'Domino Effect' ('Domino Effekt'): Vienna Review

Courtesy of Autlook Filmsales
A topical documentary with a captivating subject, if not style  

A new documentary casts a light on the broken lives in the Russian-backed breakaway Caucasian state of Abkhazia

Talk about Moscow-supported breakaway states now, and the mind is inevitably drawn toward eastern Ukraine – but long before the self-styled Donetsk People's Republic came into being last year, the Caucasian territory of Abkhazia was doing the same. Seceding from Georgia after a bloody civil war ending in 1993, the largely internationally unrecognized republic – with a population just above 240,000 – has paid a heavy price: its infrastructure remains shattered, its resort-capital Sukhumi effectively shuttered, its Soviet-era charm long gone.

With diplomatic analysts contemplating the future for those Russian-backed separatist enclaves in Ukraine, Domino Effect comes into play: the latest outing from young Polish filmmakers Elwira Niewiera and Piotr Rosolowski, the documentary – which just bowed at the Vienna International Film Festival – offers an engaging if sometimes sprawling probe into lives in these post-secession pariah states.

Abkhazia's dilapidated condition is illustrated vividly in the documentary's first two minutes, as the camera pans around to reveal Sukhumi's once-bustling seafront now dotted with long-grounded ships, rusting amusement piers and bombed-out hotels – in effect, a panorama of devastation in which, strikingly, locals continue to amuse themselves in the sun.

Read More Doc Filmmakers Equip Ukrainian Volunteers in Struggle Against Pro-Russian Separatists

This will is shared by the film's two characters, Rafael and Natalya. Living in a rickety apartment in which nothing much ever works properly, it's hard to imagine that they are supposed to be one of Abkhazia's high-flying power couples: a former rebel military commander, the man is now the splinter state's sports minister, while his young Russian wife speaks of her experience in European competitions as a budding opera singer.

Starting out in bliss, Domino Effect – which was shot in 2011 – chronicles their marriage's downward spiral as these problems take their toll, especially as they mull their future with Natalya being pregnant and ready to give birth. But Rafael also has his patriotic plans in mind too, as he attempts to flag up Abkhazia's pedigree by organizing a domino world championship in a place basically lacking the facilities needed for such an event.

All this is relayed in episodes nearing the darkest of black comedy, as gallows humor abound and the couple's struggling careers (if they could be described as such) are constantly upended by turns of events – power blackouts are a running gag – they can't control. But alienation and tragedy also seep through as the narrative progresses, and Niewiera and Rosolowski are empathetic enough to also remind viewers of haunting tragedies past and present, as a much younger Rafael is shown struggling in battle in some graphic video footage of the 1992-93 civil war.

Read More Ukraine Bans More Russian Films

Domino Effect is more a human story than a hard-hitting historical treatise, its character studies more captivating than the filmmakers' aesthetics. Still, the many controversies of Abkhazia's modern-day history are not broached – including accusations of forced (and sometimes deadly) expulsions of Georgians from their ancestral lands, for example.

Production companies: Otter Films, Zero One Film

Director: Elwira Niewiera, Piotr Rosolowski

Producers: Anna Wydra

Executive producers: Thomas Kufus, Ann Carolin Renninger

Director of photography: Piotr Rosolowski

Editors: Karoline Schulz, Andrzej Dabowski

Music: Maciej Cieslak

Sales: Autlook Filmsales

In Abkhazian and Russian

No rating; 76 minutes