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By Neil Young on

BIFF 2013 champions extreme filmmaker Alexey Balabanov

BIFF Co-Director Neil Young talks about introducing festival audiences to the moral wasteland of Russian director Alexey Balabanov’s work.

“How do you go about choosing the films?” is probably the question I’m asked most often in my capacity as Co-Director of Bradford International Film Festival.

To be honest, I try to keep things as simple as possible, and the elements of the programme which are the result of my input reflect my own personal taste as much as anything else. It’s a matter of gut reaction, enthusiasm, and a kind of evangelical impulse to introduce others to the films and film-makers I think they’d appreciate and enjoy.

A complication is the annoying fact that other people’s tastes are often very different from my own—I’m also a reviewer, and have found myself ‘out of step’ with the critical majority on countless pictures over the years, especially supposedly ‘lowbrow’ American comedies such as Danny Leiner’s Dude, Where’s My Car? and Nima Nourizadeh’s Project X.

And when I’m using my position at Bradford to champion a polarising, extreme filmmaker like Russia’s Alexey Balabanov, I brace myself for the worst.

Introducing Cargo 200—his astonishingly dark black comedy from 2007—at Pictureville Cinema the other day, I warned the audience that they were about to experience something as horrible as it is brilliant. Degradation and inhuman behaviour are very much part of Balabanov’s palette as he plunges us into the moral wasteland that was the USSR in the early 1980s.

Alexey Balabanov's Cargo 200
Alexey Balabanov’s Cargo 200

I sat in and watched the picture again, and as the lights went up there was a distinct sense of a collective release of breath.

Fortunately my ‘gamble’ seems to have paid off, and rather than howls of outrage at putting depravity up on the big screen at Bradford’s national museum, I’ve heard mainly expressions of admiring amazement at Balabanov’s uncompromising talents—and also at his strangely low profile in terms of European auteurs.

His is a large and prolific filmography and the three recent features we’re showing here at BIFF 2013 can really only represent an introduction to his oeuvre. Who knows, perhaps for BIFF 2014 we can delve a little further back into his catalogue and showcase the likes of Brother (still one of the biggest hits in Russian box-office history), Of Freaks and Men and The River.

Or maybe there might be scope for a more expansive survey of recent Russian cinema—it’s a scandal that such astonishing movies as Svetlana Proskurina’s Truce and Aleksandr Mindadze’s Innocent Saturday have never been picked up for UK distribution.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself with this talk of 2014 (as soon as one festival’s catalogue deadline passes, we can’t help but start pondering the next one). There are still a couple days of BIFF 2013, with Balabanov magic popping up twice on Saturday. Not that I’m anticipating that the spell will work on everyone.

And that’s what festivals are all about: differences of opinion. As they say east of the Urals:

“Ne imey druga potatchika, a imey druga poperechnika.” … “Don’t have a friend who always agrees with you, but have a friend who argues with you.”

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