On its surface, Masha Novikova’s In the Holy Fire of Revolution, which follows the Russian chess champion and activist/politician Garry Kasparov as he and his comrades in The Other Russia movement wage a campaign battle against Vladimir Putin and his supporters, would suggest The War Room Russky-style. Unfortunately, the doc doesn’t sizzle like its title, but merely fizzles out. Novikova, instead of digging deep into the heart of the former Soviet Union, is merely content to toe the party line, trotting out all the usual dissident suspects to needlessly remind us that Putin’s Russia is a thug state. The main problem with Revolution is that it tells us nothing new, but merely shows us what anyone who’s tuned in to any international media outlet since the turn of the century already knew. That Kasparov’s contingent would hold their meetings in a crumbling, commie-drab building by candlelight since the electricity was cut off, and that a young mother working for the Kasparov side could be brutally attacked with a baseball bat, is sad, but not the least bit surprising or illuminating.
Not to mention the least bit cinematic—and trying to liven up the boring proceedings by interspersing footage of Kasparov’s sedate chess matches with propagandistic rallies doesn’t do much to help Novikova’s cause. While white subtitles on a usually white background make the translation nearly impossible to discern, the straightforward interviews with Kasparov are even more frustrating. Here is a gregarious man every bit as media savvy as Vladimir Putin, who knows when to play the strongman and how to soothe an insulted war vet. And yet Kasparov’s manipulation of his own image—revealed when he shows a photojournalist which poses work best—doesn’t even occur until an hour and a half into the film! Though The Other Russia refers to the 85% of the population not benefiting economically from Putin’s reign, Novikova’s exclusive focus on Kasparov and his fight for this hardworking silent majority comes at the expense of the other 15% that could have given her doc the dramatic tension it sorely lacks.
Indeed, Kasparov’s party’s first clash with Putin’s supporters doesn’t happen until a full 45 minutes into the film. And Revolution only gets interesting when Kasparov begins to lose his chess player’s cool, calling members of Putin’s Young Guard “worthless” people with “vacant eyes.” And speaking of youth, where is the Internet in all this political organizing? While Kasparov is forever complaining that state-run media keeps his message from getting heard, not once is anyone in The Other Russia shown attempting to organize young activists online. With such wild accusations of Kasparov as an “American pawn” and a “journalist for The Washington Post” being thrown by Putin’s youth movement, there is no doubt that these “vacant-eyed” twentysomethings are tuning in and logging on. So if anemic activist filmmaking like this, as uninspired as the monotonous protests that probably make Putin chuckle, is any indication of Russian apathy, it’s no wonder the chess champ lost to a master political player—who won with the same percentage of the total vote as the number of squares on a chessboard.
In the Holy Fire of Revolution premieres June 15 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival 2009. Click here for screening information.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.