'Close Relations' ('Rodnye'): Film Review | TIFF 2016

Courtesy of TIFF
Stern but heartfelt dispatches from Europe's new Cold War.

The director of 'Under The Sun' turns his cameras on his own geographically scattered family to examine the deep personal divisions behind the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

A poignant home movie with an international dimension, Close Relations attempts to tease out some illuminating personal stories from the recent political and military turmoil in Ukraine. The director Vitaly Mansky was born and raised in Ukraine when it was part of the old Soviet Union, then studied film-making in Moscow, and has long considered himself to be a Russian citizen. Following the "Euromaidan" revolution of February 2014, he spent a year traveling around his former homeland and its divided regions, interviewing family members on opposite sides of the ongoing conflict with Russia.

Mansky earned widespread acclaim last year with Under The Sun, his jaw-dropping expose of life inside North Korea. His latest documentary is more conventional in format, with a solemn tone and stately pace unlikely to appeal far outside the festival circuit. But viewers with particular interest in Russia and Eastern Europe will have their patience rewarded with a film steeped in somber poetry and occasional black humor. Following its North American premiere at TIFF last week, Close Relations screens at London Film Festival next month.

Mansky starts his journey with a sentimental pilgrimage to his hometown of Lviv, close to Ukraine's western border with Poland - a picturesque city also called Lvov, Lwow and Lemberg during the past century of invasions and occupations, which explains some of the historical complexities behind this film. After a reunion with his ageing mother, the director travels to the Black Sea port of Odessa, taking in the steps immortalized in Sergei Eisenstein's Soviet cinema classic Battleship Potemkin. Here he interviews his sister Alona and brother-in-law Igor, who wrongly insist the war with Russia will be over by November, but secretly fear their eldest son will be conscripted to fight.

New Year brings a snowy stopover in the Crimea peninsula, newly annexed by Russia, where president Vladimir Putin addresses revelers from giant Orwellian TV screens. The family members Mansky meets here are pro-Russian but uneasy about the occupation, which has triggered economic sanctions and exclusions from international sporting contests. An extended phone call between two female relatives on different sides of the border crackles with clenched-teeth tension and thinly veiled hostility, with neither woman prepared to back down. As a metaphor for the broader geopolitical situation, it cuts deep. As cinematic entertainment, not so much.

As winter thaws into spring, Mansky makes further investigative trips to the capital city of Kiev, and to the pro-Russian Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Here he meets elderly relatives who appear to be proudly stuck in a Cold War timewarp, enthusing about the generous meat rations that Stalin introduced to Donbas, and routinely dismissing any pro-western forces as fascist followers of Stepan Bandera, a hardline Ukrainian nationalist assassinated by the KGB in 1959. Finally the director returns to Moscow, the city he called home before making this documentary. The pay-off line is that he has now left Russia, partly in response to events in Ukraine. He describes this story as "my personal tragedy."

Offering few concessions to outsiders with limited knowledge of Russian or Ukrainian history, Close Relations will narrow its potential audience as a result. With nothing but a sporadic timeline graphic and fragmentary narration to supply editorial context, Mansky mostly relies on long, statically shot conversations to fill in the broader historical canvas, a deliberate aesthetic choice which demands stoic concentration from the viewer.

But there is a quiet mastery behind this exacting technique, chiefly in telling tableaux like the innocuous street scene that slowly reveals itself as a military funeral parade. Playing out over melancholy piano music, Mansky's intimate insider's view of an ongoing international crisis has gathered real emotional force by the time it reaches its sorrowful conclusion.

Production Companies: Vertov, Ego Media, Saxonia Entertainment, Baltic Film Production, 435 Films
Director: Vitaly Mansky
Producers: Natalya Manskaya, Guntis Trekteris, Simone Baumann, Marianna Kaat
Cinematographer: Alexandra Ivanova
Editors: Peteris Kimelis, Gunta Ikere
Music: Harmo Kallaste, Mikael Tariverdiev
Sales company: Deckert Distribution
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF Docs)
No rating: 112 minutes