Issue 23 (2009)

Pavel Kostomarov and Antoine Cattin: The Mother (Mat', 2008)

reviewed by Greg Dolgopolov © 2009

Russian documentary is like a brushfire—noticeable but unloved, a little predictable and easily put out. There is not much production money, little controversy; few, if any, films make it to the big screen and television only takes certain types of factual content. Nonetheless there is considerable activity in the sector. There are many annual festivals from Ekaterinburg to St. Petersburg; a substantial web presence and potent promotion companies (Vertov.ru and Kinoteatr.doc). There are quality new documentaries across a range of subject matters, formats and running times. Prominent auteurs (Sergei Loznitsa, Sergei Dvortsevoi, Valeriia Gai-Germanika among others) continue producing exceptional work. As a style, documentalism has permeated a number of award winning fiction films with its emphasis on minimalism, banal realism and authenticity.

Yet there is a perverse and very specific type of unembellished docu-realism that exoticises the primitive provinces with its cast of uncanny weirdoes, drunks and grizzled antediluvians. Documentary realism appears hogtied to decrepitude and decay in rural settings. Artistry is associated with filming in grimy close up that which was formerly unrepresentable because it was rude, vile, cruel and absurd. The overwhelming trend for quirky, low budget art-house documentaries is an observational mode with little directorial intervention, few interviews and extensive scrutiny of sordid lives. Indeed the lack of experimentation with different documentary genres or hybridisation is astounding. Political themes are eschewed and artistic innovation is avoided.

The characters are drawn from the lower depths, absurd, bruised, hopeless ‘little people' leading lives of maudlin desperation and their presentation is odorously proximate as they exhibit little self-consciousness and rarely acknowledge the camera's presence. This approach tends towards the anthropological with a trace of Bunuelian distaste: look at these absurd people living in this absurd hovel. Documentarians present freak shows for urban audiences to enjoy the authentic kino-eye that gets unbearably close to these unselfconscious, alcoholic, swearing outsiders. Unlike Vertov, today's documentarians do not move away once the homeless drunk awakes. Instead they linger hoping for something nasty to happen. There is a kind of iniquitous Survivor viewing mode that marvels at how these people survive in conditions of such deprivation and poverty.

At first glance, The Mother (2007) directed by Pavel Kostomarov and Antoine Cattin falls into this prevailing pattern. The film chronicles the life of a dairy farm worker, Liubov, her front teeth missing, prematurely aged by the rigors of hard manual labor and an abusive husband, a prostitute mother and a brood of nine hungry children. Her ‘boyfriend' is a hopeless drunk who abuses her as that is the only language he knows. Her son is an indolent, brawling lout set to go either into the army or to jail. She is surrounded by poverty and hopelessness. Her son-in-law is incarcerated and now her teenage daughter is pregnant. But far from becoming Schadenfreude or a moralising social analysis of the lower depths, The Mother is a remarkable story of ordinary optimism and bravery.

HER NAME IS LIUBOV.
It means 'love' in Russian.
SHE IS THE MOTHER.
She has 9 children.
She's adopting a tenth.
SHE IS ALWAYS RUNNING.
Away from her violent husband, to her eldest son in jail.
From the maternity ward to the school.
From the hospital to the farm.
WHERE CAN SHE RUN TO NOW?

(docreview ) [1]

Co-written and co-directed by Pavel Kostomarov, a celebrated cameraman from Moscow and Antoine Cattin, a journalist from Switzerland, The Mother is their first feature length collaboration. Three years in the making this is a mature, finely crafted narrative that weaves a complex and yet sublimely simple account of Liubov's family life around national themes of maternal courage, forbearance, stoicism and living every day as though it was the last.

Kostomarov and Cattin are unusual, but effective collaborators with three celebrated documentaries to their credit. Kostomarov has established himself as one of Russia's leading cameramen across documentary and fiction having worked with Manskii, the illustrious Loznitsa and memorably on Aleksei Uchitel''s The Stroll (Progulka, 2003) and Aleksei Popogrebskii's Simple Things (Prostye veshchi, 2007). Cattin, the editor of the TV-magazine Hors-Champ, studied in Russia and started a film project on director Aleksei German Sr. and his film It Is Difficult to Be God (Trudno byt' bogom, working title) that has been in production for ten years. Now that German's film is coming to an end, the behind-the-scenes documentary that Cattin continues to develop with Kostomarov looks like being their next project. They first met at a film festival in Munich when they served on the jury together. Two years latter they bumped into one another in Saint Petersburg. Cattin asked what Kostomarov was up to and having learnt that he was shooting Loznitsa's next film asked if he could join them. He became the director's assistant on Portrait (Portret, 2002) and they became firm friends (Leonova).

Their first joint effort was the awarding winning 16-minute short, The Transformer (Transformator, 2003) a hilarious monologue from a lexically colorful truck driver stranded in a village for many months to guard the transformer that fell of his truck from local metal marauders. This was followed by the 45-minute Life in Peace (Mirnaia zhizn', 2004) about two Chechen refugees trying to make a life for themselves in a Russian village.

Kostomarov and Cattin's style is collaborative, intuitive, simple and fluid. Yet it is their editing and sense of the story in its national significance that raises their stature. They share directing, writing, editing and camera credits. With the lack of grants and the length of time their films have taken to make in an observational mode this non-hierarchical, fluid approach seems to be most effective. They develop warm relations with their subjects, which is clearly visible on screen. Dealing with people who have very little, the filmmakers help out with food, clothes and medicine. Pavel Kostomarov explains, “they help us by tolerating our continuous presence and we help them, working on the farm, feeding the cattle” (‘Za 101-m kilometrom'). These sorts of connections are at the heart of their films. Humanism and the search for community and understanding by their vibrant characters in the context of rural poverty represent the clear thematic continuity across their three projects.

The Mother started life as a short ‘commissioned' project that was the product of a happy coincidence. While filming Life in Peace, Cattin and Kostomarov met Liubov and her eldest daughter Alesia as they were living in the same village as the Chechen heroes. Liubov was very welcoming and invited the filmmakers to join her at home for tea. They enjoyed her company and were fascinated by her noisy, joyous family. Sometime later, the Soros Foundation held a competition to fund films about gender issues. They won and their prize was financing for a short film that they based on Liubov's family. Antoine Cattin said, “While making the short film we got to know her better and became even more convinced that she is not only a very strong person, but a strong character. Without that it's rather difficult to make a documentary” (Shannon).

It is a remarkable story about a fantastic, courageous, resourceful woman. She is remarkable not because she has nine children and is willing to adopt a three-year-old boy to save him from his incompetent mother. She is remarkable because in the face of hardship she is positively ordinary in maintaining, loving and nurturing this raggedy family. Despite the hardships, her kids all have a bed, something to eat and they turn up to school in fresh uniforms. Liubov is lively, passionate, warm and she makes do with practical optimism. She rarely complains yet her life is (unfortunately) the standard for many Russian women living in the provinces doing all the work and the child rearing while surrounded by incompetent, drunken, useless men.

Liubov only has time to reflect and tell her story when she travels by train and she is forever traveling to sort out some disaster. Without a hint of self-consciousness Liubov confides how she cannot remember a single happy day of her childhood. She was raised by an alcoholic mother, a dissolute prostitute who sold her at the age of 14 for a liter of vodka. It was at that moment that her family life began. She had eight more children with an abusive, violent and lazy husband. After eight years she managed to escape from him in an astonishing flight, children in tow, no money and nowhere to go but she was so desperate to leave that they trudged through snow. It is perhaps due to the lack of love that she experienced as a child that her life is so devoted to loving her family with all its foibles and the hands-on caring for the animals at her dairy farm. The film cleverly cuts between these often cheerful confessions of suffering and tactile scenes of chaotic family's life to create a robust portrait that is stoutly devoid of sentiment.

Much like her proud mother, Alesia works hard at maintaining the family. She helps out with the children, drilling them with florid language in the vagaries of the multiplication table and looking after the battered brawlers with gentle devotion. She too works at the dairy where a romance blossoms with a doting Zhenia, a gangly stable boy whose affection involves tossing hay on her.

This musically conscious film punctuated with children's songs, exhibits a stunning economy of narrative development. There is an amazing sequence that begins with Zhenia clumsily hammering together a rickety chair to help out his soon-to-be-mother-in-law. This is followed by the prosaic preparations for their wedding, from the hilarious dress fitting to the moment where Liubov suggests using a bent nail to lock the door to protect the table full of delicacies for the humble wedding dinner from her always hungry kids. There is a smooth segue to the customary wedding speeches with toasts to female strength followed by some crazy dancing and the carefree toothless leers of the guests. Zhenia and Alesia's playful intimacy and swooning kisses spur the guests to romantic swirling. One of the children observes this scene with the hint of a wry smile. Zhenia, his lanky arms outstretched, is the picture of satisfaction. The next scene is a close up on Zhenia sitting sober in a courtroom cage and passively accepting a three-year conviction for inexplicably assaulting a female family friend. It symbolises the ongoing harrowing, absurd cycle that the women of the villages must bear. We see this in the next scene with a hovering close up of Alesia in the milking room quietly contemplating her fate now that her groom is in jail. The scene is harrowing as the only sound is the unsympathetic throbbing of the milking machines. We follow her down a long corridor as she carries two full pails of milk to the churning machine. We stare down with her into the vat of spilt milk to the pulsating crescendo of machinery. Soon it becomes clear that Alesia is pregnant and so this life cycle begins again: hopeless men and single mothers raising children on their own.

Kostomarov says, “I think our film is about the love and strength embedded in Russians who regardless of everything that stands in their way can survive in conditions completely unsuitable for human existence. When you make a film it's as if you put on glasses and see things that you wouldn't normally see in real life” (‘Za 101-m kilometrom').

What is remarkable about The Mother is that unlike the many recent Russian documentaries with their focus on provincial fringe dwellers, this film does not moralize, judge or ridicule. It shows with compassion the absurd state institutions that are so out of kilter with the villagers' real world. It is never clear what the kids are taught at school and to what ends. There is a revealing cross cutting sequence that moves between children rehearsing a song with seemingly random hand gestures to the doltish Sergei, Liubov's ‘boyfriend' as he randomly rakes the hay in the dairy. There is just the hint of a suggestion that this fate awaits many of the school children with their random song and hand gestures and education that does not prepare them for the modern world.

But what is even more remarkable is that this is a hopeful, optimistic film; a documentary about love and family and tolerance. With their focus on good people in difficult circumstances in the Russian regions, the directors are defining a new Russian documentary humanism that shows that this difficult life is worth living. Their films are about optimism and humanity in hellish conditions.

In describing Liubov, Kostomarov said, “she is a wonderful, kind person of enormous strength and splendor. She is the great Russian beauty, a woman warrior who bears the family's burden on her shoulders. Against all odds we all exist thanks to these sorts of people. Everything rests on the fate of these people and there are very few of these solitary, real people. Solitary not in the sense that they are alone, but that they exists in a vacuum surrounded by zombies. There are very few real people and documentary cinema is the pursuit for these sorts of people." (‘Za 101-m kilometrom').

This is a powerful portrait of a very Russian mother at extremes. Liubov's life is an extreme experience of motherhood, but one that celebrates the warmth, responsibilities and joys of family.

Greg Dolgopolov
UNSW, Australia

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Notes

1] Promotional text for DVD cover and Festival blurb (docreview).


Works

Leonova, Evgeniia ‘Pavel Kostomarov: Takaia strannaia mirnaia zhizn', Film.ru (interview) 3 December 2004.

‘Za 101-m kilometrom' (interview with Kostomarov) New Times/Novoe vremia 10, 10 March 2008.

Abel, Shannon interviews Antoine Cattin, Q&A: The Mother, The Hotdocs Daily, 23 April 2008.

 


The Mother, Russia, Switzerland, France, 2007
Color, 80 min.
Directors: Antoine Cattin and Pavel Kostomarov
Producer: Elena Hill
Production: Les Films Hors-Champ

Pavel Kostomarov and Antoine Cattin: The Mother (Mat', 2008)

reviewed by Greg Dolgopolov © 2009

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