Saturday, June 04, 2016

SIFF ’16: Dawn

Pavlik Morozov was a narc. The Young Pioneer who informed on his Kulak father was also largely a propaganda myth, who nearly became Sergei Eisentein’s Waterloo, when Bezhin Meadow, a film largely inspired by the little Judas met with Stalinist disfavor. Eisenstein’s film now exists only in fragments, but it has inspired a bizarrely nostalgic take on an era of intergenerational Cold War, waged by indoctrinated children against their beleaguered parents. It sure is hard to be a “class enemy” in Laila Pakalnina’s Dawn (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Seattle International Film Festival.

Morozov is now rebooted as the ardent young Janis, but his father remains a crude, drunken, thieving counter-revolutionary, who will find himself in hot water when his son drops a dime. Obviously, this creates a rather toxic situation at home, but Janis finds a surrogate father in Karlis, the village’s ultra-righteous political officer. Karlis might abuse his authority from time to time, but at least he helps tidy-up while paying intimidating visits to members of the “Dawn” collective whose zeal is flagging.

In a departure from many Estonian films (such as Ghost Mountaineer, 1944, and In the Crosswind), Pakalanina’s attitude towards the Communist Captive Nations years is decidedly ambiguous. Janis’s father is irredeemably loutish, whereas Karlis is a veritable portrait of grizzled leadership. Still, it is hard to get around scenes of the villagers ransacking their former church. The noble Karlis’s pop-in visits are also rather awkward. Yet, Pakalnina’s nostalgia for the Young Pioneers’ camaraderie and smashing accessories seems to hold equal weight as personal freedoms and national independence, or lack thereof.

In terms of style (but not content), Dawn is probably more closely akin to Martti Helde’s Crosswind than other recent Estonian films. Although Pakalnina’s approach is more conventional and narrative-driven, cinematographer Wojciech Staroń (director of Brothers) often opts long, stately slow tracking shots. The resulting black-and-white images often look like they were composed to deliberately evoke Eisenstein.

As the estranged son and father, Antons Georgs Grauds and Vilis Daudzis seem perfectly aware of the characters’ clichés and are content to settle for a stock level of development. However, Wiktor Zborowski’s Karlis is darkly charismatic, while Liena Smulste is terrific as the exhausted and exasperated workers’ council chair.

Dawn is a visually impressive film, but its flat characterization and conspicuously selective memory will limit its appeal, especially in the co-producing countries of Estonia and Poland. It is most likely not the Socialist Revisionist film Bernie Sanders has been waiting for. Not recommended (except maybe for aspiring cinematographers), Dawn screens tomorrow (6/5) and next Friday (6/10) as part of this year’s SIFF.