THE BLOG

Sochi: A Timeless Unreality

19/02/2014 18:04 GMT | Updated 21/04/2014 10:59 BST

A burning sun beats down on a buzzing port, as a majestic cruise ship prepares to sail away into distant lands. Strolling among the crowds is the Gorbunkov family, a fairly ordinary Soviet working family, blond, tanned and happy, dressed in white holiday attire. The radiant mother and polished children with their golden locks blowing in the sea breeze are saying goodbye to the father, Semyon Semyonovich, leaving to go on vacation.

This is the opening scene from the Soviet cult comedy film The Diamond Arm filmed in 1968 by the legendary film director Leonid Gaidai, and starring some of the most famous actors of the time. The Diamond Arm follows Semyon Gorbunkov as he gets muddled up in a criminal affair that triggers a series of qui pro quos.

The opening scene of this all-time leader of Soviet box office hits was shot in the port of Sochi. In 2008, for the 40th anniversary of the release of the film, it acquired a bronze statue, created by local sculptors, portraying the legendary characters of the film in movement. The Gorbunkov family in bronze blends into Sochi port life in the same way the film itself has become an inherent part of Russian cultural identity.

During Soviet filmmaking times, when international travel was prohibited, Sochi's unique landscape was used to recreate scenes of port towns, holiday resorts, exotic and fairytale lands. Located in the Krasnodar region in the southern part of Russia, on the shores of the Black sea, Sochi's climate and ecology are dramatically different from the rest of the country. Located on the same latitude as Nice, Sochi has an abundance of flowers and tropical flora, such as palm trees, making it particularly non-Russian. This sunny idyll in a country of forests and snowy wilderness was a beloved destination for Soviet filmmakers.

Sochi also appears in the 1956 film adaptation of a classic children's book Old Khottabych, a mix of Harry Potter and Avatar set in the USSR that explores the relationship between a pioneer boy and a genie who grants all his wishes. Gennadiy Kazansky, the director, used Sochi to recreate the atmosphere of a Middle Eastern fairy-tale. The scene, beloved of many generations of Soviet and post-Soviet children, features elephants and camels parading through the streets of Sochi.

The city witnessed one of the most extravagant filming sites in Soviet film history, with some of the most complex animal dressage. In the background one can spot the famous «Танцующие вакханки» (Dancing Bacchantes) fountain of the subtropical park situated in one of greater Sochi's most famous health resorts. City legend has it that the fountain was restored especially for the film set.

However, Sochi's photogenic qualities had already been discovered by the time of the Russian Revolution by a certain Yevgeni Bauer, a Russian film director from the beginning of the 20th century, and the master of silent film. Considered the leading stylist of Russian cinematography, he created nearly 80 films, half of which have survived. Among them, The Dying Swan, shot in 1916 (1917 depending on the sources), was set in Sochi and starred the then leading Bolshoi dancer, Vera Karalli. We discover the pre-revolutionary city with its Italianate colonnades and villas dripping in tropical flora, a setting that gave lyrical opulence and an almost natural pathos to Bauer's films.

Sochi has been adapting to these imaginary worlds since the beginning of Russian cinematography. Hundreds of films have been shot here, fulfilling the wildest dreams of their creators. Similar to Cannes, the film capital of France, locals were accustomed to seeing famous film stars sunbathing on Sochi's beaches and the Town History Museum has preserved some of the relics from the film shoots, as well as autographs and photos. Yet unlike Cannes, the city hasn't capitalised on its cinematographic identity.

There are no iconic images of Russian film stars appearing against Sochi's dramatic landscapes, such as those of Brigitte Bardot lying in her striped jumper on the sandy beaches of Cannes. Nor have there been tours of Sochi's most filmed locations, such as those in Paris taking tourists around the key sites from Amélie. It almost seems like the city and its inhabitants offered its nature and architecture, so untypical of the Russian landscape, for the construction of artificial realities without ever making them their own. Those Russians who have never been to Sochi perceived the city through its episodic appearances in films as a distant land in their own country where frivolity and fables became reality among palm trees and sunshine.

Since Sochi was selected as host for the Winter Olympics, there has been a general sense of dismay among the Russian intellectual elites and public figures. Boris Nemtsov, one of the members of the opposition, famously said "You'd have to spend a long time searching the map of this huge country to find someplace with no snow". The country that is internationally known for its bitingly cold winters and interminable plains of snow chooses Krasnodar region in its most southern part to hold the Winter Olympics. Yet Sochi's history as a favourite mise-en-scène in Russian and Soviet cinema has prepared the territory for a new kind of reality - the Olympic one.

This very concept of Sochi as a mise-en-scène attracted a German stage designer and filmmaker by the name of Steffi Wurster. When she read about Vladimir Putin's plan to build an Olympic site in Imeretinskaya bay, just south of Sochi, she was immediately attracted as a stage designer by this idea of a "model reality" that was created. "It would have been the biggest artificial reality I would have ever encountered". This original thought led her to embark on a three-year journey documenting the creation of this gargantuan mise-en-scène on film. "I fell in love with the area, it was wild and rough", recalling her initial impressions. Although her first approach was artistic and philosophical, when she met local people who were directly affected by the building site and were forced to leave their homes and relocate, she decided to give them voice and let them talk about their Sochi and their experiences.

Her documentary "Homes for Games" offers a new image of Sochi, in stark contrast to its idyllic and slightly mythical cinematographic representation in Soviet and Russian films. She showed how a new kind of dream was being built in contemporary Sochi. The dream of frivolity, comedy and childish tales yielded to fake snow and exuberance built from nothing. It was an entirely new film set, yet on this occasion it was unclear who the film director was and what the consequences would be as the bulldozers and excavators came to invade the land.

Those bulldozers and excavators are also invading shots in the long and slow takes in "Homes for Games", brilliantly capturing Russia's post-modern identity crisis. Since perestroika, there has been a tendency to destroy the old and bring in the new: glossy, concrete and colourful. During her three years documenting the Olympic transformations of Sochi, Steffi Wurster has witnessed "the destruction of everything positive in the landscape led by this desire to compete with the rest of the world, having world-class facilities and not considering what made Sochi special 30 years ago". The Olympic park is adapting alien styles and mixing them, with no attachment to what has been acquired throughout Russian history. In the Russian state media, however, there seems to be a prevailing sense of pride in making this artificial reality possible.

In "Homes for Games" you see the local population detached from the rest of the country. Locals in Sochi tend to say they are from Sochi and not from Russia. Wurster noticed that they almost felt like the Kremlin wasn't affecting them, that they didn't belong to the rest of the country; they had their own local government they were blaming for their housing issues. The Olympics made them realise that they were part of a bigger master plan that they weren't in control of, creating a profound sense of unease that is captured in Wurster's protagonists.

This unease prompted the first signs of an emerging civil society. The construction of the Olympic site has made local people reconsider the question of their identity. Since the beginning of the building works, new blogs revisiting Sochi's past and created by locals have been emerging online, documenting the transformations, as well as the historical legacy of the city. It seems as if the locals are rediscovering their own space and environment, looking at it in a different light.

After so many dreams have been realised under the smouldering sun of Sochi, it was about time its people considered their own dreams. After all, it has been a land where anything could be made possible.