My Perestroika: Movie Review

A fascinating portrait of life in Moscow — behind the Iron Curtain and after its fall.

Robin Hessman's first feature is an engaging picture of five thirtysomething Moscow residents who came of age during the final years of the Soviet Union.

A terrifically engaging picture of life beyond the headlines, My Perestroika lifts the veil of Cold War mystery. Robin Hessman’s first feature documentary is an intimate work built upon the observations and experiences of five thirtysomething Muscovites, elementary school classmates who came of age during the final years of the Soviet Union. After a well-received run on the fest circuit, it opens March 23 in New York, with a Los Angeles bow scheduled for April 15.

The filmmaker uses archival footage and an extraordinary trove of home movies to powerful effect, and as her subjects reflect on the changes they’ve lived through, a complex composite portrait emerges.

Two of the childhood friends, Lyuba and Borya, are now married history teachers, convinced that their students, and their iPod-bopping son, will never quite understand what it meant to be a Soviet citizen. She was an obedient daughter and a conformist at school, proud to be a Young Pioneer; he was a teenage rebel, daring to wear a T-shirt emblazoned with “USA.” For Borya and his friend Ruslan, a former punk-rocker who now busks in the metro, the new capitalist order has profaned their ideals. The band Ruslan cofounded still exists, with an updated lineup: a showbiz “machine.”

The everyday effects of capitalism take familiar forms — not just the proliferation of billboards and logos in the cityscape, but a changing definition of “middle-class.” The least ambivalent about Russia’s transformation is financially successful Andrei, owner of a chain of luxury retail stores. Avowedly apolitical single mother Olga, who works for a billiard-table company, notes wryly that she’s “called a manager. But that’s what everyone is called these days.”

The film illuminates life under communism, too, with a personal specificity. A young girl’s revisionist view of Lenin could lead to a tearful argument with her mother, Lyuba recalls. And there are wonderful cultural oddities that the reminiscences touch upon. During times of crisis, such as the (failed) 1991 military coup against Gorbachev,state television broadcast Swan Lake round the clock. A different TV fixture arose after the dissolution of the USSR: self-proclaimed healers, who also led mass events not unlike Pentecostal revival meetings.

My Perestroika is as attuned to the absurdities of politics and the sustaining value of culture as it is to a pure nostalgia for childhood — a time when, as one interviewee says, “The sun was brighter, the grass was greener.”

Opens: March 23 (International Film Circuit)
Production companies: A co-production of Red Square Prods., Bungalow Town Prods. and ITVS International in association with American Documentary/POV and YLE Finland
Director: Robin Hessman  
Producers: Robin Hessman, Rachel Wexler
Director of photography: Robin Hessman
Music: Lev (Ljova) Zhurbin
Editors: Alla Kovgan, Garret Savage
No MPAA rating, 87 minutes

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