Rodnye (Close Relations)
(Latvia/Germany/Estonia/Ukraine, 112 min.)
Dir. Vitaly Mansky
Programme: TIFF Docs (North American Premiere)
Last year’s Toronto International Film Festival featured the history-in-the-making film Winter On Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom. That doc by Evgeney Afineevsky scooped the People’s Choice Award for documentary and went on to earn an Oscar nomination while enthralling audiences with its urgent and democratic portrait of the occupation in Ukraine’s Maidan Square and ensuing (r)evolution. This year, filmmaker Vitaly Mansky shows that the fire still burns long after stories of the radical changes in Ukraine, Russia, and Crimea fizzled out of the headlines. Rodnye (Close Relations) intertwines personal and collective history as Mansky interrogates his Ukrainian heritage after living in Russia for so many years through visiting his family members. What he sees is a family in a state of disarray much like that of Ukraine itself.
Doc fans anticipating the incendiary raw power of Winter on Fire may find themselves disappointed, as Mansky’s lethargically paced yet intimate study is as different a portrait of the revolution as one may find. This thoughtful doc doesn’t rush to present a headline. It meditates upon the weight of the full story. Whereas Winter on Fire documents the earthquake, Rodnye interrogates the aftershocks.
Mansky, who moved to Russia shortly after his career as a filmmaker began, returned to Ukraine and visited family members during a one-year period following the country’s 2014 federal election in order to make this doc. His mother shows her patriotic pride as she chats with her son in Ukrainian, rather than in Russian, while making her way to the polling station to cast a ballot. Relatives clink glasses on New Year’s Eve and an elderly uncle recalls life during wartime. Rodnye benefits from Mansky’s access to his subjects as his close relations are open and frank about their experiences. However, the filmmaker’s proximity to his subjects might also be the doc’s failing (as is often the case with family portraits) as few of the speakers are charismatic characters with compelling screen presence. There’s a lot of mumbling and ranting, and while Mansky is very respectful of his elders, a viewer outside the gene pool might not be as patient with their rambling stories.
This stripped-down, no frills documentary doesn’t look at the disruption to the state, but to the personal cost of political divides as Mansky’s fractured family parallels the fallout of the former Soviet Union. The director demonstrates his family’s history as he pores over household photos and notes the beliefs that caused enduring rifts between siblings. Deep focus cinematography brings a kitchen sink aesthetic that captures the poverty in which Ukraine survives following the revolution, while an arresting (if random) trip to a state building highlights fancy teak floorboards and exorbitant luxuries that fuelled the citizen uprising. Perhaps the most striking sequence is a lengthy scene in which three aunts debate politics via Skype and assert their right to distinct opinions. His relatives, Mansky notes, are so strong in their beliefs that one of the three aunts even refuses to acknowledge the presence of one sister during the conversation as she directs all comments to the other sister.
Mansky uses this family history to re-trace his roots back to a nation in crisis and speculates upon one’s ability to forgive, forget, and move forward. Rodyne affectively chronicles the sense of alienation as Mansky reflects upon his disconnection to his adopted homeland of Russia and his native berth of Ukraine. The personal is indeed political.
Rodnye (Close Relations) screens:
-Wednesday, Sept. 14 at 5:30 PM at Cineplex Scotiabank
-Friday, Sept. 16 at 6:00 PM at Cineplex Scotiabank
-Saturday, Sept. 17 at 9:30 AM at Cineplex Scotiabank
TIFF runs Sept. 8 – 18. Please visit tiff.net for more information.