Back in the USSR . . . on LSD

A wild satire about mad ad men rebranding Russia apparently has a fan in Vladimir Putin

A scene from 'Generation P'

As journalists at TIFF, we spend most of our time chasing Important Movies and bagging celebrity interviews. As a result, we don’t have time to enjoy the most exclusive activity a film festival has to offer: discovering far-flung curiosities of world cinema. So at some point during TIFF, I like to go off-road and see something wild. A few days ago, I found that opportunity, utterly by chance. After seeing the Neil Young documentary with my wife and son—a rare festival family outing—we were looking for a drink in the Lightbox and got dragged into a party for visiting filmmakers. I ended up sitting beside a genial director named Victor Ginzburg, who was born in Russia and emigrated to the U.S. in his teens. After our conversation, I was intrigued enough that I had to see his film.

He’s directed a feature in TIFF’s Vanguard program called Generation P, a hallucinogenic satire set in Moscow after the fall of the Soviet Union. It may well be one of the wildest films at the festival. It mixes the Chechen mafia, a dancing Boris Yeltsin, spin doctors fronting a Babylonian cult, computer-generated virtual polticians, Marshall McLuhan, magic mushrooms, LSD, and vast whorls of cocaine forming a mandala on a Persian rug.  Generation P—the P stands for Pepsi—has the freaky fizz of Terry Gilliam‘s Brazil, infused with the kind of barking-mad post-Soviet surrealism practiced by Dusan Makavejev and Emir Kusturica.

Based on Victor Pelevin’s best-selling cult novel, it’s the story of Babylen Tatarsky (Vladimir Yepifantsev), a poet who gets hired as an advertising copy writer. Bebylen’s job is to rebrand Russia by creating perverse slogans for the new onslaught of Western products. He promotes Coke as a violently fundamentalist option to Pepsi. An ad for a Christian church promises “a first class Lord for first class people.” A funeral parlour is flogged with the slogan, “Diamonds are not forever.” And a grisly scene of a medieval beheading drives home a pitch for Head and Shoulders—”Keep them together.”

While trying to fuel his creative juices, Babylen binges on psychedelic drugs, vodka and cocaine. He communes with the ghost of Che Guevera via a ouija board. And he loses himself in the coils of a Mesopotamian conspiracy, involving a ziguratt that takes the form of   a twisted ruin of a parking garage. Gizburg uses nifty graphic overlays and visual effects to create fairly authentic simulations of drug trips (always tricky on film). While watching the film dead straight in the early morning, I got completely lost in the byzantine narrative, which seemed tangled with arcane references. But I didn’t mind.

Ginzburg tells me his film has shown on 500 screens in Russia. And that Vladimir Putin is a fan. All of that is pretty remarkable considering how avant-garde it is; one can’t imagine a similar release for such fare in North America. Generation P is also on Russia’s shortlist for submission to the foreign-language category of the Oscars. Stranger things have happened. But not many.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.