Even though he was badly hung-over, he knew there was a national crisis. Though the Russian did not know at the time the hard-line Communist coup had deposed Mikhail Gorbachev, he saw Swan Lake was the only program on television. For some reason, the Soviets always broadcasted the Tchaikovsky ballet during periods of internal turmoil. It is telling details like this that connect the personal to the grandly historical in Robin Hessman’s documentary My Perestroika (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New Directors New Films, jointly presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA.
A Russophile in high school, Hessman was working for LENFILM, the Soviet film agency based in what was then Leningrad at the time of the infamous coup. Through her time working and studying in Russian, Hessman developed a keen appreciation for the stoic nobility of average Russian citizens, which is clearly reflected in Perestroika. Using five former classmates as representative everymen, Hessman subjectively presents the last forty-some years of Russian and Soviet history through their memories and home movies.
Yes, there is a certain nostalgia for their childhood years lived under the yoke of Soviet tyranny. However, it is really for their lost innocence rather than the supposed virtues of the Brezhnev era. As becomes clear in their interviews, as the Perestroika generation came of age, it also became disillusioned.
Still, not all of the film’s lead voices are doing badly. An entrepreneur with a small chain of high-end men’s clothing stores, Andrei has done quite well for himself. He is also the most vocal critic of the current Putin regime. In contrast, life is a struggle for single mother Olga, who works servicing the bars that rent her company’s billiard tables. The married school teachers Borya and Lyuba are somewhere in the middle, still living in the same cramped apartment he grew up in. As for Ruslan the busker, he defies easy classification and harbors few illusions.
While none of the five have led exceptional lives, Hessman had the good fortune to find participants who had been somewhat in the vicinity of great events. Borya and Lyuba in particular, remember the thrill of resigning from the Communist Youth, as soon as it was safe to do so. Later, they joined the protests against the 1991 coup, but again they did so without feeling any threat of imminent danger. Indeed, there is a constant sense of irony throughout Perestroika that seems so fittingly Russian.
Indeed, the experiences of Perestroika’s subjects defy easy classification, at various times lending credence to wide array of political interpretations (though it is hard to find much in the film to justify faith in the Putin’s puppet government). Of course, life is messy that way, especially in Russia. Hessman’s fascinating film captures that reality quite well. It screens today (3/25) at MoMA and Sunday (3/28) at the Walter Reade Theater as part of New Films New Directors.