· Reviews ·

2 Documentaries About Russia

These 2 documentaries, the first by a Finnish and the second by a Kazakh director, offer distinct visions about the social realities of Russia.

The 3 Rooms Of Melancholia

Pirjo Honkasalu’s cinematic documentary depicts in three parts the atmosphere of war of various aspects of the Chechen conflict in South-Western Russia.

During the Chechen war children are involved in every aspect of the war. They are being trained in the Russian naval academy to serve Russia against her enemies. Children run on the streets of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya brandishing toy guns, imagining how they fight against the Russians. In Ingushesiyah, near the border of Chechnya refugee children remember what has happened to them, what has hurt them in the war.

Of the ideology of war and of the realities of what could happen adults don’t tell them. Children have little idea about why they are in this conflict other that what the adults tell them.

They can only see the results.

Images speak for themselves. Pictures have integrity. The silent tone of the film contrasts with the roaring war. Colors and gamma match melancholy.  Honkasalu’s observational way of filming documents the distinct atmosphere of fear that war brought to this land. Prayer and sleep are shown in all sequences. As if people didn’t see the camera they indulge in the little they have still left.

With a separate name each part becomes more significant:

Room 1 – Longing

Kronstadt, near St. Petersburg. Darkness. Boys washing. Formalistic steps. Nobody asks why does war have to destroy the innocence of children? On the contrary, it becomes clear that children are infused with small ideas of hatred right from their childhood. Because children are the future of our nation.

In the cadet academy all the boys look the same in their uniforms. Kolja – street child. Misha – grandson of a military grandfather. Popov – child of alcoholics. Sergei from Chechnya… he is treated as a stranger on both sides.

Their entire situation is reeking of irony. One moment they are singing the songs of freedom “let the horses run wild” and a minute later they are learning how to use a rifle. A boy looks out of the window thinking of raising his head high. He doesn’t.

Boys exercising, shooting targets with air guns

The string music on the background, the panning motions of the camera, and then the lone singer in high register create an uneasy feeling.

Room 2 – Breathing

Shot in black and white and with natural sound this seems very real. This is where all the action of war takes place. Terrible damage, derelict building crumbling. A mother saying goodbye to her children. Mental damage in the city. Ruins. Children playing with toy guns already infused with hatred for Russia. Already they seem to be small soldiers.

Room 3 – Remembering

Peaceful atmosphere. Longer shots. References to the first room. Children have a chance to get a new life, here they can start remembering. Calmer editing, the use of facial expressions to reveal the story of refugees. Lack of narration saves the film from bias. No conclusions are made.

Panoramas.  Children are still truthful and innocent, like in Herz Frank’s 10 Minutes Older. Both Russian and Chechen troops were cruel. A vicious circle, can children have a way out?

Three Rooms of Melancholia showed the feeling of war without showing the war itself. Not many films about war make us think and feel so deeply, even after days later.

Released: 2004, Finland, Length:  104 min, Director: Pirjo Honkasalu. Reviewed on January 14, 2008.

Bread Day

Life in a small village near St. Petersburg revolves around a bread wagon that every week brings bread to the people of the village.

The film opens with an unforgettable sequence of a party of people slowly pushing the bread wagon towards the village. Reminiscent of the existentialist struggles of King Sisyphus it is unclear whether they will ever reach the village.

This is observational filmmaking at its best. The strong emotional aspect, and the living principles and values which become apparent in a forgotten village that doesn’t seem to see any sunlight and where no young people seem to be living is intriguing to observe.

The film has been made with great attention to structure and style. Long continuous scenes without cuts help to really observe what is happening without being forced or guided by the cuts to look at a particular thing. Use of natural sound, lots of panning, quiet, environmental sounds, echoes, all of it makes for a strong and realistic depiction of the village. But nothing much happens in this village, the houses stand quietly.

Under the surface there are strong anti-government themes. The message seems to be that the reality of the village (and of the world) is that some contribute but others take all the bread. So still others have to

The film was probably so successful because of its simplicity and single-minded attention to one particular theme. It has thereby become almost an icon of the theme. Bread is brought every week by the villagers, there is a certain amount of bread, and when that bread is divided there is no more – this is a zero-sum game. There is a touch of irony in the fact that the wagon is almost empty and the bread could be transported more easily by hand. How does the bread get to the start of the railway?

The pacific rhythm and long scenes are entirely justified in this context. The goal is to let the characters take their own roles and act as they may. In the style of observational filmmaking one becomes the Seeing Eye in the room and all the decision making is left up to the viewer.

The filmmaker doesn’t help the elderly because he wants the scenes to take as long as possible. The slow pace is emphasized to make the viewer feel as if he was truly there. Having to wait for everything to happen at real life speed the viewer can take the time to remember and reflect over the instances when he himself has had troubled times.

The cart is a metaphor of the hardships of life and the feeling to tiredness when one has to seemingly push and push without getting anywhere. The dogs that are running around without helping represent the freeloaders and do-nothings of the society. It is the hard work of the hard-working laborer that eventually does get the cart to its final destination – the village.

Released: 1998, Russia, Length:  53 min, Director: Sergei Dvortsevoy. Reviewed on October 30, 2007.

Dvortsevoy later went on to make the feature success, Tulpan.

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