By Jeff Farr
A poignant and original documentary on the end of the USSR—focusing on ordinary Soviets’ lives caught up in earthshaking change—“My Perestroika” is a solid debut for director Robin Hessman. After a number of festival triumphs last year, including awards at the Full Frame Documentary, Silverdocs, and Milwaukee film festivals, “My Perestroika” is getting a much-deserved theatrical run this spring.
The film is especially strong on two fronts. First, working with editors Alla Kovgan and Garret Savage, Hessman ingeniously combines present-day footage of her subjects with home movies and archival footage, thus giving us this precise snapshot of Soviet life that we have never seen before on film. Second, Hessman is highly effective at raising many not-easy-to-answer questions in a subtle, graceful way, the result being a film designed for discussion.
Is this a documentary solely about the perestroika generation or about the international Cold War generation or about the whole influence of politics on our regular lives in general? There are several levels to this film to think about.
In other words, Hessman expertly finds the universal in the quite particular. She limits her scope to five Moscow schoolmates, whose lives take divergent paths leading up to and following the breakup of the USSR twenty years ago—but they become representative of us all in their struggle to make sense of the vastly changing times through which they have somehow survived.
Two of the neighbors are almost polar opposites, giving the film much of its spark. We have Andrei on the one hand, who completely embraced the arrival of capitalism to Russia and got rich quick selling high-end men’s shirts from France. On the other hand, we have Ruslan, whose idealistic punk rock career left him with no career at all and no end to his poverty in sight.
In one of the film’s funniest and best scenes, Hessman records a tense conversation between Andrei and one of his managers, in which Andrei demands that all male employees at his stores wear only the shirts they are also selling. Hessman gives us a static shot of a closed office door for the entire talk, behind which we understand Andrei to be trying to law down the law.
“But we’re not in Paris, Andrei,” the manager objects.
“What’s the difference between Russia and the West?” Andrei argues in response.
“The difference is simple,” comes the answer. “The West has a different mentality from us. In Russia, a dress code won’t work. It will only cause a negative reaction.”
Andrei, like his schoolmates, is trying to negotiate two competing histories: before and after.
Ruslan, meanwhile, gets in the most damning critique of capitalism and the West, specifically America: “The American way of life forces only one idea on you: you need to become the best in your field in order to earn more than everybody, be better than everybody. And if you earn less that everyone else, you are a loser. Everything is measured in money.”
But does Ruslan have any ideas on how to hold Westernization in check? He does not say here.
Hessman captures her subjects’ ambivalence well. Their USSR childhood, full of patriotic songs, uniforms, and marches, seems ridiculous and strange to them now, but they also see it with some longing as a more innocent time.
“I can’t say that I wanted to be like everyone else,” remembers schoolteacher Lyuba. “That’s not quite how it was…I simply was like everyone else.”
And we get the sense that this was not necessarily a bad thing for these five individuals. Everyone felt, despite the craziness around them, closer together pre-1991.
At the heart of the film are Lyuba and her husband, Borya, both, interestingly enough, history teachers at the neighborhood school. They are in the unique position of having lived an eventful chunk of history and now needing to teach it to a new generation that can barely conceptualize what their country has been through—even in the relatively recent past.
“Of course these kids don’t understand that—and thank God they don’t understand,” Borya curiously reflects near the film’s end. Throughout “My Perestroika,” Hessman does a wonderful job of capturing these telling moments where her five Muscovites say two things at once: it is this love-hate relationship with both the past and the present that ultimately leads all of them to seriously entertain the question if anything has really changed in Russia.
How deep have the changes been? How lasting? Andrei the eager capitalist sees not much different: “Four hundred years of serfdom—it’s just the mentality here.” The other classmates might not put it so starkly, but their weariness about Putin’s Russia suggests that on a fundamental level they all agree. The huge change they once believed was finally happening has not actually materialized.
A International Film Circuit release.
Directed by Robin Hessman.
Producers, Robin Hessman, Rachel Wexler.
Cinematography, Robin Hessman.
Editors, Alla Kovgan, Garret Savage.
Music, Lev (Ljova) Zhurbin.
Sound, Peter Levin, Barbara Parks.
Running time: 87 minutes.