Now, as then - Weekend - Kommersant

The BBC released a series about the collapse of the USSR and the birth of post-Soviet Russia - "Russia 1985-1999: TraumaZone" by the great Adam Curtis. “What is it like to survive the collapse of communism and democracy?” the director asks us. And we know what it is. And let's try to read the film the way one reads a poem.

Text: Ivan Davydov

Russia begins with an endless road through the snow. This is what we ourselves know.

Russia is a farewell to the army. Now, as then. A pool of blood near a wrecked army truck. Afghanistan. Or Chechnya. Or.

"Trauma Zone" by Adam Curtis - seven hours of video. In these seven hours, 14 years of history are packed, which - sorry for the banality - plowed the world, destroyed a superpower, well, or a state that imagined itself to be a superpower, created a state that again hopes to become a superpower. Fragments of reports that were filmed in the Union and then in Russia by BBC journalists. Minimum directorial presence. Or rather, even the illusion of the director's absence. There is no voiceover. No comments. Only documentary footage and laconic titles explaining where the action takes place.

The action takes place in us.

It is clear, of course, that many of those who remained behind the scenes, of those who were born after the ninety-ninth, are already over twenty. Adults. They will see this film in a different way. Like a report from the moon. Like a documentary by Jacques-Yves Cousteau about the life and customs of the inhabitants of the sea. They knew nothing of the sort. The joy of recognition is not for them, although it is not clear whether the word "joy" is appropriate here. Or is it still possible, this joy of recognition, but specific, turned inside out: now, how then? The story of perestroika and the 1990s that Curtis is aiming at is also the story of getting out of the cocoon. From the closed Soviet world to the ordinary human one. The film ends in 1999, we are in 2022, and we already know what happened next. The butterfly escaped from the cocoon, described a spectacular circle, and now the same cocoon is in front of it. Or another, but this is a secondary question.

And yet in Russia, the "Zone of Trauma" reads like a letter addressed to people who have lived through it all. Once again we lost our country, found ourselves in a space of timelessness. Road, snow and no hope of getting out anywhere.

Curtis, of course, has his own tasks, he does not correspond with us: he has long been occupied with the problems of democracy. This is one way or another about his main works (mostly documentary mini-series), which brought the creator the well-deserved fame of "the main documentary filmmaker of our time" and the title of "cult director" - let's say this phrase still means something. "Centenary of Personality" (2002) - about Freud and advertising; "A trap: what happened to the dream of freedom?" (2007), “I can’t get you out of my head” (2021; there, by the way, Limonov flickers), “Hypernormalization” (2016; Surkov flickers). In general, the master was approaching Russia, and this is understandable: Russia is an almost ideal territory for studying the causes of the collapse of democracy, a laboratory case. The country has chosen a path - or time has chosen it for it: time is like an element here, seemingly unrelated scenes from an ordinary and sad life turn into a stream that carries away heroes - famous and unknown. But here - we see (and we remember): there was still a moment of choice, people were looking for a way out of decades of dullness, they walked to the square, demanded something ... Curtis recalls (and although he doesn’t have any mockery, but it’s hard not to catch the taste of mockery here): they walked, demanded. And where are we now? Again behind the scenes, but on the other hand, in the endless eighty-four.

It is clear why the film has appeared now. After all, we ourselves are looking for an answer to the new main Russian question: how did it happen? The answer, most likely, is in the past, and here you can move as far as you like - even to the times of the Crimea and the “Russian spring”, even to the times of Gostomysl. Curtis offers his markup. Russia is again interesting to the world. Remember perestroika television, all those endless teleconferences, the sincere surprise of the Americans: it turns out that Soviet people are the same people as we are? They seemed to be walking in a circle, they came to the starting point, the pole of interest shifted: what is wrong with them, with these Russians? The union collapsed, but from a bunch of small parts left after the collapse, they once again assembled a Kalashnikov assault rifle.

We are casual viewers in this re-film cinema, the director is not talking to us, but to those who are afraid of us again.

Yes, but he doesn't talk. He doesn't speak, but he shows. Nevertheless, it was said above that "the film reads like a letter." And this is not a truism. It really reads. “The Curtis method is a collage,” you will read in any article about the director. I dare to argue. A collage has no time dimension, a collage is a gluing together of pictures on a plane. Curtis's storytelling is linear, he does not resort to self-repetitions, he just tells his story. Fragments of old reports are not photos pasted on cardboard, but rather lines of a poem, where unrelated events cling to each other like rhymes. The output is a long poem about a sad country somewhere in the North, where wild people are trying to portray something remotely similar to human life. And they don't get anything.

A step aside - you can afford it, since we are talking about history here, and our history does not want to fit into 14 years. In the 16th century, the English ambassador Sir Thomas Randolph came to Ivan the Terrible. The embassy included a secretary, a young gentleman with no particular occupation, George Turberville. Exhausted by Moscow boredom, Turberville composed several poems about local savages scurrying about in the snow and mud.

The bodies of the dead, previously lying unburied,
Placed in spruce coffins like ordinary people
So are those who are richer; the reason for this is easy to find,
Indeed, in winter, they will not be able to gouge the ground.
And forests are so abundant everywhere and everywhere on their land,
That both the rich and the poor, dying, are sure that [их похоронят] in a coffin.
Perhaps you are wondering how you can leave
Those bodies of the dead without burial for a whole season.
But you can believe it: as soon as they cool down,
The force of cold binds them so that they become like a stone,
Without offending anything living,
So they lie and remain until the next arrival of spring.

The memory is not accidental: it is also a kind of circle. The Turberville Epistles are the first poems known to history written by an Englishman about Russia. Curtis's film is the last poem so far (yes, I insist on this way of reading the film). Turberville's interest is idle, Curtis's is more of a naturalist. What they have in common is their complete lack of empathy for the characters. True, Turberville frightens the reader, at the same time mocking the "rude Muscovites." And Curtis does not scare anyone and does not scoff at anyone. It is cold, like the colors prevailing in the frame. He is studying.

His tool is the microscope, his genre is microhistory. Attention is focused on the most ordinary people. The great ones - from Gorbachev to Putin - flash in the frame, but on an equal footing with nameless hard workers, beggars, prostitutes, old women, soldiers and townsfolk. And they, too, are just faces in the crowd, and they are like debris that a muddy river is dragging somewhere. Habit requires from a work of art just sympathy for the "little man" - that's how it is in Russia, that's how we were taught at school. But he is not. There is only the desire to fix the signs of the times, the game of objectivity.

Yes, it is a game: the author seems to be removed from the text, but we know and he knows that this is - as a poem should be - an extremely personal statement. He selected these episodes. He chose these shots. He determined their sequence. Could have others, but chose these. I could have built it differently, but I built it this way. I put together a story about running in circles, about the hopelessness of life in a rather impressive part of the globe. Gave (a cruel gift) the opportunity to grieve about missed chances, sitting on the shore. Repeating like a mantra: now, as then. In the endless "before" that precedes the film. In timelessness, which is before all time. Before Curtis created heaven and earth for us from pieces of old reports.

And for the Russian (that is, random, secondary) viewer, the trauma turns out to be double or even triple. We survived it (one), we live it again - thanks to the talent of the director (two), we feel like midges under his microscope (three). Oh yeah, and we also know how the movie actually ends.

Cinema - here it is no longer a director, but life winks at us - seems to fit into the Russian state myth with "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century" and "dashing nineties". But in Russian propaganda, after the darkness, there is the rise of a new sun and the road to prosperity, and in the "Zone of Trauma" after the darkness, there are credits.

By the way, this hurts.

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