If you weren’t living on a cave for the last year, you probably heard of Pawlikowski’s last film, Ida, who went on to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film earlier this year. Before he became an award winning fiction director, however, he tried his hand at making documentaries, mostly for the BBC. Four of these earlier documentaries could be seen this weekend at the ICA London, as part of the Kinoteka Film Festival, and they showed an already promising mix of humour, satire and an eye for the symbolism and importance of the apparently mundane.
From Moscow to Pietushki *****
From Moscow to Pietushki is a pseudo-autobiographical postmodernist prose poem (yes, for real) by cult writer Benedict Yerofeyev. In his documentary, Pawlikowski goes to meet alcoholic Benny and on the way tries to reconstruct the poem, going from grim Moscow to almost utopian Pietushki (where there’s nothing to do but to drink), speaking to people that met Yerofeyev and drank his “cocktails” (alcoholic mixes of perfume alcohol with other life-endangering substances). Some (mostly the doctors who treated the writer) see the text as a perfect description of the symptoms and consequences of extreme alcoholism. The Russians, however, claim it is the truest portrait of the soviet soul, and the West sets into seeing it as an acute critique of the restrictive lifestyle in Stalinist and post-Stalinist Russia. What does Yerofeyev say? He only wanted to make his friends laugh for 80 pages, and cry on the last 10.
Pawlikowski’s film shows us a Russia where alcohol is the only “visa” allowed – “for some reason no one knows how Pushkin died, but everyone knows how to purify polish” -, a magical “soma” for the soviet dystopia. You may end up feeling Yerofeyev was just too intelligent for his own time and place, and at the end we’re not sure if he should be seen primarily as a drunk, or as a prophet. His robotic voice (result of a throat cancer operation) and his childish, inquisitive eyes, make a sharp contrast with his dark humour and intellectual considerations. At the end, Big Brother may have won, but Yerofeyen’s drunken words and sober thoughts will survive him.
Dostoevsky’s Travels *****
Dimitri Dostoevsky’s great-grandson, a train driver in Saint Petersburg, manages to get a visa to the West during Soviet times, invited by the Dostoevsky Society in Germany. His surname is a burden and an enhancer at the same time; for that, he is made to sit through interminable conferences and talks about Fedor’s depiction of the fragility of the human condition. The only thought in his head? To make enough money to buy a Mercedes (no other car will do) and drive back to Russia on it.
That’s how Dostoevsky’s Travels start. Just like his ancestor, Dimitri gets to travel through the West and its “pipe dreams”, and try his hand at capitalism. First, by giving lectures about his great-grandfather in broken German. Then, inspired by Fedor himself, he turns his hand to drawing and selling paintings signed with his illustrious surname. He does get a scrap Mercedes that quickly breaks down on his way back to the hotel. However, when he receives precious advice from a casino manager and travels to Baden-baden, gets into gambling and gives interviews about being a Dostoevsky, bad-mouthing the soviet regime and even traveling to London to socialise with the old Russian aristocracy, he finally gets the upper hand on capitalism, gets his Mercedes and bids the West farewell, driving off into the soviet sunset… but, of course, happily ever after is not a dostoevskian concept.
Serbian Epics ***
An unusual documentary about war, Serbian Epics puts us in the middle of the Bosnian war, mostly around the siege of Sarajevo. Do not watch it looking for a neutral historical look, though. Even as a fly on the wall, Pawlikowski permeates the images with a sense of irony and what can be described as historical sarcasm, while following politican Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic around (both later wanted by the international court of justice for war crimes). Showing children playing with tanks and guns, people dancing on the streets to traditional Serbian music while gunshots are heard in the distance, and a not-so-subtle comparison of the present war to the Crusades, where reclaiming the land “that is ours” from the enemy is a divine order, Serbian Epics was put under fire when it was first broadcast, but is now a cult piece and a poignant portrait of the last European conflict of the 20th century.
Tripping with Zhirinovsky ****
Do you think you can’t go worse than Putin? Have you ever heard about Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Russian’s would-be extreme right dictator from the nineties? Sit down and enjoy, you’re in for a very scary treat.
Traveling on a boat with the leader of the Liberal-Democratic party must have been quite the experience for Poland-born and UK-raised Pawilowski, and a surreal one too. For the most part Tripping with Zhirinovksy is a fly on the wall documentary about a man and his life trifles, looking inoffensive and harmless while making the most horrifying comments about geo-politics and race supremacy. From his plans to conquer the West, the arguments about the party’s symbol, to his recruitment strategies (Help us and you’ll never have to vote again! – true story) and subliminal propaganda by launching a vodka with his name, Zhirinovsky still manages to look a far cry from the traditional villain, while his advisors play the recorder to the sound of a small electric keyboard or he himself enjoys the comforts of the Hilton in the States while complaining about the price of the room, while his bodyguards go get him pelmenis.. The fly on the wall documentary style does go into a soup plunge, however, when Pawilowski makes a mock music video of the leader that tells you even impartial documentarists have a limit to their patience.
The Kinoteka Polish Film Festival is on at several venues until the 29th May – more information at http://kinoteka.org.uk/