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Heroic sacrifice for the motherland

Regissør: Ksenia Okhapkina

RUSSIA / The idea of ​​serving the motherland is still relevant as a tool for indoctrination.


When the plane of the Soviet pilot Nikolaj Gastello was hit and caught fire during the Second World War, it did not crash without further ado. Instead of ejecting, Gastello made a lightning-quick decision: He wanted to use the burning bomber to damage the German enemy as much as possible and maneuvered the plane straight into a fuel depot. It exploded and destroyed a number of military tanks. He received a medal posthumously for his efforts, and the dramatic event in 1941 is described in books that Russian schoolchildren read today.

Gastello's story emphasizes self-sacrifice for the nation and exemplifies the core of Soviet Union propaganda. With its militaristic bravado, it reveals a Russia still keen to celebrate its World War II triumphs as a means of bolstering patriotism.

The film's title could almost be satirical; is it the Russian people and the nation that are immortal, or the oppressive propaganda-
the machinery in a newer form?

We hear about this, and other heroic deeds highlighted by the Russian state, in Ksenia Okhapkinas Immortal. It had its world premiere at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival and won the prize for best documentary.

In the film, the heroic deeds are retold by an instructor as he explains to a group of young people what qualities are required to become a pilot. This shows that even though the communist era is apparently over, the ideology of the individual who is subordinate and at the service of the motherland still lives on – and serves as an ideal for indoctrination – at least in the small industrial town located north of the Arctic Circle and central to the film.

IMMORTAL from Riho Vastrik on Vimeo.

Heroic tales

Immortal is a terse documentary film, beyond the heroic narratives. Okhapkina prefers atmosphere over revelation when it comes to conveying the city's isolation and location. She also does not reflect on the town's name, but only suggests that the place is one of many similar outposts in the region.

Unique camera art captures a city covered in deep snow, where a yellow sun painted on a wall becomes a poetic symbol of what the city lacks. Another wall is covered with Lenin's face in iron relief – rusty but persistent.

Immortal Director Ksenia Okhapkina

Trains feature prominently in the film, a reminder of the coal mines and transport that are the region's livelihood, and the train tracks that once transported the population. After the Russian Revolution, labor camps were built in the region to industrialize the Arctic, and the income from that was funneled into the war effort.

After the death of Josef Stalin, the gates of the gulags were opened, but the inhabitants remained – partly because they knew they were considered enemies of the state, partly because they had no money to leave. Although they were given the freedom to go where they wanted, ingrained habits are hard to break in people who know no other life and who have a mentality that glorifies power and self-restraint under adversity.

Choreographed discipline

"Optimism is a way of life" reads the T-shirt of the town's dance teacher; an ironic detail in light of the extreme conditions life in the region offers. It is in line with the capitalist, consumer-oriented West, but in its utopian expression it is just a new twist on the Soviet state's ideological insistence on good health, progress and the ability to face any challenge.

The young girls in the dance class move synchronously in a military-like march. Here, dance is a way of belonging to the collective in more than a personal expression, and one submits to a choreographed discipline. The girls' individual thoughts and dreams about the future remain unexplored, leaving the impression that self-realization is of little importance to the city – instead, it rewards expressions of devotion and the workers' commitment to be productive for the sake of the state.

The film's title could almost be satirical; it is the Russian people and the nation that are Immortal (immortal), or the oppressive propaganda machinery in a newer form?

The film makes me think of the Russian poet and head of state Fyodor Tyutchev, who philosophized about the differences between Russia and the West. Tyutchev was quoted by Vladimir Putin when he received then French President Nicolas Sarkozy in the Kremlin: "Russia cannot be understood with the mind, her greatness cannot be measured by ordinary standards, she is unique – Russia can only be believed in.» The quote is not entirely correct, but Immortal is a perfect illustration of the people's perception of the nation and an ideology that permeates the atmosphere. The citizens of the city do not need to verbalize it for us to understand it.

A Russia portrayed as an overwhelming monolith with an almost hypnotic attraction and irrationality has become a cliché, but when we watch this beautiful film, it is hard to deny that there is a touch of truth in this.

Translated by Iril Kolle

Carmen Gray
Carmen Gray
Gray is a regular film critic in Ny Tid.

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