Hot Docs Review: ‘Immortal’

Ksenia Okhapkina’s debut feature hypnotizes

3 mins read

(Estonia, 60 min.)
Dir. Ksenia Okhapkina
Programme: The Changing Face of Europe

Set in an industrial town of post-Soviet Russia, Immortal is glued together by a hypnotic stream of moving train units and long shadows on snowy surfaces. Every image bathes in the blue haze of a permanent night. Shot during winter, the debut documentary feature of Ksenia Okhapkina (Come Back Free, 2016) is a hypnotizing and chilling depiction of Russia’s societal mechanisms.

The town of Apatity is a former concentration camp. Set in the Arctic circle, it feels like the end of the world. It’s cold, dark and the snow falls relentlessly. While heavy machinery and metallic mastodons lumber around the screen, stunning and outer-worldly visual compositions underline the dystopian character of the place. Every morning, adults somberly wait for a factory bus in the shadows of the concrete apartment blocks. The children have their own daily grind. Young girls have ballet classes and the boys go to military school. One dances, the other marches. Discipline is key in both cases: they all have orders barked at them throughout the day.

Nestled between lakes and mountains, the industrial town is stuck in time. Immobile like the ubiquitous Soviet-era statues, the town endures the darkest winters and the harshest politics. The USSR might have collapsed but individuals in Apatity still live for the nation. Self-sacrifice is demanded and expected. Okhapkina’s camera rest on faces, not individuals. Dancers, workers or soldiers, they’re all interchangeable. The children, especially, are pawns of a system that rules with an iron fist, their individual personalities meant to dissolve into a rigid, ideological mould.

The fluid editing of Immortal relies on repetition. As new days break out, the bus stop scene returns regularly. More snowflakes fall. More subtly, there’s also a recurrence of military parades, dance rehearsals and history lessons. While the soldiers of the Young Army are readied to celebrate Heroes Day on the 9th of December, teachings of duty and loyalty are hammered into their minds and our ears. During combat training, cadets hurry past a crumbling wall, tagged: “good war is better than bad peace.”

Okhapkina’s portrait of Russia is one of good soldiers becoming eternal heroes, perpetuating the state’s image built on war propaganda. Early on, we see one of the boys taking selfies with a punctured Russian war helmet. He proudly immortalizes his bad boy image onto the world wide web. Alternatively, in a nation held together by dehumanizing and brutal patriotism, one can also obtain eternal life through sacrifice. Work, dance and march, the state will applaud your devotion.

Immortal screens at Hot Docs’ online festival.

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.

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