1988 was a high point in the cultural transformations that exploded under perestroika. The films produced under these new conditions bore the malignant fruits of glasnost combined with the promise of fresh possibilities, a new cinematic language, new values and hitherto unseen characters and narratives. These films highlighted the moral collapse and unrepressed sexuality of working class families in pessimistic and cynical views of Soviet society: Malenkaya Vera (Little Vera, Vasili Pichul, 1988); they ridiculed the absurdity of Soviet ideology in grotesque satires – for example, Fontan (Yuri Mamin, 1988) – and creepy surrealistic fantasies – for example, Gorod Zero (Zero City, Karen Shakhnazarov, 1988) – while heralding in a remarkable cinematic transformation.
Igla (The Needle) was the seminal example of a postmodern, punk, neo-romantic perestroika-era cinema that defined the “late-Soviet New Wave” and facilitated the entry of a domestic underground youth culture into the mainstream. Part of the film’s appeal was that it broke the taboos of representing drug addiction, while featuring a countercultural milieu of rock music, slackers and mafia-types in the almost complete absence of Soviet authority save for the schizophrenic mumblings of popular television. Any semblance of socialist realism or, indeed, narrative logic is absent. Meaning, genre and structure are overwhelmed by playful languidness and a tone of universal apathy (1). The film incorporates an ironic attitude to Soviet hysterics, with an early example of Sots art performance a counterbalance to the cool slackness of the romantic hero. Most shockingly for Soviet audiences, Igla delighted in an ambivalent, non-moralising portrayal of drug addiction. Shooting up is rendered in great detail – the disjointed world of hallucinations is represented with a fascinated austerity – as is the agony of going cold turkey. Narratively it is clear that messing with drugs is deadly but the film’s texture also revels in the lush sonic and visual pleasures of morphine and the trippy logic of a playful postmodern televisual mélange slipping between a paranoid nightmare and a stylised narcotic euphoria.
The plot is decisively simple: Moro (played by the legendary Victor Tsoy from the Leningrad band Kino), a young, enigmatic, black leather clad man arrives in Alma Aty to collect an arcane debt. As the narrator states, “No one knew where he was going, and he didn’t know either.” Unexpectedly Moro becomes involved in helping his ex-girlfriend, Dina (Marina Smirnova), escape morphine addiction and exploitation by the drug mafia, headed by the mysterious The Doctor (Petr Mamonov, lead singer of the popular punk band Zvuki Mu). They go into the Kazakh desert for a spiritual cleansing but when they return to the city Dina relapses. Despite smashing the gang with his kung-fu and embarrassing The Doctor in a brilliant scene in a slowly emptying pool, Moro fails to get Dina off the needle and meets with a tragic end. Or at least that is how it seems, because in this film’s narrative audience expectations are constantly unsettled.
The film popularised Victor Tsoy for a mainstream audience. Tsoy had become a legend with anti-establishment youth who saw political messages in his allegorical lyrics and punk rock. His songs became romantic anthems of change and Tsoy was celebrated by many as the last romantic. Igla explicitly plays upon this new type of hero. Tsoy’s character was cast as purposefully enigmatic and romantic in a masculine, resourceful, caring and freedom-loving sort of way. Tsoy’s performance was charismatic, but he had no intentions of becoming an actor – this was a musical performance. His music and sound design were original and astounding with many of the songs that appeared in the film destined to become hits. His premature death in 1990 amplified his already enormous cult status.
Young Kazakh director Rashid Nugmanov was deeply involved in the rock subculture and his first short film, in 1986, was a rockumentary that featured Tsoy among other members of the Leningrad underground music scene. Nugmanov’s first feature attracted an extraordinarily broad audience of more than 20 million people over its three-month run (2). His last film, Diki Vostok (The Wild East, 1993) was a surreal adaptation of Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai, Akira Kurosawa, 1954) and featured a group of ex-circus dwarves who try to start a new society in the wilderness but are terrorised by a gang of bikies. All of his films regularly play in the space between the perversity of excessive symbolism and the absurdity of cinematic mischievousness. Nugmanov became the de facto leader of the Kazakh New Wave and was elected as President of the Union of Kazakh Filmmakers. In the mid-1990s he moved to France and entered the political fray as an opposition activist highlighting Kazakhstan’s corruption under President Nazerbaev. He is set to return to cinema with the release in 2010 of Igla: The Remix – a contemporary revisioning and updating of his perestroika-era classic for a new audience (3).
It is best to view Igla as an extended music video. It is full of such beautiful and strange scenes as that in which Dina tells Moro that she wants to go for a swim while trying to kick her addiction somewhere in the Kazakh wilderness. They walk out to the shores of the Aral Sea – it is completely dry and empty as far as the eye can see. They then climb aboard and explore a grounded, rusting tanker in the middle of the scorching desert that has enveloped the sea. Scenes such as this and the confrontation between Moro and the hysterical Spartak in an abandoned zoo that still resounds with the bellowing of beasts, inevitably call for allegorical interpretations as diagnoses of Soviet decay and national delirium as they purposefully do not make sense.
For critic Mikhail Brashinksky the film became “a model for the Russian version of postmodernism – uninhibited and uninformed, compensating for the lack of culture, skill, and resources with mischief and wit” (4). Typical of films of the New Wave, there is a disavowal of traditional narrative structures revolving around meaning and pleasure in Igla. A radical cinematic language that is playful, disruptive, consistently visceral and full of the unexpected replaces these structures.
Nugmanov supported this denial of meaning or serious symbolism by claiming, “it’s about friends who are trying to play in a film, that’s all. We just wanted to have fun” (5). Rather than being disingenuous, this comment suggests that Igla’s innovation was its “fun” experiments in the disjuncture between sound and image, meaning and symbol, genre and posturing. This is especially true of its hallucinogenic sound design that was revolutionary in Soviet cinema for the way it offered an obvious, childish subtext to the action in a sonic form. Enigmatically dedicated to Soviet television, the film presents a mishmash of fragments of popular programming that pervades the somnambulistic fog the characters inhabit. In this delusional world anything is plausible because cultural symbols have lost their power, authority is decaying and nothing is serious other than the pulsating rock music that leads the stabbed Moro stumbling through the snow and into the future.
- Marina Drozdova, “Dendi perioda postpunka”, Isskustvo Kino (Moscow) March 1989, p. 75.
- Kinopoisk.ru claims that 15.5 million viewers saw the film, whereas Gönül Dönmez-Colin in Goumlnuumll Doumlnmez-Colin, Cinemas of the Other, Intellect, London, 2006, p. 173, claims 20 million viewers attended.
- Michael Brashinsky, “Igla”, International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Encyclopedia.com 2001: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3406800429.html.
- Andrew Horton, “Nomad from Kazakhstan: An Interview with Rashid Nugmanov”, Film Criticism vol. 14, no. 2, Summer 1990, p. 35.
Igla/The Needle (1988 USSR 81 minutes)
Prod Co: Kazakhfilm Studios Dir: Rashid Nugmanov Scr: Alexander Baranov, Bakhyt Kilibayev Phot: Murat Nugmanov Ed: Khadisha Urmurzina Prod Des: Murat Mussin Mus: Viktor Tsoy
Cast: Viktor Tsoy, Marina Smirnova, Pyotr Mamanov, Aleksander Bashirov, Arkhimed Iskakov