On Disintegration and Corruption—“Putin’s Russia: A 21st Century Film Mosaic” at MoMI
One doesn’t have to think for too long to realize that Vladimir Putin has shaped the way we see, understand, and talk about Russia. Since the time he became acting president (New Year’s Eve 1999), going through his periods as elected president and as prime minister, no matter what one thinks of him, he’s become a figure that has defined the 21st century and the almost two decades we’ve lived under his influence.
One could say that said influence could only be subjected to the scrutiny of history, but to name those that are directly affected by his decisions and actions might tell us otherwise: investigative journalists, the LGBTQ community, Syrian refugees, among many other groups of people that have been either rendered invisible or silenced. Then, it’s not too far-fetched to think and see that Russian cinema has been affected too, and this is the focus of MoMI’s stupendous series that showcases films from the past 18 years to project an idea of both the country and how its leader has shaped it.
After scrutinizing the programmed films, one starts to see certain concerns, especially with the documentary filmmakers, about the state of identity and unity of Russia’s geographical borders. Russia is the largest country in the world, and what’s been the strength of Putin is to make everyone believe that he’s in control of such a gargantuan landmass. But it’s hard; anything that big is bound to crumble from the inside and in its extremes, even Putin himself said so in a public address: “the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself,” referring to a state of the world that they perhaps helped create.
The confusing way in which Putin has put forward his relationship with countries under its wing is blatant in Salomé Lamas’ Extinction (2018), one of two North American premieres in this series. The stylish documentary focuses on Kolya, a retired Russian army soldier, born in Moldovia. Kolya is proud to be considered part of Transnistria, an unrecognized state between Moldova and Ukraine, which played an important role during the Russian occupation during the 2014 Ukranian revolution. It’s said in the documentary that Transinistrian factory facilities were used by the Russian forces to hold weaponry as well as those that were killed during the violent events.
Lamas’ film is structured around the various border checks that she and her crew (alongside Kolya) pass through as they go from one country to the next. These sometimes tense moments are captured only by sound and a black screen, where the interaction between the border patrol and Kolya speaks to the confusion inherent in Russia’s control over Ukraine, as well as the strange status of the people from Transnistria itself, as they can only move around with either a Russian or a Moldovan passport, something that is commented on by Kolya during the various visually striking interviews and performances that the director puts him through.
Shot in beautiful black-and-white cinematography, the film gives voice to both those who are critical of the way Russia has interfered in the zone (there’s an extremely well-told metaphor/story of Russia as a moving train and the various leaders it has had as the train operators, which is told by an old Transnitrian man), and those who benefited from it and remained mum (Kolya forcefully ends an interview that starts to go into the issue of military intervention by the army that he was once a part of), giving the sensation of disintegration of the borders, the minds, and the people.
Sergei Loznitsa’s Victory Day (2018) also takes place outside of Russian borders, but you wouldn’t know it if you weren’t told, or if you didn’t pay attention to the opening moments of the film. The documentary follows the events of May 9th at Treptower Park, Berlin, but not one German word can be heard for the longest time as its overflowing with Russian visitors that have traveled to pay respects to their fallen soldiers, but also to celebrate the Red Army’s victory over the Nazis.
Similar in approach although far less ironic than Austerlitz (2016), Loznitsa seems to be enamored with the men and women that walk from one end to another of the park, taking pictures of the memorials, monuments, statues, and other memorabilia from Communist Russia’s past that you’d believe that you’re in their country. The way that Loznitsa draws attention, above all, to the popular songs sung is affecting, as the rhythms and dances seem cheerful, but the subtitles help locate the sentiment and the warm yet still depressing nature of these war tunes: returning back home, finding a loved one, losing family, and being separated, etc.
Approaching Russian territory, although barely, the documentary At the Edge of Russia (2010), directed by Michal Marczak, explores the daily life of a military detachment at the most northern frontier of Russia, one of the last outposts near the Artic Ocean, through the viewpoint of a new recruit that arrives by helicopter to be part of the small group that absurdly guards the frontier that surely no one will pass through.
The soldiers on the edge don’t do anything; they receive the new recruit with jokes, cruelty, and an initiation that comprises of burying the new one under the snow, while making honest comments like, “he’s better off at university,” understanding the useless nature of their outpost and how the young one does imprecise and empty work, much like the frontier itself, blurry and barren. Part of the training for the new guy is the commander spouting hypotheticals like “someone comes across the border, he looks hurt, what do you do?” but no matter what they answer, it’s always wrong. Ultimately, it’s more about the breakdown of the spirit than doing good work, something they always say they do as the picture of Putin hangs on the wall looking at them, smiling.
Maybe the Russian film that most directly addresses the corruption inherent in Putin’s regime is “Sleeping Souls” (2013), a 51-minute documentary directed by Alexander Abaturov. The reelection of Putin in 2012, after the four years that he spent as prime minister, was met with dismay by the more dissident voices, but his ultimate win was a combination of the sentiment, “who else could truly lead us right now?” and several reported cases of voter fraud. Both of these ideas are shown in the film, as it interviews voters and campaigners in Achinsk, a small 100-square-kilometer city 4,000 kilometers east from Moscow. The most impressive moment in the film is when we see how one of the booths was affected by fraudulent voting, yet those in charge of it are unable to do anything but to count the votes that, obviously, were for Putin and his party.
Disintegration and corruption as the constant state of modern Russia isn’t better represented than in the metaphorical, observational, and prescient documentary Hush! (2003), directed by Victor Kossakovsky. After public funding falls through, the director decides to just film whatever happens outside his window, and for a year we quietly observe as the broken street pavement gets constantly repaired, broken, and repaired again, sloppy after sloppy job. The pothole, how it gets filled up with water when it rains, the destruction of the asphalt with big machines, the repetition of a work done badly — all of it visually tells an almost too obvious portrait of the inner workings of Russia, and how it would continue to be under Putin’s ruling, but it’s still extremely effective.
If anything, the various styles and directions in which these documentaries seem to go — from observational to experimental to straight-up talking heads — speak to the inherent disintegration of Russia’s psyche, fragmented into various and wildly differing opinions and points of view, of which the most revolutionary and confrontational can’t be heard, as the corrupt system they inhabit won’t allow us to see them.
Putin’s Russia: A 21st Century Film Mosaic continues at the Museum of the Moving Image through July 15.