Rarely does one bump into a film with an ambiguous origin, uncertain of the exact time that the first seed of an idea was sown. While we might have encountered films made from ‘found-footage’ or other reality shows, nothing comes close to comparing the first of some thirteen films to be released this year under the mysterious ‘Dau Project’.
The Dau Project:
Directed by Ilya Khrzhanovskiy and Jekaterina Oertel, but largely attributed to the former, whose only known feature until recently was the remarkable 2004 film ‘4’ (Chetyre), the films are part of an astoundingly grand project, the likes of which have never been tried before at this scale. The project apparently had its genesis when the Russian entrepreneur Sergei Adoniev, impressed by Khrzhanovskiy’s debut film, invited him to make a biopic of the Nobel prize winning physicist Lev Landau. Landau (widely known as ‘Dau’) was instrumental in many Soviet scientific, technological, and military accomplishments during the cold war era.
A year into production, Khrzhanovskiy seems to have become more interested in the sprawling set than the film production itself and started an experiment with hundreds of ‘non-actors’ not only taking on the role of Soviet characters, but also ‘living’ them, as officers, scientists, caretakers etc., (some of whom were actually in those jobs during Soviet times), to effectively metamorphose the set into a fully functioning Soviet time capsule that changed according to specific timelines set in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. The project involved more than just film-making; it involved art installations, performance art pieces, and so on. The project obviously requires more space than this film review can allow, so I shall leave you with links to two discerning articles published in The Guardian and GQ for more information on this unique attempt.
“Dau. Natasha” is the first of a series of films that finally get to be released as part of the Dau project this year. Set in the fifties in a top secret Soviet scientific institute, the film centres around Natasha (Natalia Berezhnaya), a middle-aged waitress at the institute’s canteen. She has Olya (Olga Shkabarnya) – a young woman from a hitherto higher station and means, as an understudy with whom she has an interesting love-hate relationship.
While envious of Olya’s youth and carefree demeanour, Natasha is insecure about her future in a dead-end job and worried that she’ll neither get married nor have a steady boyfriend. Their characters are fleshed out in the opening scenes of the film where Natasha tries in vain to stamp her authority over Olya, but later sits down with her to get drunk with the canteen’s leftover champagne and vodka.
When a visiting French scientist Luc (Luc Bigé) drops in with his Soviet colleagues for lunch, the women become friendly and invite him to Olya’s house later in the evening for a private party of their own. The party leads to a drunk Luc and Natasha having sex, with the latter quietly satisfied that she’s still ‘desired’, notwithstanding the language barrier and clumsiness of their sexual encounter.
The encounter however doesn’t go unnoticed by the all watchful military intelligence, and the later part of the film is focused entirely, in excruciating detail, of Natasha’s harrowing interrogation and humiliation by KGB General Azhippo (Vladimir Azhippo), who suspects that her dalliance with a foreign national might have given away some State secrets. The interrogation is done in between seemingly cordial drinks and meals in Azhippo’s office. Natasha emerges towards the end as someone more aware than ever of how the system works and oppresses the people, but with a determination to press on in the only way she knew – by bossing over Olya back at the canteen…
The film, shot in an austere style befitting a Dogme’95, is nevertheless very Russian in its interpretation. The attention to detail and period-specificity is astonishing if not obsessive – we truly are transported to the early fifties. It is all the more unnerving that these actors were more than merely ‘playing’ their parts, by behaving and responding uninhibitedly as the characters would’ve done during the period. One wonders if the interrogation scenes had some kind of safe word, in case an actor wants to come out of character and end their ordeal. It certainly didn’t look so. Nevertheless, the viewer is transfixed by goings on, and combined with adequate knowledge of the project’s context, is totally taken in by the overall authenticity on display. Which also explains why any analysis or critique of the film’s intentions would ultimately sound inadequate. Highly Recommended Viewing..!
The Nudity: Natalia Berezhnaya, Luc Bigé, and Olga Shkabarnya
The film features scenes of explicit nudity, sex, and rape. The sex scene between Natasha and Luc is long, natural, and doesn’t appear to be simulated. There are two other scenes of Natasha and Olya in the bath. The controversial interrogation scene involves the General forcing a naked Natasha to drink cognac and sexually assaulting her with the same bottle, in pursuit of ‘national security’! While I’m aware that these things might have happened in other parts of the world as well, the banal manner in which the General goes about his business shocks us, with the sobering thought that extreme misogyny is still widely prevalent today.