Watching Denis Shabaev’s Together, his documentary about a road trip from Russia to Scandinavia with his nine-year-old daughter, you remember the words of the late, great television writer Dennis Potter: ‘Present tense… that’s all a small child lives in. So a wet Tuesday afternoon can actually be years long, and it – childhood – is actually full to the brim of fear, horror, excitement, boredom, love, anxiety, every… you know… loss. Loss.’
Enter Anna, sitting in the back of a car, fat tears rolling down her face as she contemplates the trip ahead of her, away from her grandmother’s house and all that’s familiar. ‘Do you want to turn back?’ her father asks. She thinks, then grinds out, between sobs: ‘Turning back is cowardly. Going on is for the brave.’ In terms of now, they should probably turn back. ‘In terms of afterwards we should carry on.’ Slowly we piece together the life behind her – her mother seems to have psychological problems (‘If she wants to nibble at the dog food, then she’s ill,’ Anna says). She lives with her grandmother, and sees her father only from time to time: ‘I’m very happy when you visit. Sometimes.’
If all this sounds icky, it isn’t. Partly that’s to do with the child Anna is – sometimes endearing, sometimes bratty and exasperating, her expression moving from a child’s innocence to the most ancient old woman’s. With jug ears, buck-teeth and banshee dishevelled hair, she could be an urchin from a Dickens novel, and Shabaev gives her to us snot and all. The Hungarian director István Szabó, searching for justifications of his craft, said that what film could do, above any other art, was provide a close-up of the moving human face – and in few films are you more aware of it than this. Shabaev’s filming of his daughter is pitiless: we see the pinks in the corners of her eyes, the chewed up cake when she eats with her mouth open, the crumbs which stick to her face. We also – of course – see the meteorology of her emotions: bewilderment, terror, calculation, humour, the sudden joy that passes across it when her father scratches her head – the disproportionate drama of a child’s inner life, where a raised voice may be an earthquake and a two-day parting a banishment-till-death. We also get a child’s profundity. ‘I wish you could live one life, grow old, then be born again. I am never going to die.’ Looking at a photograph of her family, seeing their smiles for the camera, she’s reproachful: ‘You shouldn’t set that up. Otherwise it’s a false happiness, right?’ Later we see her chatting on a mobile phone, pretending to be an adult. ‘I can only see you once a week,’ she warns. ‘My work is top priority.’
‘It turns out I don’t know how to film at all,’ Shabaev’s overheard at the outset of Together. And the film is full of irregularities: moments when the camera bounces along upside down, when the lens is covered, when the focus is lost, when all we get is long seconds of moving pavement or immobile lawn. Strangely this works: it has the quality of a child’s drawing, full of sudden scrawls and scribbles, barely recognisable shapes, moments where perspective and proportion are ignored altogether: a kind of boundlessness and a blithe refusal to recognise rules. The film also throws up beautiful images: the raindrops on the windscreen blend with the daughter’s tears, the changing weather conditions match her shifting moods, echoing the elemental quality – the sudden storms, squalls and bursts of sunshine – of a child’s emotional life. At times in our screening the sound faded out, giving us their dialogue as though taking place in another room. Whether this was by design or a technical fault, the organiser couldn’t tell us – if the second, it was a happy accident, making the action faintly ghost-like, as though coming from somewhere in our own subconscious, voices from a place we dimly remember and have mostly lost.
Luckily we have Shabaev’s documentary. Not since The Spirit of the Beehive has a film reminded you so authentically of childhood, the limitless and mysterious continent it is and the completeness of our exile from it. ‘I’ll teach you to play,’ Anna tells her father earnestly. ‘ The most important thing is your imagination. For adults swings are swings. A plane is a plane.’ On a playground ride, she says, she’s really on a horse. The playground is a magical battlefield. This sudden insight pays off when we see her, later, swinging back and forth on a bendy animal, an expression of absolute, joyous transport on her face. We’re swept up into her world: the image is liberating, poetic , even ecstatic, and perhaps the defining one from this marvellous film.
Denis Shabaev’s Together (2014) was screened as part of the Open City Docs Festival, 2015.