A screening of a film by Vitaly Mansky is always an unmissable event, especially since his films do not have distribution in the UK. (Deckert Distribution currently handle European sales).
His latest film Rodnye (Close Relations), shown at the BFI London Film Festival 2016, explores the Ukraine-Russia conflict through his own family relations and inter-personal politics, using a timeline of the war to frame the narrative. This year, despite reservations that a film-maker may lose flair when faced with a subject so close to home (e.g. Michel Gondry arguably did in his family film Thorn in the Heart), Mansky’s skills as a documentarian have helped to turn a portrait of his relatives into one of his most engaging films to date.
His usual knack for making subjects trust the camera is paired with the openness of family dynamics, resulting in more attitude, humour and insight into personal life. As the divisive Brexit result continues to put a strain on familial and social ties in the UK, with one woman refusing to invite her uncle to her wedding over his vote, something about the repetitive and tragicomic arguments of Mansky’s family members in a filmed Skype conversation is bound to strike a chord with British viewers. Our similarities, however, stop there, largely along with our understanding of the conflict and the war.
Rodnye subtly educates the viewer about the situation in Ukraine, presenting a much less biased perspective than the West tends to push. Television reports and news programmes are often strewn across the film, as background noise or ambient television in the living rooms of his relatives, showing the polarisation and, at times, irrelevance of official media discourse and political campaigns throughout Ukraine and Russia. As viewers in the West, it is also apt for us to leave the dialogues we have previously heard at the door, and we will most likely not want to pick them up again on the way out.
As Tolstoy’s War and Peace presents the events of the French invasion of Russia through characters such as Natasha Rostova, Bolkonsky and Pierre Bezukhov, instead of simply Napoleon and Kutuzov, Mansky argues that these normal, every day characters are able to give a better idea of what was going on in Europe during a bloody war in the past. Rodnye‘s success is similarly down to the insight given by the central characters to the tragedy and complexity of the war in Ukraine. These include a manicurist, an old man who got stuck in his bath with no one around to help him, a young teenager who sits at his computer all day, an obese father dragging a Christmas tree up his stairwell, and a man who silently sits in the corner of his living room, laughing. Also around, as often filmed in Mansky’s films, are the cats, dogs and pets of his subjects – looking out of the window, and going about their normal life, oblivious to the mess that humans have made for themselves.