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Russia in Transition: I to IV

by Sergei Loznitsa
The Cinema Guild, New York, 2006
4 DVD-R, one for each part, 30’, 79’, 28’, 24’
Cinema Guild 2230-2231-2232-2233
Distributor’s website: http://www.cinemaguild.com/.

Reviewed by Stefaan Van Ryssen
Hogeschool Gent


Russia in Transition is a series of four documentary films of different length, each illustrating one or the other of the many faces of post-soviet Russia. Loznitsa, who recently produced the widely acclaimed ‘Blockade’, a movie collage on the siege of Leningrad, shot these films in a a single typical style, using wide angle lenses, unmoving camera’s, in black and white or very subdued colours and refraining from even the least trace of commentary or contextualisation. The subject of each of the four parts, ‘Factory’, ‘The Settlement’, ‘Portrait’, and ‘The Train Station’, is a single environment somewhere in an anonymous backwater of the vast Russian empire. Anonymous people stare straightly into the lens, doing whatever is expected of them: moving blocks of clay, waiting for a train, haying fields, eating cabbage soup, or simply being themselves and going about their business. Together, the films portray one aspect of what Loznitsa himself calls ‘the reluctance of Russia to change’. And together they convey the impression that this is a country where peasants are still tilling the fields by hand, where communication technology is unheard of and where everyone dresses in drab, torn and formless clothes.

There are, however, some very unsettling things about this quartet of documentaries. For one, we know that this is not Russia. This is an extremely biased selection of images of rural parts of a country in transition. But I imagine one could make just as easily a documentary of French, American, Chinese or Peruvian peasants waiting for a train – with the one probable difference that the Americans would be eating something fast and drinking something soft. One could just as easily shoot the daily chores of the inmates of La Borde psychiatric clinic in France (‘The Settlement’ is about a rural ward for the mentally retarded) or the repetitive movements of Mexican illegal labourers in Arizona. Loznitsa acknowleges to concentrate on only a few aspects of the transition, but in doing so turns his documentary in a political statement, a manifesto in disguise. The lack of commentary leaves the viewer at a loss for information: where does all this happen? How common or uncommon is this? In what respect does this represent an exceptional situation? Are urban, moneymaking, trendy, gasoline-guzzling Russians driving their Lexuses and BMW’s aware of what happens there? And what do authorities do about it?

Secondly, why do European juries of Film Festivals seem to think these films are such a big deal? Each single one of them has won at least three awards at competitions from Krakow to Manchester and from Trieste to Paris. Surely they are not that exceptional? In each case, one is tempted to press the fast forward button more than once because of the slow pace, the rather unsurprising editing and the lack of development. This is not Tarkovsky. This is not Sokurov. A three-minute still doesn’t necessarily make one think or philosophise about the nature of space and time or the importance of being… whatever. So, why are these juries applauding Loznitsa? Being mischievous, I could wonder if this is some post-Cold-War Russia-bashing, in the anti-Tsarist and anti-Soviet tradition. Or is this just another prelude to the long longed for colonisation of Siberia – after all the biggest reserves of coal, gas, gold, oil and uranium that are not (yet) under American control are there! So what are we, civilised Western Europeans, waiting for? Let’s colonise this picturesque, backward, uncivilised space! Admittedly, this might not be the conscious aim of those brave intellectuals who had a hard time sieving hundreds of movies, but the fact is that ‘Russia in Transition’ adds to an image of Russia that Edward Saïd would gladly label as ‘orientalising’ and of which Sam Huntington would say: ‘See? I told you!’

The Cinema Guild has chosen to release the movies in their original Russian version, without even translating the titles, each in a separate box.



Updated 1st June 2007

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