Issue 35 (2012)

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

reviewed by John A. Riley © 2012

patria o muerteVitalii Manskii’s latest documentary recently had its UK premiere at the London Russian Film Festival. A broad portrait of life in Cuba, Patria o muerte introduces viewers to a wide array of people and situations rather than following a specific character or event. In this way it is similar to one of Manskii’s previous films, Broadway, The Black Sea (Brodvei: Chernoe more, 2002) in that it aims to be a depiction of a location and the specific community that dwells within it. 

Introducing the film at the London Russian Film Festival, Manskii reported that due to economic problems, Cuban television’s educational output often consists of a camera panning slowly down a textbook while a voiceover reads out the text. One could imagine that a curmudgeonly Jean-Luc Godard, on hearing this news, would proudly declare that this is proof that socialism is alive and well and living in Cuba. But for Manskii, who has seen both the results of a stagnant communism and a rapacious capitalism (he graduated from VGIK in 1990, at a time when Russian film production had dwindled to almost nothing and the transition to capitalism caused widespread disarray) Cuba’s problems are familiar and troubling.

Manskii believes that Cuba is approaching a similar threshold to Russia in the l990s, so he took his crew to document the first rumblings of this predicted change. Partly due to the strictures facing journalists in Cuba, and partly due to Manskii’s idiosyncratic interests, the story he returned with (compressing 200 hours of raw footage into 90 minutes) strikes the viewer as more personal than political.

The film announces Cuba as a place of contrasting extremes: An opening montage of young girls gyrating in front of their webcams to pounding music is followed by unsettling scenes of graves being exhumed. As the exaggerated sound of bluebottles fills the soundtrack, a man shatters a ribcage on the side of a coffin. We then see scores of people waiting to collect the remains of their relatives as an authoritative voice booms from a loudspeaker.

patria o muerteLike Broadway, The Black Sea, there’s a focus on earthy corporeality that is sometimes disturbing, sometimes amusing and sometimes just reportage. Cuban men sit around telling jokes that make out Americans to be greedy and wasteful imperialists, while including a generous helping of old-fashioned leering misogyny. Extensive footage of stray dogs rutting in the street documents one of Havana’s day-to-day problems.

Manskii seems to love the community he films, and wants to pack in as many of these heady images as he can, where touch and smell almost become tangible. In order to do this, he allows his subjects to speak as the film drifts away from their image, out into the street where dogs chase each other, and sheets hung out to dry flap eerily in the wind, against a backdrop of faded Spanish colonial architecture. This disembodying of the documentary subject has a strange effect. On one level, it distances the viewer from the specific protagonist, but on another, it shows Manskii’s true aims; documenting the community, describing the place.

The film shows how the attempt at creating a Socialist utopia hasn’t stamped out old superstitions: a man explains how performing at Yoruba religious ceremonies is the only way that musicians can make money in Cuba (perhaps a retort to the simplistic exoticism surrounding the Buena Vista Social Club [Wim Wenders, 1999] phenomenon). A Yoruba exorcism follows, with a woman screaming hysterically as bright sunlight streams in through the window: “every home has a corner where spirits reside,” comments one of the witnesses of this eerie spectacle.

The film has a washed out quality to its images, created by de-saturating the color in post production. Manskii did this in order to focus attention away from the colorful and vibrant side of Havana and onto the people he filmed and the emotions they express. The muted images serve to make Havana seem more mysterious, giving the city a coiled, fractious ambience that is entirely in keeping with Manskii’s theme.

Other vignettes that make up the film include two young boys having a rap contest in the street, local party meetings, a dancer with one foot and a bakery with yet more bluebottles swarming round the freshly baked bread. We see television sets adorned with trinkets, Day-Glo Jesus effigies and trumpeters playing mournful jazz on balconies.

patria o muerteAt the end, the film returns us to one of its first stories: a woman buying a dress for her daughter’s sixteenth birthday party. Now clad in her brand new outfit, looking gaudy but glamorous, the girl rides in a cab around Havana, leaning out of the window with a smile on her face. The camera, one assumes, is fixed to the side of the car to document this cheering moment. But after the credits roll, there is a breathtaking epilogue that wrenches viewers away from the optimistic image of youth that seemed to be the film’s final word. There is a cut to a laterally tracking Steadicam shot of a man jogging by the seafront. The camera follows him as waves crash against the barrier, sending water spraying everywhere. Manskii’s warning of the coming storm in a political and economic sense, but at the same time this brief epilogue de-centers the human story, placing it in a sometimes harsh, indifferent landscape. 

In Patria O Muerte, the tension between personal investment and documentary responsibility is palpable. Manskii’s aims in making the film, he told his audience, were severely limited by a desire not to lose his accreditation and be sent back to Russia with no useable footage at all. But the film is already ambitious, poignant, amusing and serious, and counts amongst Manskii’s best work.

John A. Riley
Birkbeck College, University of London

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Works Cited

Mumin Shakirov, “Russian Documentary Film: Extinct, or Almost. An Interview with Vitaly Mansky” 6 Sept. 2010

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 John A. Riley © 2012

Updated: 11 Jan 12