The winner of a number of prizes at international film festivals, Boris Khlebnikov and Alexei Popogrebsky’s Koktebel is a simple low-key film, with plain-speaking and occasionally striking imagery that delicately supports the straightforward storyline. A father and his 11 year-old son are travelling across Russia from Moscow to Crimea, heading for a little town called Koktebel, where the boy’s aunt lives, hopping freight trains on the way, with a tent and their backpacks their only luggage. When they get caught by a train guard, they continue their way on foot, picking up a little bit of work here and there to earn a little money and buy a little food.
The boy (Gleb Puskepalis) is fascinated by the idea of flight and gliding, questioning his father about which kind of butterfly a worm in his apple will turn into, watching a hawk soaring above them and reflecting over pictures of an albatross he has found in the book of a man whose roof father and son are repairing. The boy also has an unusual ability to visualise the landscape around him from above in perfect detail. Koktebel as a destination takes on a greater resonance when the boy learns that its Russian name, Planerskoye, reflects the unusual air currents in the area that make it perfect for air gliding. The boy’s imaginings are however brought down to earth by the activities of his father.
The stops along the way are not good for the father (Igor Csernyevics), who finds it difficult to refuse the hospitality of the people they meet along the way. He overcomes his weakness for alcohol by refusing the vodka offered by the train guard, but it becomes their downfall when proffered by the crazy man whose roof they are repairing. In another place, stopping to stay with a young woman Xenia, they find themselves again stalled on their journey – this time the father’s weakness for women holding them back.
We never find out why the father and son are travelling, but the real point of the film is the examination of their relationship, their own hopes and the desires that keep moving them forward, and how reality and their respective strengths and weaknesses hold them back and affect the bond between them. The film was made the same year as Alexander Sokurov’s exploration of the same family bond in Father and Son, but the straightforward, gritty approach to the subject in Koktebel could hardly be more different from Sokurov’s floating, dreamlike abstraction and symbolism. An occasional image in Koktebel reminds you of Tarkovsky’s Mirror, but that’s almost inevitable considering his considerable influence on Russian and world cinema, particularly when working in landscapes such as this. More often however, the film is more reminiscent of the mood and pacing of the Belgian Dardenne Brothers films - Rosetta, The Promise, The Son -with a strong child as principal character, pitted against the harsh reality of the adult world and the poverty of their circumstances. Koktebel takes the same bleak, downbeat approach - although it is not without humour arising naturally out of the circumstances. If it never reaches the intensity of performance that the Dardenne’s actors draw out of the depths of their character’s, it depicts the bleakness of their landscapes equally well, with directness in the photography and with a striking choice of musical pieces, notably Chick Corea’s Children’s Songs, that hit the appropriate note for each of the circumstances.
Artificial Eye’s UK release of Koktebel is encoded for Region 2 and is generously presented on a dual-layer disc.
It’s hard to find too much to fault with regards to the picture quality as the 1.85:1 anamorphic image is largely stable and clear with good shadow detail. There are a few minor flaws in the print, dust spots and the occasional flicker that are more noticeable when seen against the static skyscapes. There are no deep black tones on account of the sepia tone that pervades the image, but this is probably an intentional colour scheme, emphasising the late autumn period that the film is shot in. There is some slight evidence of cross colouration, which suggests a high quality video source for the transfer, but it’s scarcely noticeable in normal playback. More noticeable is the occasional shimmer of compression blocking artefacts. Overall though, these problems are minor and the image often looks very striking.
There is a choice of Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks. Although you might not expect much difference between them for a film such as this, the surrounds are actually quite active through the film in the 5.1 mix – sometimes a little artificially – for environmental sounds of trains and wildlife, which are crucial for capturing the whole feel of the film. Both mixes however are fine and clear throughout.
Optional English subtitles are included and can be read clearly throughout.
While there aren’t many extra features, a long Interview with Boris Khlebnikov & Alexei Popogrebsky (30:37) interview covers a lot of ground, so is certainly worthwhile. It covers how the two director’s came to know each other and make films together and how the idea for Koktebel was developed. They talk through many of the scenes in the film, stressing that there is no intended symbolism. The Theatrical Trailer (1:25) gives the film a Kaurismäki feel and is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1. The Biographies are scant and tell you nothing more than the interview has already revealed.
Koktebel is a relatively straightforward film, where what you see is what you get and there is no need to look too deeply to draw anything more from the father and son relationship as it is presented. The whole tone of the Russian landscape and locations and particularly the people we come across on the way, bring out the characteristics of their natures and are complemented extremely well by the photography and the fine soundtrack. While the film perfectly captures the subject with a consistence and appropriateness of tone, there is nevertheless really not a lot to go on here, and the relationship between father and son is covered in little more than their respective hopes and disappointments when confronted with the reality of their circumstances. Koktebel never quite matches the depths of the human psyche that the Dardenne Brothers can achieve with this kind of material, nor the deftness and quirkiness of Aki Kaurismäki. The film is presented reasonably well on DVD by Artificial Eye, with an extensive and informative interview that achieves as much as most commentaries.