The horizon-expanding importance of streaming platforms as a window on to a wider world has never been clearer than during pandemic lockdown, and the Kino Klassika Foundation – a UK charity with a mission to promote Russian film culture – is ensuring our fields of vision don’t shrink ever-inward. They’ve launched Klassiki, a portal to the Georgian mountains, Moscow streets or Kazakh steppe via a curated collection of classic films from Russia, Ukraine, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Numerous Soviet-era masterpieces that shook conventions to the core and roused political controversy are included, which provide a tonic for uncertain times. Here are 10 of our favourites.
I Walk around Moscow (1964)
Director: Georgiy Daneliya
Russia’s capital, synonymous with intimidating size and chaos, has rarely been treated with such a light touch as it is in Georgiy Daneliya’s youthful ode to the city, I Walk around Moscow. An aspiring writer from Siberia lands in town to seek feedback from a famous novelist. He meets friends and flirts with a girl who serves them in a record store. Shot by frequent Andrei Tarkovsky cinematographer Vadim Yusov, the charming adventure through streets, parks and theatres culminates in a sublime musical sequence (complete with spiky escalator attendant) in a metro station.
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965)
Director: Sergei Parajanov
Sergei Parajanov was one of the Soviet Union’s most radical visionaries. He was persecuted for his extravagantly coloured and dreamlike cinema, which transformed the folklore of the Caucasus and its surroundings into subversive visual poetry. Based on a book by Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors draws on legends from Ukraine and portrays traditions of the Hutsul people in the Carpathians. Ivan falls in love with the daughter of his father’s murderer. After she drowns in a freak accident he marries someone else but remains lovesick, prompting a sorcerer’s intervention.
There Once Was a Singing Blackbird (1970)
Director: Otar Iosseliani
A gregarious musician just wants to have a good time without being tied down by responsibility in Georgian director Otar Iosseliani’s disarming black-and-white caper of deadpan humour and fatalism. We’re launched into 36 hours in the life of Gia (Gela Kandelaki), who plays drums for the Tbilisi orchestra. He’s defined as much by his tardiness as his talent, as he juggles his role with a frantic social calendar. The rich soundscape of Tbilisi’s streets and cafés, and a musical sweep from Georgian folk to classical Bach, makes this as much a pleasure for the ears as the eyes.
Hedgehog in the Fog (1975)
Director: Yuri Norstein
It’s not for nothing that Yuri Norstein’s short about a hedgehog lost in the woods is one of the world’s most beloved animations. There’s a mystical strangeness and melancholy to the inquisitive little creature’s adventure, as he sets off to drink tea and count the stars with his bear-cub pal but is stalked by an owl, distracted by an otherworldly white horse, and disoriented by thick fog. Friendship appears as solace for this frightening spell of alienation and uncertainty in a parable that offers existential comfort from imagined, looming perils.
The Wishing Tree (1976)
Director: Tengiz Abuladze
“You think our storm will bury only tsars? Don’t you know it will bring along chaos, blood and misfortune?” These are prophetic words in The Wishing Tree, a poetic Georgian allegory set just before the Russian revolution in a village where brutal consequences are meted out for unsanctioned love. The second film of a stunning triptych by Tengiz Abuladze (The Plea and Repentance are also on Klassiki), it weaves together 22 episodes of eccentric dreamers with a playful spark. Things take a dark turn when an arranged marriage is upended by star-crossed desire.
Getting to Know the Big, Wide World (1978)
Director: Kira Muratova
“Nobody has invented anything better than love,” muses a worker in Getting to Know the Big, Wide World, an eccentric romance set on a tractor factory construction site. A love triangle plays out between plasterer Lyuba (Nina Ruslanova) and two truck drivers. The Soviet ethos of communal production informs the setting, but under Kira Muratova’s vivid, expansive imagination, the film bursts free of any approved ideology to become a wild embrace of transformational love. Its buoyant energy explains Muratova’s lasting influence as a pioneer.
A Piece of Sky (1980)
Director: Henrik Malyan
“Torik, pull yourself together. Have you gone nuts?” Falling in love meets with disapproval for a maker of donkey saddles in Armenian outcast romance and social satire A Piece of Sky, since the woman in question is a travelling sex worker. But, since she grew up an orphan like he did, he proposes marriage in a flood of empathy. Torik’s aunt (legendary Georgian actress Sofiko Chiaureli) remains on his side as the status-obsessed community, who’d deemed him unworthy of a respectable match, reacts with malice. Directed by Henrik Malyan, it’s based on a story by Vahan Totovents.
Director: Ali Khamraev
Is collectivism at odds with the pursuit of private happiness? Three women with varied ambitions and fates intersect in a hardscrabble Uzbek town in Ali Khamraev’s evocative, multi-layered drama. Khalima (Dilorom Kambarova) is determined to build herself a house in the dead of winter without the permission required by custom of her husband, who’s run off. A schoolteacher is intent on introducing progressive ideas to the remote location. And an elderly woman, kidnapped in her youth, remains trapped in a forced marriage. Age-old misogyny grips on strongly in the face of party-mandated notions of gender equality.
Blue Mountains, or Unbelievable Story (1983)
Director: Eldar Shengelaia
A writer submits his newest manuscript ‘Blue Mountains or Tian Shan’ to a publishing house to be read, only to be fobbed off by the employees with increasingly Kafkaesque levels of absurdity in Georgian director Eldar Shengelaia’s irresistible lampoon of stagnant, callous and petty bureaucracy. Razor-sharp but brimming with humanity, the comedy sides with the underdog in his futile struggle for a professional life of dignity in a system in which empty, official process over substance counts for everything. At least one loyal reader appears: the worker hired to paint the publishing house’s walls.
The Needle (1988)
Director: Rashid Nugmanov
Viktor Tsoi stars in taboo-busting drama The Needle – the first Soviet film to depict drug addiction. The icon of Leningrad’s underground music scene, who died in a car crash aged 28, plays Moro, a drifter who returns to Almaty to collect a debt and finds his ex-girlfriend in the grip of a heroin habit. He vows to get her clean and exact revenge on the local mafia. This is Perestroika-era cinema, in which authorities take a back seat to rebellious youth culture. Soundtracked by Tsoi’s legendary post-punk band Kino and directed by Rachid Nugmanov, the film launched the Kazakh New Wave.