DIGNITY RESTORED: Dvorstevoy's documentaries should aid Kazakhstan's reputation
Like many who’ve found Borat the movie uproariously funny, I ran to my video store for more: the first and second seasons of Da Ali G Show, the British telly program transferred to, and reshot for, HBO, with American sequences replacing English ones. Borat’s journey across the US of A is a regular feature, but it’s almost always a disappointment, a thin sketch going nowhere, a practice session for sequences that are far wilder and definitely better resolved in the movie.
Somewhere in the DVDs are first-rate moments: Borat going door-to-door campaigning with a moronic pro-life Mississippi Republican; Borat in a honky-tonk tavern leading the drunken in a singing of the Kazakh anti-Semite anthem, “Throw the Jews Down the Well.” Far, far better on the DVDs are the Ali G scenes, in which England’s bling-infested pseudo-black homeboy spreads his massive ignorance through hilarious interviews with American dignitaries and VIPs, from Newt Gingrich to Noam Chomsky. The best: a fuming Andy Rooney walking off Ali G’s sublimely silly show.
Dueling Kazakhstans? The beleaguered country gets its dignity back with the remarkable documentaries of Sergei Dvortsevoy, which are showing November 4 and 5 at the Harvard Film Archive. These bring an almost religious respect to the same rough, uneducated peasants whom Borat so richly roasts. Kazakhstan gets points for having spawned such a refined, brilliant talent as Dvortsevoy. As a media artist, he’s an anti-Borat, countering Borat’s cheap, exploitative, on-the-run videotapes (remember, Borat is a TV host/producer) with meticulously planned, formally elegant, almost anthropological studies of the lives of the very, very poorest, shot insistently on 35mm film. Borat is looking for porno and pussy (“vagines”), something physical; Dvortsevoy seeks “the poetry in everyday life,” something metaphysical.
Born in 1971, Dvortsevoy spent nine years as an aviation engineer toiling at a Kazakh airport. One day, he read a newspaper ad requesting applicants for a film school in Moscow. Knowing nothing at all about cinema, he applied anyway, as he was desperately bored with his job.
His three years at university proved revelatory: rigorous classes, three films to watch a day. Dvortsevoy graduated with an intense commitment to making serious non-fiction movies.
This is his method: he and a tiny crew spend many months living with the documentary subjects, all the time planning the shots. Who on earth is more precise? A half-year might result in eight or nine long, long takes, and these put together constitute the movie. Highway (1999; November 4), is a 57-minute journey over a baked dirt road in rural Kazakhstan following a family of itinerant circus performers doing their crude, primitive tricks: assuming yoga positions, walking on glass. They bicker in their broken-down truck. They pick up a baby eagle, which becomes the family pet. The eagle gets as much screen time as the family. The shots are so simple and yet so stunning: the eagle on its haunches, peering about, while two puppies eat their chow.
Bread Day (1998; November 5) follows seven Russian peasants as they huff and puff and push a railroad car for two miles uphill in the snow. It’s Tuesday, when they bring bread to a rural village. Cut to inside a bakery, where the bread is on display. The camera holds forever, as the bitter saleswoman makes her way through a day of crabby, alcoholic customers who are furious at her when she runs out of bread. The next morning, the peasants push the railroad car the other way. Until the following Tuesday. The Sisyphus story is no myth.