'The Red Soul': Film Review | IDFA 2017

Courtesy of Zeppers Film & TV
Sensitively examines the palette of clashing colors along Russia's political spectrum.

Jessica Gorter's documentary on the contentious legacy of Joseph Stalin premiered in competition at the Dutch non-fiction jamboree.

Dutch documentarist Jessica Gorter trains a sensitive and expert outsider's eye on the complex Russian psyche in The Red Soul, one of the more ambitiously intriguing films in competition at this year's IDFA in Amsterdam. While her core subject is the controversial legacy of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who dominated the USSR for three tumultuous decades from 1922-1952, this is a wide ranging snapshot of a country whose contentious global influence has now become an inescapable news story. The unassuming film's winning combination of topicality and artistic quality warrants significant festival exposure; events and channels with political and current-affairs emphases certainly need to check it out.

For most, Russia is still the "riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma" that Winston Churchill famously described in 1939. Less often quoted is the way he ended that sentence: "but perhaps there is a key." For Gorter, whose two previous pictures Piter (2004) and 900 Days (2011) both dealt with Saint Petersburg and its history, that key is Stalin. Largely reviled as a "brutal tyrant" worldwide (especially in Europe and the Americas), the Georgia-born Ioseb Jughashvili is revered by many at home as a caring, heroic, war-winning strongman.

When the Russian population was polled to find their all-time "most outstanding" compatriot in 2012 and again this year, Stalin came out on top each time with 42 percent and 38 percent of the vote, respectively. More than once in Red Soul we hear about a similar poll in which 52 percent of Russians supposedly proclaimed Stalin as a "great man," but it's actually hard to find online evidence for this. What is beyond doubt is that Russian leader Vladimir Putin was joint runner-up in the most recent survey, level pegging with national poet Pushkin. And while the shadow of Russia's current ruler hangs very heavy over Red Soul, he remains very much a background figure: There's no image or even mention of Putin until after the 50-minute mark.

Gorter sensibly leaves the viewer to draw their own historical connections between the past and the present, instead preferring to interview a select handful of speakers whose views on Stalin represent the wider spectrum. Several movingly relay first-person testimony about the grim fate of family members. All age-brackets are represented, from crusty, characterful seniors ("Who cares about what we think?!") to impressionable teens at a political youth-camp designed to promulgate the views of Putin and his party.

Needless to say, no single 90-minute film can hope to do full justice to the full geographical and demographic eclecticism of the world's largest country (The Red Soul will also be available in a 58-minute version for small-screen play). But Gorter and her two editors — Bobbie Roelofs and veteran Danniel Danniel, who died in May and to whom the film is dedicated — do an admirable job of assembling a useful, intelligent primer on the matters in hand. They do seem unduly fascinated, however, by Stalin apologist Igor Sergeev, a middle-aged chap whose rosy hued nostalgia ("Everyone was open, honest, decent") and discontent with the "materialist" malaise of current-day Russia are partly fueled by personal tragedy.

Working with the talented cinematographer Sander Snoep, Gorter moves fluently between big cities and extremely remote rural areas, using steadicams and dollies to immerse us in the stark splendors of the legendarily vast Russian forests as protagonists tirelessly seek the sites of mass graves.

At such moments, the film's trump cards — Tom Bijnen's sound design and the score chiefly composed by Rutger Zuydervelt — are played to particularly atmospheric effect. With so many current documentaries spoiled by excessively conventional and heavy-handed musical accompaniment, it's a pleasure to encounter soundscapes as sparing and subtle as these. Indeed, so subliminally is Zuydervelt's work incorporated that at first it may not even be recognized as music at all. The ear then picks up on the rhythms of quasi-choral soughing, which seems to emanate from the soil and trees themselves like a phantom voice from the icy breeze.

Production companies: Zeppers Film & TV
Director: Jessica Gorter
Screenwriters: Jessica Gorter, Marieke van der Winden
Producer: Frank van den Engel, Oksana Maksimchuk
Executive producer: Judith Vreriks
Cinematographer: Sander Snoep
Editors: Danniel Danniel, Bobbie Roelofs
Composers: Rutger Zuydervelt, Ilia Belorukov, Rene Aquarius
Venue: International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (Feature-Length Competition)
Sales: Deckert Distribution, Leipzig

In Russian
90 minutes