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The Hermitage Dwellers

A Film by Aliona van der Horst

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THE HERMITAGE DWELLERS is as much about the people who work in Russia's renowned museum as it is about the glorious art works housed in this St. Petersburg institution. We meet with several "Hermitage-niks"—including Olga Bogdanova, the head of museum maintenance, icon curator Alexandra Kostsova, museum attendant Valentina Barbashova, and art handler Vadim Kuptsov, among others—each of whom explains their own very personal reasons for considering the palace of Catherine the Great their "home."

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For Russians the Hermitage is regarded as a place of pilgrimage. For these workers, however, the Hermitage has also been a safe haven from the tumultuous events of Russian history and the hardships of contemporary Russian life. Indeed, each of them explains how their personal traumas and difficulties have been transformed by having developed an intimate relationship with a favorite piece of art. For them, surrounded everyday by remarkable beauty, the Hermitage has become a place of emotional healing.

For Vadim, formerly in the military in Azerbaijan, where he saw things that no one back home would believe, his job is a tonic for his troubled soul. He likes to look at Rembrandt's Prodigal Son because "it's about forgiveness." Valentina was an atomic engineer who lost her job in the wake of Perestroika. She supplements her meager pension by working as an attendant at the museum and spends many days in the company of Sweert's Portrait of a Young Man, whose subject was as impoverished as she is. Juna Zek is a metalworks curator who admires the precious collection assembled by Catherine the Great and walks through the rooms where she once slept. Alexandra, aged 82, is an icon curator who has spent her entire life rescuing inestimable icons from destruction. Finally, seventy-six-year-old Olga is the unofficial czarina of the Hermitage who runs her department with a firm hand.

THE HERMITAGE DWELLERS also uses archival footage to reveal that while this revered institution has usually managed to keep twentieth-century history outside its walls-from the Revolution, the terror of Stalin, WWII, and the harsh post-Soviet years-these events have also left their indelible mark on the museum.

The film traverses throughout this vast complex, gliding up staircases and through grand exhibit halls, showing curators at work in storage rooms filled with rare art works, groups of tourists and schoolchildren gazing up in wide-eyed wonder, staff members dining and dancing at a Victory Day celebration, and, of course, many of the world-famous paintings and artifacts on display.

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"An extremely loving, emotional portrait of the institution… Can be used for a wide range of audiences, including students in Russian culture and history courses and groups preparing to travel to Russia." —Slavic Review

"Besides being a superlative movie and indeed a work of art in itself, this film is ideal for teaching anthropology, ethnography and ethnographic method." —Anthropology Review Database

"A Must-See! Offers a fond (and often moving) glimpse behind the scenes at Russia's fabled Hermitage Museum." —Entertainment Weekly

"Highly Recommended! Bittersweet poignancy… Riveting!" —Educational Media Reviews Online

"What a powerful film this is! I can't recommend it highly enough." —Leonardo Reviews

"As the documentary progresses, we begin to get the sensation that this is truly a drama about people and the passage of time, and not so much about art. Yet it is about the museum, as much as this reflects the emotional and spiritual condition of the people to whom we are introduced. Highly original in scope, The Hermitage Dwellers takes us on a journey of a country that has been victimized by dictatorship and buoyed by the spirit of its people."—Bridges: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Theology, Philosophy, History, and Science

2007 Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference
Grand Prize, 2006 Montreal Festival of Films on Art
Winner, Best Cultural Program, Dutch Academy Awards (2003)

73 minutes / Color
Russian / English subtitles
Release: 2006
Copyright: 2003

For individual consumers (home video)

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This DVD is sold with a license for institutional use and Public Performance rights.

Subject areas:
Art, Art History, Cold War Era, Communications, Eastern Europe, Historiography, History (World) , Psychiatry, Psychology, Russia, The Former Soviet Union , World War II

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