New film explores Russian society through dashcams
Drivers keep their cool as they plunge into a river, race through a forest fire or see a falling meteorite in a new documentary made from Russian dashcam footage that the filmmaker says represents a national characteristic.
Dmitry Kalashnikov, 29, from Saint Petersburg, spent a year piecing together footage he found online, including on YouTube, to make a 67-minute film called “The Road Movie” that features short sequences of unalloyed life in Russia.
Russian dashcam footage has become a global phenomenon thanks to the video devices that drivers here often fix inside windscreens in case of insurance claims or police wrongdoing.
It first caught worldwide attention in 2013 when a meteorite fell on the Urals city of Chelyabinsk and a wide range of dashcam footage was posted online. Many noted the drivers’ calm as well as their failure to stop as a giant flying object lit up the sky right in front of them.
For Kalashnikov the film is as much about the reaction of the unseen drivers and passengers — or even what is playing on the radio — as bizarre or violent events unfold.
He cites a clip where a plaintive pop song called “Where does our childhood go?” plays on the radio as a family watches armed police surround the car in front of them — and shout “Smash the windscreen!” — and the police actually do so.
In another example of calm under pressure, a car speeds off a bridge and plunges into a swirling muddy river.
The male driver comments wryly: “Well we’ve landed in it.” Then he says: “We’ll battle through” and the passenger even starts telling him which way to steer.
At Moscow’s Artdocfest documentary festival this month, a packed cinema audience roared with laughter while also falling silent at the grimmest moments.
The film includes one clip where passengers suffer serious injury but Kalashnikov said he avoided footage where people died — even though it was available online.
– ‘Fools and roads’ –
The film was shown last month at Amsterdam’s IDFA — the world’s largest documentary festival.
The filmmaker said the main question from the audience was: “Are Russians really like that?”
For Kalashnikov the answer is yes.
“The men are practically always calm. They don’t talk much or if they are in a good mood, they talk by swearing. As for the women — they scream sometimes,” he told AFP.
This can be extrapolated to explain something broader about Russia, he believes.
“Maybe you can partly understand why our society is like this… because our people are mainly calm, they react calmly to everything, whatever happens.”
Critics agreed the film shows Russians’ ability to distance themselves psychologically from events.
“Witnesses but not participants — that is the state of perception in contemporary Russia, as viewed by the director through an automatic gadget,” wrote Vedomosti daily.
Kalashnikov says the film’s theme is Russia, quoting a famous phrase often attributed to author Nikolai Gogol that the country has two problems: “fools and roads.”
Kommersant daily wrote poetically: “It seems we’re all driving in that car along an endless snowy road, only just dodging death as it flies at our windscreen.”
The road never stops in the documentary but there is little sense of where exactly it is located.
In one striking exception, a short clip shows figures crossing a bridge in Moscow opposite the Kremlin — accidentally capturing the moment before opposition politician Boris Nemtsov’s murder last year.