Saturday, February 26, 2011

Documentary Fortnight ’11: Countryside 35x45 & Almost Married

Their rhetoric might be slightly different, but the practices of the Soviet Union and Putin’s successor regime are eerily similar, chief among them being a preoccupation with paperwork. At least this generates some work for a middle-aged photographer in Evgeny Solomin’s Countryside 35x45, which screens as part of a short doc double-bill during MoMA’s 2011 Documentary Fortnight.

The government has decreed all remaining Communist era passports must be exchanged for new ID cards. For many Russians, particularly older citizens living in remote villages, this is a meaningless hassle. However, they have to do it, if they want to keep getting their pension checks. Enter Lyutikov, an enterprising photographer who barnstorms Siberia, setting up shop in village meeting halls to snap the needed 35x45 passport photos.

Though Siberians do not look particularly chatty, the bald photographer operates much like a barber or hairdresser, getting his subjects to open up awfully quickly, while he gets down to business. As one might expect, life was bleak and continues to be hard for the hardscrabble Siberians. Though Lyutikov’s reactions to stories of husbands swept up by the authorities and assorted WWII privations appear rather cold and superficial, his photographs capture something touching in their weathered faces, even if they were produced in assembly line fashion. Perhaps the real credit should go to Vladimir Ponomaryov, whose elegant, crystal clear black-and-white cinematography gives Countryside the look of a high art film, despite its TV-ish aspect ratio.

In contrast to Lyutikov’s cool remove, Fatma Bucak takes viewers on an emotional (nearly angst-ridden) homecoming to her native Turkey in Almost Married, co-written and co-directed by her and Sergio Fergnachino. Stifling under her Kurdish family’s traditionalism, Bucak essentially ran away from home, settling in Italy where she pursued her photography. She also fell in love with an Italian. Complications ensue.

Bucak has finally returned in hopes of securing her father’s blessing for their marriage, but she is quite apprehensive about broaching the subject. Dad is a hard cat to talk to. An old school leftist rabble-rouser in the 1980’s, he still holds fast to traditional practices, like arranged marriages.

In the technically well-staged opening sequence, the audience sees a deceptively dramatic example of Bucak’s work, supposedly inspired by her family history. Frankly, it sets viewers up for a medieval horror show that mercifully never materializes. Though a bit difficult perhaps, overall her father seems more-or-less reasonable. For her part, Bucak diligently avoids even the mention of Islam, let alone honor killings and other such manifestations of fundamentalist misogyny. She even presents a half-hearted justification of arranged marriage, despite the less-than-thrilled look of the bride at an arranged wedding she attends.

Understandably, Bucak opts to work out her own issues rather than adopt the cause of women’s rights in the Islamic world. Yet that determination to narrow Married’s focus also limits its relevancy. Artfully rendered, Countryside is a small but intriguing film, while Married conversely starts with a big important premise, but proceeds to bury it, most likely for the sake of familial peace. A mixed bag, the double-bill screens again this afternoon (2/27), as Documentary Fortnight continues at MoMA.