Tuesday, March 12, 2019

SXSW ’19: One Man Dies a Million Times

Ironically, celebrated dissident poet Anna Akhmatova came through the Battle of Leningrad relatively intact. It was the Stalinist Purges that killed her husband Nikolay Gumilev. Nevertheless, she captured the suffering of the blockade in her masterwork, Poem without a Hero, which she dedicated to the victims. Her verse is among the primary sources that director-screenwriter-producer-editor Jessica Oreck has adapted into a strange oral history-dystopian narrative hybrid. The writings document the dark days of 1941-1944, whereas the setting is sometime in the doomed near future, but don’t call Oreck’s One Man Dies a Million Times science fiction when it screens again during the 2019 SXSW Film Festival.

It sounds awkward, but it is eerie how easily the ghostly words from the Stalinist era fit a vaguely dystopian future time frame. It is also quite amazing how compatible vintage Soviet architecture is with a cautionary Orwellian setting. Much of Million Times was shot in and around the N.I. Vavilov Institute for Plant Genetic Resources, where botanists struggled to preserve the Institute’s large repository of seeds during the Siege, for the sake of humanity’s future—an apparently will do so again.

Alyssa and Maksim were friends and are now lovers, as well as colleagues in botany, but the stress and suffering of the Siege will take a toll on their relationship. Nevertheless, they remain steadfastly committed to protecting the seed bank and the wealth of bio-diversity it represents, especially Alyssa.

Visually, OMDAMT is often absolutely stunning. There is no question it represents some of the best work from indie cinematographer extraordinaire Sean Price Williams. The use of black-and-white with occasional flashes of color is as starkly dramatic as anything realized on-screen, maybe since Schindler’s List. In fact, there really is merit and substance to Oreck’s concept. She gets at something very specific of the time and era, yet it is also a distinctively individual vision. The drawback is diminishing marginal returns set-in pretty early during the third act for Oreck’s hybrid-hybrid.

As their namesakes, Alyssa Lozovskaya and Maksim Blinov look like they stepped out of a Pawel Pawlikowski film, which is not a bad thing. The latter broods like crazy, but it is the sensitivity of the former that will really haunt viewers. It is pretty compelling to watch them endure dire privations, as when they boil up soup with pieces of a leather belt.

Right, so it turns out Russia was (and will be) decidedly grim. OMDAMT transports viewers to another time and place, much in the manner of Aleksey German’s immersive masterworks, but Oreck’s exclusive reliance on primary civilian texts necessarily leads to a rather soft finish. Regardless, it is a rather fascinating and undeniably ambitious work of cinema, from a filmmaker previously known mostly for documentaries (including the absolutely charming Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo). Recommended for adventurous audiences, One Man Dies a Million Times screens again this Friday (3/15), during SXSW ’19.