The Outskirts


posted to on April 9, 2004


Peter Lutsik's 1998 "The Outskirts" (Okraina), which just ended a one-week run at NYC's Anthology Film Archives, mixes the Communist nostalgia of "Goodbye Lenin", the deadpan humor of Finnish director Aki Kurismaki and the esthetic conventions of 1930s Soviet film.


Set on the Russian steppes and filmed in black-and-white, it is the story of a group of peasants seeking revenge against the oil company that bought the collective farm from beneath their feet and the return of their land. During the entire film, it does not stop snowing once. As the peasants make their way across the frozen tundra toward the city that houses oil company headquarters, they take vengeance against a series of former Communist bureaucrats who connived with oil company executives. Except for the youth Kolya that they have drafted into their crusade against the protestations of his babushka-wearing mother, they are all grizzled veterans of WWII.


In a scene that captures the sensibility of this odd but gripping film, they break into the home of one well-heeled bureaucrat who refuses to identify the criminal at the top even after they threaten to boil him alive. One of the peasants proclaims (as they do unfailingly throughout the film) that he will extract the information from him in a dark and freezing basement that is accessible only through a trapdoor. After he strips down to his underwear, his accomplices strip the bureaucrat and throw him into the basement, where he is followed by the peasant who spends the entire night chasing and biting him in the pitch-black gloom. The next morning the peasant ascends from the basement in bloody undergarments and announces that the bureaucrat surrendered the identity of the big boss and then immediately died of fright.


When they arrive in the big city, they exchange their crude peasant garb for suits and sports jackets and leave their shotguns and revolvers behind them. This is the only way that they can get past the security guards and into the office of the Chairman of the Board of the oil company who possesses their collective farm's deed. They do smuggle razors in their mouths, however.


The oil company boss sits at a desk that is--in his words--worth more than their entire village. Behind him are shelves stocked with bottles containing oil samples from his worldwide holdings, including their former land. Even after offering him a substantial payment to regain their land, he dismisses their offer. The future is in oil, not farming, he tells them. Thereupon they wreak vengeance and in the next scene the film ends on a happy note with smiling peasants driving tractors on their recovered land just like in a Stalin-era propaganda poster.


"The Outskirts" has been virtually banned in Russia. The Nov. 18, 1998 Toronto Star reported:


Russky Telegraf, a newspaper owned by one of Russia's most influential billionaire financiers with major oil interests, said the film is provocative and dangerous.


Film critic Alexander Timofeevsky wrote that people would "go and cut off heads and put children on hot stoves; to prevent this, I appeal to the chairman of Roskomkino (the Russian film ministry) to ban this movie."


Russian public channel ORT turned the film down on the grounds that Russia's political situation is too unstable to screen such a film, and RTR (Radio Television Russia), the wholly state-owned channel, could not afford the rights, said Raissa Fomina of Moscow-based distributor Intercinema.


Independent television NTV had offered a very small amount and said it would screen the film late at night in a "graveyard" slot while negotiations with Moscow-based TV Centre seemed similarly doomed, she said.


Meanwhile, an April 8, 2004 Counterpunch article by Adam Federman titled "When Property is Sacrosanct Sacred Capitalism Hits Russia" concluded with the following observation:


On a former collective farm in Russia's black earth region that has fared comparatively well in the post-Soviet era the director confessed to a researcher that, "I could have made all of it into my own property, but to do it one must have no conscience at all." Perhaps soon he will understand the sanctity of private property and have no second thoughts about making it all his own.




Between 1998 and 2004, the lot of peasants has grown worse in the former Soviet Union and its Comecon partners. Eventually they will be forced to resist, leaving aside the question of whether that resistance will have the character of Lutsik's absurdist comic pastiche. Since Lutsik clearly is as much drawn to the conventions of Western experimental film as he is to a socialist realist past, it suggests that the Russian intelligentsia remains challenged by an imperative to construct an art form rising to the occasion of the nation's crisis. Although "The Outskirts" is marred by film school edginess, it is worth tracking down if it shows up in the art-film theaters in your city.