The people at TLA are going into the vault of GLBT cinema and releasing films that we ordinarily not get a chance to see and these fill a void in the history of our cinema. Already released is Paul Wagar’s “Shakespeare’s Merchant” which I have reviewed”, “Winter Kept Us Warm” and this week we get “Komrades” and “Birch” which is a very interesting look at male bonding in Russia through two short films.
“Komrades” is a documentary by Steve Kokker and is a personal tribute to Russian boys in uniform. Since (when the film was made in 1995) all men in Russia are required to do military duty, there was no shortage of men to photograph. When the film opens, we learn that Kokker has a penchant for the masculinity of young Russian soldiers and he tells us that he loves to hear their stories. It seems we are going to sit through a true confessions session with the men but then something happens and we learn about military hazing. These are not pretty stories and every interviewee has a story about someone who died because of the severe hazing. But we also learn about the camaraderie and friendships that come about because of military service. I feel quite certain that this is not what Kokker expected to get with his film. He probably went there looking for sexual stories and instead learned some of the secrets of military life in “Mother Russia”.
Kokker had no trouble entering into friendship with the guys he interviewed and he discovered their innate, natural masculinity and he was welcomed into the naval academy where the men begin their ten years of service and suffer continuous hazing from the older military men. The filming was done at the St. Petersburg military academy and the film is composed of interviews and clips from older Russian films.
We see men who are completely at ease and physically free with one another and who regard their friendships as paramount in their lives. He also shows us how alcohol plays into this and we see that the guys are really ready to speak openly once they have been drinking. For them to give away the secrets of the hazing rituals, we can easily see that they have been drinking.
What comes across to me is how we try to get a definition of what a real man is. Any hint of homosexual activity between the men is well hidden and if it is there at all, we do not see it.
“Birch” looks at one you g man, Nikolai that Kokker met in a Russian sauna. The sauna is a ritual in Russia and young and old alike go to the baths where they beat each other with birch branches as a way to expel unwanted toxins from the body. Our filmmaker is charmed by Nikolai and this is a look at their time together. More than that, I will not say except to mention that this short was made before “Komrades” and is probably what gave Kokker the idea to make the second film.