Director: Svetlana Belorussova
Writer: Svetlana Belorussova
Cast: Anna Blinova, Ol’ga Belinskaya, Natalia Iokhvidova
Running time: 19mins
Corporatised higher education has landed students in a strange limbo where I’m from. In the UK, they are told a degree is the ticket to a ‘decent job’ with higher pay and better conditions – a new, more comfortable life than their parents, especially for working class kids. However, there have never been the number of graduate jobs created to employ the number of graduates created since the Blairite 90s, and those which have been are the some of the worst paid in Northern Europe.
Well, defenders of the system insist, you shouldn’t be in it for the money – you should be at university for the love of learning. The problem there is that the market-orientated university is now geared largely toward ‘employability,’ and profitability. You can still sign up for a myriad of different subjects, but more and more the emphasis is on ‘transferable skills’ rather than the ‘luxury’ of truly specialising in a passion. At the same time, lecturers are expected to do more with less, meaning those who do want to push students to something greater (and there are so many) have almost no opportunity to do so.
Amid this industrial churn of crushed dreams and unfulfilled promises, what exactly are students supposed to hope for? Many, myself included, eventually fall into a rhythm of attaining for attainment’s sake. Accruing vast debts to pick up a degree you don’t enjoy, for a job that probably doesn’t exist, academia can provide a comfort blanket of still knowing you are in some way good. Going through the motions of writing initial essays that are ripped to shreds, reading someone else’s thoughts, learning to parrot them, and being told you are still a clever boy or girl is a rut quite a few of us have been stuck in. In this way, we lose sight of ourselves – our understanding of our hopes or beliefs relegated to the side-lines in the hope we can obtain another expensive certificate telling us we are worthy, but contradicting that by neglecting anything original about ourselves in the process.
Svetlana Belorussova’s Coo-Coo is a distressing anxiety attack of a short film, which addresses the paradox of marketised academia admirably, and with great patience. Over the course of 19 minutes, Belorussova’s script paints a picture of a young woman being pushed and pulled from all directions, desperate to live up to everyone else’s expectations to the extent she neglects her own wants and needs. Meanwhile, the action is impeccably paced, allowing us enough time to foster a meaningful relationship with our crumbling protagonist, without ever feeling like we are standing still.
Dasha (Anna Blinova) is an animal lover who has opted to pursue a PhD in natural history, but her love for her subject has placed her at odds with the system through which she can obtain that doctorate. Dasha’s academic advisor (Natalia Iokhvidova) consistently tries to drub this out of her – in a brilliantly weary performance.
The overworked professor scarcely has time to breathe between phone-calls regarding different facets of her responsibilities at the university – never mind offer up compassionate constructive criticism on Dasha’s work. While initially she seems like a frosty gatekeeper, simply hostile to Dasha’s ideas for the sake of proving she is smarter, it becomes increasingly apparent she wants to help her. She has been through this process, and knows that a marketable objectivity is what sees PhD students succeed – as it yields work the university can profit from. At the same time, she is still a human being, and a distinct sadness creeps across Iokhvidova’s face as she not only realises that she is failing to convince Dasha to change tack, but that she cannot find the time or space to comfort her in her grand moments of failure.
Meanwhile, Blinova as Dasha is a wide-eyed optimist steadily being dragged under by the cold and disconnected apparatus of the university machine. Initially undeterred by the negative feedback she receives for a study of seals which “reads more like a defence of the seals than of your work,” a visible terror creeps over her face throughout the film, as the character feels her passion slipping away. Before her final defence of her gutted PhD, Blinova’s face has drained of colour and joy, having realised she isn’t so much doing what she loves, as chasing the approval of people who don’t really care about it.
Dasha can find no refuge at home either, where her infuriatingly distant mother (Ol’ga Belinskaya) seems actively hostile toward her pursuit of science. This is never something truly explained, but the mother’s disdain seems to derive from the belief religion helped her in a way science did not. Perhaps there was an illness she recovered from against the odds, or perhaps religion filled the void left by the death of another family member science could not save. Whatever the case, she seems bent on punishing Dasha for her academic career, depriving her evidently stressed daughter of sleep via torturous night-time prayer sessions.
As Dasha slides toward breaking-point, the cinematography and soundtrack take on hallucinatory and eventually nightmarish qualities. Director of Photography Dmitry Nagovsky’s imagery is most arresting when it takes us on unnerving expeditions through the spiralling, eclectic undergrowth of a natural history museum – surrounding Dasha and us with unblinking, marble-eyed taxidermy that seems to be closing in from all sides. The electric wallpaper of Natalia Salmina’s haunting score meanwhile emphasises the encroaching doom, taking on an ominous hum in these scenes, before injecting breathy and forlorn vocals in the film’s climax.
The one thing that arguably holds the film back is the melodramatic nature of its ending. While a film which deploys impressionistic dream sequences to illustrate someone’s declining mental health might not be conventional ‘realism,’ Belorussova’s measured script and kitchen-sink presentation of reality mean audiences may not be primed to suspend their disbelief at what happens to Dasha – at least from a medical perspective. At the same time, it’s a unique conclusion – and in that regard I suppose the director’s gutsy decision to stick with it (in spite of what pernickety naysayers like me might think) is a good reinforcement of the film’s warning. Self-destructively chasing other people’s expectations is no way of realising your true value.
Overall, this is a symphony of a film, where all its pieces work together in harmony producing something worth more than its well-crafted parts. Ultimately, Belorussova can take or leave my pedantic notes on the film’s ending – the world of cinema would be a far duller place if it only catered to the expectations of critics like me. What is more important is that, unlike her tragic lead character, she continues to be true to her own passions and ambitions – because clearly, she creates great art when she does.