Alexander Shapiro: The Guidebook (Putivnyk/Putevoditel', 2004)

reviewed by Deborah Jones© 2009

guidebookIn an early scene in Alexander Shapiro’s Guidebook, a young man in dark sunglasses and a white hooded sweatshirt drawn puckered around his face takes a seat at a deserted stadium. We are in Kyiv, just after dawn.  He enters the arena from the top, but upon seeing a slightly older man he appears to know, ambles down the oversized concrete steps to join his would-be companion. The younger man has come to the stadium from a nightclub; he explains somewhere along the way he became separated from his girlfriend, but that suspects that she’s found herself an after-party.

The quiet scene is abruptly broken by a flash of footage of another part of the city. We see a woman with an angled, choppy haircut; her eyes are unfocused, and she dances—tremors, really—to a repetitive stream of techno. Her hair appears almost silver in the flashing discotheque lights that pulsate around here. She might be the young man’s girlfriend, or simply another strung-out club kid.

guidebookA sudden return to the empty stadium offers a scene that is impossibly bright, impossibly quiet. It’s as if the viewer, too, has emerged from a club to find the city just waking. These jarring juxtapositions, sudden transport between people, places, and time periods, punctuate each of Shapiro’s eleven portraits of life in Kyiv. This guidebook is not so much a tour of the city (although there is frequently archival footage of famous sites and events referenced by the speakers) as it is a glimpse into the thoughts and goings-about of a small portion of its population. In eleven scenes—perhaps better considered brief conversations in Kyiv—loosely running from early morning to night, the viewer not only receives a barrage of information on Kyiv’s nightlife, restaurants, real estate market, and history, but acquaintance with an assortment of characters, particularly those from the city’s darker corners. Yet here, too, Shapiro avoids the already-done: while we do meet femme fatales and gangster sorts, we also encounter urbanites more world-weary than corrupted: a medical assistant who moonlights as a striptease perfomer; a bohemian artist with a fixation on the housing market, and a Jew who feigned illness in order to avoid going to Israel and stay in the city he loved: Kyiv.

guidebookBack at the silent stadium, the young man engages the older in conversation, encouraging him to take advantage of Kyiv’s nightlife. He proceeds to list off close to a dozen clubs, their locations, the types of girls that frequent them, which ones play “progressive” rock. The young man offers a veritable “guidebook” to his fellow stadium-sitter, another local. That this “guidebook” is not necessarily a tour of Kyiv for the out-of-towner becomes increasingly clear, as the characters discuss corners of the city that they don’t know and rely on other locals to direct them. And there are corners of the city that they don’t appear to want to know, as it is rather what’s beyond the city that they find enticing.  The older stadium sitter, for example, though he is not the club-going sort, insists that Kyiv’s club scene is nothing compared to what can be found in other places, like London.

guidebookThat Kyiv is not quite London or New York is a common refrain in this sometimes self-deprecating guidebook. The characters in Shapiro’s eleven stories regularly refer to places beyond Kyiv, and Ukraine in general: the clubs and the traffic in London; real estate practices in New York; other parts of the former Soviet Union. While the action of each of the stories is confined to Kyiv, and most frequently to single rooms or fairly confined outdoor spaces, the theme of mobility—both physical and social—is pervasive. The hooded club kid steals a taxi in order to find an elusive after-party; an older artist and his young wife discuss the possibility of buying a trendy new apartment across town; a throng of motorcyclists roars around the city. Shapiro simultaneously fragments and binds narratives with images—and sounds—of transport: the film opens with the extended roar of trains; later, we accompany a pack of motorcyclists in their endless ring around the city. Viewers are forced into this frenzy through shaky camera work and unfortunately gimmicky shots of the highway sliding away behind a speeding car. It’s all somewhat vertigo inducing—like driving in Kyiv.

guidebookYet at the same time, the frustration of immobility—physical and social—is very much at the center of the film. Everyone talks of the traffic. A couple on their way to see an apartment arrive late, complaining of the time spent in a jam. Their hopes of moving are perhaps scuttled by the landlady’s revelation that the apartment won’t be ready for sometime because her cousin (supposedly the narrator from the first vignette) killed himself there some weeks before. In another scene, a gorgeous woman in a pool hall engages some men from out of town, and suggests places where they might go—more specifically, where they might take her—once they leave the bar. Her suggestions are tinged with irony: a whimsical outing at the zoo becomes a trip to see “the sad animals in cages.” Hallowed churches and proud museums become places that seem obligatory to visit, but might very well bore her. While the sites, parks, and cathedrals she mentions are all legitimate sites around Kyiv—the sort that might be mentioned in a tourist’s guidebook—it becomes ever clearer that the experience that a local might have at them is conspicuously different from that of an out-of-towner.

guidebookThen, it seems, the place to look for the soul of the city isn’t in its onion domes, cave monastery, or even on Independence Square, but rather in its people. And there’s something dreamy about them, or at least the ones portrayed in Shapiro’s film. There is the dream of a new apartment in a prestigious neighborhood. The dream of the ultimate after-party. The dream of hosting a fashion show on par with those in Western European fashion capitals. Yet there is also something oblivious or self-deluding about these characters. The club kid’s girlfriend could very well be spending the night with someone else. he woman looking for a new apartment is working with a shady broker. The two young women planning the fashion show are so consumed by their fantasy that they fail to notice a handsome young busboy juggling—and then dropping—dishes in an effort to impress them.

Shapiro offers us a guidebook to a people and a city still struggling to find their place. He gives us swagger and glitz, a raw, biting underbelly, and a history that is recalled in awkward scraps. And it is this awkward set of circumstances that in some respects justifies the disjointed, jarring structure of the film. The trouble with Shapiro’s work isn’t its content or themes, it is that it, like its characters, ends up feeling too self-conscious and preoccupied with image. There are places in which Shapiro’s rickety camera work and strident splices add liveliness to the film, but too often they are disruptive and grating. Or worse, they seem amateurish. Shapiro’s characters, despite their faults, are honest, as are the messages they offer. Strain your eyes and focus on them.

Deborah Jones, University of Michigan

The Guidebook, Ukraine, 2004
Color, 108 min.
Director:  Alexander Shapiro
Script Writer: Alexander Shapiro
Cinematographer: Pavlo Oleksienko
Composer: Ievhen Kekukh
Cast: Oleksii Horbunov, Volodymyr Horians'kyi, Vitalii Linets'kyi, Heorhii Drozd, Kostiantyn Shaforenko, Ievheniia Hladii, Alla Serhiiko, Volodymyr Iamnenko
Producer: Sergei Baranov
Production: Lazaretty Reproduction


Alexander Shapiro: The Guidebook (Putivnyk/Putevoditel', 2004)

reviewed by Deborah Jones© 2009