Another world premiere at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival is Rezo Gigineshvili’s latest film Patient No 1. The screening that took place on the night of the 9th of November was well received by the audience who have lived in the ESSR (Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic) and can relate to the topics in the film on a visceral level. We spoke with writer director of the film Rezo Gigineishvili about his creative vision.
Patient No 1 is a fictional film set up in late USSR. The General Secretary KU (Aleksandr Filippenko) lies in the government clinic. He is old and frail, but has a tight grip on power. “The power is only taken, it is never given away,” he repeats. And it is convenient for both the elites and the secret services – while the “body” is alive, various groups are scoring their political points. The General Secretary is “sentenced to life”. A young nurse Sasha looks after him. Small, fragile and invisible, she bears a heavy burden of responsibility for the life of the country’s top official and makes daily compromises to please the powers that be. Shot in just seventeen days near Moscow, the principal photography wrapped four days before Russia Invaded Ukraine.
Rezo Gigineishvili is an inspirational and thorough filmmaker always loyal to conveying own experiences. His previous feature “Hostages” (2017) premiered at Berlinale in the Panorama Programme and was selected for more than 30 festivals. According to Rezo, his filmmaking mentors like Danelli, Kazier, Gabriadze have taught him to love each character. “It doesn’t mean I justify them but refrain from despising. We should learn to distinguish negative human qualities from people themselves. Because confusing the two will only sow division and aggression.”
Speaking of the world premiere, he commented that he was delighted to see the glee on the face of Filippenko. “It made me realise that it doesn’t matter what awards this film will win or what people will think about it, but that this brave actor (who moved from Russia at the tender age of 86 as a protest against the war) got to feel the love of the audience and recognition.”
The film might appear as quite ‘close to the truth and actual events’ to some viewers. And there are some parallels but they go deeper than mundane social commentary on current situation. Rezo wants to avoid creating news pieces but instead creating art that can speak to generations in universal language.
The film is an allegory or Rezo’s personal experiences with his father, extrapolated to a rather peculiar and thought-provoking setting. “Memories from this time stand vividly in my mind: I can remember the squeaky wheels of the bed that carried him away to ICU. I remember dad’s slippers in the middle of the room, standing there without purpose and context.” These personal experiences spurred Rezo to write Patient No 1 during the COVID outbreak, when “we were receiving hourly updates of people dying. “My intention was to describe the departure of the soul from the mortal body. And the kind of body is very important – a body that can influence but is unable to function is in a sort of intoxicating vacuum of power. The KU is so drunk on power that he doesn’t think about his soon and imminent death but clings to his earthly activities – just one more appearance in public, just one more speech to read.” This ‘body’ can’t live without his electorate, his carnations, and children brainwashed from infancy to idolise him – an idyllic picture of communism everyone in the Soviet bloc grew up with.
He continued: “I don’t believe that the Soviet Union ended in 1991. Politically it did, but it lingers in my mind, my behaviour, my limiting beliefs and limitations. What was the norm in those days sounds absolutely absurd now.”
And yet, many will find parallels between the film and current situation in Russia quite obvious. Addressing that Rezo says: “Nietzsche has a theory of eternal recurrence. And I believe that we repeat the same cycles over and over again. This is the tragedy that the only thing that changes are ’decorations’. Some say they see parallels while others criticise me that I don’t capitalise enough on these similarities.”
With these discussions about power, the main character Sasha (Olga Makeeva) seem to get overlooked in the debate. She is a compliant young lady who seem to be caught up in a situation without any agency. Selected to look after the leader, she has no choice but to attend to his needs and witness the wheels of power in action. Sasha adds humanity to the picture and also some modernity. She wears her hair down, smokes, drinks vodka on public, wears colourful disco clothing and dances as if no one is watching – not a common practice in the Soviet Russia. The reason becomes clear as the filmmaker clarifies that he can relate to the protagonist the most. “The young lady at the core of the story is me. I am condemned to live with those people who I don’t always like. My entire generation has to make compromises like Sasha. We have the burden of legacy we can’t just forget. We are bound to take care of those things while our lives slip between our fingers. But I hope the day will come when all creatives will escape the shackles of worries about how to preserve ourselves and our well-being and will be able to focus on how to stand our ground and create our own art that speaks for something.”
And just like in the Patient No 1 where the all-powerful ruler seem to be ruled by nobody in particular but the system itself, Rezo draws on current situation “I have a feeling that nowadays, the political system is operated not by humans but by some sort of fate. As if the rulers don’t know anymore what they are doing but there is a force above them that seem to govern.”
Having said so, he hopes his dystopian vision doesn’t predict the future “as violence desensitises people to the sight of death: “It scares me to think that in this work I might have foretold the future ”because the future as I see it today saddens me, says Rezo. He continues: “The violence has reached such level that it’s filmed from every angle – from a helmet, from a tank or a car, a drone and even from space and all of it is shared on social media. We all watch it and get used to death. I’m against violence. I don’t want to see it or be flooded with it on my social media. I don’t want to see automatic guns sold as toys in children’s stores next to, say, a toy of Shrek. It multiplies violence.”
Speaking of violence and violent conflicts in the world in general, he muses: “Imagine your son, named after your father. You watch him grow, go to school, fall in love… Then politicians take him away because reasons. Politicians write off casualties, negotiate, yet our lost sons are irreplaceable.” His current gloom and despair definitely leaks in to Patient No 1 despite it being shot before the Russian invasion. It offers a lot to ponder upon from the state of power to acceptance to our own mortality.