Open City Doc Festival – BROADWAY, BLACK SEA (2002) – Review ****

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Vitaly Mansky came to international prominence with his 2015 documentary Under the Sun, about a family under the North Korean regime, but his portraits of Russian culture have been kicking about for more than two decades. Broadway, Black Sea is not one of his most known projects, but as a surreal anthropological study, it is well worth a check.

Every Summer, a plethora of Russians, Armenians, Kazakhs and Caucasus refugees come to an empty space near the Black Sea to create Broadway, a temporary town made of tents, cars, people and attractions that go from camels to fairground games. But do not think this is a colourful, Easternized Burning Man Festival – Broadway is inhabited by low-income people and families, many of them using their spare, beach time to make some extra cash.

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So much more than a well-staged holiday film, Broadway, Black Sea shows Mansky’s talent to gain the confidence of people from all backgrounds, as well as braving courageously into people’s intimacy, without even asking please – from boys and men squatting in dirty toilets, to a woman giving birth on the beach. From his Big Brother quality, memorable scenes ensue – the rescue of a boy from drowning (the camera, as if stuck in an ethical limbo, is dropped in the sand as Mansky – presumably – runs to help), to the photographer abusing his pet monkey (not for the weak of heart), passing by the soldiers who go for a swim, piss and masturbatory release at the beach.

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What makes this documentary stand up against others on the same topic is the strangeness it  portrays. Though it’s the 21st century, it feels like we’re in the 50s. The humour is crude, people celebrate their dead while drunk, political correctness is absent from all jokes. Everything is grim – this is not the Caribbean, after all -, there’s dirt and stench and flies in the candy floss, and yet, people seem to be greatly enjoying themselves. It is Russia all right, but not as we know it.

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Technically, Mansky experiments with sequence shots – over people laying on the beach, or going through their tents, like a spying bee – and constructed narrative editing (boldly, for such an observational documentary, particularly on the nudist beach scene). As a strange mix of stylised raw footage – the paradox seems like the best way to describe it – Broadway, Black Sea immerses the audience on a voyeuristic trip over a world that is probably as lost to time as disposable photo cameras – you can still use them, but it’s not the same.

Broadway, Black Sea will screen on 8th September 2017 as part of the Open City Documentary Festival, as well as other Vitaly Minsky films. For more information, please check http://opencitylondon.com

Sara is originally from Coimbra, Portugal, where she studied Film Studies before moving to London to enrol in film school. Having made her first short film about her neighbour's chickens when she was 9 (a dystopian sci-fi, still her favourite genre), she is now a London-based film director and editor, and also a writer for the Portuguese Take Magazine. She is a huge fan of Lars Von Trier, Krysztof Kiéslowski, and David Lean.