the film, the main character, played by Alexander Yatsenko, discovers he has a heart defect. Doctors tell him that he can die at any moment, but a cardiac arrest might never happen, and he will die of something else.

Meanwhile, he is an underground train driver, which means that his life is predetermined and follows a strictly scheduled route. However, under the circumstances, something starts to change. He is not dying, but at the same time, something begins to gnaw at him violently from the inside.

Still, for some reason, when they get to the topic of HIV/AIDS, which is still a strong taboo in the society, directors keep depicting the disease as an inevitable and, most preferably, painful end. That is not true.

Nevertheless, there are other films that are slightly more logical, because they are primarily about the people themselves, and not just focusing on their illness. For example, there is the rather famous film "Everything is Complicated" ("Vsyo slozhno"), which was created by the Takie Dela fund together with director Anton Utkin. Interestingly, this is an interactive film, which means that for the first time, the director gives an HIV-positive character at least some choice, even though it's by letting us choose. This is a short, 36-minute long film starring Irina Starshenbaum, whose character finds out she has HIV. Everything is complicated for her, just like in this relationship status classification on Facebook.

The film is an attempt by the fund to bring up some reasonable, kind and eternal things, like that we should be more considerate towards people around us. Despite the fact that it is not an outstanding film, it is absolutely correct to the fullest extent possible.

"At some point, the characters talk for a while about what to do if you have HIV in a sarcastic and mocking manner. They even list suicide options, analysing which one is better. But in the end, they say: 'Come on, why do you need this? All you have to do is to get some treatment, take pills, and everything is going to be just fine'."

In fact, there are more Russian documentary films on this topic than fiction films, although most of them are made by activists. I have watched a similar film called "Emergency of the District Level" ("CHePe rayonnogo masshtaba"). This is an amateur film made as a kitchen-table effort in which quite specific questions are directed to the current government.

However, among documentaries, one can find almost masterpieces too. For example, there is a short film called "Not Scared" ("Ne strashno"), produced in 2006. It is not so much about HIV as a disease or a phenomenon, but about a person in the context of their bitter or, probably, sweet, destiny. In the film, two young people meet a couple of years after they got divorced. When they first met, she was HIV-positive, and he decided that he would stay by her side and, just like in the film "Orange Love", would also get infected. They lived together for a while, and then got divorced. However, the authors of the film asked them to meet again and live together with them in one house for a week, talking about themselves and how they feel about this. The ending is totally mind-blowing. They say that this is a real story, and that nothing was scripted or simulated.

At some point, the characters talk for a while about what to do if you have HIV in a sarcastic and mocking manner. They even list suicide options, analysing which one is better. But in the end, they say: "Come on, why do you need this? All you have to do is to get some treatment, take pills, and everything is going to be just fine."

The characters are both HIV-positive, with one of them having been infected voluntarily, but this is not as important as the fact that they continue living together, even though they are in different places. They are binded by some invisible thread because of the disease that they both have. They have already moved to different cities, and still make an attempt to move in together in the end. It works for a week, but then they break up and move back to their cities. And the fact that HIV has not appeared to be a binding thread for them is no less important than the love that used to hold them together and that can be literally seen on the screen. You can find the film on the Artdoc.Media website. This is a Belarusian film, but the characters speak Russian.

I also found a rather amazing example of films about HIV for children. It was made by teenagers at a school, and it is called "Live, Human, Live". The Russian name of the film is #zhiVICHeloVEK where "VICH" stands for "HIV" and "VEK" — for "CENTURY". It is a homemade-type of film, but still, it seems to be quite remarkable, even though not for its artistic characteristics.

Teachers of the school whose students decided to make a film about HIV are asked to sit at a round table and answer the most basic questions from a standard questionnaire like what HIV is, how it can be transmitted, how to prevent it, and so on. It is obvious that the teachers are really trying to help the children, and support some spontaneous initiative. They have microphones on them, and have been given some equipment. Eventually, they give wrong answers to almost all the questions using teachers' typical didactic manner. This is an interesting social experiment. It is clear that we can just as well interpret this table with ordinary Russian teachers sitting around it as the whole Russian society that keeps talking about the problem without knowing anything about it.

Finally, I would like to tell you about another film made by activists, called "Blood". The film is amazing, but not directly related to HIV. It is dedicated to donated blood, which is continuously collected throughout the whole film. During all this time, we observe the blood flowing through small plastic tubes. It turns out to be a rather fascinating and creepily mesmerising spectacle. There was some kind of dramatic story around the film, which led to the doctors who appeared in it being fired.

That is what I wanted to tell you about Russian films on HIV. But I have a question: why are there only ten or twenty films on this topic in Russia, different in their worth, as well as in their festival or television destiny? Why do they film so little about HIV in Russia? I do not know the exact answer.

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