When Russian pilot Nikolai Gastello’s plane was hit and caught fire during the Second World War, it did not simply crash. Rather than trying to bail out, Gastello made a snap decision to use the burning bomber to inflict as much damage on his German enemies as possible, ramming it into a fuel storage facility and creating a powerful explosion that destroyed a column of tanks. He was named a Hero of the Soviet Union posthumously and is read about by Russian schoolchildren today. It’s a story that, in its emphasis on self-sacrifice for the nation, exemplifies the ethos trumpeted by the Soviet Union in its propaganda and militaristic bravado; a Russia that is still fixated on celebrating its triumphs of World War Two as a means to bolster patriotism. We hear this and other tales of deeds lauded by the state in director Ksenia Okhapkina’s documentary Immortal, which had its world premiere in the Documentary Competition at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, from the mouth of an educator explaining to a group of youngsters the attributes required for the profession of pilot. It shows that while the communist era may be over, the ideology of the individual subsumed by and serving the motherland is still very much alive in Russia as an ideal for indoctrination — at least in the small, industrial city above the Arctic Circle that is the focus of the film.
Of few words
Beyond this recounting of heroic feats, Immortal is a documentary of few words, with Okhapkina preferring atmosphere over exposition in conveying the extremity and isolation of the town. She doesn’t even linger over its name, implying it’s just one of many similar outposts in the region. Stunning cinematography captures a townscape deep in snow, in which the yellow sun painted on the wall is a poetic sign of just how lacking the real version is. On another wall is an iron relief of Lenin’s face, rusted but still persisting. Trains also feature prominently — a reminder not only of the coal mines and freight that are the region’s livelihood but also that the tracks once brought its population, gulag labour camps having been built there after the Russian Revolution to industrialise the …
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