Heroic sacrifice for the motherland
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 fired during World War II, it did not crash. Instead of firing out, Gastello made a lightning-fast decision: He wanted to use the fiery bomber to damage the German enemy as much as possible and maneuvered the aircraft straight into a fuel store. It exploded and destroyed a number of military tanks. He received a posthumous medal for his efforts, and the dramatic incident in 1941 is described in books that Russian schoolchildren read today.
Gastello's story emphasizes self-sacrifice for the nation and exemplifies the essence of Soviet propaganda. With its militaristic bravado, it reveals a Russia still committed to celebrating its triumphs during World War II as a means of strengthening 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 acts highlighted by the Russian state, in Ksenia Okhapkinas Immortal. It had a world premiere during the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival and won the award for best documentary.
In the film, the heroines are recounted by an instructor as he explains to a group of young people what qualities are required to become a pilot. This shows that, although the Communist era is apparently over, the ideology of the individual who is subservient to and serving the motherland - and serves as an ideal for indoctrination - still lives on, at least in the small industrial town north of the Arctic Circle and central to the film.
Immortal is a word-button documentary, 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 city's name, but merely suggests that the place is one of many similar outposts in the region.
Outstanding 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 by Lenin's face in iron relief - rusty but persistent.
Trains have a prominent place in the film, a reminder of coal mines and transport that is the region's livelihood, and the train tracks that once made sure to transport the population. After the Russian Revolution, labor camps were built in the region to industrialize the Arctic, and the proceeds from it were channeled into the war effort.
After Josef Stalin's death, the gates of the gulags were opened, but the inhabitants remained - partly because they knew they were considered enemies of the state, and partly because they had no money to travel away. Although they were given the freedom to go where they wanted, ingrained habits are painful to let go of people who do not know another life and who have a mentality that glorifies power and self-restraint in adversity.
"Optimism is a way of life" says the T-shirt of the city'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 meet 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 an impression that self-realization is of little importance to the city - on the other hand, it expresses the devotion and workers' commitment to being 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 repressive propaganda machinery in a newer form?
The film makes me think of the Russian poet and head of state Fjodor Chuchev, who philosophized about the differences between Russia and the West. Twenty one was quoted by Vladimir Putin as he welcomed France's then-President Nicolas Sarkozy in the Kremlin: "Russia cannot be understood by reason, her greatness cannot be measured by ordinary scale, she is unique - Russia can only be believed.“The quote is not entirely correct, however Immortal is a perfect illustration of the people's perception of the nation and an ideology that permeates the atmosphere. The inhabitants of the city do not have to verbalize it in order for us to understand it.
A Russia portrayed as an overwhelmingly monolith with an almost hypnotic appeal and irrationality has become a cliché, but when we see this beautiful film, it is hard to deny that there is a touch of truth in this.
Translated by Iril Kolle