Chiledoc Berlinale 2024

The thick of it

RUSSIA / The youthful energy and optimism of Russia’s young opposition activists comes up against the cruel boundaries of an uncaring state
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Country: Russia, United States

What it lacks in formal structure and character arcs, Alexandra Dalsbaek’s debut feature documentary, We Are Russia makes up for in sheer energy and immediacy.

Opening with scenes shot from within the frightening scrum of police confronting a Moscow pro-democracy demonstration, it swiftly establishes its territory: this is a film from the frontlines of Russia’s youthful opposition to the cynicism and corruption of a Russian state-dominated now for more than two decades by one man – Vladimir Putin.

«Putin thief! Putin thief! Putin thief,» the youngsters shout as robocop riot police wade in with no regard for cracked skulls and crushed hands and feet.

We Are Russia, a film by Alexandra Dalsbaek
We Are Russia, a film by Alexandra Dalsbaek

Inside HQ

Dalsbaek, a young French woman of Russian origin, is always in the thick of it. Her camera is an extension of her eyes as she unflinching films angry confrontations between young activists and the police uniformed Cossacks random bile-filled passers-by. There is humour here too: a young woman chants «Russia without Putin» inches away from an elderly woman responding with «Putin is our president.» Eventually, the two smile and hug.

There is little formal structure or narrative here, Dalsbaek – whom I know and have worked with – follows a group of three young people who are members of Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation in the months leading up to the March 2018 presidential election – a contest Navalny hopes to compete in before the Kremlin predictably nixes his candidature.

Her camera is an extension of her eyes as she unflinching films angry confrontations between young activists and the police uniformed Cossacks…

If you know little or nothing about Russian politics, We Are Russia offers scant support in understanding what is going on; even those with a long familiarity with the politics and the place may find it hard to follow. When Navalny’s HQ is occupied and barricaded from within by unknown men (who turn out to be masked police officers) and an overnight caretaker is kidnapped, Dalsbaek chooses to go with the confusion on the ground as events unfold. Some clarity is gained when the caretaker turns up in police custody, escorted into court, where he is charged with disobeying police orders (though he says he did not know who the intruders were and that they set about beating him violently without a word) and fined the equivalent of €7.

The occasional onscreen comment, giving some guidance about Navalny’s campaign progress, flash up and are gone so fast that slower readers will miss what they say. But these are minor issues in a film brimming with indigent energy.

We Are Russia, a film by Alexandra Dalsbaek
We Are Russia, a film by Alexandra Dalsbaek

Social media generation

Dalsbaek’s three characters Milena Khutorianskaya#, Nikolay Kasyan and Nikolay Lyaskin, are not well introduced. The main heroine – Milena – a young woman who repeatedly stages one-person pickets (all that is allowed without government sanction) at places that include the State Duma (Russian parliament) and the Lubyanka (HQ of the Federal Security Service, successor to the Soviet-era KGB) could have benefited from more attention and a deeper look at her motivations and life beyond the protests. We learn nothing of Kasyan’s motivations, and Lyaskin – a Navalny employee is seen only briefly.

Milena is a ballsy and courageous young woman. The scenes inside a polling station in March 2018, where she is acting as an elections observer and obsessively picking up on minor violations of election law to the obvious annoyance of the polling station officials, is a masterclass in non-violent direction action.

Kasyan, a more intellectual and cool presence, is an organiser who knows the power of staging inventive actions, such as a flash mob on a Moscow Metro train where dozens of young people sit and stand in a carriage, all reading a copy of Navalny’s campaign newspaper; or delivering «gifts» to the back yard of the Presidential Administration, pausing just long enough to take photos of a masked character playing Putin behind a pile of presents that are daubed in political slogans.

Images flashed around networks such as Telegram… are key in driving home the message.

These are kids of the social media generation. Images flashed around networks such as Telegram (considered reasonably secure and popular in Russia) are key in driving home the message. When Kasyan and a friend unfurl a poster above a major thoroughfare supporting the boycott of the presidential election Navalny called after his ban, the image is flashed across the city and throughout Russian within minutes – about the same amount of time it takes for the two to scamper before the police turn up. Jumping into a car driven by a friend, Dalsbaek’s cinematographic eye follows as she swings into the front passenger seat. We not just witnessing but participating in the brave struggle of Russia’s youth against the corrupt stagnation of their country.

With regular extracts from Navalny’s YouTube channel – where his skills at talking the same language and understanding the same visual imagery as his young acolytes are clear – and a postscript that brings us up to date about Navalny’s poisoning in August 2020 and subsequent return to Russia – and immediate arrest and imprisonment for two and a half years – the director rounds off a film that shows the promise she holds to move beyond news features and into documentary.

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Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworthhttp://nickholdsworth.net/
Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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