'The Last Limousine' ('Posledniy limusin'): Vladivostok Review
Daria Khlestkina unleashes some post-communist, post-industrial tragicomedy with her documentary on the dying embers of the former Soviet Union's premier auto-manufacturers
Imagine an adaptation of The Office set in a Russian car factory, and you're close to the ambience of The Last Limousine. There's a hapless manager struggling to rouse his past-their-prime charges from their slumber in a forgotten corner of the economic food-chain; a foreman who screams and swears into the phone; another who confesses he's at work just to provide "an illusion of activity" on the shop floor; a chain-smoking clerk giving out meal coupons she freshly created with paper and scissors; and storekeepers demanding proper documentation from a worker requesting some new boots.
So far, so hilarious - but it's hard to laugh out loud and whole-heartedly at these episodes. Far from pastiche or parody, Daria Khlestkina's documentary is a piece of real-life tragicomedy. These on-screen spaced-out oddities illustrate how the workers at ZiL, the former Soviet Union's premier automobile-maker, has fallen by the wayside as the powers that be elect to conveniently forget the hands that built the limousines which carried former leaders across the Red Square during annual military parades.
The slapstick moments all come with varying doses of bitterness and dismay. In her first feature-length outing, Khlestkina - the latest to emerge from the film school founded by veteran filmmaker Marina Razbezhkina - has offered a warm and engaging look at a doomed collective, all of the members victims of political changes far beyond their control. With its highly watchable protagonists, stranger-than-fiction real-life twists, and meticulous scenes which evoke the social codes of a forgotten industrial age, The Last Limousine has reaped accolades when it made its bow at the ArtDocFest in Moscow last December.
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After its show at the Vladivostok International Film Festival last month, its proper international run begins with screenings in Germany at the DOK Leipzig and Kassel documentary festivals. While a shorter version is available for online streaming on he website of Al Jazeera - the film was co-produced by the Qatari broadcaster and was aired on its English-language news channel in May as part of its long-running Witness series - the theatrical cut probably does the film and its subject better justice with more context, color and room to breathe in the slowness of life at the depopulated industrial plant.
The film's working title, The Fall of the 16th Republic, speaks volumes about ZiL's standing in the communist era. Part of the backbone of the USSR's military and industrial systems - old newsreel footage, included here in the documentary, boasts of the factories producing a new truck every two minutes in its heyday - ZiL operates out of a self-sufficient mini-city with its own tram network, residential complexes, social infrastructure and the like. Its pedigree, however, lies with its production of open-top cars from which Soviet Union's former leaders inspect the country's army at May Day parades.
Central to The Last Limousine is ZiL's custom-made cars department, which has taken the harshest hit after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and, as a consequence, the disappearance of its raison d'etre - the once thriving branch employing more than 120 people has now dwindled to a working force of just four. And even for these veterans, their exquisite artisanship (of producing hand-made bumpers, window frames and so on) is rusting away as they spent their past two decades whiling their time away, their modus operandi fast becoming quaint in an automated age. Meanwhile, the factory has seen an influx of migrant workers from Central Asia, cheap labor ushered in so as to keep expenditure at a low over jobs which no longer appeal to a younger generation of Muscovites.
The drama begins when Mikhail Sattarov, the perennially well-dressed manager of the unit, receives out of the blue a new commission from the Russian defence ministry for three limousines - cars which would be used at the Victory Day parades. What ensues is the department's all-out campaign to prove its worth and mettle again, as Sattarov and his deputies struggle to get past and present workers to deliver the goods after so many years of inactivity.
Their work might appear merely a running stream of gags, but they become increasingly heartening as one detects the earnestness beneath the worker's rough and indifferent veneer - and all this becomes even more heartrending towards the end, when their efforts are somehow proved to be in vain (the order was cancelled after the cars were finished) and the plant is slowly torn apart, the workers themselves contemplating its/their demise as they burn documents about work procedures in the past. With that, The Last Limousine proves to be riveting from start to finish, and engaging to the last, Khlestkina and Mieneke Kramer's editing never wasting a frame in depicting the longueur of life in this last bastion of a forgotten mode of organized labor.
Venue: Vladivostok International Film Festival
Production companies: Marina Razbezhkina Studio, ma.ja.de, Filmproduktions GmbH, Al Jazeera, Norsk Rikskringkasting, YLE
Director: Daria Khlestkina
Producer: Daria Khlestkina, with Heino Deckert
Director of photography: Anna Dashina, Evgeny Kurbatov
Editor: Daria Khlestkina, Mieneke Kramer
Music: Anton Silaev
International Sales: Deckert Distribution GmbH
No rating; 75 minutes