Issue 47 (2015)

Tamara Dondurei: 21 Days (21 den’, 2014)

reviewed by Jeremy Hicks© 2015

Following the thoughts of terminally ill patients in a Moscow hospice, 21 Days is an up-close and intimate documentary exploration of two people’s reflections on their lives and imminent deaths.

21daysWritten, directed and filmed by Tamara Dondurei, the decision to film in a hospice is an interesting one in itself. Not only do we have the sense that this documentary film is venturing into a rarely seen dimension of human existence but, in the Russian context, where the word and phenomenon of the hospice for the terminally ill are still novel and very rare, the topic is all the more noteworthy. Indeed, when the film was shown at the 2014 Kinotavr film festival in Sochi, discussion centered around the activities of the hospice rather than on the film’s cinematic merits or demerits (Dondurei 2014). But the film does not really give us a wider picture of the hospice as an institution: the doctors and other staff there hardly feature at all. Instead, we have a series of extended, in-depth interviews with wheelchair-bound patients, in particular Sergei Aleksandrovich and Irina Mikhailovna, for the period of the 21 days that they spend in the hospice as they talk uninhibitedly about their own impending death, about post-Soviet Russia’s lack of ideals and about euthanasia, amongst other topics. We get a sense of the subjects’ mixed feelings, their love of life and, at the same time, their acceptance of death.

Although Dondurei mercifully spares spectators from having to witness the moment of death itself, she suggests it by showing Sergei Aleksandrovich’s empty room and this heavy smoker’s big tin of his favorite cigarettes, Rothmans. As the staff tidy up his room and pack away his instantly familiar clothes, we immediately understand that he has died; we see the people we take to be his relatives come and slowly leave. It is in moments like this, through the camerawork and editing, that Dondurei comments most poignantly upon what we see. The directorial presence is understated and somewhat subtle as the film lets its subjects speak. They are interesting, for the most part, and engage spectatorial attention, but this is not a film that has answers, nor does it propose a philosophical or artistic gloss upon its theme. This in itself is a welcome commitment to existential uncertainty, with a surprising absence of religious interpretations of death.

21daysIn part the refusal to comment overtly is a consequence of Dondurei’s approach as a director: her decision to construct the film overwhelmingly around close ups, consciously using fewer images of the wider environment of the hospice or of the characters in long shots, and the absence of establishing shots. Likewise, she deliberately avoids other layers of material, such as interviews with the relatives or footage shot elsewhere; she edits out her original questions, and excludes most of the subjects’ anecdotes and their back stories in favor of their reflections upon old age and death. We see these people’s faces in such detail over the course of the film that we start to become familiar with the folds of their skin, their liver spots and unpredictable hair. The resulting intimacy and intensity are a deliberate effect, the product of a consistent approach to the subject matter (Dondurei 2014). The hospice is presented as an enlightened way of caring for the dying, and the implied metaphor is that the hospice is a space for absolute honesty: in the limited time available to the patients, there is no point any more in self deception. For Dondurei, this approach also has lessons for art. It is in this sense that we might see the incident where the main character refuses consent to be filmed for the notoriously propagandist “Russia Today” channel by a Mosfilm camera crew. This further adds to a sense that we are being granted a unique and privileged insight into things. Yet, this film too is a construction, of course, with an artistic agenda of its own. The title, for example, implies that the hospice depicted in the film takes people in for 21 days, but in fact it takes people for both longer and shorter periods, with an average time of 14 days.[1]

21daysDondurei’s approach to documentary is very much formed and colored by her training at the Marina Razbezhkina and Mikhail Ugarov School of Documentary Film and Theatre. Previously a film critic (and daughter of the film critics Daniil Dondurei and Zara Abdullaeva), this is Dondurei’s diploma film. She follows a task set by Razbezhkina to the students, which—unusually—was entered into the main competition at Sochi. Razbezhkina, who is also the producer of this film, has pioneered a form of documentary cinema in Russia, we might even say a “school,” that is observational and strives towards maximum proximity, in the process of attempting to see and understand the surrounding world through the film camera. In this case, 21 Days was the product of six months spent observing and filming in the hospice. The beginning and ending of the film (as well as the poster used to publicize it) comment upon this observational approach with images of a patient watching goldfish in a tank, asking whether they are aware of being watched. The patients of 21 Days are aware of the presence of the camera, but rather than performing for it, they grant us access to a sphere beyond pretence, and with that, a unique insight into the human being in the face of imminent oblivion.


Notes

1] According to Niuta Federmesser, one of the prime movers in the founding of hospices in Russia (Dondurei 2014).


Jeremy Hicks
Queen Mary University of London

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Works Cited

Dondurei, Tamara. Press Conference “21 Days”, Sochi, 8 June 2014.


21 Days (Russia, 2014)
70 minutes, colour, 1:1.85, Dolby Digital 5.1
Director Tamara Dondurei
Scriptwriter Tamara Dondurei
DoP Tamara Dondurei
Sound Iurii Geddert
Editing Tamara Dondurei
Producer Marina Razbezhkina
Production Marina Razbezhkina’s Workshop

Tamara Dondurei: 21 Days (21 den’, 2014)

reviewed by Jeremy Hicks© 2015

Updated: 31 Dec 14