'The Son' ('Syn'): Film Review | Berlin 2018

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
A stark and unsettling account of army life.

Documentary director Alexander Abaturov ('Sleeping Souls') shot his new feature at a Russian army barracks in Siberia.

A full-blown immersion into the Russian military, Alexander Abaturov’s disquieting feature-length documentary The Son (Syn) follows two war stories simultaneously.

In the first, the director tracks a battalion of recruits going through combat training in Siberia, with some of them vying to join the highly elite Spetsnaz special forces. In the second, he focuses on his 21-year-old cousin, Dima, who was killed in an ambush in Dagestan, leaving Dima's parents behind to pick up the pieces. Cutting back and forth between the two narratives, Abaturov creates an unnerving effect where we see scores of young men prepping for their possible deaths, and doing so with plenty of  determination and sangfroid. As an authentic if rather troubling portrait of future killing machines, The Son deserves further exposure after its Berlinale premiere.

Abaturov was granted what looks like full access by the Russian military, which is probably why his film never questions the battles being waged in Dagestan, Chechnya or other countries in the North Caucasus, nor does it allow any of the trainees to voice their opinions about army life. Instead, he reveals how a harsh training regimen — including punishing physical exercises, live ammunition drills and screenings of propaganda movies — turns young men into uniformed warriors willing to give their lives for their homeland.

On the other end of the spectrum, Abaurov shows us how his late cousin's parents are coping with their son’s recent death, visiting the barracks where he once lived and working with a sculptor to create a statue in his memory. If the boy’s mother seems able to display her grief in public and organize a few events in his honor, his father appears absolutely thunderstruck by the loss, staring blindly into the distance as he partakes in ceremonies — both religious and military — to mourn the fallen soldier.

In both cases, The Son reveals a world deeply steeped in collective ritual, with the trainees forced to shout jingoistic slogans as they fire their AK-47s in the air, while the mourning parents absently mouth prayers in an Orthodox church. Abaturov and his cameraman, Artin Petrov, capture the proceedings in medium or wide shots that focus on the group in action, and, like most good Russian filmmakers, they have a monumental sense of framing. Certain sequences — especially a bloody battle royale between recruits that occurs toward the end — take on an eerie and epic flavor, as if we’re witnessing humanity in its most primordial, animalistic form.

Editing by Luc Forveille keeps things to a minimum (the running time is just over 70 minutes), and although there's no voiceover commentary or interviews, we can clearly understand what the stakes are here. Sound design by Alexander Kalachnikov adds to the ambiance, all the way to a haunting final scene where we see the new soldiers being shipped off to an unknown destination.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum)
Production companies: Petit a Petit Production, Studio IDA, Siberiade
Director: Alexander Abaturov
Producers: Rebecca Houzel, Marina Silvanovich, Boris Carre
Director of photography: Artion Petrov
Editor: Luc Forveille
Sound designer: Alexander Kalachnikov
Sales: Andana Films

In Russian
71 minutes