One o the standout documentaries at Dublin’s film festival is about a school in Russia that teaches women to be more attractive, writes
It’s a man’s world in Russia. Men outnumber women demographically and they hold all the cards in a patriarchal dating game, which is explored in the documentary School of Seduction. The film, which has been a decade in the making, follows the contrasting fortunes of three Russian women as they take classes, along with about 20 other women, in a sweaty classroom to improve their skills in attracting men.
The women take direction from a middle-aged man. “Use bait!” he exhorts them, as he teaches them how to dance (in their lingerie) and undress in a sultry way. The advice he gives them lurches from the bizarre to the sexist. He encourages them to be like a little girl. “Cry in front of him,” he says. Be good fun, but don’t try to be too intelligent, he warns them, as no man wants a woman with “issues”.
“Ten years ago in Russia, we had a lot of classes like this,” says Alina Rudnitskaya, director of School of Seduction. “Times were changing in Russia. Communism had ended. Capitalism had taken over. Women wanted to change, but they didn’t know how to change themselves. It’s why these kinds of classes were popular.
“What interested me in these classes is that it was a man who taught women how to change. Most of the women who came to these classes were a little bit desperate. They were divorced, for example, or they couldn’t find a man.”
The director says attendees really trusted the teacher because he was a man. “They believed he would understand what a man wanted and what was best for a woman. ‘What should I do so that a man likes me?’ They believed he could give them knowledge that could help to change their lives.”
“Today in Russia, psychology is becoming popular. Ten years ago, for many women to come to these kinds of ‘seduction’ classes, it was like therapy for them. The classes were like a women’s club – where women could speak amongst themselves, and share their ideas of how to be a better woman and how to become sexier.”
Although president Vladimir Putin’s presence is fleeting in the documentary, his voice, which is surprisingly soft spoken, looms large. It’s clear the influence he has on Russian society. In a public address, broadcast on television the day of International Women’s Day, he notes that women “have other competitive advantages like their beauty, their charm, their warm-heartedness”, as if he was describing a branch of the country’s industrial sector.
“What Putin says is our mentality,” says Rudnitskaya. “It’s what our mothers and grandmothers told us — that a woman should be feminine and a man should earn money. I tried to show in my documentary what happens when a woman lives in a patriarchal world. Women in Russia really depend on men. We still don’t have equal pay. Women earn 30% less than men.
“We are born in a society where men should be strong, brutal and have a good income. Women should be pretty and try to cater for their man, cooking for them, staying at home with the children and so on. What is really important in our society is not who are you but who is your husband. How many children do you have? If you have one child why don’t you have another one? If you’re not married, it means that you’re ugly and nobody wants you. If a woman has a good income or is a single mother ‘maybe she’s a lesbian’. In Russia, feminism is still a bad word.”
Rudnitskaya says that nowadays in Russia — compared to 2008 when she started making her documentary — the focus for women taking seduction classes has moved beyond teaching women how to be sexy to instruction about how to become more elegant, which is explored in the journey of the third and final character in her documentary, a lady called Diana.
Life hasn’t been easy for Diana. Her mother was an alcoholic, her father a “tyrant” so she moved in with her grandmother, who, it seems, suffers from dementia. She brings her son with her, who is only four when we first meet him. Diana fell in love with the boy’s father because of his “big nose”, and nothing much else, she says wistfully. When she became pregnant, he left her.
During the documentary, we’re introduced to some of her suitors, including drunken English-speaking tourists in pick-up bars and a local Russian guy who lacks career prospects. Diana is quite firm with him: “There can’t be a relationship without an apartment or money,” she says.
Eventually, she marries an older, Italian guy lecturing at a university in Moscow, but she doesn’t stop striving. She graduates to taking classes at the Austrian Higher School of Ladies where she’s instructed in social etiquette skills like table manners, horse-riding and how to walk while balancing a book on her head. She’s given a screen test where she quotes Nicole Kidman’s character in the movie Grace of Monaco.
Her Italian husband gives his imprimatur for her to take these self-improvement classes. “He’s liberal. He can’t forbid her to do what she wants. He doesn’t think about the consequences,” says Rudnitskaya.
In the documentary’s penultimate scene, she heads to Monte Carlo with her son, who is now almost a teenager. While outside a posh hotel, he gushes into the hand-held camera they bring with them, happy to share in her dreams: “Beautiful women can meet a millionaire here.”