It is Night. On a hill, toxic dust and fire-smoke are spreading out. In the red firelight, we can recognise the shadows of working people. Their bodies are sometimes illuminated by the sharp light or roaring bulldozers. We seem to be expelled into the center of a purgatory.
Relics of society
Denis Gheerbrant’s new documentary La Colline, realised in collaboration with historian Lina Tsrimova and presented in the Cannes festival’s ACID section, is placed in Kyrgyzstan, beside China and not far away from the Russian borders, a place, which had already been a refuge for all those punished by Stalin. Today it’s a location of a cultural mix, a final destination for people from quite different origins. For most of them, it is a locality for surviving day by day. The workers collect plastic and water bottles, metal, and sometimes other relics of the consumer society. Some of these workers have already been here for decades, sleeping in the trash, covered only by plastic sheets protecting them from wind and rain. Older women, children, and the handicapped are no exception here. They work day and night to get their daily surviving money on this territory dominated by a mafia selling the collected trash items. No ambulance will arrive here, and no social security has ever occurred. These are the forgotten people who nobody takes care of.
It takes some time for them to understand that Denis Gheerbrant and Lina Tsrimova are not journalists looking for a short clip for YouTube to explore their misery. On the contrary, Denis Gheerbrant is known as a director who gives space and time for true communication, for transmitting profound human experiences. Born in the Caucasus, Lina Tsrimova’s human presence and local cultural and historical knowledge is his ideal partner to instil trust and recognition wherever, particularly in this disaster scenario.
These common capacities have also helped them to find a – at least a short-term – agreement with the illegal working occupants in charge of this place, who make their profit from the collector’s work and didn’t appreciate too much the filming activities, especially concerning the children in the place.
Today it’s a location of a cultural mix, a final destination for people from quite different origins.
People have surely learned to survive by keeping their painful secrets for themselves. But during the only one month of filming time and only fifteen hours of registration, the filming duo is surprised by the clear and exigent speech of some of the workers, which open up in front of the camera, opening their lives up for an unknown public somewhere, which appeals for their responsibility to overpass the usual limits and intimations. As Denis Gheerbrant points out, people even discover their language and voice through speaking in front of the camera. Being reminded of their dreams and fears culminates in their experience just to BE for a moment, to «develop their thoughts by speaking», recalling a formula of Prussian philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt.
A young man read his poetry, still hoping, after sixteen years, that his love would come back to him. He kept his diary, noting his personal difficulties and perception of the dawn’s beauty, which recomposed him with strength.
An older woman, Kadjikan, shared her pain of losing five of her children, still fighting for the three remaining. For their survival, she works restlessly after her husband falls into a depression facing the death of his 28-year-old son. Her children will also be forced to join in the work, one of them just 12 years old. Another young girl hoped to have a future by studying, but as her father got ill, she needed to quit to save his life.
«When I am not drinking, I wake up in the night crying» – Alexandre is forced to join the army at just sixteen years of age after having experienced domestic violence. After six years of duty, he was a case for psychiatry. He had completely lost himself, becoming (in his own words) «a monster», a being without moral limits. He became a war machine, shooting everything that moved.
In Chechnya’s capital Grozny, he saw the worst, tanks overrunning and burying all living beings, including women and children. After the war, he was just set free from his service without any mental or material support. Surely he wouldn’t have made it without his wife Aliocha, taking care of everything for twenty-seven years of living together. In the middle of the trash hill, she creates a place under an umbrella with some found food and drinks. With humorous coquetry, she managed a household in this abandoned place, where they are both still strangers. Sometimes hill neighbors help each other out under the free sky.
Denis Gheerbrant evokes the inner feelings of a deeply traumatised and self-destroyed man who can reclaim his humanity. Alexandre consistently and precisely describes his decline from the pain felt during his first murdering act in the war to the last degree of killing pleasures. Gheerbrant captures him rescuing newborn dogs on a sand hill, cleaning their faces. For some seconds, his camera just stays on cats playing, a metaphor of a life force in an expulsed world.
The images that surely stay the most in the memory are their little moments of tenderness, occasional laughing, and singing, under the umbrella in the dust.