Issue 37 (2012)

Robin Hessman: My Perestroika (2010)

reviewed by Jeremy Hicks © 2012

perestroikaThe twentieth anniversary of the disintegration of the Soviet Union led to no small number of reflections upon that event, and the intervening period. As an attempt to consider these changes, My Perestroika presents a wistfully melancholic narrative of the country’s transformation as it was experienced by common people rather than the key figures. By combining archive footage, including home movies, and interviews with five people in their forties, four of whom were pupils at the same Moscow school No. 57 in the 1980s, Robin Hessman eschews the broad canvas to produce in-depth portraits interweaved to suggest and provoke the analysis of squandered opportunities and lost youth.

perestroikaShot around the period of Dmitrii Medvedev’s election to the Russian presidency in 2008, and broadly divided into pre-Perestroika, Perestroika and post-Perestroika sections, Hessman’s film chooses subjects ranging from Ruslan, a rock musician; Olga, who works in a billiard hall; Andrei, a businessman; and Boris and his wife Liuba, who both teach history at the same No. 57 school that he attended. By virtue of their profession, Boris and Liuba are best suited to reflect upon what Vladimir Putin has described as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” and they are correspondingly accorded most space to do precisely that. As teachers, their lifestyles do not appear to have altered markedly from those of their Soviet-era counterparts, especially when compared with that of Andrei, who runs an upmarket shirt and tie franchise, and is the only one of those featured to have truly thrived in the post-Soviet economic climate. The musician, Ruslan, briefly enjoyed fame with the band “Naïv” but left after their anti-bourgeois lyrics began to clash with their increasingly bourgeois mores. Nevertheless, even if some of the interviewees betray a certain vague nostalgia, they conclude that life is better now than in Soviet times, if only because it requires less hypocrisy.

perestroikaIn some respects, My Perestroika resembles Sergei Miroshnichenko’s Russian version of the British TV documentary, 7 up, entitled Born in the USSR, the most recent edition of which, 28 up, was aired in the UK in May 2012. In that film, too, the interviews tend to reflect on the effects on the selected age group of the USSR’s collapse into its constituent parts. However, Born in the USSR overwhelmingly employs its own previous footage shot at 7, 14 and 21 to illustrate the subjects’ past lives, and the perspective is often personal rather than historical, whereas My Perestroika uses archive footage as well as the participants’ own photographs and home movies. In its use of Soviet era newsreels of parades and congresses, or a pompous film about the start of the school year, it possibly invites comparisons with Sergei Loznitsa’s Revue (Predstavlenie, 2008) which combined such footage with a new, naturalistic soundtrack which ended up evoking the ridiculous, performed nature of life in the USSR. My Perestroika also evokes the absurdity of the Soviet Union in its deployment of archive material, sometimes with the original voice-over, but often with the addition of period music. However, at the same time, the film’s use of Soviet era home movies recalls the more sympathetic attitude to Soviet life to be found in Vitalii Manskii’s Private Chronicles: A Monologue (Chastnye khroniki. Monolog, 1999), a film that ends with the coming of Perestroika, perceived as something of a disaster. This faint air of nostalgia is evident also in the music, such as the use of “Blue Carriage” (Goluboi vagon), to close: a Soviet era classic that combines understated optimism with a whimsical sense of the sadness at the passing of time.

perestroikaA certain ambivalence is present in the film’s style, as My Perestroika’s absence of a voice-over means that the editing and the talking heads tell the story and convey the director’s perspective. At times the editing makes sharply polemical points through juxtapositions of footage, such as the use of a silly-looking Soviet-era training film about preparations for nuclear attack, with images of a wall poster in school no. 57 warning of the dangers of terrorism. The implication here is that the current regime rules through fear of an enemy no less than the previous. While true to a degree, it is hard not to think of Beslan. Yet despite its occasional commentary, Hessman’s film at no point interrogates the filmmaker’s own position, although Hessman filmed as well as directing the shooting and producing the project. While we have the impression very much of an insider’s perspective upon Russian society—and Hessman spent eight years in Russia, graduating from the renowned VGIK film school—it is of course nevertheless that of a US-based filmmaker. The nearest the film comes to addressing the filmmaker’s own relation to Perestroika comes when the interviewees discuss their attitudes as products of the Soviet system to the US, and their first encounter with the West. For the most part, however, despite the promise of the title, the Perestroika depicted does not appear to belong to the person behind the camera so much as those in front of it, and there is no reflection upon that perspective, which would have been interesting, even though the publicity for the film insists upon Hessman’s in-depth knowledge of the changing society.  Nevertheless, this ambiguity may also help the spectator, especially if of a certain age, to identify with the characters and the narrative, and thus to perceive his or her own ‘My’ Perestroika.

Ultimately, the title announces an impressionistic and somewhat open approach, whereby Hessman attempts to avoid forcing the spectator to accept her own view of the end of the Soviet Union, or even that of history teacher couple, Liuba and Boris, whose job it is to teach Russian students about this period of history. Instead, there is a certain trust in our ability to make up our own minds, and find our own perspective on Perestroika.

Images Red Square Production

Jeremy Hicks
Queen Mary University of London

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My Perestroika, 2010
Director: Robin Hessman
Editors: Alla Kovgan, Garret Savage
Music: Lev Zhurbin
Producers: Robin Hessman, Rachel Wexler
Production: Red Square Productions, Bungalow Town Productions, and ITVS International, in association with American Documentary POV and YLE Finland

Robin Hessman: My Perestroika (2010)

reviewed by Jeremy Hicks © 2012

Updated: 06 Jul 12