Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Hot Docs ’16: Brothers

Polish brothers Alfons and Mieczysław Kułakowscy survived periods of exile in Siberia and Kazakhstan, but when they finally returned to Poland, they settled in decidedly Siberian-looking rural corner. They do not seem to be city folk, yet they are most definitely cosmopolitan. The younger Alfons is a celebrated artist, while the older Mieczysław is a well-traveled cartographer. Despite their fraternal bickering, their tight bond has always been key to their survival, but inevitability looms in Wojciech Staroń’s Brothers (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Hot Docs in Toronto.

Initially, Alfons seems like he is a bit out of it, but we come to understand that is just his artistic temperament. He is also fit as a fiddle, unlike the eternally practical Mieczysław. Unfortunately, the older brother’s body is breaking down—and the old mapmaker has largely resigned himself to the process. As a result, Alfons will now take on greater caretaker duties, in what amounts to a subtle role-reversal.

Staroń’s approach is scrupulously laidback and observational, reflecting the brother’s hospitable acceptance of the filmmaker into their daily lives. It is the intimately personal film Staroń had to make, but in a way, it is something of a missed opportunity, because the brothers led such a legitimately epic life. At one point they escaped from a Soviet Siberian work camp, apparently only to be deported to the Central Asian republic sometime later. They also traveled throughout the USSR as part of Mieczysław Kułakowscy’s cartography assignments following the De-Stalinization campaign. Yet, we only get a hint of their adventures through the scratchy 16mm films he shot.

Still, Staroń has an unusually strong visual sensibility for a documentarian, often incorporating shots of the surrounding environment that echo Alfons’ paintings and drawings. The contemporary classical score further enhances the classy vibe. It is all quite a sensitively rendered portrait. Nonetheless, we wish Staroń had recorded their life stories while he had the chance.

Staroń also showcases Alfons Kułakowscy’s work in the manner he deserves. Arguably, we can see him as a direct descendant of Chagall, but with a greater sense of flowing freedom. That makes the unfortunate third act turn of events all the more regrettable. Most viewers will respect Staroń’s film for what it is yet feel frustration for what it is not. Recommended for those who enjoy small, quiet, and short (sixty-eight minutes) documentaries, Brothers screens with the even shorter doc I’m Not from Here this Thursday (5/5), Friday (5/6), and Sunday (5/8), as part of Hot Docs ’16.