Winner of this year’s Best International Feature Documentary Award at Hot Docs, Ostrov – Lost Island is a stark portrait of a community abandoned. The film visits the titular island in the Caspian Sea where a few remaining inhabitants cling to hope following the collapse of the USSR and the commercial fishing that sustained them. Approximately fifty people remain on the island, which lacks electricity, infrastructure, and virtually any legal means of making a living. As one elderly resident says while the villages toast the bygone days when black caviar extraction let the community prosper, “We used to eat like millionaires. Now we’re as poor as church mice.”
Ostrov – Lost Island is a sober and minimalist portrait of poverty. It observes the remaining inhabitants as they get through the day-to-day. Ivan now fishes illegally and trolls his boats through the waters while evading the authorities. His wife, Anna, avoids dwelling on regrets, but wants the best for their kids Anton and Alina as they reach adulthood with no prospects for sustaining a life in their community. Life is harsh and Ostrov offers few outlets for reprieve: there’s little to do besides work, worry, and pray.
Ivan prays hardest and hopes that Vladimir Putin will save them. The few images the islanders get on TV reaffirm his faith in the old ways and he believes Putin to be an honest and noble. With power a precious commodity, the village obviously has little time for whatever news of Putin’s misdeeds make the airwaves in the Caspian Sea. Ivan writes to Putin with Anna’s help, pleading a case for aid. Without commenting on any of Putin’s many controversial aspects, Ostrov – Lost Island is a frank account of the Russian leader’s faithful and the effect of his populist appeal.
The film’s approach may ultimately be too distant and attached for its own good, however, as a bare bones observational style conveys the desolate nature of life on the island quite plainly. This slice of slow cinema moves at roughly the same rate as social progress does in Russia: quite lethargically. The most action it sees is an image of two boats rocking in the sea. Like the islanders who helm them, the boats are left adrift.
Ostrov – Lost Island screened at Hot Docs 2021.