Issue 35 (2012)

Vitalii Manskii: Patria o muerte (Rodina ili smert', 2011)

reviewed by Erin Alpert © 2012

Vitalii Manskii’s latest documentary, Patria o muerte (Rodina ili smert'), opens with a vision of Cuba that tourists may hope to find when they visit the country: a series of scantily clad young women dancing and gyrating to upbeat salsa music. The women, many of whom are dressed in bright colors, smile seductively at the camera and blow kisses to the viewer after finishing their performances. The film then cuts to a very different picture of Cuba: a long, slow tracking shot down a road lined by gray, dilapidated buildings with an equally colorless, cloudy sky in the background. This shot leads the viewer to a cemetery, where crowds of people wait as workers exhume the skeletons of their relatives. The cemetery is so crowded, that the deceased’s family must rent their loved one’s plot for a set time period, after which the remains are moved into storage. The relatives watch as workers irreverently shake dirt off of skulls and break ribcages apart to make the bodies better fit into small boxes. “Human life,” one onlooker concludes, “is just one line in the book of fate.”

patria posterManskii’s film comes out approximately fifty years after the end of the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro’s seizure of power from Fulgencio Batista. If Mikhail Kalatozov’s I am Cuba (Ia Kuba, 1964) showed the need for revolution, Manskii’s film portrays what has become of those revolutionary ideals and enthusiasm. Rossiiskaia Gazeta’s Irina Korneeva sees the film as a version of Stanislav Govorukhin’s This is No Way to Live (Tak zhit' nel'zia, 1990), except this time about Cuba. The film’s title, Patria o muerte, “homeland or death,” is Cuba’s national motto, a slogan that originated from a speech delivered by Castro on 5 March 1960 in a cemetery, a setting paralleled in the beginning of this documentary. The film is comprised of interviews with Cubans, primarily those who were born before the Revolution and remember living conditions under Batista’s presidency. The interviewees speak in extended monologs about their lives; the filmmaker asks no questions on screen. But this is not just a story about Cuba. In many ways, it is also a story about the Soviet Union. Manskii says in an interview with Alena Solntseva in Moskovskie Novosti, that he sees the film as a sort of time machine and that Cuba today is like the Soviet Union on the eve of Stalin’s death. Familiar stories and problems appear on screen: a workers’ meeting in a factory, schoolchildren asked to learn about their school’s namesake—the leader of the port workers’ union—, bartering, cramped apartments, pensioners without enough money to live on, people traveling from store to store to try to find what they need as stores are out of promised goods, and friends gathering to tell anecdotes about the poor condition of their country and about America. Time, it seems, stands still here. Manskii portrays Cuba as a land surrounded not only by a literal ocean, but a figurative one as well. Several of his interviewees tell stories of their loved ones who have moved away. Those who remain are cut off from their friends and family abroad, but not from foreign tourists who have come to dance and have a good time.

Patria o muerte is neither overly pessimistic nor strictly focused on the political situation. It is also a film about life and what is truly important: family, building a better life for your children and grandchildren, traditions, music and, most of all, dance. Manskii notes in his interview with Solntseva that all of his heroes are members of the dance company Rueda de casino. Dance is what makes Cubans “Cuban” and what brings foreigners to Cuba as tourists. Even for someone missing a foot, the film shows, dancing can still be an important part of life. The film, shot in evocative colors, ends on an optimistic note, looking towards the future. Two girls, wearing beautiful dresses, leave to go to their combined fifteenth birthday celebration. Fifteen, one of the interviewees explains, is the threshold between girl and woman. It is a transitional period where her daughter and niece are no longer children, but are not yet adults. As they make their way to the party, they look out the window of their car in a tracking shot that mirrors the opening of the film, only this time the sky is blue and the buildings are colorful.

patria o muerteManskii is one of the most well-known figures in Russian documentary cinema today, both as a director and an advocate. He is famous for founding and directing a documentary film festival in Moscow, ArtDokFest, and for his work with the documentary film studio Studio Vertov, among other things. Manskii also published his own manifesto on what documentary cinema should be, which appeared in Iskusstvo kino in November 2005. In his manifesto, one of Manskii’s main points is that “the author shall not be hostage of technology.” He continues, “it is possible to disregard the film strip, studio sound and light, the angle and the work for the sake of a possibility to shoot the real-time events. Picture quality is not as important as reality” (Manskii 2005). While many documentary filmmakers work with digital video technology, Manskii approaches the filming of Patria o muerte from a unique angle. The entire film is shot on a Canon Mark II, which is primarily not a video camera at all, but rather a 21.1-megapixel digital SLR still camera with high-definition video capabilities. Manskii began the project in 2009. He and producer Gennadii Kostrov visited Cuba, after watching other films about the country, including Wim Wenders’ Buena Vista Social Club about Cuban music, Mikhail Kosyrev-Nesterov’s The Ocean (Okean, 2008), a fictional film set in a small Cuban fishing village, and Balseros, a 2002 Spanish documentary directed by Carlos Bosch and Josep Maria Domènech about the mass emigration of Cubans. On Manskii and Kostrov’s first trip, they spent two weeks traveling around the island, interviewing people and deciding on the topic of the film. As Manskii worked on the film, he was closely monitored by the authorities. He was allowed to film for three months and was not permitted to show certain aspects of Cuban life, such as scenes of absolute poverty.

The success of Patria o muerte goes beyond what most contemporary Russian documentaries ever achieve. It premiered at Kinotavr, where it was the only documentary film in competition, and was awarded the prize of the Guild of Film Critics and Film Scholars, “White Elephant.” It has since been shown at festivals around the world, including in Rome and London’s Russian Film Festival. The most telling sign of this film’s success, however, is not its festival appearances, but the fact that it went into wide release in Russian theaters, not only in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, but also in Rostov-on-Don, Krasnoiarsk, Novosibirsk and Ekaterinburg, a rare occurrence for a documentary film in Russia today.

Erin Alpert
University of Pittsburgh

Comment on this article on Facebook

Works Cited

Korneeva, Irina. “Kuba glazami Vitaliia Manskogo,” Rossiiskaia gazeta 9 June 2011.

Manskii, Vitalii. “Real'noe kino: Manifest.” Iskusstvo kino 11 (2005). (English translation)

Solntseva, Alena. “Vitalii Manskii: ‘Kuba segodnia – kak Sovetskii Soiuz nakanune smerti Stalina.’” Moskovskie Novosti, 22 July 2011.


Patria o muerte [Rodina ili smert’], Russia, 2011
99 mins, color
Director and Scriptwriter: Vitalii Manskii
Cinematography: Vitaly Manskii, Leonid Konovalov
Editor: Maksim Karamyshev
Sound directors: Mariia Ushenina, Sergei Ovcharenko
Colorist: Iuliia Gapochkina
Producer: Gennadii Kostrov
Production: Vertov. Real Cinema (Russia)

Vitalii Manskii: Patria o muerte (Rodina ili smert', 2011)

reviewed by Erin Alpert © 2012

Updated: 10 Jan 12