“The story of five families of political prisoners across Russia through time” is how Olga Kravets’ directing debut It’s Getting Dark introduces itself. But, the film is really about absence. The title suggests completeness, but it is rather the lacking that the film addresses. It draws a line from the past to the present, which exactly conveys the feeling of absence.
Karik Krause’s parents Vera Berseneva and Friedrich Krause, in addition to Taisia Osipova, Ruslan Kutayev, Gennady Kravtsov and Svetlana Davydova are all Russian political prisoners or detainees; the first two of the 1950s USSR and the other three of 21st century Russia. Osipova is active in the opposition party Other Russia, as is her husband; Kutayev organised an ‘illegal’ conference on war deportations in Chechenya during the Sochi Olympics; Kravtsov applied for a job in Sweden; and Davydova phoned the Ukrainian Embassy. This is, apparently, all takes.
However, it is not their cases that the film explores or unravels. In fact, we are afforded very limited information about the cases, charges, or court sessions, although the film does catch some information through observed conversations of family members, and presents a few public responses in the press. Contact with foreign authorities and political opposition activities and involvement form some of the reasons for the arrests, though the (false) charges seem more often to involve drugs. The film focuses on the effects of the sentences and the detainment, on the consequences rather than the causes. And these consequences are the absences. Without comments or interviews, It’s Getting Dark shows us family lives interrupted. In the case of Davydova, for instance, we see how her husband trying to run the household while also defending his wife’s case via the phone to the media.
Taisia Osipova was arrested because of her husband’s activities rather than her own, although the official charge was heroin possession.
The filmmakers intertwine observations of the incomplete families with letters read by Karik Krause which address the distance between authors, in this case his parents, and their kids. Krause’s narration is accompanied by shots of apartment buildings seen through window frames, creating the impression of a prison view. The two lines come together when Kravtsov’s wife reads their children a letter from him.
“Unfortunately, it is getting really dark.”
Kravets is a documentary photographer, something the careful visual language she and cameraman Nikita Pavlov developed testifies to. Families are mostly filmed in their homes where the absence of loved ones is visible, either explicitly or implicitly. A sense of confinement is accentuated through the images. Texts displaying additional information as well as public responses are projected on top of images, creating a layered visual style.
In the case of Ruslan Kutayev, we move outside and witness how he is taken away, with his young son and family waving goodbye. The women do not seem to take it too seriously. Either the whole situation is utterly incredible, or there is simply nothing to understand because there is nothing. Although the film explicitly condemns the legal practices involved, it is not about blame. The court clerics who are present in Kutayev’s case mention how they are merely doing their jobs – a subtle jab at the higher authorities and an indication that everyone is subjected to their arbitrariness.
At IDFA, Olga Kravets said that people today are sentenced for reposting material on social networks. Returning to Russia in 2012, after a number of years abroad, Kravets found politically motivated arrests in full swing following civic protests. In a bid to underline how this can happen to anyone, she decided to turn away from well-known ‘celebrity’ prisoners and focus on lesser known cases. Things have not improved much since then. “Unfortunately, it is getting really dark”, she added. Kravets now lives in Paris.