Defense Counsel Sedov, Evgenii Tsymbal's 1989 short film, is stunning and bleak. The film, shot in a documentary style, focuses on the efforts of a Moscow lawyer, the eponymous Sedov, to defend four agronomists, who were tried and convicted of "wrecking" (specifically killing some cows at the state institute they worked). Tortured, the men confessed and now await their execution in a Siberian jail. Rather than open the film with a lengthy exposition, the film instead starts with an argument over a dining room table as a group of women plead with Sedov to represent their loved ones who are jailed in Siberia. Sedov, of course, would rather not. The chances of setting these men free, no matter how false the charges against them, was slim to none in an era (the 1930s) when some seven hundred thousand men and women were executed during what later came to be known as the Great Terror. In addition, to offer help those accused of such crimes against the state was to raise the ire of the authorities and bring possible charges against you.
Sedov (played by Vladimir Ilin), although positioned as the hero of the film, does not look or act like a conventional one. He's middle-aged, pudgy, balding and exhausted looking. Rather than volunteer to defend the innocent agronomists against the trumped up charges, which might lead to their execution, he has to be reluctantly drafted to defend them, and he does so in a calm, restrained manner. He gives no fiery speeches; instead, he simply raises a few doubts in the minds of those who had the power to free the men. But, the legal system he confronts is hardly a legal system at all, but instead a mass bureaucracy of hapless, fearful state employees who sign death warrants because it is what they believed their superiors wanted them to do. Another key theme within the film is the powerlessness of the individual. While Sedov succeeds in part, he ultimately fails as the terror continues because others are not willing to stand with him in opposition to the state's actions.
Despite being produced on what looks like a shoestring budget, the film makes up for it in the way the film's narrative unfolds. Initially the audience expects the four agronomists to be executed and in a pulse-raising scene a number of military officers enter Sedov's officers demanding that he come with them, leading the viewer to believe Sedov will also soon be put on trial. But then a reversal happens and then finally a third reversal occurs at a climatic party meeting. Actual newsreel footage, used to great dramatic effect, closes the film. And this all occurs within a taut 50 or so minutes.
Defense Counsel Sedov was made possible only because of the inauguration of Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms, allowing for more open discussion (glasnost) of past misdeeds undertaken by the state. The topic of the Great Terror, which touched nearly every family in the USSR, had never been as thoroughly broached previously in any Soviet film as it was in this film. Here, the Great Terror is exposed for what it truly was – a time of state sponsored mass killings of innocent people. Defense Counsel Sedov is thus one of the triumphs of the Gorbachev period.
Not only is the film about a depressing topic and one wrapped up on a pessimistic note, the film is shot in an almost washed-out, dreary black and white. That the film is set during wintertime and that large portions of the film occur in dark, cold Siberia only further contributes to the film's bleak and depressing mood, a mood that was very common across the USSR in the 1980s as economic hardships had begun to wrack the country by this time. The film's haunting score fits perfectly.
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