My off-season, on-topic contribution to the CMBA ‘Politics on Film’ Blogathon highlights something I’ve been thinking about for ages, Russian children’s films I’ve felt speak to ‘inclusion’ and ‘belonging,’ (appeals to the Vulcan in me :’)). You can read others members’ posts at this link!
Republic ShKID (1966)
Based on memoirs by former street urchins Leonid Panteleev and Grigory Belykh, this comic-tragic Dickensian film tells the story of soot-covered besprizorniks/homeless orphans plucked from the snow and placed in a Dostoevsky corrective school in 1920s Leningrad, where idealistic schoolmaster Viknicksor has faith in their inherent goodness and blank-slate ability to be educated/reintegrated. The wildly rebellious students soon acquiesce, learning to look out for each other and even forming a self-governing community – but the Pioneer Scouts still refuse them. We then meet the diminutive, charming ‘artist,’ Mamochka, who is shunned after trying to steal pretty things, magpie-like, and escape. When Viknicksor entrusts him to fetch something he’s eager to redeem himself but things don’t go well, until an act of altruistic, near-fatal bravery makes Mamochka a hero to Pioneers and ShKID boys alike: a deeply moving anthem to art as religion embodied, to all those ‘less-than-ideal’ folks who would make perfect citizens if they had the chance.
Welcome, No Trespassing (1964)
It’s a little pointed in places, but I’ve written lots about how much I love this wonderfully-assembled Thaw satirical comedy, another ambiguous Scout-themed meditation on belonging, what makes a ‘good’ citizen. When absent-minded, independent Kostya Inochkin is turned out of summer camp for swimming in ‘unpermitted’ waters, he’s afraid to disappoint his grandmother at home, so he returns to camp and hides ‘underground.’ Pedantic scoutmaster Dynin is concerned with keeping up appearances and sticking to regulations, but the whole camp eventually discovers and rallies around the mischievous but innocent Inochkin, who still daydreams of winning Dynin’s approval. A festival at the end of the season sees Inochkin return like a triumphant prodigal son who can swim to his heart’s content – and so can everyone else. Like ShKID, this also has humorous/absurd Eisenstein references – but it’s the free flight at the end that does it for me.
Gena the Crocodile (1964) and Cheburashka (1971)
Not only do we get adorable live-action Pioneer Scouts, in this film series we get just-as-adorable stop-motion ones! Arriving to an animated Soviet micro-cosmos by fruit crate, Cheburashka is declared a creature ‘unknown to science.’ He befriends the equally-lonely, equally-lovable crocodile Gena, and they two of them perform earnestly civic-minded deeds, anxiously helpful members of their communities (who eventually win round and join their local Pioneers). There is something so precious and pure about these films, with a wistfulness that surely struck/stricks chords in every exile/wanderer/alien of any kind – and maybe also embodied the feelings of the Jewish animators of Soyuzmultfilm, ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ who were all the same fervently willing, heartfelt if unsettled USSR citizens, gently demonstrating, showing that only good can come from warm acceptance and ‘assimilation.’ I’ve written pages about how timeless - and sublimely, transcendentally universal - Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Free’ is, and it feels so right for this.
We’ll Live Until Monday (1968)
With the Prague Spring breaking on the edge of Brezhnev’s Bloc, this film offers a fascinatingly layered treatment of people’s voices. Generational gaps are patiently explored between grown-ups (including my always-crush Vyacheslav Tikhonov as Melnikov) and children alike. At first the film seems overtly propagandist, with the high-schoolers embodying modern ideals, but this melts away, as lecturers and students both struggle to find out what they want and care about. When sensitive, lonely Gena defends one of his classmates for honestly expressing her less-than-ambitious ambitions, the school is caught in a tense stand-off between a stubborn teacher and Melnikov’s rebellious class. A kindly teacher decides to share Gena’s essay with the frustrated Melnikov (who was about to resign), and the boy’s longing to belong might be all it takes for him to stay and try again: ‘Happiness is when you are understood by others.’
Perfectly sums up my feelings about all of these films :') Xo