In Their Own League Hall of Fame: Kira Muratova

By Bianca Garner

Last year I attended a talk at the Edinburgh Film Festival regarding women in the film industry, and a filmmaker called Kira Muratova was discussed. This was a filmmaker I had never heard of before, and I made a note to research into her and her work once I returned back from the festival. Alas, until now, I didn’t hold that promise.

In fact, it wasn’t until I was a recent guest on the fantastic Russophiles Unite podcast, that I came across Muratova and her films again. Myself and Ally Pitts of the Russophiles Unite pod, discussed Muratova’s wonderful 1967 drama, “Brief Encounters” and I was blown away by the film’s surreal beauty and strong female characters.

“Brief Encounters” is a complex film that plays with our perceptions of time and structure, Muratova uses sound to build on tone and atmosphere, she also uses framing and pull focus in a way that I haven’t seen any other director use before in such an elegant manner. Watching the first part of Mark Cousins‘ epic documentary “Women Make Film”, Muratova’s name was featured throughout.

However, her work is still being ignored in the overall discussion of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Her films remain nearly impossible to track down outside of Russia. And, while she should be talked about and her work should be studied in Film Studies classes across the globe, I’m pretty sure that her name barely gets a mention…

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“Harmony doesn’t mean balance. You must destroy something symmetrically, break the rules. It’s only then that things grab you.”

Kira Muratova

Muratova had an extraordinary life and a career that span over five decades. In fact, she was still making films well into her late seventies. Throughout her career in the USSR, she faced tight censorship rules and regulations, with Soviet officials declaring that her idiosyncratic film language did not comply with the norms of socialist realism.

This resulted in Muratova being banned from working for several years at a time. Her 1983 film, “Among Grey Stones” was actually renounced by Muratova after major political censorship and the film was released with the director’s name being, “Ivan Sidorov” — the Soviet equivalent of Alan Smithee.

The Soviet and Ukrainian awarding winning director was born on the 5th November 1935, in Soroca, (then in Romania, it is now in Moldova), Kira Korotkova was the daughter of a Jewish gynaecologist mother and a Russian father, who were both active members of the Communist party. She lost her father at a young age, when he was arrested by Romanian forces and shot, for participating in the anti-fascist guerilla movement in World War II. After the war, Kira and her mother moved to Bucharest.

“Her work is still being ignored in the overall discussion of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Her films remain nearly impossible to track down outside of Russia.”

brief encounters
Vladimir Vysotsky and Kira Muratova in “Brief Encounters” (1967)

In 1959, Kira graduated from the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in Moscow, having specialised in directing. Upon graduation Korotkova received a director position with the Odessa Film Studio in Odessa. The Odessa Film Studio was founded back in 1919, and was the first film studio established in Russian Empire (Odessa). It is running today, and is partially owned by a government and supervised by the Department of State property fund of Ukraine together with the Ministry of Culture. Together with Dovzhenko Film Studios they are the only state-owned and major film producers in the country.

“Muratova had an extraordinary life and a career that span over five decades. In fact, she was still making films well into her late seventies. Throughout her career in the USSR, she faced tight censorship rules and regulations.”

Her first two films were co-directed with Aleksandr Muratov, whom she married in 1961. Their first film together was “By the Steep Ravine” (1962). The film follows Senya, a young hunter (played by Valeri Isakov), who hunts for two wolves that have been preying on sheep of various farms in Siberia.

Their follow up film, “Our Honest Bread” was released 1964. This film focuses on the struggles of an honest chairman of a collective farm who cannot accept the doctored harvest yields his son has reported to the State. For his noble action the old man is sent into retirement. Kira and Aleksandr would divorce shortly afterwards. Kira actually kept her ex-husband’s surname despite her later marriage to Leningrad painter and production designer Evgeny Golubenko.

The poster for “Brief Encounters”

For Muratova, her first major film was the feature “Brief Encounters” which was released in 1967. The film’s plot is rather simple: two women in love with the same man. However, the way Muratov decides to tell this story is anything but simple. She uses flashbacks within flashbacks, creating a dreamlike non-linear narrative that is complex and captivating in a way that I haven’t seen before.

The film’s main characters are a “gypsy-like” geologist called Maksim (Vladimir Vysotsky), his countryside lover Nadia (played by Nina Ruslanova) and Muratova herself as Valentina, a city official. She actually took the role only after the actress she chose proved unsuitable. Nadia comes to the city looking for Maksim, and arrives at Valentina’s house where the other woman takes her in believing she is their new housekeeper. An unlikely friendship emerges between the two women, who have this unknown bond in the form of Maksim. It’s a powerful story about the complications of love and female independence.

Zinaida Sharko and Oleg Vladimirsky in “The Long Farewell” (1971)

Her next film was “The Long Farewell” (1971), which tells the story of Yevgenia Vasilyevna (Zinaida Sharko), an over-possessive mother of a teenage boy (Oleg Vladimirsky). One summer, her son goes to visit his father in Novosibirsk, on the other side of the country. When he returns, she notices that her son has changed, and secretly reads a letter which reveals he doesn’t want to live with her any longer.

Muratova manages to capture the struggles of motherhood in such a raw way like no other filmmaker working at that time. Sadly, “The Long Farewell” was considered too experimental and wasn’t released, due to it’s rather French new wave style that included jump cuts, direct sound, and natural locations.

“The 1990s proved to be a very busy and productive time for Muratova who was no longer held back by the tough restraints of the Soviet Government. She started to shoot a feature film every two to three years.”

After many attempts to get projects started, Muratova finally made “Among Grey Stones” (1983). However, the film was subjected to the censors’ scissors, which led her to disown the film. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Muratova quickly won renown at home and abroad, not only with her earlier work but also with her new films. She won several prizes and awards, among others the Special Jury Prize in Berlin for “The Asthenic Syndrome” in 1990.

“The Asthenic Syndrome” consists of two unrelated stories: one is shot in black-and-white and the other in colour. In the first story we follow a woman who has recently buried her husband and is now in a constant state of depression. She ends up facing people like her, who are on the verge of a nervous breakdown. In the second story we follow a school teacher who is afflicted with a weakness syndrome that makes him fall asleep at inappropriate times. Eventually, he’s taken to a mental hospital where he gains a new understanding on life.

Olga Antonova in “The Asthenic Syndrome” (1990)

The 1990s proved to be a very busy and productive time for Muratova who was no longer held back by the tough restraints of the Soviet Government. She started to shoot a feature film every two to three years. After the critical success of “The Asthenic Syndrome”, she made “The Sentimental Policeman” (1992), a comedy about a cop who tries to adopt a baby he has found in a cabbage patch. It may have been a comedy but like with all of Muratova’s work there was also a serious undertone.

Her next film was “Passions” (1994), based on the novellas of Boris Dedyukhin, and focused around the world of horse racing. It received two Nika Awards, for Best Picture and Best Director (Muratova). It also won the Special Jury Prize of the Kinotavr film festival. She then followed this up with another comedy in the form of “Three Stories” (1997), which consisted of three unusual criminal stories that do not have usual logical motives. Again, Muratova’s film won the Special Jury Prize at Kinotavr.

Renata Litvinova and Svetlana Kolenda in “Passions” (1994)

The early 2000s saw Muratova film seven films. This consisted of “The Turner” (2004) another dark comedy, which tells the story of a young piano tuner who befriends two rich old-ladies, and plots, with the help of his girlfriend, to betray their trust and steal from them. The film featured strong performances by Alla Demidova and Renata Litvinova, and it went on to win three awards at the Nika Award ceremony (the Russian version of the Oscars) for best actress (Demidova), best director and best Supporting Actress for Nina Ruslanova.

“I am afraid of emptiness. I mix different genres. In fact, I’m not well-educated. I don’t know some basics, that’s why I mix everything: jargon and pathos, filming in a studio and in streets. That is the freedom.”

Kira Muratova

Other films directed during that decade consisted of “Two in One” (2007), “Melody for a Street Organ” (2009) and “Eternal Homecoming” (2012), all of which captured Muratova’s unique auteurship. Featuring characters that behaved in inexplicable ways, bizarre unpredictable narratives, and a dark sense of humour which seemed to address the state of society at the time.

Towards the end of her life, Muratova supported the Euromaidan protesters and the following 2014 Ukrainian revolution. She passed away at the age of 83 on the 6 June 2018. Despite facing tight censorship in the early stages of her career, her later films would go to be premiered at International Film Festivals in Berlin, Cannes, Moscow, Rome, Venice and others. And, next to Aleksandr Sokurov, she’s considered to be one of the most distinct contemporary Russian-language film directors.

Renata Litvinova in “The Turner” (2004)

Although, her films are less well known outside Russia and Ukraine, there have been retrospectives in New York (2005) and at the enterprising RotAlthough her films are less well known outside Russia and Ukraine, there have been retrospectives in New York (2005) and at the enterprising Rotterdam film festival (2013). Hopefully, more people will stumble across her work and become as intrigued as I am about this amazing female filmmaker who kept fighting to make the films she wanted to.

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