One of the highlights of this year’s Open City Docs festival is a quartet of documentaries by an almost unknown (in the UK) 53 year-old Ukrainian Jewish film-maker, Vitaly Mansky who, since his debut in 1989, has now completed over 30 films, and been nominated four times for the prestigious Nika award. His fidelity to the genre is notable – he has spoken in interview of the almost total lack of government support documentaries now have – as is his commitment to reality film as a whole: since 1996 he has been involved in the archivisation of USSR home movies from the 1930s to the 1990s.
We now see the fruits of this latter project in Private Chronicles: Monologue (1999), the first of Mansky’s films to be shown this year by Open City Docs, in which there is vivid private footage of the Soviet past: we see Soviet citizens from the early 1960s onwards moving into flats, dancing, throwing alcohol-fuelled parties, falling in love with rock music and each other.
Over it all, captured in a fictionalised narration no doubt dreamt up to pull footage from such far-flung sources together, is a voiceover that often undermines the happy faces we see on screen. Life in the USSR, we hear, was like having to ‘breathe underwater’; childhood was the only time of freedom, and the self a necessary ‘state within a state’. Along the way, we glean numerous insights into Soviet life: the ‘very careful giggles’ its citizens had to engage in when listening to any kind of political joke, or the importance of winning at sport in the USSR as a way of proving ‘the ultimate superiority of the Soviet way of life’. One of the Soviet Union’s questionable ‘achievements’, we are told, wasn’t that it stopped people believing in God, but that (intriguingly) it stopped them fearing him: it made them feel ‘pity for God… sympathy for God.’
Under the film run the themes of sex, romance, and the inescapability of Soviet politics, which is always there to put its heavy footprint on private relationships, and which simply becomes another, overbearing family member, who will die sooner and more abruptly than anyone imagines. Though to begin with the film feels sprawling and over-long, by the time the narrator is hitting adolescence, with its descriptions of the girls suddenly becoming oblivious to boys their own age, the frantic sessions examining condoms and measuring each other’s penises, the film is much more revealing. Even the narrator’s frequent – and blatant – mispronunciations in English (env-EYE for ‘envy’, ’Peace’ as ‘Piss’, or ‘ang-zity’ for anxiety) begin to feel less like a misstep and more like an endearing idiosyncrasy, part of his private Anglo-Russian argot, all delivered in an authentic – though at times near-impenetrable – Slavic accent, which makes you believe you’re meeting someone real. You are struck too, again and again, by the ebullience and vitality of the Soviet citizens filmed, also their sense of fun – nearly always vivacious and clowning on camera, and though putting on act, making sure it’s a gallant one. As in the best reality films or television, you feel too you’re entering a world you’d never normally so much as rub up against, and which leaves you slightly changed. One can’t help but wonder, watching Private Chronicles, whether, had the Western world been privy to such a keyhole view of the Russians before 1991, the wire-crossing ‘us and them’ misunderstandings of the Cold War might been a little less ubiquitous.
Another, very different film from the quartet due to be screened by Open City Docs is Mansky’s Gagarin’s Pioneers (2005), in which he tracks down the surviving members of his childhood Pioneer troop – a more politicised, Soviet version of the British boy-scouts which included both boys and girls. The film, taking in adult ex-Soviet citizens now living in Israel, the Lebanon, the United States and in the fragmented ruins of the Empire they took an oath to and were told, as children, was permanent – becomes, as it goes on, a poignant study of displacement, distance and the whole notion of homeland – for what does homeland become when it loses its entire guiding ethos? The film is full of memorable moments – an opthalmologist who moved to the states as a teenager says that her grandmother’s terrible grief at staying behind and being parted from her family alerted her own younger self to the existence of death. We see an ex-pioneer crying over the poems she has written in her youth and another telling of how she found out late in life she was the child of a German General and his housekeeper, adopted by her mother during the war: ‘I tend to be really punctual’, she says with unintended humour, trying to make sense of her heritage. ‘That’s one of my characteristics: I’m very scrupulous and correct.’ Again and again, we see this desperation to belong somewhere explored – in one woman’s eternal inability to get Russian citizenship, or another’s comment that the Russian word for ‘homeland’ is like the Ukrainian word for ‘family’. In seeking out his childhood associates, Mansky here somehow manages to evoke themes that have bedevilled the region for much of the last century, and to put a very human face on them. Like Private Chronicles:Monologue, which in its own distinct way does much the same, it comes highly recommended.
Vitaly Mansky’s documentaries Private Chronicles: Monologue (1999), Gagarin’s Pioneers (2005), Broadway Black Sea (2002) and Motherland or Death (2011) are all showing at the 2017 Open City Docs Festival, from 5-10 September.