Woodpeckers Don’t Get Headaches (Film)

Woodpeckers Don’t Get Headaches

Director: Dinara Asanova

Year: 1975

Country: USSR.

Woodpeckers Don’t Get Headaches begins with a crane shot descending our widescreen frame through summery branches into a garden in an outer suburb of Leningrad. Inside the house Seva, a boy of about 14, is debating internally whether to play on his beloved drums and risk waking up his older brother Andrey, local star basketballer and pride of the family whose tall shadow Seva can never escape. The pleasure of percussion wins through and we get a cacophony of competing sounds: Seva’s drums, a nearby woodpecker, jazz on the soundtrack, the neighbour’s son forced to play his violin exercises — it’s an energetic burst of sound which director Dinara Asanova clearly revels in but partly explains the cool reaction to it among Soviet censors and critics alike at the time who found it too ‘loud’ and ‘jazzy’. Andrey, who would have approved of their yearning for greater quietude, wakes up to throw his kid brother’s drums into the garden pond.

Asanova grew up in Kyrgyzstan on the periphery of the USSR, and worked at Lenfilm Studios rather than the prestigious Mosfilm in Moscow which benefited from greater prestige and festival invitations. In other words she knew what it was like to be on the margin of things, in the shadow of a more established centre of attention as you try to search for yourself. Certainly she sees some of herself in Seva, whose woodpecker-like determination to be a drummer and forge his own identity even as all around him want to shut his ‘racket’ up has something of an artist’s burning inner desire for self-expression. The epiphany comes during a disastrous date with his crush, the class beauty Ira. After Seva goes out to buy snacks, he’s not allowed back into the cinema hall because he looks too young for the R-16 show. Instead he mopes around on his own ending up in a jazz club listening in wide-eared wonder to the live band in another scene where Asanova allows us to get lost in an aural interlude of energy and discovery.

We feel as Seva does that this is what he wants to do, what he must do from now on, and the summer this film encapsulates will forever teach him this. The plot is breezy and light, the performances from the untrained child actors largely improvised, the camerawork mobile and free, so that these musical interruptions feel organic within a story that could be seen as a Soviet cousin to The 400 Blows (this film too ends on a freeze-frame to quell any doubt that Truffaut was an influence). Like Antoine Doinel, Seva is a hopeless romantic. He spends much of his time with Ira doing simple things which to them gain a sweet significance, like swinging on the creaking gates of an abandoned house. Their budding love, prematurely cut short, will no doubt be the other life-long memory of this summer for Seva. We can only wonder what happened to him next, in his future Doinel-like adventures.

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