Nick Holdsworth
Journalist, writer, author, filmmaker and film and TV industry expert – Central and Eastern Europe and Russia

This short documentary provides a Czech viewpoint on a 21st century car factory that is still behaving in decidedly mid 20th century ways.

The Russian job

Petr Horký

Czech Republic, 2017, 70 minut

There’s something very Soviet, almost clichéd about the opening of Petr Horký’s brief feature documentary The Russian Job. A snowy Russian car factory, seen from above and at street level, where feral dogs run barking after cars and workers stream to and from their shifts; a brief segue to introduce the new (foreign) managing director brought in to turn around the fortunes of the once great Soviet car maker, Lada. Then a quick shift of gear to a warm spring day and a Victory Day parade on a dusty square, complete with youngsters dressed up in 1930s white sports costumes, performing staid Soviet gymnastics.

For an introduction to a film set in Russia, little is left to chance: vast frozen wastes, wartime victory and healthy, disciplined youth.

Bleak Beauty

The bleak beauty of central Russia’s river Volga region (the car factory is located in Samara on a broad bend in the river) and the plentiful sports and recreation activities available to workers are shown, giving some context to what, for foreign viewers, may otherwise fit into stereotypes of provincial Russia as simply awful beyond belief.

Like so much in Russia, it all looks good on the surface. But as dour Swede Bo Andersson, an ex-SAAB executive brought in to turn around Lada’s mother company AvtoVAZ, drily observes at an early meeting which identified persistent delays in unloading components that are seriously denting productivity: “I want to do a very deep dive of what are the issues.”

«The big, buff Swede swiftly identifies the key opportunity and challenges: good people working under bad managers who care only about themselves.»

For those of us old enough to remember the days when a Škoda was pretty much synonymous with a Lada (though no longer, since German carmaker Volkswagen took the Czech carmaker under its wing), bits falling off of a Communist-bloc car are nothing surprising. But those were the old days, and a Czech view on a 21st century car factory that is still behaving in decidedly mid 20th century ways is a fascinating take.

But Russia is nothing if not eternal and although beyond the scope of Horký’s documentary, it is interesting to note that the Swede lasted just two years before he was dismissed in 2016 after doing his best to rationalize production, reduce costs and lay off more than 30,000 workers he deemed surplus to needs.

Challenging Change

The Russian Job, while perhaps not quite as exciting as the classic 1960s heist-by-Mini, The Italian Job, from which it takes its tongue-in-cheek titles, examines in fascinating detail some of the challenges Andersson faced.

The big, buff Swede swiftly identifies the key opportunity and challenge: good people working under bad managers who care only about themselves. He quickly announces the launch of the first new model in years, the Lada Vesta [and, though Horký does not mention it, orders senior managers to buy their own product. A number of swish foreign models on the company car lists are sold.]

Horký tells the story of Andersson’s time at the plant through interviews with him, workers and a key Czech executive charged with launching the Lada Vesta. That Andersson does not speak Russian is never specifically identified as a handicap, but it is clear from the looks on the faces of some senior managers being lectured on how to do their jobs, that it might have helped him establish a little camaraderie with the people he had been parachuted in to manage.

«Horký tells the story of Andersson’s time at the plant through interviews with him, workers and a key Czech executive charged with launching the Lada Vesta.»

The Czech executive puts his finger on it when he observes that “these people are not used to being managed… we don’t have to befriend them. Our task is to show the path to the eager ones and bid farewell to the ones who don’t want to follow it.”

Request for Resignation

Andersson is even more to the point, talking over dinner at his comfortable local home, a bearskin on the floor behind him: “Everyone thinks the problems started when I arrived. Everyone was stealing enough to have a good life. Everyone thought the government would bail them out. Everyone thought they could never be laid off; now we have fired 15,000 people and they know I will not stop.”

«For an introduction to a film set in Russia, little is left to chance: vast frozen wastes, wartime victory and healthy, disciplined youth.»

Not surprisingly, his plans don’t go down well with the locals, and the local branch of the Communist party organizes rallies condemning Andersson as a capitalist lackey.

Andersson is eventually sent packing by a board that demands his resignation. It is likely he would have left anyway, as his relationship with a Czech woman also employed in a senior managerial role at the company had raised enough eyebrows that she was herself dismissed shortly before.

The Russian Job does not exactly light fireworks, but as a competent piece of documentary filmmaking produced by Czech public television, it likely has a home beyond simply festival slots, with TV sales as well.


Czech films that were at IDFA november 2017

 

 

 

 

 


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