POLITICS DECEMBER 12, 2008
In a village somewhere in the Middle East, an American doctor paces tensely around a cramped room. He’s lecturing his wife, a fellow doctor, on the nature of their mission. “We’re the frontline of civilization,” he tells her. “We’re here to help these people up--bring them from the Third World up to our level.” Whether the locals want it, he adds, doesn’t matter: “The point is, they need it. … We’re here to show them what a normal life is.” The wife is unconvinced--partly, perhaps, because the couple’s own marriage is a dysfunctional mess--but the husband squashes her protest: “The strong influence the weak, Jane!” he yells. “It’s our duty, and it’s always been that way!” This exchange occurs midway through a new film about American medics who come to a war zone to vaccinate children. By the end of the movie, Tom, Jane’s husband and the head of the team, is no longer just an obnoxious, patriotic cliché-spouting jerk but a monstrous hypocrite. Having killed an innocent man, he proceeds to blame the death on “the terrorists” at a press conference. With the Stars and Stripes behind him, Tom concludes his rousing speech with the words, “America must act!” Bill O’Reilly can rest easy: This is not the latest product of the America-hating Hollywood Left. The film, Strangers (Chuzhiye), was released last month in Russia with the slogan, “The most topical movie of the year!”--presumably in reference to Russian-American tensions in the wake of the war in Georgia. A bizarre mix of over-the-top agitprop and equally over-the-top melodrama, Strangers is indeed quite topical in its own way--for what the movie itself and the events surrounding it reveal about the state of Russian culture and attitudes toward the United States. But what it reveals is not what you might expect--and probably not what the creators of this film expected, either. The old Soviet-model anti-American propaganda machine, retired with the decline of communism in the late 1980s, has been reactivated in the past five or six years, in the new authoritarian Russia of Vladimir Putin (and now, Putin successor/Mini-Me Dmitry Medvedev). And the campaign doesn’t just launch standard-issue complaints of U.S. policy; it indulges in a wildly conspiratorial streak, too. Last September, Channel One, Russia’s largest national television channel, aired a program endorsing claims that the September 11 attacks were an inside job by American warmongers. A November 2 rally held by the state-subsidized youth movement Nashi (“Our Guys”) at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow featured an amateur film in which a drunk “George W. Bush” bragged that the United States had engineered both World Wars, Hitler’s rise, and the conflict in Georgia in order to expand its power and to keep Russia down. Strangers, partly financed by a government grant and written and directed by Russian cult filmmaker Yuri Grymov, could be the Reefer Madness of this propaganda campaign, its message as subtle as an old Pravda editorial. The film’s American characters--played by actual Americans--are both odious and pathetic. The blustering Tom (Mark Adam) is a coward, his lack of manliness underscored by his infertility and confirmed by his sullen resignation to cuckoldry. Jane (Scarlett McAlister), desperate for a baby, solves her problem by trysting with the brutish native fighter who serves as the group’s bodyguard. Meanwhile, Miss Stone (Kathleen Gati), an obviously unhinged and sexually frustrated aging spinster, terrorizes the native children by trying to educate them in Western ways; she rails hysterically against the filthy habit of eating with one’s hands and physically forces the kids to clap after she plays the accordion. The two remaining members of the motley crew--a gay interracial couple, Mike and Bill--might look like an exception to the parade of grotesques. Despite Mike’s occasional vanity and snippiness, the men seem kind-hearted, decent, and clearly devoted to each other. But that’s not how they are meant to be seen by audiences in Russia, where nearly half of the population still opposes equality for gays in areas other than marriage. Apparently, Grymov’s idea is to show--according to the synopsis on the film’s official site--“how an unnatural relationship can become a norm in the eyes of modern society.” The group’s acceptance of Mike and Bill is thus intended as an indictment of American political correctness. At the end of the movie, a young native boy who has innocently befriended the duo is horrified and repulsed when he peers through the window and sees them in bed, kissing. (Interestingly, the linkage of “American” and “gay” is part of the mindset of hardcore America-hating in Russia: the preferred anti-American slur of recent years, pindos, bears a strong resemblance to pidoras, the Russian equivalent of “fag.”) Even the Americans’ seemingly altruistic medical mission turns out to be a sham; we quickly learn that they’re only in it for the big bucks. The movie’s last minutes reveal--preposterously, at a public press conference--that the real purpose of the trip was to test a new vaccine for a pharmaceutical company, using Third World kiddies as guinea pigs. The ugly Americans of Strangers are contrasted with virtuous Russians: a platoon of army engineers specializing in land mine removal. (The local conflict remains a mystery; we know only that it is a “triangle” involving the Americans, the Russians, and the ethnically undefined Muslim natives. As a Russian major observes philosophically, “A triangle is a hard thing.”) Simple and wholesome in their desires, the Russian soldiers flirt chastely with a pretty Muslim girl, pray before an icon, and dream of home-cooked meals. The occasional encounters between the Russians and the Americans become cartoonish collisions of good and evil. A Russian army surgeon held prisoner by the native fighters saves Bill’s life when he is badly injured. Hours later, the Russians arrive in the village, carrying a wounded comrade who got blown up on a mine while rescuing a child, no less. The American medics lack the skill to save him but say nothing about the surgeon, presumably because they are in cahoots with his captors. As they make ineffectual attempts to stop the man’s bleeding, Tom finds this to be a good time to hector the Russians: “We are saving a victim of your aggression! You are the evil empire! You are worse than Saddam!” Finally, he caps his villainy by killing the noble Russian surgeon in a fit of misdirected jealousy.Strangers enjoyed a flurry of pre-release publicity in Russia, heightened by a widely circulated report that it had been banned in the U.S. on the State Department’s recommendation. After a pre-screening in September, a writer for the liberal New Times magazine gloomily predicted that “the film’s success on the wave of post-war patriotic hysteria is guaranteed.” Discussing the movie on the OpenSpace.ru website, political commentator Leonid Radzikhovsky noted bitterly that anti-Americanism in today’s Russia is a profitable business: “The higher-ups are willing to pay for it ... and the public eats it up.” But there is a twist ending to this story. Both the makers and the critics of the film may have overestimated the strength of Russian anti-Americanism. For one, virtually all the reviews were scathing. Even the pro-government daily Izvestia criticized the film’s crude stereotyping and absurd plot. The critic for another leading daily, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, blasted Strangers as “a political manifesto in the spirit of fashionable intolerance,” whose only purpose is to persuade the masses that everything that’s wrong with today’s Russia can be blamed on “those damn Yankees.” Under fire, Grymov--who had previously described the film as his statement about U.S. policies and the American mentality that “sets itself above all other nations”--suddenly began to say that Strangers had been completely misunderstood, that it wasn’t anti-American at all, and that he was “simply telling a story about people.” On his blog, he even claimed that his real goal had been to invite Russians to look inward, at the ways in which they themselves are similar to the arrogant and deeply flawed Americans. The audiences didn’t like the film any more than the critics did. Not only was it crushed at the box office (unsurprisingly) by the new James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace; it was also trounced by the Kevin Smith comedy Zack and Miri Make a Porno--which made 13 million rubles (about $481,000) in its first week of release in Russia, compared to just 3.4 million rubles for Strangers. Maybe Grymov’s propaganda reel was a victim of bad timing. By mid-November, the “post-war patriotic hysteria” with the accompanying surge in anti-American sentiment had largely worn off, and the election of Barack Obama has led many Russians to expect an improvement in relations with the United States (some belligerent gestures from the Kremlin notwithstanding). Or maybe the Russian public isn’t quite as eager to “eat up” rabid anti-Americanism as both the “patriotic” propagandists and the dissenters think it is. In any case, the humiliating failure of Strangers is a happy ending of sorts--except, of course, for the film’s producers. Their best chance to make some money with this movie might be to package it to U.S. audiences, as a straight-to-DVD cult hit. With a little luck, it just might become the Plan 9 From Outer Space for our time.Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason and the author of Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood (1989).
By Cathy Young