Issue 70 (2020)

Kirill Mikhanovsky: Give Me Liberty (2019)

reviewed by Eve Ivanilova © 2020

give me liberty The micro-budget, cinéma-vérité-style Give Me Liberty deserves to be called a unique Russian-language film. After a successful premiere at the Sundance film festival, director Kirill Mikhanovsky was compared to the Safdie Brothers, the lodestars of the American independent film scene. Later that year, Mikhanovsky’s semi-amateur crew got a ten-minute standing ovation at Cannes. In Russia, where the film was theatrically released in 100 copies, distributors ironically appropriated the acclaimed English title and transliterated it into Cyrillic, emphasizing the film’s intermediary status. The last time Russian-Americans were represented in such a gritty realist manner was in the 2011 short film Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight, the debut of a rising star of American independent cinema Eliza Hittman. Interestingly, her anthropological lens on the Russian-American community was similar to the one Mikhanovsky used in his debut Fish Dream (Sonhos de peixe, 2006), set in a Brazilian village, and his unfinished Cuban film, Fuga Mortis. However, in contrast to Hittman, Mikhanovsky tried his hand at commercial cinema and directed a collaborative TV-film, Dubrovskii (2014). Give Me Liberty is Mikhanovsky’s comeback to the independent scene. During the production, the project was one step away from financial collapse, similar to the one that froze Fuga Mortis. However, Mikhanovsky’s intimate devotion to the film, its subject, and the crew ensured the project’s survival. Give Me Liberty is an incredibly personal (but not egocentric) film, a Russian-English love confession to Milwaukee, written in collaboration with a close friend, playwright Alice Austin.

give me libertyMikhanovsky, who emigrated from Moscow to Milwaukee in the 1990s, passed through many social areas of his new home city—from a driver of Milwaukee Liberty Express to a graduate of UW-Milwaukee. The film follows a 25-year-old medical van driver, Vic (who works for the same service where Mikhanovsky worked), who starts controlling the direction even before he gets behind a wheel. The protagonist shares an apartment with his demented ded (Vic uses the Russian word to address him), who is liable to destroy the kitchen by pounding chicken with an old Soviet dumbbell. After calming him down with a cup of tea, Vic goes for an obese American neighbor, who is similarly unable to overcome the vicissitudes of the early morning. While patiently listening to his grumbles against protesters in the black neighborhood, Vic helps his first client have a seat in the van. There is no sunlight yet on the wintry streets of Milwaukee but Vic is already behind schedule. Rushing to pick up the other passengers who are going for their appointments, Vic swings by home to help his grandpa catch the bus to his countrywoman’s funeral. There is, of course, no way to do it quickly. The grandpa is scampering over the smoked-filled hallway with the chicken in his hands. There are a lot of clamoring neighbors around, who seem to have emigrated to Wisconsin from Aleksei German’s universe. Like everything on this hectic morning, the bus to the cemetery is late, so an active old lady forces Vic, a good son of his tribe, to pick up a whole brigade of elderly mourners. The deceased’s nephew Dima, who has no proof of his connection, joins them as well, and the medical van transforms into a “danse macabre” on wheels that has two destinations—a talent show in the center for people with disabilities, and the squalid cemetery where the friends of the deceased lady will sing over a random grave. The van is zigzagging, the engine is roaring, the old ladies are nagging, and the boss on the radio-call is losing his patience. Vic is doing his best but the streets are blocked, full of protestors. A police officer’s instruction in the background to “go all the way around” sounds like a mocking remark on the carousel that Vic has been riding since dawn. Now the protagonist would likely agree with his first passenger’s perspective that street protests are nothing but speed bumps on the way of a rushing worker. Finally, the van stops by the house of Tracey Holmes, a young feisty woman with ALS, who needs a ride to work. Though Vic picks her up from the troublesome cosmos of her own house, there is no time to breathe out for either of them. Tracey is frustrated by the state of her ride and angrily calls Vic’s boss. Right next to her, an old Russian man is playing his accordion, a lady with a disability is rehearsing “Rock Around the Clock,” and one of the Russian women gets a diabetic stroke because her candy has been smuggled in by Dima.

give me liberty The stolen candy triggers the most powerful narrative move in the film. Vic delivers a passenger to the Eisenhower Center for people with disabilities and Russian seniors walk over there to find some sweets for their friend. The elderly builders of communism disperse inside a US state agency. However, in the dialectical logic of the film, it is not simply an absurdist miniature but an inevitable synthesis of conflicting realities. Vic’s medical van functions as a melting pot, where language and cultural differences merge into coherent living matter. However, the van is just a small copy of Milwaukee that connects thousands of paths, yet remains one of the most segregated cities in the United States. Like Lars von Trier’s Dogville (2003), Mikhanovsky’s and Austin’s Milwaukee is a city without walls, where people persistently put faith in the highest standards of their locks and personal borders. However, much more than Dogville, it is Dostoevsky’s Petersburg, a city that acts through its inhabitants bound by socioeconomic constraints. Mikhanovsky and Austin acknowledged that their script was inspired by the Dostoevskian manner of showing the real city as a fractal construction, where different pasts coincide in the unique present. Instead of demolishing the variances of diverse groups (Russian Americans, African Americans, the patients of the Eisenhower Center), Give Me Liberty reveals the interconnection of different experiences in a specific configuration of time and space—24 hours, one city, one van. On the talent show in the Eisenhower Center, the song “Born in the US,” that makes people with cognitive disorders joyfully whoop and clap, rhymes with the image of the teacup “For one born in the USSR” that pacified a dementia-stricken grandpa several hours earlier. Both artifacts expose the artificiality of national symbols and their ridiculous estrangement from human existence. A similar artifact helped Mikhanovsky and Austin come up with the title of the film. At a coffee shop in Milwaukee, they met a Tunisian car mechanic dressed in a yellow T-shirt with a blindfolded Statue of Liberty, saying “give me liberty.” “That was it!”, Mikhanovsky said.

What kind of liberty is the film talking about? Half in Russian, Give Me Liberty focuses on the pressures of identities that one has not chosen and the desire to be liberated, to have a right to avoid national, cultural, language, and psycho-normative prescriptions. The idea is elaborated through three interconnected dimensions of the film—documentary scenes shot in the Eisenhower Center for people with disabilities, semi-documentary scenes featuring Russian seniors, and the fictional narrative. Vic, the youngest member of the Russian American community, and the young black woman with disability, Tracey, are both struggling with the muddy reality of being on the wheels and trying to estrange themselves from the frames that they have inherited. Vic mostly eschews speaking Russian and prefers to work in social services, in contrast to his Russian mother’s illusions about the American dream. Tracey, a similarly careful and responsive person, wants to break away from her Milwaukee’s ghetto residency. Amidst their fight in the van, they attack each other with the pejoratively used term “race card”; later they empathize with each other’s pressures.

give me libertyGive Me Liberty considers big ideas and vague stereotypes as both cheating and impractical. The corruption of rigid identities is revealed through Dima, who “used to be disabled,” who loves black people, who is a nephew, lover, and brother for everybody. In the third part of the film, Vic says to Dima in Russian “I know exactly who you are,” pointing out that Dima profiteers from changing identities. However, he is not a sinister criminal, but a comical fellow who cannot even open a stolen jar of pickled cabbage. The time of Brothers is buried in the communal grave together with the reforms of the 90s, though their by-products, such as Dima’s or Vic’s émigré families, are stuck in the debris of time, beliefs, and a favorite vase bought in Kafka’s home. Ready-made identities do not help anybody in the film. In one of the tragicomical scenes, Vic’s mother, having forgotten that she hid away money for Vic’s bright future in a couch, makes her son throw away the old couch. The black irony is that the couch comes first; the routine beats dysfunctional ideals such as the American dream.

Routine is not only the subject matter of the film, but also its form and way of production. The shooting process lasted for three years, because Mikhanovsky and Austin could not find investors for the local “non-distributable” film. A-24 got off the hook. Offers from neighboring city authorities to relocate the project would have depersonalized it. So Mikhanovsky and Austen recruited Milwaukeean business owners, who were literally knocking on their doors. The generous donations helped the project move forward and made the city act in the film as a dispersed light. It became clear that the film should be as authentic as possible. Mikhanovsky rejected the idea to invite superstar Lupita Nyong’o for Tracey’s role and chose newcomer Lauren “Lolo” Spencer instead, a real-life ALS awareness activist. The search for a protagonist had been unsuccessful until Chris Galust joined the project. An electrician from Brighton Beach, Galust was discovered by a casting director while buying a cake to celebrate the anniversary of his grandfather’s immigration from Russia to the United States. Instead of making quick returns on the donations, the crew spent a long time interacting with disabled people and Russian seniors while video-recording their lives. Riding across Milwaukee day by day, the crew spent a lot of footage on senior actors’ complaints about the low temperature and bumpy roads. Some of that footage was included in the final cut, so the scenes in the van might be considered not simply as realistic performances but as videos from the hot zone. Filming without a storyboard on a shaky hand-held camera, cameraman Wyatt Garfield produced an almost ethnographic record. Merging different modes, genres and mixing 16mm film with digital, Give Me Liberty presents even fictional events in a documentary fashion. The central episode—the talent show in the Eisenhower Center—is a documentary scene that shows carnivalesque images, yet organically coexists with the film’s fictional narrative. The film is saturated with the life experiences of the crew, the cast and the Milwaukeeans who helped the project, which in its entirety deeply resonates with the ideas of crossing borders; before his son brought him to the USA, the elderly actor Semen Sigalov had served in Soviet border troops guarding lines what does not exist anymore. The Runglish-speaking Give Me Liberty synthesizes reality and illusions, segregation and interconnectedness, funerals and a talent show, political protest and disco for people with special needs, black-and-white footage and digital format, natural and neon lighting. It shows life as a flickering of uncountable objects and one more time raises the question of what qualifies as a realistic representation of the elusive world.

Eve Ivanilova
University of Pittsburgh

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Give Me Liberty, USA, 2019
Color, 111 minutes
Director: Kirill Mikhanovsky
Script: Alice Austin, Kirill Mikhanovsky
Cinematography: Wyatt Garfield
Production Design: Bart Mangrum
Costume Design: Kate Grube
Editing: Kirill Mikhanovsky
Cast: Chris Galust, Lauren “Lolo” Spencer, Maxim Stoyanov, Steve Wolski, Michelle Caspar, Ben Derfel, Arkady Basin, Zoya Makhlina, Zoya Makhlina, Darya Ekamasova, Sheryl Sims-Daniels, John Day, Atavia Gold, Kennedy Hellman Nappier, Jehonathan Guzman, Josette Daniels, Michael Ervin, Anna Maltova, etc.
Producer: Val Abel, Walter S. Hall, Michael Manasseri, George Rush, Sergey Shtern, Kirill Mikhanovsky, Alice Austin, Lisa Alfelt, Gus Deardoff, Catherine Donnely, Brian Fenwick, Boris Frumin, Theresa Johnson, Maria Kell, Jessica Knap, Oleg Kohan, Jennifer Lee, Oleksiy Makukhin, Brian Marine, Karri O’Reilly, Marina Ratina, David Stamm, Eric Wagner, Ryan Zacarias, Benh Zeitlin
Production Company: Give Me Liberty Mfg, Flux Capacitor Studios, Brimstage Film Fund, Green Street Film Company, The Space Program, Sota Cinema Group

Kirill Mikhanovsky: Give Me Liberty (2019)

reviewed by Eve Ivanilova © 2020

Updated: 2020