RUSSIA / The dreamlike beauty of Ksenia Okhapkina's concise film connects the subtle mechanisms of control in a former Gulag town.
Producer: Riho Västruk
Country: Estonia, Latvia

The world premiere of Ksenia Okhapkina’s film shot during a harsh winter in the remote town of Apatity, 185km south of Russia’s northern seaport, Murmansk, was screened at the 54th edition of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival at the height of Europe’s blistering July heat wave.

The contrast between the azure skies and stifling heat outside and the grey-toned bleak wintry scenes in the screening room could not have been more acute. One could only yearn for a little of Apatity’s freezing air to cool the blood.

This is a strangely hypnotic film, light on dialogue and heavy on beautifully shot and colour-graded scenes that are painterly in their composition.

Hacked out of wilderness
Okhapkina allows the harsh contours of a town hacked out of the wilderness in Stalinist times to speak for themselves – and the activities of the townfolk likewise.

Brief introductory statements sketch out the sparse history of the place: the Gulag towns that were built to house prisoners during the deepest, darkest Soviet times and how, when the camps closed, the people stayed behind.

the social nexus remains remarkably Soviet in its outlook.

There is not much colour in the winter landscape here and the monotonous grey tones of dirty snow and rock-laden freight trains that bisect the freezing landscape is reflected in the constrained lives the director chooses to put under her lens.

Young girls are schooled in a ballet class, the barked commands of the instructor insisting that their legs are raised HIGHER as they practice a military-style dance number.

Life for the teenage boys at a military-style academy – members of a new Kremlin-backed Youth Army movement – is one long round of war games in abandoned buildings, bullying by instructors forcing disassembly of Kalashnikov automatic rifles in the dark, and patriotic pep talks at a museum that boasts a Soviet helmet from the 1939 war with Finland – complete with a bullet hole through the front.

To alarm and soothe
There is surely more to life in Apatity than the lives Okhapkina chooses for her focus, but for many towns like this – most of which are heavily dependant on a single extractive industry and the military for their existence – the social nexus remains remarkably Soviet in its outlook.

The lone dog, its pelt becoming heavier with snow by the minute as it lingers around a deserted railway line at dusk, is contrasted with a line of the young soldiers of tomorrow traipsing into a forest like a line of Young Pioneers form Soviet times. 1937 or 2019? What difference does it make in today’s Russia?

Immortal, a film by Ksenia Okhapkina

This is a film that seems designed to both alarm and soothe; perhaps the assemblage of grey and white images – occasionally enlivened by a splash of colour from a blowtorch used to melt ice or a single tree decorated in New Year lights – is a reminder of the insidious way in which in Putin’s Russia, as in the title of Peter Pomerantsev seminal book, «Nothing is True and Everything is Possible.»

That today’s surreal political order in Russia is replicated at the microcosmic level of small-town Russia is hardly surprising. But it is rarely so poetically and economically sketched out as in Immortal.

From the cradle to the grave
Death and duty are constants in the universe Okhapikina constructs: from the gravestones of the cemetery stretched out along the railway line to the ubiquitous military bases and armed exercises.

in today’s Russia your life belongs to the state, from the cradle to the grave.

The relentless, subtle control of the state in the lives of Russians beyond the cosy fictions of the megacities of Moscow and St. Petersburg is the lasting message of this film. And with closing shots from a children’s home – where a large room crammed with beds sleeps dozens within sight of the ever-present freight trains, the message is that in today’s Russia your life belongs to the state, from the cradle to the grave.