Sunday, August 07, 2011

Rooftop Films: At the Edge of Russia

If the neo-Soviet Russian government is willing to allow a Polish filmmaker access to one of its distant sub-arctic posts, it is a safe bet few military secrets could be gleaned from the soldiers stationed there. In fact, the frozen border guards do not even have spoons in Michal Marczak’s deceptively un-documentary-like At the Edge of Russia (trailer here), which screens this Wednesday as part of Rooftop Film’s 2011 summer season—and admission is free.

Recruited out of college, Alexei Zarubin is in for an education. He had anticipated seeing some action, but finds himself assigned to Ice Station Zilch instead. However, snow-blindness and boredom are very real and pressing dangers here. Initially, the old-timers haze him a bit, but nothing too serious. Clearly, in such cramped and isolated quarters, everyone must get along reasonably well.

Not a complete idiot, Zarubin steadily wins the confidence of the weathered veterans. Time passes without any sightings of invading armies on the horizon. In truth, once Zarubin is instructed how to wrap his feet to prevent frostbite, he is probably in the safest spot of all Mother Russia. Yet, in proper Orwellian fashion, Putin’s grinning mug looks down upon them throughout the ramshackle outpost.

Evidently there are twelve such military bases still in operation along Russia’s northern border, all dating back to the 1950’s. Even during the Cold War, their efficacy was highly questionable, especially during the 1970’s when Canadian PM and Castro BFF Pierre Trudeau was arguably more anti-American than the Soviets. Nevertheless, Zaburin and his comrades walk the line, like characters in a frosty Beckett play.

Zaburin’s senior officers are so cinematic, in a craggy character actor sort of way, it is difficult to believe they are not actors. While Marczak’s approach is strictly observational, he reportedly did a bit of re-staging and the like. Still, cinematographer Radoslaw Ladczuk achieves a more polished look than one sees in the majority of the grungy narrative features that are quickly hailed and then forgotten on the festival circuit. Viewers should be warned, there is a whole lot of snow shoveling in this film. Yet, as the grizzled Valery Vasiliev’s rotation fast approaches, his mounting anxieties regarding home and hearth provide the film a sense of narrative structure.

Seventy-two minutes is probably the optimal length of time to spend on Russia’s arctic border. After seeing the state of readiness of the border guards (which is far higher than necessary) and the resources at their disposal (which would have been considered crude five decades ago) it is hard to say whether Edge should leave viewers more or less concerned about the imperialistic ambitions of Putin’s Russia. Either way, it opens a fascinating window into one of the most remote yet well guarded corners of the world. Recommended for Russophiles, particularly at no cost courtesy of Rooftop Films, Edge screens this Wednesday Night (8/10) at the Socrates Sculpture Garden in Long Island City.