Published by the Alternate Dream
By Juri Rechinsky
Austria | 2012 | 72 min
The word ‘verite,’ signifying a ‘truth’ cinema that relies on raw footage and not interviews or captions, gets thrown around a lot in Hot Docs. Every other director uses it to refer to her or his film or aspects of it as the word has come to represent a certain artistic prestige. The Manor’s Shawney Cohen even said that his film is ‘very verite” (It wasn’t. Read my review of The Manor TK.)
Yet, like all other genres and methods, being verite says nothing about the quality of a film per se. This cult of ‘the rawer, the better’ with an obsession with ‘real stories’ is after an elusive goal, ignoring the fact that all social life is essentially staged, if to varying degrees and for different audiences. But it is films like sickfuckpeople that show how the verite style can be used to create great films and tell great stories.
Rechinsky takes his camera to an abyss, a ‘heart of darkness,’ of drug-addicted street kids in Ukraine. Speaking to the audience before the film began, he stressed that his film is not about drug addicts, street kids or Ukraine but about what humanity is capable of. The film indeed deals with humanity at its rawest form. Rechinsky’s excellent achievement is that we feel totally catapulted into the underworld that is home to these kids. If you just played the opening sequence of the film (which takes place in an underground residence of a few, fucked up and sick street kids) without knowing what it was, you’d most probably think it a fiction film. And that’s a venerable achievement for a verite doc: When you are able to craft a story with raw footage. (As opposed to when the director proudly dangles raw footage in front of the audience, throws up his hands and calls it ‘verite.’)
The film is divided into three episodes with poetic titles that give a theme to each. In the second one, titled ‘Mother,’ one of the boys goes to look for his mother after more than 2 years of not being in touch with her. We are taken to a village where mother used to live and presented with some of the most cinematic scenes in the film, even as some residents swear off the film crew and ask not to be filmed. In the third sequence, titled ‘love,’ the strongest part of the film, we follow a love story in the underworld that ends up in shocking betrayal and crushing of all hopes. The film is shockingly fresh and the characters very human, if not humane, while we are still presented with a well-told story, as opposed to an unconnected series of raw shots.
Sickfuckpeople presents a narrative of absolute despair, absolute loss of any humanity, an absolute lack of any trust in humanity. The director said so as much, before and after the screening. The colloquial title, in its meaninglessness, suggests the same. The only reaction, the film suggests, to this stark reality is to be in disgust not at the conditions but at the humanity itself. In answer to my question about the social conditions of Post-Soviet Ukraine that has made such stories possible, Rechinsky defended his claim earlier that this is a film about ‘human nature’ and has nothing to do with the specific conditions.
Here is when the Marxist critic needs to put his somewhat arrogant hat on and claim that he is able to look to the conditions behind the film and the stories it represents, even if the director himself is not conscious of them. We need to assert that these stories, like any other, are not about human ‘nature’ but the human condition, in specificities of today’s Ukraine. In a simple statement of facts, we can say that such abyss of poverty and helplessness that characters are faced with could simply not exist in Ukraine prior to the catastrophic collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. As the synopsis text of the film itself suggests, it was that historic collapse that led to such chaos in Ukrainian society and all the associated ills that came with it. As such, sickfuckpeople is all great because while it is looking like a poetic requiem on universal themes, outside time and space, still manages to ‘document’ much about the Ukrainian society of today. It is all the more important because it tells the story of part of the post-Soviet world that is often ignored in triumphalist narratives.
Director’s viewpoint, of course, influences the hopeless way in which the story is told. But our task is to look at the hopelessness, of both the characters and the director, and find its source in specific conditions.