Published Dec 01, 2011Whether you're familiar with the torrid political history of the Soviet Union or not is inconsequential when it comes to My Perestroika. Neither a history lesson, nor a florid character study, Robin Hessman's steely documentary about the lives of five Russians who were part of the last generation growing up behind the Iron Curtain brings us into the fold of a fascinating, unsettling period in modern history.
The titular perestroika ― referring to Mikhail Gorbachev's 1986 policy of "restructuring" following economic stagnation in the Soviet Union ― handily applies to the trajectories of Lyuba, Borya, Ruslan, Andrei and Olga, elementary school classmates whose patriotic childhoods eventually gave way to post-Soviet disenchantment during adolescence and, for some, outright hostility in adulthood.
In some respects, it's as though time has stood still. Borya (a schoolteacher) and Olga (a single mother) still live in their childhood apartments right around the corner from one another. But it's abundantly clear that they're raising their children in a Russia that's strikingly different from the one they grew up in. An unflappable loyalty to the state, safe distance from American imperialism and reassuring uniformity among one another have all but disappeared, and in their places are the embittered recollections of individuals who, looking back, recognize the remarkable nature of their circumstances growing up.
Out of the five classmates, who also include punk rocker Ruslan, who has held onto radical roots, and Lubya, Borya's wife and reformed nationalist who would salute when the Soviet national anthem came on television, the least critical is undoubtedly Andrei. The entrepreneur is the only one to have benefited from the new Russian capitalism, moving out of his childhood home into a condo and opening a number of successful men's clothing stores.
Hessman's juxtaposition of vibrant home videos with somehow bleaker present day footage is the most compelling aspect of My Perestroika, which was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at January's Sundance Film Festival. Video from Borya's childhood shows him scampering around the same apartment that his son, Mark, now has complete run of. But the schoolteacher worries that his son will never fully understand the significance of his father's history, struggling to undermine an oppressive Soviet system in that same apartment.
To be sure, politics play an integral role in My Perestroika, and if you can't quite place the Iron Curtain, you may not have any business with Hessman's documentary. But for those who prepare with at least a cursory skim of a history text, My Perestroika is a compelling time capsule that poignantly traces five ordinary lives transformed by the political climate around them. (Kinosmith)