There is great irony that Ukraine’s most cosmopolitan city should host the cinematic forum which explores, amongst other things, Ukraine’s national conflicts and aspirations. Odessa may be a Ukrainian municipality, yet this renowned Black Sea port-city is famed as a city of travelers and nomads—a town composed not of sedentary peasants but of merchant marines, oil workers, Jewish merchants, gypsy wanders, in which the lingua franca (Russian) debunks in itself myths of any purity.
Nation is, as a series of documentary films in the Odessa International Film Festival exhibit, little more than mythos—one which obliterates evident differences of language, ethnicity, blood, and community, to privilege illusions of nonexistent homogeneity.
What better place to examine ‘nation’ than to put the most basic unit of its composition—the family—under microscope?
Here is exactly where Vitaly Mansky commences in Close Relations (first irony: a Russian documentarist making a film from chosen exile about his Ukrainian, sort of, family) recording and assembling the viewpoints of the members his extended family all over the Ukraine and Russia.
Unsurprisingly, even the most preliminary investigation of the familial unit reveals evident impurities, confusing migrations, changing allegiances; small facts of life which undermine this projected static imaginary of a nation with eternal borders, perfect language, and pure blood. Whereas Mansky’s family (like any family) is an assemblage of peoples who move, who learn new languages, who marry into other cultures and religions, a hodge-podge of fuzzy individual choices and mistakes.
If the family is a microcosm of nation the patriot is bound to be distressed, for as Mansky follows around the members of his supposedly Ukrainian but in fact mostly Russophone Russian-Latvian-Polish-but-currently-Ukrainian family, one can’t help but wonder exactly when and how did the Lithuanian Poles which were his forbearer’s become Ukrainian? When does one become citizen of the nation-state? At the instance of sealing the marriage vows? The moment the head emerges from the womb on hallowed ground? After how many generations does the blood finally purify itself of contaminations of other nations whose populations and borders are themselves in constant evolution? One? Two? Seven?
These ironies are exacerbated by the evidence that each of his relatives’ political views correspond exactly with their arbitrary circumstance—and so his mother in the more “Ukrainian” West Ukraine is a devout Ukrainian patriot (although not so much that she will go and vote when a polling station is changed), whereas his aunt, who happens to reside in pro-separatist Sevastopol, turns teary-eyed upon hearing the Russian national anthem during a New Years’ fireworks display. As is only logical.
His family too lives their lives in the intimacy and smallness of their quotidian yearnings, and not, as would be impossible, in the grand vein of historical movements. Their political opinions could be summarized as Mansky’s uncle, the eldest living family member and proud Communist card-carrying retired miner, does so well: “I know it all. I’ve seen it on TV.”
And indeed, wherever the members of Mansky’s family are, a television is turned on somewhere to news programs beaming out an incessant stream of deranged and mythomaniacal polished politspeak completely severed from their day-to-day reality (and in this we should have no problem recognizing our own news programs). Severed not just in language, but in color and image: photoshopped and soft-lit talking heads in too-expensive suits emitting vapid interchangeable tropes, polished and edited into nonsensicality and dressed with CG graphics like frills on a Hapsburgian ball gown.
Sedentary, his relatives sit in their dilapidated yellow-lit rooms in flower-printed dresses and brown vests, mildly disputing politics using the pre-packaged television narratives they had just heard with the absolute surety of pure firsthand knowledge. Only an old silent uncle leering mischievously in a corner exposes the inherent sarcasm of Mansky’s constant juxtaposition of intimate family life with bright television screens, bringing us to the rather unsurprising conclusion that the politicians and anchormen of the Ukraine and Russia are no less full of shit than their Western counterparts.
Although the news shows proudly parade illusions of omniscience in a pornographic display of “current event” which they peddle as fact, they disguise only thinly their myth-making role. Yet, should the individual wish to experience the “Event” it is always beyond his perception—try as he might, Mansky can’t seem to get close to any incident of historical grandeur. When he travels to Russian-occupied Donetsk to witness the speech of a separatist politician, he only gets as far as filming the brutish head of one of the soldiers who is cordoning off the public from approaching too close to this glorious moment of history.
The impossibility of approaching history as a documentarist is exposed tongue-in-cheek in Varta1, Yuriy Hrytsyna’s one-man DIY documentary about an internet radio that emerged in Lvov during the Euromaidan.
The VHS aesthetics (formal choice? economic necessity?) are a metaphorical and mischievous middle finger given to the Barbie-and-Ken packaged visuals espoused by big news. The wavering buildings’ magnetic image—the frozen empty streets, snowed-in train tracks, lonely meandering vehicles, empty bus stations abandoned buildings—are antidotes to the silly pretense of omniscience of televised news programs, and a perfect accompaniment to the chaotic medley of voices of individuals on radio Varta1.
The image in Varta1 is local and sparse: bare, crude images of factories, side roads, billboards. We see no checkpoints, no soldiers on parade, no drivers talking on the radio. Nothing that would indicate that the film is participating in the literal recording of history. The disembodied voices weave and interrupt, chattering more about nothing than everything. In the anarchy of a local radio with no hierarchy, everyone addresses everyone in Beckettian conversations which advance nowhere.
Nobody knows anything, all information is suspect, and we are in the void of history at the very moment it is supposedly happening. Is it a fight they are witnessing? Was it two people or seven? How many people? And does it really have anything to do with Russian separatists? Or is it just another drunken brawl?
One person supposes one thing, and another something else. People talk, but nobody knows and anyhow, maybe that’s why they established the radio in the first place, just an excuse to communicate in an ambiance of liberation. Although at some point it becomes too much even for one listener who radios in a request: “Please stop repeating everything you see. Give just concise, confirmed information,” to which another disembodied voice ups the ante (wittily? literally?): “Information is more important than bread.”
It may all be humorous and a bit pointless, but at least the Lvovians take their destiny into their own hands. And within the defined urban space of a city watched over by neighbors who are implicated in the historial events (non-events?) after the protests against Yanukovych
. In the absence of authority, the state of anarchy leads only to locals rising up to take responsibility for their city. Hard to understand what they might do as Ukrainians, but within the physical limitations of the municipality in which they reside, they understand they are actually implicated in the lives of their neighbor.
Close Relations comes to the same conclusion. “So you feel Ukrainian?” Mansky provokes his pro-Ukrainian mom. To which she retorts: “I belong to Lvov.” She, like the defenders of Lvov in Varta1 seem to be true Lvovians who are Ukrainian by logic. Nation may be an idea, but city, village, municipality, are physical places which define and contain the human experience, in which the social liens are ones defined by true commonality.
Not that this commonality or pride of place will always bring out the best in people. Or in cinema.
We see this too in the amateurish documentary Kholodny Yar about the small village of the same name. Ukrainian immigrants to the near-abandoned hamlet are interviewed about their motivation for migration, and each cites similar narratives: their desire to be close to the land, to re-discover the true Ukraine, to escape modern life. A seemingly innocent initial movement yet one which actually reveals the dangers of sentimentalism about land or indigeneity, and is a perfect illustration of how leftist anti-modernism transforms too easily into right-wing patriotism.
The documentary by Lena Yakovitska makes the dangerous error of believing its subjects without irony, of taking their testimony at face value, without distance without critique. Yet to the viewer the migrant with the mimetic Tartar mustache who extols the virtue of sordid-looking regional pottery as glorious reveals the buffoonery of his motivations.
Romanticism about land can turn to the most dangerous of motives (let’s skip where it led Germany in the 20th century) as it presents as natural, even geological fact, the fantasy and linear logic of an idealized unbroken historical continuity without change: As if the Tartars belonged to Ukraine as naturally as jellyfish to the Mediterranean.
This idealization of local culture as natural is the foundation of right-wing conceptions of absolutism and immobility. It actively cultivates an impression of always, as if only the eternal Tartar by blood and his true descendants were the real Ukrainian, and not the Russian peasant who he married, and not the barbarian who conquered him, or the Turkish soldier who settled there, or the Jewish sailor who passed through…
The greatest irony in Kholodny Yar is that unlike other equally insupportable nationalists, (say in Switzerland, who at the very least have an impressive and glorious Alpenlandschaft to claim as their heritage), the camera here reveals nothing more than a dull grey-brown swath of half-frozen land, which the most amateur of painters would not dare portray. Refusing to see, and to lay bare the irrational attachment the patriot has to his few square meters of bare earth, the camera remains as oblivious to the landscape’s ugliness as we are aware of it. No surprise then that the inhabitants of this run-down boondock claim the historical significance of the mud fields of Kholodny Yar as vital to Ukrainian history and the perfect place for their priests to sprinkle holy water on their weapons. And on this, Beckett has already written the perfect description: “Wherever nauseated time has dropped a nice fat turd you will find our patriots, sniffing it up on all fours, their faces on fire. Elysium of the roofless.”