Issue 56 (2017)

Dmitrii Kalashnikov: The Road Movie (Doroga, 2016)

reviewed by Anastasia Kostina © 2017

Ever since the Chelyabinsk meteor roared through the Russian sky in February 2013, the creation of a film like The Road Movie was just a matter of time. The spectacular natural phenomenon was captured on video by many, mostly through dashboard cameras in cars. The multitude of video reports from different angles and levels of proximity produced genuine wonder among Western audiences: why does everyone in Russia have a dashboard camera? It took three years, however, before someone recognized the tremendous popularity of dashboard video recorders as a great documentary opportunity. That someone was Dmitrii Kalashnikov, who presented his film The Road Movie at IDFA 2016 and then ArtDocFest 2016. The documentary, which runs a little over an hour, is entirely made of dashboard camera footage recorded across the vast expanses of Russia between 2011 and 2016. 

road movieSitting in people’s cars and pointed towards the outside world, such recorders are programmed to capture reality in front of them automatically in a looped cycle until someone stops it, usually in case of a car accident or something bizarre happening: perhaps an angry driver with an axe chasing a vehicle or a tank pulling up at a carwash. Many such recordings end up on YouTube because people are keen to share extraordinary events they witnessed. Kalashnikov collected several such clips and arranged them into sequences, comprising an emotional rollercoaster of road adventure where tragic and comic often go side by side. 

Like most montage documentaries, The Road Movie faced a major challenge of organizing disjointed video fragments into a coherent story. Kalashnikov’s task was complicated by the fact that the original material predominantly consisted of extraordinary events and accidents. Thus, from the start his film was at risk of becoming just a string of attractions, somewhat like YouTube car crash compilations. To avoid this trap, Kalashnikov invested in aesthetic continuity. In focusing on this, he did not have to start from scratch because his material already provided a certain stylistic homogeneity. The majority of clips adopt the same camera angle and the same focus; there are no camera techniques involved, just the road in front of the camera. Realizing that dashboard camera aesthetics is not enough to provide sufficient coherence for the film, Kalashnikov looked for ways to add to it. One solution he offers is smooth visual transitions between episodes. The Road Movie sets off with winter scenery and for the first twenty minutes, which is roughly one third of the film, we are driving through Russian winter roads of snow, ice, and wind. The documentary then moves to spring/summer then fall, and ends with winter views again. The technique, often used in fiction and documentary films alike to show the passage of time, serves in The Road Movie to camouflage the film’s fragmented nature. The slow, natural change of the seasons smoothes the patchy sequences of road accidents and curiosities. By no means, however, does it support the chronological order of the episodes. As seen from the date recorded in many of the clips, they belong to different years. Kalashnikov applies the same free-flowing approach when it comes to the time of the day. The documentary does not jump from day into night and back. For the most part night episodes, which are a minority in the film, are only edited into sequences with other night episodes—this again softens the edges of originally quite diverse footage. 

Similar consistency emerges when it comes to the structure of the film. Two kinds of clip arrangement can be distinguished in The Road Movie: sequences of longer clips, each telling a separate short story, and compilations of shorter clips overlaid with a non-diegetic music soundtrack, which present events of a similar kind; for example car crashes or accidents involving fire and water. The former, little vignettes of the life from Russian roads already bear powerful natural dramaturgy within them, making the viewer laugh one moment and hold his/her breath in horror the next. One episode begins with a hilarious family conversation about who went to pee during the night and how many times that is interrupted by a horrific road accident the family witnesses. Kalashnikov's only task here is to choose where to cut, and he always allows time for the events to unfold. Each short story in the film has exposition, even if it comes as short, rising action, climax, and the end. The few exceptions, such as a police chase through a city at night that ends abruptly, are most likely due to the absence of closure in the original footage. Anyone interested in Kalashnikov’s montage logic is free to investigate it further because all the original footage is online and the director meticulously lists every single YouTube clip used in the ending credits.

The aesthetic homogeneity and orderly clip arrangement in The Road Movie sharply contrast with the excessive nature of the events shown. Kalashnikov doubles the excess by often placing comedy and horror next to each other. A compilation of fatal car crashes is followed by a comic clip where a drunk (or drugged) man jumps on a car of a woman driver and makes crazy faces at her as she keeps driving, screaming in horror. The density of the comic and the gruesome is already quite high in the film but with Kalashnikov’s editing the documentary becomes an intense series of emotional stimuli leaving the viewer no time to reflect.

The comic and dramatic effects are often intensified by the sound: monologues of the drivers, their conversations with passengers, or music from the radio. The aforementioned episode with a woman driver features a pop song apparently playing on radio. The lyrics go: I will be only your bride. The combination of the lyrics, the simple pop tune, the woman’s hysterical screams for help and grimacing face of her “groom” seen through a windshield prompted massive outbursts of laughter in the audience at ArtDocFest festival. The synergy of sound and image at times is so impeccable that it raises doubt over whether the sound is truly diegetic and no intervention took place. Kalashnikov added to this doubt, for he admitted to manipulating the sound a little bit. He did not specify the episodes where it was edited though, which leaves one guessing.

Kalashnikov’s confession of a little sound manipulation is quite surprising given the strong documentary sense of the film that is conveyed through visual aesthetics and footage origins. As mentioned, many of the clips feature time codes showing the date and the time of the recording. These digits unequivocally assert that what we see truly happened, exactly on that day and that time to the very second. Our confidence, however, is once again disrupted by an obviously inaccurate dash cam that shows the year 1970. The attentive viewer is thrown off by this discrepancy, which makes one realize how heavily and unconditionally we rely on those time codes as documentary facts. The time-code also acts as a constant reminder that the primary function of a dashboard camera is to collect evidence in case of a car accident. The camera here is an unbiased observer acting on its own, since no man operates it (except for turning it on and off). Unlike surveillance cameras, which normally look from above, the dashboard camera's perspective is close to that of the driver or front seat passenger and allows for even more realism. That said, The Road Movie could be called the highest form of observational documentary known to date, but the original point of observational style was to capture directly the reality no matter how dull and what Kalashnikov brings his viewer is extreme.

The English title of the film—The Road Moviemakes a clear allusion to the film genre of the same name. In a typical road movie characters go on a journey that eventually leads to a series of self-discoveries. While standing quite far from its conventional counterparts, The Road Movie contains one essential component of the genre—a discovery. Capitalizing on its “super-objective” documentary qualities and broad sampling from all over the country the film claims the discovery of something as big, inconceivable and intriguing as the Russian national character (ArtDocFest, 2016). In the spectacular parade of comic and horrific road accidents the Russian character emerges in two major forms: through streams of swearing and through a gender binary (in the characterization of super-masculine men versus weak, sensitive and often hysterical women). A wife crying and asking her husband to slow down every time he overtakes a car; a mother begging her son to drive away as he blocks a perpetrator fleeing from police; a helpless girl crying in relief after one man tried to drive away with her purse but another one saved her by chasing him. Those are just few among plentiful examples of sharp gender distinction featured in The Road Movie. Whether villains or heroes, men fight, assault, defend, and demonstrate all kinds of aggressive and assertive behavior while a woman’s role is to sob, cry, or beg in the background.

Last, but not least, is the language of the movie. Given the extreme nature of the events taking place it is no wonder that Russian “mat” is in abundance. Unfortunately, no translation is good enough to deliver those masterpieces of swearing and the comic effect they often produce is thus only truly appreciated by native Russian speakers or those who speak the language fluently. For example, in an episode where a couple is witnessing a massive car pile-up but they manage to narrowly escape it. The male driver reacts to it with an outburst of mat: “Fucking shit what’s going on there? It’s fucked up,” but a second later tenderly comforts his sobbing girlfriend: “Sunshine, don’t worry. We’re OK.” The contrast of his language is to some extent conveyed by subtitles, but the nuance that takes it from vulgar to comic is, unfortunately, lost in translation.

The Road Movie is Kalashnikov’s second film, after Waiting for the Show (V ozhidanii shou, 2015) which premiered at ArtDocFest a year earlier and was stylistically quite a traditional documentary with talking heads and other conventions of the genre. Whether the director returns to this form with his third film or keeps exploring new terrains is yet to be seen, but The Road Movie will hardly remain the only film of its kind for long because, as one of Kalashnikov’s characters put it, “Since these fucking dashboard-cams appeared... there’s now so fucking many interesting things on the internet.”

Anastasia Kostina
Yale University

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Works Cited

ArtDocFest, 2016. The Road Movie.

 


The Road Movie, Belarus, Russia, Bosnia, 2016
Color 67 min.
Director: Dmitrii Kalashnikov
Editing: Dmitrii Kalashnikov
Producer: Volia Chajkouskaya

Dmitrii Kalashnikov: The Road Movie (Doroga, 2016)

reviewed by Anastasia Kostina © 2017

Updated: 10 Apr 17