"Putin's Kiss" opens with footage from a youth camp in Russia: thousands of smiling young people partying in bright sunshine. The next scene is grainy CCTV footage of a violent episode in a city at night: a group of men kicking a figure lying crumpled on the ground.
"When Nashi members throw posters of their enemies on the ground and stomp on them, to me it bears a frightening resemblance to other fanatic youth organisations of the past."
A documentary about modern Russia under President Vladimir Putin, "Putin's Kiss" is full of contrasts: violence and happy young people, grey concrete apartment blocks and glittering skyscrapers, choreographed mass demonstrations and critical opposition voices.
One of the young people at the youth camp is Masha, the documentary's charming protagonist. The camp is organised by Putin's youth movement Nashi, and as we meet her in the opening sequence, Masha is one of the movement's leaders. The storyteller in the film is the liberal journalist Oleg Kashin who becomes friends with Masha and who plays an increasingly crucial role as the story progresses.
"When Nashi members throw posters of their enemies on the ground and stomp on them, to me it bears a frightening resemblance to other fanatic youth organisations of the past. Nashi is on the one hand represented by Masha's smiling face, and on the other hand is completely paranoid and has a goal that nothing can be allowed to challenge the regime," the film's director, Lise Birk Pedersen, says.
Pedersen takes us to nouveau-riche Russia as well as to the drab universe left over from the Soviet days. We meet chic citizens with manicures and laptops, as well as pale, hunched-over young people transported like cattle to mass demonstrations. The director consciously attempted to capture Russia's contradictions in her documentary's aesthetics.
"I try to take in everything I see. Then I try to communicate my impressions to make the film visually mirror the narrative. My photographer, Lars Skree, and I worked hard to show the contrasts that make up modern Russia."
Pedersen first became aware of Russia's contrasts in 2008 while shooting the documentary Nastya's Heart. The film is about a troubled teenage girl in a halfway house in Saint Petersburg, but while she was filming, the director encountered a completely different side of Russia.
"I had never seen so many expensive cars or women in expensive clothes before. We went to clubs and met young people living it up. I was surprised at how much energy the city contained. I saw that there was another side to the poverty-stricken Russia I knew, and I wanted to explore that aspect of the country.
"I was already making Nastya's Heart, and I wanted to talk with other girls from the same generation to show the huge divide in the country. So I took a research trip, where I focused on young people who were born 20 years ago, around the time the Soviet Union fell apart."
Masha with her family in "Putin's Kiss". Photo: Lars Skree.
Putin, I Love You
Eastern Europe, and especially Russia, has always fascinated Pedersen. Her fascination only grew when she met the country's privileged youth.
"Meeting Masha and the organisation Nashi was a huge eye-opener. Nashi is very seductive. Their headquarters were entirely done in red and white, and their flag and logo were absolutely everywhere. Then Masha sat down in front of me and said, 'Our plan is to turn Russia into the global leader of the 21st century.'"
The film owes its title to an episode at a youth meeting where Masha got up, went over to Putin and kissed him on the cheek.
"There is obviously a duality in the kiss. Was it a good or bad thing for her? Masha got something out of it, but at the same time total loyalty is expected. It was a kiss with a price attached," Pedersen says.
"Masha gets a good job at a television station. She has a car and her own apartment, while most people her age in Russia are still living with their parents."
The director is convinced that seduction is a deliberate strategy in Nashi, where Putin is idolised like a rock star.
"Students from the Moscow State University's school of journalism made a calendar to celebrate Putin's birthday. In it, scantily dressed girls say, 'Putin, I love you' and 'Putin, you're simply the best.' This form of communication is deeply rooted in Russia. Criticism isn't popular. There can only be one way forward, and that way is decided by Putin."
"Putin's Kiss". Photo: Lars Skree
Masha's transformation from enthusiastic Putin-supporter to her seriously doubting Nashi's methods forms the narrative backbone of "Putin's Kiss".
"Masha meets a critical journalist, Oleg, and although he and Masha are very different, they become friends and can discuss their differences. The film charts her education," Pedersen says.
"We see Masha at Nashi and as she faces a number of moral dilemmas. At one point, she is forced to turn in some of her new liberal journalist friends to the authorities, and she suddenly becomes aware that the organisation she is so deeply involved in has a dark side. She is told that she has to choose between Nashi and her new friends. An impossible choice for Masha."
Masha is seduced by Putin's power and by the material rewards for her work for Nashi. But the seduction has a downside, and rejecting the seducer is not a popular option. In the documentary, we experience at close hand the extreme dangers you face criticising the regime, when one of the characters almost gets beaten to death.
In "Putin's Kiss", the roles of hero and villain are clearly defined, as Pedersen is well aware. "It's hard to avoid portraying Nashi as the villain and the opposition as the good guys. After all, I live in Denmark, I believe in democracy, and that's apparent in the film. So, although both sides speak their minds, I’m the one making the movie. No one can totally leave their background behind."
At the end of the day, Pedersen says, this is also what the film is about: "Russia is still marked by its communist past. You don't throw that away in a single generation. That kind of transformation takes time."