Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

Requiem for a dream

RUSSIA / The absurdity of life in Yekaterinburg and the clash between those longing for imperial greatness and a small group of dissidents standing against Putin's impending invasion of Ukraine.

Marianna Kaat’s Hot Docs world-premiering (International Spectrum) The Last Relic is a work of thought-provoking – and often head-spinning – contradiction. Over the four years leading up to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Estonian filmmaker embedded with several brave activists in the seemingly blissfully ignorant city of Yekaterinburg, where Tsar Nicholas II and his family met their grisly fate, and which now celebrates its imperialist past with extravagant balls and military marching parades. (Needless to say, an anti-Putin sign proclaiming «He is not our tsar!» is firmly in the minority position.) Divided into easily digestible, single slogan chapters («power,» «solidarity,» «secrets,» «rules,» «revelation,» «survival,» etc.), the film’s clear-eyed prescience is at times downright startling as is seeing the colourful and festive, and buoyantly youthful, anti-Putin protests that Kaat’s hyperaware eye captures. In fact, the tick-tock closing in of the state apparatus on these would-be revolutionaries basically renders The Last Relic a real-time docu-thriller.

The Last Relic Marianna Kaat
The Last Relic, a film by Marianna Kaat

The concept of freedom

And the characters willing to put their own physical freedom on the line in Sisyphean pursuit of attaining their nation’s liberty are a tactical, deep-thinking bunch not given to rash decision-making. There’s 20-year-old Igor, a proud member of the Left Block who loathes capitalism every bit as much as he despises Putin – «the leader of the capitalist mafia bureaucracy», as one seasoned protest vet ruefully puts it. And on the other side of the generational divide, middle-aged Rafail and the stoically determined Galina, old-school hands who’ve been giving the finger to The Man for decades now. Though perhaps counterintuitively (or not), Rafail sees messaging economic freedom as the key to changing hearts and minds. (He might be right. As an inebriated beggar impatiently urges a fellow drunken comrade, «We can’t talk politics; we need to survive.» It’s the economy, Putin.) Indeed, witnessing this clash of firm ideas and shifting strategies among compatriots, as much as the showdown over ideology with the tsar-loving locals, is likewise what kept me glued to my seat.

As Igor explains to the camera – before being asked to leave the cafe he’s seated in for talking politics – Russia is in a state of «enlightened cynicism.» Everyone knows that things are bad but are resigned to their powerlessness. (When a planned protest fails to attract even the police, the collective shrug rings louder than words.) «Society will not change because society is watching tv,» Rafail counters after Igor points out that replacing Putin with someone like Navalny will not change a thing unless society changes first. (A sentiment to which Navalny would likely agree.)

And pretty soon, the passionate activists are headlong into hashing out the very concept of freedom. Rafail touts the example of America as a free country (as if we here in America are free because of capitalism, I suppose, and not despite it. It seems the «big lie» – that snake oil that Reagan first shipped to a disintegrating USSR – of capitalism being the prerequisite for democracy is still our number one export. Along with the mythic American Dream, of course). Though the older man also stresses that if they don’t focus squarely on bringing down Putin, they’ll all be arrested in a couple of years. Who has time for idealistic hope when the existential threat is so real?

the tick-tock closing in of the state apparatus on these would-be revolutionaries basically renders The Last Relic a real-time docu-thriller.

Dripping of the screen

Yet perhaps the best way to neutralise a propagandistic judo enthusiast is with some jujitsu moves of one’s own. The savvy Rafail turns his time waiting outside a police station into an opportunity to engage in light banter with several bored officers. Do they actually make enough to live on? he wants to know. They really should Google how much civil servants in other countries make. But then he goes on to further suggest that the solution to their financial misery is not to move to Finland but to «live and develop here.»

Later Galina posits that Putin’s strategy is both «world domination and further impoverishment of our country.» Putin «bought» the electorate with a «false sense of greatness,» she declares. In a heated roundtable discussion, she takes the position that Russia needs a whole new system. In fact, a fellow traveller vehemently disagrees. The system, this older gent proclaims, just needs to obey its constitution, which Putin has ignored with impunity for decades. (And while this talky debate continues, Kaat deftly cuts in the «action scenes» – incongruous images of he-men competitions, patriotic choirs and debutante balls.) At one point, an elderly volunteer tending the Romanov graves links the Bolsheviks’ killing of the tsar to today’s «mess.» Perhaps the younger generation can clean it up, he tells a curious Igor. By the time the young activist takes a trip to the Yeltsin Center – where archival video shows the former president proclaiming the new democratic freedoms of Russia (Speech! Press!) – and also a photo of Yeltsin with Putin, the irony is practically dripping off the screen.

And soon, we’re whisked to a rundown cafeteria, where an older, jaded worker puts her aged cohort in their place, mocking the activists’ belief that they’ve been going to prison for folks like her. They’ve done nothing for her, she challenges. It’s all «for show.» In other words, for their own egocentric idealism. «Nobody ever comes to power with good intentions,» she scoffs.

The Last Relic Marianna Kaat
The Last Relic, a film by Marianna Kaat

Another way?

Schoolchildren one-up one another, singing Putin’s praises and bragging about how geographically big (and thus great) their country is. A scene of an activist being quietly escorted into the rear of a paddy wagon is chillingly juxtaposed with kids in military garb loading marching band instruments into the back of a van. And then there’s that stunning final scene (set to an operatic score that’s strategically deployed throughout), as Kaat’s camera jumps from military parade to over-the-top ball, to the last shot of the last soldier still standing at attention after all the troops have exited Red Square. It’s not till the credits roll that we learn that all these courageous dissidents are now in exile or facing serious jail time. Of course, they are. But perhaps it could have ended another way.

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Lauren Wissot
Lauren Wissot
A US-based film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer.

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