Russian filmmakers are not known for their glowing portraits of American culture. From the 1948 Soviet propaganda film “The Russian Question” about a communist-bashing American newspaper editor to the immensely popular film “Brother 2,” in which a young Russian man rampages through back-stabbing hoodlums in Chicago, there is no shortage of anti-Americanism in the country’s cinema.
Now in 2008, filmmaker Yury Grymov adds his film to the genre.
Americans “place themselves higher than all other peoples of the earth,” said Grymov in an online journal written during the shooting of his new feature “Strangers,” which opened in Moscow on Thursday.
“They forcibly attempt to inculcate their morality and their modes of behavior. And what is most frightening of all, they sincerely suggest that they are committing a charitable act.”
“Strangers” was shot in Egypt but is set in a deliberately vague “somewhere in the East,” where an American medical team arrives to provide vaccinations to children living near a war zone. The vagueness of the film’s location inevitably suggests connections to the current U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.
After this par-for-the-course Hollywood setup, though, the script and acting become so loopy and exaggerated that the director’s agenda of showing the folly of letting Americans into any country with a desert becomes overwhelmingly apparent.
When the ragtag group arrives on screen in its Toyota Land Cruisers, they are shown as culturally inept fools, blasting music from their SUVs and starting to dance before splashing each other with buckets of water from a nearby desert lake.
After settling into their miserable quarters, the female lead, Jane, played by a Texas actress named Scarlett McAlister, starts flirting with their Arab security guard, quickly seducing him despite the presence of her husband Tom, also played by an American, Mark Adam. Meanwhile, Tom, the leader of the culturally crass band, finds a group of Russian military engineers and begins flinging insults at them about their “totalitarian minds” when they refuse to let the group into the village.
The other doctors — a gay couple who befriends a young Arab boy only to traumatize him when he sees them having sex and a spiteful, awkward older woman — make up the collection of utterly unsympathetic people that Grymov sees as typical American abroad.
Without giving the rest away, the Americans continue to be not very nice, do something especially not nice and get away with it.
As you can guess, Grymov’s film has no truck with subtlety, but its bluntness doesn’t hide the fact that it is a lumbering mishmash of a movie, painfully combing elements of a thriller, a melodrama and a moralistic allegory. Through skull-bashing and lust-driven sex, tear-jerking child rescues and despondent wailing, the director has thrown together a virulent creative response to American imperialism but not much of a movie.
Despite stories to the contrary in the Russian press, ‘Strangers’ is not banned in the United States
The film has made waves in Russian papers and on Russian television after it was erroneously reported that it was banned from the United States after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice supposedly intervened. This story has all the trademarks of a deliberate PR move. However, in interviews Grymov has denied any knowledge of how it originated.
The film might have been expected to win rave reviews in a country where anti-Americanism is more the norm than the exception, but Russian reviewers have found the director’s slant so overbearing as to become ineffectual.
“If, in the beginning, the Americans are depicted as being ‘friendly but stupid,’ then later they seem to be possessors of all the most abominable qualities found in homo sapiens,” judged Vassa Petrova, a film critic for the Russian film site Nashfilm.ru, which publishes reviews of new Russian media. “The filmmakers, trying to show the process of intrusion of one culture into another, utterly forgot about the fact that cultures are not split into the bad and the good but into the similar and the dissimilar.”
Despite the film’s much-discussed anti-American stance and Grymov’s articulate diatribe, the director is not known for having a political consciousness. He gained fame with his philosophical 1998 film “Mumu,” based on the Ivan Turgenev short story, and the 2005 screen adaptation of a popular Russian novel, “The Case of Kukotskiy,” neither of which contains any hints of the culture war that “Strangers” tries to depict.
“I wanted to make a film that’s current,” explained Grymov in a recent interview. “The film is about the need to think very intensely about oneself and not to mess up when acting by your own set of rules in a foreign temple. I wanted to bring up a very important point about double morality, about how it happens in America, in Russia, about how you can’t come into a foreign place and impose your own morality on another culture.”
The film’s markedly negative characterizations of the generic Arabs — many of whom become unpredictably crazed at times and none of whom utters a single subtitled or dubbed word — support the notion that, for Grymov, the bad guys are not just the Americans. However, Grymov’s inclusion of Russia in his denouncement of cultural insensitivity, does not mesh with the film, where the Russian characters are universally heroic, intelligent and whimsical, the innocent victims of Arab and American aggression and stupidity.
This attitude has historical logic according to Susan Larsen, a scholar of Soviet and Russian film and a professor at the University of Chicago. Shame over the snags Russia has faced along its southern border and in the Middle East could explain Grymov’s turn against the U.S. as it faces similar problems, Larsen suggests.
“Self-definition frequently depends on the construction of a handy, negative ‘other,’” Larsen said. “And while Americans are handy ‘others’ at the moment, they’re not the only ones.”
The way Grymov tells it, the film is not about any particular place or event — not Iraq, Afghanistan, or Chechnya — although these are obvious analogs for the setting and participants.
When pressed, the filmmaker began to backpedal, denying the work’s political message that he himself had previously declared.
“Everybody’s writing that we’re bearing down on Americans and I think: ‘What’s that about?’” Grymov said. “I see a lot a films where Americans very severely press on Russians. And it’s not a big deal! And we made a film in which Americans showed themselves as rough, not very pleasant people and Russians say: ‘What are you doing offending America like that?’
“How can you offend America? In America there’s a lot of good things and a lot of bad, a lot of different things. And I don’t think that the film is about the U.S. It’s a made-up story. Why do you have to apply the film to all of America?”