Under Review: ‘Ward 6’


“There ought to be a man with a hammer behind the door of every happy man.”

— Anton Chekhov

What is the border between the insane and the normal individual?

A doctor in charge of a Russian mental institution states, “The border between psychotic and normal people is illusory.”

What exactly does he mean?

Psychotics, for point of reference, include schizophrenics who are traditionally characterized by a loss of contact with reality. Their symptoms are manifested by delusions and hallucinations with concurrent disorganized speech and behavior.

Based on the classic short story by Anton Chekhov (Chekov), though “Ward 6” outwardly asks the audience to reflect on the border between the sane and the normal individual, perhaps there is a hidden political agenda.

Even though Chekhov’s short story begins with a description of its location and the film begins with Russian pilgrims traveling through cold muck in search of the ancient monastery of this story’s setting, both versions portray the same inhospitable landscape.

This forsaken place during an icy cold Russian winter is populated with a segregated, marginalized, economically disenfranchised people who are bored with their monotonous, repetitive, meaningless labor (if they are lucky enough to have it). They are grateful for their thin dinner soup but look out windows that show a bleak, frozen vista of hopelessness. They are religiously ambivalent with no vision of a way out.

This is the description of the monastery of our story that has been ironically transformed into an insane asylum.

Chekhov wrote this piece in 1892, during the rule of Czar Nicholas II when there was famine, rampant disease, an economic depression and essentially inept, inefficient, disorganized, unhelpful governance; more or less the description of the situation at this mental institution.

Perhaps the current interpretation of “Ward 6,” directed by Karen Shakhnazarov and Aleksandr Gornnovsky, could also be reflective of the current state of affairs in Russia … as well as the bulk of the rest of the world.

It’s been said by Charles Malik, past president of the UN General Assembly, that governments are simply macrocosms of the people they represent (personal interview, 1970). So, is it too big a jump to generalize from the definition of individual insanity to governmental unresponsiveness?

Back to the hammer. Why the need to clobber a happy person?

Chekhov was frustrated by the complacency (translated for the sake of our analogy as “happy”) of his countrymen. In the face of over 50 years of suffering under the Czars, it could be said he presaged the ascendency of Lenin and the Marxist idealistic goal of collective cooperation for the good of all.

Too bad this theory directly opposed human nature. But without a realization, an acknowledgement, of the shortcomings of our lives Chekhov believed that the human circumstance could not evolve and change for the better. Notice the injustice in the world and responsibly react. That is the critical Chekhov key to moral and personal progress.

“He bit the pillow from pain and clenched his teeth, and all at once through the chaos in his brain there flashed the terrible unbearable thought that these people, who seemed now like black shadows in the moonlight, had to endure such pain day by day for years. How could it have happened that for more than twenty years he had not known it and had refused to know it?” — Chekov, “Ward 6.”

“Ward 6” is a powerful reflective film taking the viewer through an introspective journey. Adding to its realism, and the fact that it was based on the true case of an asylum administrator who ends up committed to the institution he ran, “Ward 6” was actually filmed on location in Russia at an institution for the mentally ill and includes interviews with actual inmates who explain their goals and dreams and what led to their incarceration.

Different from Chekov’s short story, the film is set as a documentary and ends with a stronger social observation. But the rest of it stays true to the original Chekhov work and challenges viewers to re-examine both the state of their personal affairs and individual responsibility to the rest of the members of the human and political culture.

“Ward 6” will be featured at the 2010 Cleveland International Film Festival from March 18 to 28, 2010.

Category: Russia’s nominee to the Oscars for Best Foreign Film
Central and Eastern European Film Competition

Producer: Galina Shadur, Karen Shakhnazarov

Directors and Bio: The son of a prominent political advisor in Soviet Russia, Karen Shakhnazarov attended the Moscow School for Cinematography in 1975. WARD NO. 6 marks Aleksandr Gornovsky’s second feature film, following his 2007 film “20 Cigarettes.”

Screenplay: Aleksandr Borodyansky, Karen Shakhnazarov

Cast: Vladimir Ilyin, Aleksei Vertkov, Aleksandr Pankratov-Chyorny, Yevgeni Stychkin

Run Time: 83 minutes

Rating: None

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