Anna, a documentary from Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov that has recently been released on video from New Yorker, is a terrific window film. Anna is director Mikhalkov’s daughter (Mikhalkov is perhaps best known in the States, if at all, for his 1994 film Burnt by the Sun, which won the Oscar for best foreign-language film), and the film juxtaposes her growth from age 6 in 1980 to age 17 in 1991 with the twilight of the Soviet Union.
When Mikhalkov began this project, a deeply polemical and ambivalent home movie, during the repressive Brezhnev era, it was an illegal act. Home-movie cameras were not allowed, so the film was shot with professional equipment, and the film itself had to be either smuggled in or bought on the black market.
Mikhalkov’s method is to interview his daughter once a year during this period, asking the same five simple questions each time: What do you love most? What do you hate most? What scares you? What do you want more than anything? What do you expect from life?
At age 6 Anna is a typical child — sweet, silly, completely unselfconscious. Her great fear is a witch and she hates borscht. By the next interview, at age 7, her answers have changed dramatically. Anna has started school, and, as was required, has joined the Young Pioneers — a sort of Communist youth league. Her answers over the next several years seem to reflect not what she is really thinking, but what she is expected to think.
“What do you want more than anything?” Mikhalkov asks his 7-year-old daughter as she stands on the hillside field of the family’s country estate. “To be intelligent … ,” she answers, “ … and to behave well.” Not satisfied with this answer, Mikhalkov presses her, posing the question again, and she replies, “To give good answers.” There is a disturbing realization that political doctrination has taken hold, and her answers over the next several years take on a frighteningly distanced consistency. The adolescent Anna fears War, and desires Peace.
As one Russian premier after another dies (Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko, all within a three-year period), young Anna mourns the passing of each great leader, even if she gets confused about who is who. These annual interviews become a kind of cautious battle for Anna’s mind and soul, her behavior backing up Mikhalkov’s claims about the artifice needed to prop up a failed totalitarian regime, resulting in a gap between its citizens public faces and interior lives.
Using archival footage, Mikhalkov traces the Soviet regime through Brezhnev to Gorbachev to its collapse. Mikhalkov is deeply critical of Soviet Communism, but is, at best, ambivalent about the changes that democratization has brought to his country. He’s an aristocrat, and, though no friend of the Soviet regime, his patriotism seems to point back toward Czarist Russia rather than toward the promise of Westernized freedoms. His choice to document only the most decadent and ridiculous of Western cultural influences (televangelism and sub-Duran Duran New Wave) shows a troubling conservative streak, but his fear of cultural imperialism damaging a specifically Russian sensibility is understandable.
As the film ends, with Russia in a state of upheaval that seems to have only worsened in the intervening years, Mikhalkov interviews his daughter for the last time. Now 17 and preparing to move to Switzerland for college, she stands in the same field as she did when she was 7, and answers the same questions. She’s a pensive, timid teenager now, but one who is coming to grips with her country’s deceitful past and dangerously unstable present. She says that the land itself is most important to her, the very field she stands on, and insists that she will return to Russia after school, but can’t hold back tears while saying so.
“Why did Anna, a young girl aged 17, in need of nothing, start crying as she talked about her country?” Mikhalkov asks in his voice-over narration. But he leaves the question unanswered. Instead he turns toward his younger daughter Nadia, standing in the field, and the same age as Anna when this film began. “What scares you?” he asks. “I’m mainly scared of school,” the young girl replies. And so the film ends with the promise of a sequel, and another chapter in the story of what Mikhalkov calls “our great and unfortunate land.”
New Review ANNA D: Nikita Mikhalkov. (Not Rated, 99 min.)
"Anna" strikes one as a Russian version of Michael Apted's 7 Up series, but it plays out much more wistfully. As the film opens, Leonid Brezhnev is in power, and young seven-year-old Anna grins at the camera, mugging for her father. She fears "the witch" and desires a pet crocodile. "More than anything?" "Yes." The answers to simple questions, such as what she most fears, metamorphose from childish wishes to nuclear war. Always she wants "peace" and feels assured that her Soviet leaders are working on it. You can almost see the liberal Mikhalkov wrinkle his nose in distaste. The Berlin Wall crumbles and Anna, now 17 and on her way to college, offers up a tentative hope for the future of Russia.
It's a disarmingly bittersweet portrait of a young girl growing up in the shadow of the empire. Rarely as pedantic as it is simply melancholy, Mikhalkov brings his dreamer's eye to the fall of Communism and the rise of his daughter and provides a wholly unique glimpse behind former enemy lines. (9/5/97)
NIKITA MIKHALKOV On Shooting ANNA:
The very idea of a film by a father about his daughter is very personal, almost intimate. A not so serious `play film', in a way, similar to the Lumiere Brothers and their film of their child eating porridge. But in the same way that the Lumiere Brothers had no idea what doors they were opening up to the world, my little six year old daughter and I did not imagine, in making this `play' film, that the word would undergo such fundamental changes during the thirteen years that followed.
Our goal was to show our world in all its changes and movement as seen through the eyes of a young girl who grows and changes at the same time. Anna talks of something that we can neither simulate, nor direct: to know real life in its movement.
Dec. 27, 1996 `Anna': a home movie, with a message
Movie review -- (2 stars). A documentary by Nikita Mikhalov
by Doug Thomas, Special to The Times
The video revolution has made every camera owner a potential Spielberg. As a tool to chronicle families and the passage of time, the video camera is a very apt device. Yet it takes artistry and ingenuity to come up with something as entertaining or as potent as Ross McElwee's "Sherman's March" or Michael Apted's "7 Up" series.
In 1980, when Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov ("Burnt by the Sun," "Dark Eyes") decided to film one roll of film each year to chronicle his 6-year-old daughter's life, he faced problems Apted and McElwee could never imagine. The Soviet Union was still a powerful autocracy and had outlawed home movies (we never fully understand why). To shoot Anna playing in some weeds and answering simple questions, Mikhalkov put his family and crew at risk.
Mikhalkov's notion is neither as ambitious nor as deft as McElwee or Apted's projects.
At first, Anna's answers are predictable fare: She's afraid of witches, hates borscht and wants a crocodile. By age 7 she is aware enough of her nation's ominous power: She's afraid of nuclear war.
Mikhalkov should be given points for keeping the project alive even if the final result is not effective. Seeing the subtle physical changes in Anna right before our eyes is a bewitching effect.
By the end, Anna is a broad- shouldered teenager about to leave for college. She sits on the same hill a little blond girl danced around a decade before. The moment, which brings Anna to tears, feels scripted.
As she walks out of the picture, Mikhalkov turns to the camera and introduces the potential sequel: his youngest daughter Nadia (who starred with Mikhalkov in his Oscar-winning "Burnt by the Sun") just happens to be standing in a nearby field and answers the same series of questions.
Mikhalkov's project may launch hundreds of video amateurs focusing cameras on their children. Now if they can only keep up the filming each year.