The Devil You Know: I Am Never Going Back

(Last Updated On: July 12, 2017)

It was Pip’s original intent to review two short films dealing with the subject of child abuse and neglect. The first by Belgian director Hilde van Mieghem, De suikerpot (The Sugarbowl, 1997), was reviewed earlier on Pigtails and effectively showed the psychological tension of surviving in a home with a mother who goes into an angry rage at the slightest provocation. It is remarkable how consistently young children internalize the conflicts in their world as though it were their fault. While The Sugarbowl might be described as a kind of suspense-thriller, Я сюда больше никогда не вернусь (I Am Never Going Back, 1990) is a grim tragedy with a documentary feel. The film, directed by Rolan Bykov (Ролан Быков, 1929–1998) was commissioned by UNESCO to expose the terrible conditions many children suffered in the Soviet Union. It was intended to be part of a series called Comment vont les enfants? (How Are the Kids?) The alternate title, Люба (Luba), is the main character’s name played by Nina Goncharova. Ironically, the name is the diminutive form of a girl’s name that also means “Love” in Russian.  Bykov’s choice for actress lay primarily in the believability of her performance; Goncharova was herself an orphan living in Tashkent at the time but is an ethnic Russian.

During the 10-minute film, Luba acts out the drama of her home life with a doll and stuffed animals she has hidden in the woods. In the beginning, she is seen running away after a severe screaming fit and beating by her mother played by Elena Sanaeva. Another key difference between the Belgian and Russian films is that this one illustrates the conditions of poverty while the girl in De suikerpot came from a well-off family that could afford to send her to boarding school. As a result, the use of language is much cruder here. Both mothers wail about how they are cursed with such a rotten and ungrateful child. There is a moment of tension in the beginning when we see Luba near a passing train while the mother yells out that she wishes the train would run her over.

Rolan Bykov – I Am Never Going Back (1990) (1)

Rolan Bykov – I Am Never Going Back (1990) (2)

Observing Luba running into the wilds, there is a strong feeling of the stark contrast between the oppressive environment at home and the serenity of nature just a short distance away. The girl starts calling out that mommy is coming to take care of her sweethearts. We do not yet understand to whom she is speaking and, as if answering back to herself, she says that mother is a bitch and neglects her children, with mutual accusations about how the other hogs the food. These situations are full of ambivalence: alternating between hating the mother and then convincing her how much they love her. Perhaps more than the physical abuse, this kind of psychological stress takes the greater toll.

Rolan Bykov – I Am Never Going Back (1990) (3)

In 2010, Izvestia interviewed Goncharova and Sanaeva about their experiences. It appears that little had improved in the mean time with about a thousand children being killed by their parents every year. In 2002, the Investigative Committee of the Russian Prosecutor’s Office reported about 44,000 crimes committed against minors and in 2007, there were 70,000. Under these conditions, it is no wonder that some survivors would find the idealism of fascism appealing as we seem to be observing with Katya Zashtopic.

Finally a small clearing is reached that serves as the scene for a makeshift home. We see the stuffed animals and doll for the first time. Shortly, mother and children get into an argument and she begins beating the bear all the while telling him that she is doing it because she cares about him and he really doesn’t understand. She scolds him for neglecting his school work. Because of the phonetic resemblance, the name “Misha” used in this scene is both the diminutive for Mikhail and the nickname for a bear. Luba beats him up and tells him how empty-headed he is but after his studies, she will have him and the doll get married. Misha retorts that he does not need schooling because he is going into the army anyway. Another interesting difference between poor and middle-class households is, due to the lack of privacy, poor children are usually privy to the specifics of sexual intercourse taking place in their home. Luba positions the bear behind the doll as though he were mounting her.

Rolan Bykov – I Am Never Going Back (1990) (4)

Rolan Bykov – I Am Never Going Back (1990) (5)

As with all rages and tantrums, there is the period of sincere remorse afterward accompanied by promises not to do it again. The stuffing has come out of Misha and she tries to fix him by filling him up with dirt and material on hand, nice and fat, just like an army general—a Russian cliché is that army generals are fat and so the implication is that in such a condition, they would be eager to admit him to military school right away.

Rolan Bykov – I Am Never Going Back (1990) (6)

Now Luba frets that mother is going to kill her now that her dress has gotten soiled. She takes off her panties and dress and washes them in the stream. She uses her dress as a blanket under which the the bear can recuperate. All the while she is consoling them that at least they are not in an orphanage where they beat children’s heads against the wall—like the fate of many ethnic minorities, presumably. She scolds the monkeys for spying on her while undressed and tells them they are too young to look and tells them to take a walk.

Rolan Bykov – I Am Never Going Back (1990) (7)

While lifting the bear, her makeshift stuffing comes out and she scolds him for crapping himself. Without stuffing, the bear dies and she crosses its arms and has the doll close her eyes in grief. Once again, this is followed by apologies and wails over what will happen to the family next.

Rolan Bykov – I Am Never Going Back (1990) (8)

Luba walks over to a cliff overlooking a river. There is an ominous gust of wind and then she hears her mother calling out again asking her darling for forgiveness. But the apologetic tone quickly turns to impatience and the mother begins to scream for her good-for-nothing daughter to get home. Luba looks back and calls out that she is never coming home. As if driven by her mother’s voice, she shrieks one final desperate exclamation of terror and jumps off the cliff.

Rolan Bykov – I Am Never Going Back (1990) (9)

Rolan Bykov – I Am Never Going Back (1990) (10)

Rolan Bykov – I Am Never Going Back (1990) (11)

Bykov had a lot of experience dealing with actors having been a film and theater actor, director, writer and teacher. He was even given the designation of People’s Artist of the USSR. His favorite writer is Gogol and likes his use of surrealism. Art refracts life but can give it a magical quality and so Luba is made to transcend the ordinary in a final scene where she appears to be levitating—perhaps a hopeful expression of release and redemption.

Rolan Bykov – I Am Never Going Back (1990) (12)

Bykov discovered Goncharova when she was featured in a telethon. She was born cross-eyed and suffered a tragic family life before being placed in an orphanage. Her father had beat her mother and when the grandmother tried to intervene on her daughter’s behalf, she was imprisoned. The father abandoned the mother leaving her with four kids and died later in prison. Because she was so young at the time of filming, the director did not bother to explain the plot to Goncharova and knew the actress would draw on her own experiences to create a convincing performance.

Rolan Bykov – I Am Never Going Back (1990) (13)

For a while, Gonchorova lived at Bykovs’ home and Sanaeva took her to have her eyes surgically corrected, convincing the medical authorities that she was the girl’s mother. Then she was sent to a boarding school and majored in typography. She was never officially married but did have an Islamic ceremony with the father of her first child, a girl. Disappointed at this outcome, her ersatz husband abandoned them. She did later have a son with another man. She could never make use of her education because of the demands of motherhood so she started living with a good friend who could earn money while she took care of their home.

It could be said that the film was also a victim of neglect. The money originally promised to distribute the film never came through and so the final print of the film was passed from hand to hand until its value was finally recognized, transferred into other video formats and released on the internet.

There are many people behind the scenes that make Pigtails in Paint work and some posts are strong reminders of these contributions. Therefore, this post is dedicated to someone who goes by the handle “B.O.” who not only created the English transcription for this film but was also responsible for rescuing the original content of Pigtails when it was suddenly shut down by WordPress. In other words, he is one of our guardian angels and his efforts are greatly appreciated. -Ron

Wikipedia Entry (in Russian)

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