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View from Vitalia: Of paramedics, families and wars

The moment we take the soul out of technology, or any other major endeavour, we unleash demons that stop us from staying human.

In the now-distant year of 1981, I – a young and aspiring journalist for the satirical page of Moscow’s super-popular Literaturnaya Gazeta (Literary Gazette) weekly - was dispatched to the city of Gorky (formerly and presently Nizhni Novgorod, or simply Nizhni) on the banks of the Volga River.

The assignment, which I had engineered myself, was to spend several days and nights with one of the notoriously overworked and ill-equipped teams of local paramedics – answering calls, helping them carry their equipment and so on... Why did I choose Gorky, an option which would prove hugely erroneous in the end? Only because I had never been to that historical city, the fifth largest in the whole of the USSR, and was curious to see what it was like. As a recent winner of the prestigious ‘Zolotoy Telenok’ (Golden Calf) Award for satirical journalism, I enjoyed a certain freedom of choice. Victor Vesselovsky, our legendary section editor, readily signed my travel papers and wished me a happy journey and a good copy too.

The three nights I went on to spend with one of Gorky’s Skoraya Pomoshch (Ambulance) crews were pure hell. With threadbare and greyish ‘white’ gowns on top of winter coats (it was around minus 20 degrees Celsius), we dashed up and down the littered and unlit flights of stairs inside drab multi-storeyed apartment blocks where lifts never worked. Luckily (for us if not for our patients), the crew’s equipment was limited to a bulky blood-pressure monitor – the size of a first-generation Soviet TV set, an equally heavy box with a basic first-aid kit, and a much less bulky simple stethoscope snaking around the doctor’s neck. I volunteered to act as the blood-pressure monitor carrier, and soon regretted it bitterly due to the sheer heaviness of the bloody box.

We (or rather they – my fellow crew members) made injections, applied bandages to wounds and ointments to bruises, measured blood-pressure (if any), did mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and, yes, occasionally carried out dead bodies too... While my comrades were working on the patients, I would stand aside watching that cornucopia of human suffering...

I did write a lengthy reportage about my truly 'Gorky' ambulance experiences (this word, apart from being the pen-name of the famous 'proletarian’ writer Maxim Gorky after whom the city was re-named, also means ‘bitter’ in Russian). The article never saw the light though, for it was spiked by the duty editor minutes before going to press. The following morning, our section editor was summoned for thrashing down to Chakovsky, a spectacularly talentless writer and the paper’s omnipotent editor-in-chief.

“Have you lost your mind or what?” he shouted at Vesselovsky. “Can you imagine how much noise the Western press would have made over your criticism of the ambulance services in the city where Academician Sakharov lives? They would insinuate that we have deliberately put him away in a place where health care services are so stretched. And he is an old and ailing man, don’t forget!”

Yes, in my curiosity to see the city of Gorky, I totally overlooked the fact that Academician Andrei Sakharov, the prominent Soviet scientist and the country’s leading political dissident, had been exiled there from Moscow several years earlier. And yet, the idea that the devious “Western press” could somehow use my article in their interests was totally insane... 

Recollection of that whole episode from my 35-year-long Soviet existence was triggered by 'Arrhythmia' – a truly extraordinary Russian movie (director: Boris Khlebnikov) which I happened to watch recently on my Amazon Prime video channel. Impressively scripted, expertly directed and perfectly acted, it tells the story of a 2017 (as opposed to 1981)  ambulance crew in a large Russian city. What struck is me is how seemingly little had changed in 35 years: same poverty, same characters, same corruption and even, believe it not, same technology at the crews’ disposal, including bulky blood-pressure monitors and good old stethoscopes!

There was one 2017 addition, I hasten to add: an antediluvian defibrillator! That, of course, signified a certain progress, which, hopefully, meant saved lives, for it was the lack of that very unsophisticated device at the hands of the ambulance crew that led to the death of my father from a heart attack at the age of 56 in 1982. To be fair, it would have been too late even if they had it: the ambulance arrived 45 minutes after my mother’s phone call, despite the fact that their base station was literally across the road from the house where my parents then lived.

I haven’t been back to Russia since my defection from the USSR in 1990,  and therefore had felt naturally curious about all possible changes. Watching 'Arrhythmia' did away with my curiosity as well as with the wish to return by showing that not just the technology, but – more importantly – human mentality remained largely unchanged there since 1981.

This is what a good realistic movie is capable of doing – it can transfer you to different countries, epochs and environments not just as an accidental  visitor or a tourist but as an observer ‘from within’.

I was lucky to have seen several such movies of late – all due to Eureka Entertainment Ltd – film distributors and the home to Masters of Cinema Series, a London-based company specialising in putting long-forgotten cinema classics and new small-budget foreign movies on general release in different cinematic formats, including DVD and Blu-ray. For nearly a year, they have been inviting me to their Soho House screenings, and it was thanks to Eureka that I was able to watch several truly remarkable films with both telekinetic (i.e. transferring in space) and time-travelling effects.

Among them was Yuri Loznitsa’s recent masterpiece ‘Donbass’ set amidst the ongoing hybrid war between Russia and Ukraine over the control of the Donbas (or Donbass) – Ukraine’s major industrial and coal-mining area. Since the start of the conflict in March 2014, two puppet rubber-stamp ‘people’s republics’ – the DNR and the LNR – have been established by the armed gangs of so-called ‘separatists’. The cruel and entirely pointless confrontation has already cut short 14,000 human lives and shows no sign of resolution.

‘Donbass’ is compulsory viewing. Shot in a style that combines Fellini’s neo-realism with pseudo-documentary footage, it never fails to evoke the unrehearsed and frighteningly real war-time atmosphere – the effect much enhanced by the near-absence of professional actors and the proliferation of extras recruited from the long-suffering Donbass population. Significantly, the film portrays neither heroes nor winners. All the characters in its loosely connected 13 stories are victims of sorts, even if many of them are simultaneously the villains.

For someone like myself, watching ‘Donbass’ was almost physically painful. The realities of the area where both the film and the war are set, the landscape, the architecture, the soft southern accent of the residents and, most importantly, the faces – all are familiar and recognisable. It is here, in its extreme authenticity, that some of the film’s critics see its weakest point. "A work of art must be inspirational – not vomit-inducing and scary," they say. Well, that may be true, but it can also inspire hope, for prior to cleaning up, people must face the mess they have themselves created. For that, ‘Donbass’ is an undistorted mirror through which this indescribable mess can be viewed.

The same “indescribable mess”, yet on a smaller family level, is the topic of another movie, premiered recently in the UK by Eureka and now on general release. 'We the Animals' - a debut feature film from the acclaimed documentary-maker Jeremiah Zagar, is a story of a highly dysfunctional half-Puerto-Rican family from rural upstate New York: a young and beleaguered ‘Ma’ (Sheila Vand) working in a local brewery, the abusive bully of semi-unemployed ‘Paps’ (Raul Castillo in a performance described as ‘brutal but not monstrous’ by one reviewer), and three small boys – Manny, Joel and Jonah, all living in a ramshackle and detached shingle house. And whereas ‘Ma’ and ‘Paps’ are trapped in a volatile relationship with endless fights and reconciliations, the nice-looking, yet internally near-feral, boys forcefully tear their way through childhood.

'Yet We the Animals '– a classic and fairly typical coming-of-age story – stands out not just as another snapshot of the all-permeating ‘proletarian’ misery and despair, but as a work of art. This is down to the magnificent acting of all the cast, greatly enhanced by the splendid cinematography (by director of photography Zak Mulligan), blending digital and handheld 16mm-camera footage, often closing in on seemingly small, yet extremely telling details such as Jonah’s childish scribbles, his mother’s blood-stained handkerchief, or a neglected plant pot brimming with Paps’s cigarette butts – a classic case where technology is paramount in creating a powerful and long-lasting artistic impression…

Speaking about technology, I’d like to mention Eureka’s recent 4K digital restoration and Blu-ray debut of 'Der Golem' – a 1920 silent horror movie by Paul Wegener and Carl Boese set in 16th-century Prague, where, as the legend goes, Rabbi Loew created an anthropomorphic clay being, called Golem, the people’s protector, who could be brought to life by inserting a ‘shtem’ – a capsule with a magic formula – into the creature’s mouth (or chest, as in the movie). 

Since I first heard that legend, I was fascinated by the Golem story in general and by the ‘shtem’, in particular, for the latter struck me as an equivalent of a modern-day electronic card-key, or, at the very least, of a very small pianola roll.

The Golem had of course to be ‘de-activated’ on Friday evenings, for no one, not even a mythical humanoid, was supposed to do any work, or perform any functions, on the Sabbath. Once the Rabbi forgot to remove the ‘schtem’ – and disaster struck: the Golem turned against its creator!

This legend, in a way, sums up all the three movies described above: ‘Arrythmia’, ‘Donbas’ and ‘We the Animals’. In a process opposite to that of the Golem’s deactivation, the moment we take a soul out of an endeavour – be it healthcare, politics, family life, or even technology itself - we unleash and bring to life some unspeakable demons who stop us from remaining fully human.  

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