Andrei Platonov’s novel The Foundation Pit, a hallucinatory satire of Stalin’s plans for collectivisation that was finished in 1930 but censored for decades, sees a group of Soviet workers tasked with digging a foundation pit on which a house for the proletariat is to be built. But as the endless job goes on, sapping all their energy, it becomes apparent that they may in fact be digging a massive grave. Russian filmmaker Andrey Gryazev has taken the book’s title for a found-footage documentary, which had its world premiere at the Berlinale and screens at the Krakow Film Festival. It weaves together a deluge of clips of desperate, at times livid, appeals to President Putin that citizens have uploaded to YouTube. The title echo is clever, suggesting a Russia that may have transitioned from rule by a communist despot, but is still mired in dead-end poverty across much of its vastness, where forgotten inhabitants barely subsist, cheated out of a promised utopia. Unlike Soviet times, they now have the platform of the internet for voicing discontent. Their clips may be mere shouts into a void, in terms of gaining an audience with Putin or any material change to their living conditions, but they stand as ripples of dissent disrupting the possibility for any flawless sheen on state-engineered propaganda. In this sense, Gryazev’s The Foundation Pit is the inferno uncensored.
The film starts out with a series of accidents, mishaps, and disasters involving actual foundation pits that have popped up on news segments across Russia. Clips cover tractors, buildings, and even people falling into these construction sites which, sometimes standing unfinished for years, become hazards that evoke a whole abyss of bureaucratic ineptitude and the perilous nature of simple survival for the everyperson. In perhaps the most poignant of the absurdist footage of these tragedies, a communal services bill lies in the mud of a pit — the flimsy, paper trace of a man residing in a nearby apartment block who had gone out for the banal drudgery of paying the fee for his family and slipped into the cavernous maw, never to return home alive.
The tone is set for a documentary that then widens its scope to take in a sprawling range of appeals for help to Putin, mostly shot on mobiles amid surroundings of ruin and abysmal living conditions that leave little scope to doubt the grounds of their desperation. Requests range from smaller, affordability-related specifics — one man wants his teeth fixed, another to buy those small booze bottles kiosks used to sell — to an energy policy that has meant a crippling rise in gas prices. Some exhort the president to extend the gas line to reach them. After all, this is a Russia rich in resources — where did the wealth go? Pensioners and the disabled say the state sees them as expendable. One elderly woman in a headscarf asks when she will no longer have to wash in an outdoor basin. A man who can’t walk down the stairs laments that he can no longer leave the house, as his building has no exit provision for him.
Neither physical nor fundamental
Other members of the populace petition for help in the face of corrupt and ineffectual local power-brokers who offer neither physical security nor fundamental shelter. A mother to a nine-year-old and victim of domestic violence, visibly battered with a black eye, says the police took no measures, meaning her partner was back home beating her again soon after he was reported. A group of scammed residents says their recently purchased apartments are now due for demolition, leaving them homeless, their money dissolved into thin air just as they, too, will probably «soon begin to disappear.» Scarcely liveable conditions are a dilemma throughout, from homes perched beside a dump to a huge, encroaching pool of leaking sewage. One pensioner and former serviceman takes us on a tour through his damp hostel with its cold radiators, and basement waist-deep in water, where even the very walls are barely holding together. A «normal, adequate official» who can solve basic problems is all they are asking for, another citizen cries in exasperation.
The Foundation Pit is the inferno uncensored.
The sense of being entirely unneeded and invisible in corners of Russia’s vast territory so isolated roads don’t stretch there permeates many of these addresses, made by those the state would seem to feel no strong vested interest in protecting. If electoral votes and postal letters don’t convey word to Putin, what to do but make a clip, even if it garners views only in single digits? One neglected citizen sums it up: «It would be nice to live like a human.» And another, to Putin: «Are you not ashamed, as a human, when your citizens kneel before you?» Through all these appeals and testimonies, the rawness of the anger and the pain coalesce in a central need — to live in basic dignity.