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Scenes of truly Dickensian deprivation dominate Something Better To Come, an eye-opening documentary about teenager Yula growing up on a vast landfill near Moscow. Oscar-nominated for her 2005 short Children of Leningradsky, director Hanna Polak started filming the pretty blonde as a ten-year-old in 2000, and chronicled her hazardous development over the course of 14 years.
The results recall the long-scale projects of Czech cinema’s non-fiction grand dame Helena Trestikova as much as Michael Apted‘s Up series, and received the Special Jury Award when the picture world-premiered at Amsterdam’s IDFA. A busy festival and small-screen future looks assured, with the possibility of limited theatrical play in the film’s two countries of production, Denmark and Poland.
While her focus is very much on Yula, her boozy mother and their friends eking out a living on the gigantic ‘Svalka’ garbage-dump, Polak punctuates proceedings with timely reminders of the world beyond. When the film begins, an unknown named Vladimir Putin is sworn in as Russia’s new leader; later, TV and radio reports of conflicts in Chechnya and Ukraine pop up as background noise. Putin’s colleague Dmitry Medvedev is at one point heard delivering a New Year’s message, whose exhortation “may your homes be full of warmth and comfort” sounds bitterly ironic in the context of the crude shack where Yula resides (“in this filthy room we sleep… it’s wet here.”)
Granted intimate access to such stygian, tobacco-smoke-filled spaces, Polak has clearly built up a solid relationship of trust with those she’s filming, and while her approach is generally fly-on-the-wall self-effacing, at times her subjects address her directly as they muse upon their grim situation. “They look down on us like we’re roaches,” opines Yula’s mother. “Aren’t we human?”
But Polak and her editor Marcin Kot Bastkowski aren’t simply in the business of constructing a harrowing equivalent of those best-selling “misery-memoir” books. While apparently deprived of basics such as school, running water and health-care, Yula and her friends show a remarkable cheerfulness, resourcefulness and resilience as they cope with the daily struggles of life at the very bottom of the social barrel. “We have so much fun here,” chirps Yula, “and everyone is nice to me.”
A bit of community spirit and camaraderie, it seems, can go a very long way, and sequences of spectacularly dystopian-apocalyptic, third-world bleakness are leavened by moments of incongruous beauty, even grace. A ragged hound howls in the wind atop a rubbish-heap, scavenger birds flap through the sky, and the country’s pristine lakes and forests stretch to the horizon beyond.
Looking in the opposite direction, we see rows of Communist-era housing blocks, uninviting under normal circumstances but a tantalizing glimpse of relative luxury for those suffering Yula’s plight. Her “escape” from the Svalka dominates the film’s final section, an epilog shot six years after the main bulk of the running-time, which had shown Yula from the ages of 10 to 16. Proceedings can thus conclude on a relatively optimistic note, not that this in any way lessens the impact of what’s gone before, nor dilutes its unspoken but implicit indictment of such shocking social dysfunction and neglect.
Production companies: Danish Documentary Production, Hanna Polak Films
Director/Screenwriter/Cinematographer: Hanna Polak
Producers: Sigrid Dyekjaer, Hanna Polak
Executive producer: Jan Roefkamp
Editor: Marcin Kot Bastkowski
Composer: Jonas Struck
Sales: Films Transit International, Lorraine, Quebec
No Rating, 108 minutes