Review: The City of The Sun (2020)

Visions du Réel
International Medium Length & Short Film Competition
Special Mention

Courtesy of Visions du Réel

The phenomena of Vissarion, the self-proclaimed Christ and “The Giver of Life” is one of the most fascinating stories in the modern history of religious cults. The former mechanic and traffic cop Sergey Torop called “Teacher” by his congregation, has gained a huge following after he founded the Church of the Last Testament four years after the collapse of Soviet Union, which is when he moved to Siberia. Vissarion’s believers followed to build a commune under his authority which has around 4.000 inhabitants today. In the meanwhile, things are much different.

Since late September 2020, things look slightly different. Ironically put, it turned out that Vissarion “isn’t a Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!”*

While she was filming her short docu-drama The City of The Sun Maria in Siberia, Semenova couldn’t know that the release of her film would coincide with the arrest of Vissarion and his accomplices Vladimir Vedernikov (the Head of the Church of the Last Testament) and Vadim Redkin (Vissarion’s right hand) on September 22, 2020. The three men who were controlling the life of the community were charged of extorting money and causing both physical and psychological harm to their followers. Two incidents have initiated this process: the death of a child, and a suicide by one of the members, both reported to the authorities by a former cult member. The cause: medical intervention was outlawed in the City of the Sun, because “only the spiritual strength could hel the flesh”.

With the latest events, the future of many people may change forever. Some have come from as far as Latin America or Africa to settle in there. Some were never asked to be taken to Siberia, they were simply brought with. Most of them were children.

The film follows the path of a 11-year-old Tisha who was taken to The City of The Sun against her will. Right at the start – during scenes shot on a long train journey to Siberia, it becomes clear that Tisha’s father simply left his wife and a newborn son Tikhon behind to pursue his religious beliefs. He shows no remorse, he is already brainwashed enough into believing that what he’s doing is the only right thing to get closer to Jesus. When his daughter inquires about mother, he is very careful not to give her a direct, clear answer.

Maria Semenova manages to paint a faithfull picture of indoctrination, showing how a child gradually adapts to new rules when dragged in to a cult by the person of confidence. By establishing connection between her main protagonists and the cult leader through the actual footage of the sermons, and ceremonies in which they are participating, Semenova creates her own parable of contradicitons. We got to see Vissarion on a number of occasions, including his fabulously pompeous appearance as a Messiah seated on a large wooden thron with a baldachin placed over it.

As soon as the father and daughter reach the settlement, they join the rituals of the Church of the Last Testament. Tisha is longing for her mother, but with time she starts losing her images, and her prayers become different: if she longed to be picked up by her mother to be brough back home, she now wants her to join the community to be saved from the worst. Semenova also visits the mother who speaks about how it all started. The woman doesn’t even dream of joining the sect, but the separation from her daughter is a big, open wound.

The settlement is ambitiously called “The City of the Sun”, not because there is plenty of sunshine in a place with very short summers and long, brutally cold winters. The name points out at the spiritual, on one side as the light brough by a deity, on the other as the place of bliss, which funnily enough had to be officially registered as an eco-settlement to avoid problems with the authorities. In a way, it could be described as such as well because only such food that is grown by its inhabitants can be consumed, meat is banned from the diet, and there is a huge accent on harmony with nature. The latest development of things will probably lead to fundamental changes, resulting in bannishment of the religious community and turning it into an average, politically governed settlement or in an actual eco-village.

We caught up with The City of The Sun at the online edition of Visions du Réel, where it won a special mention in the International Medium Length & Short Film Competition.

*Terry Jones in Monty Python’s “The Life Of Brian”

Original Title: Gorod Solnca
Country: Russia
Language: Russian
Runtime: 29′
Written/ Directed by: Maria Semenova
Director of Photography: Alexander Aleshkovskiy
Sound Director: Daria Gileva
Colour Correction: Evgeniy Gvozdev
Video Stabilization: Michael Zagaynov