Martin Schneider writes:
Last night the IFC Center in New York had a special event for the tremendous new documentary My Perestroika in which director Robin Hessman and the Meyerson family, three of the movie's subjects, fielded questions from the (it turned out) largely Russian-fluent audience.
My Perestroika retrospectively tracks a handful of Moscow elementary school chums from the 1970s to today. Hessman's subjects are, for lack of a better word, "ordinary" Russian citizens, which fact must present a hell of a challenge for a documentarian. These people are noteworthy for not having gaudy and obviously narratizable biographical details: The aforementioned Meyersons today are schoolteachers with a winsome young son. One fellow is a former rock musician, another manages the retail presence of a French shirt designer; one woman makes a living managing the pool tables in an unspecified number of Moscow bars. The day-to-day details of the lives of these people and their uniformly sensible comments about the political upheavals of the past and present form the beating heart of this engrossing and observant movie.
For those who can remember the Cold War as a distant "adult" drama that never yielded much in the way of detail, My Perestroika has a few surprises in store. A key one is that the USSR of the 1970s wasn't such a bad place for middle-class Muscovites to grow up. The struggle against the belligerent, materialist West was a fine cause for idealistic children to sink their teeth into (we see them designing handmade posters for media-ready protests). Halfway through the movie, the viewer is likely to marvel at the seemingly stark differences between the Russia of "closed" 1975 and that of "open" 2006. By the time the movie is over, that take will seem more than a little naïve. Vladimir Putin may have overseen a country with access to the capitalist West and the Internet, but his role ended up being uncomfortably similar to that of Brezhnev or Andropov.
To Hessman's credit, My Perestroika is as interested in the lives of its subjects as the political lessons to be drawn from them, although both elements are important to the movie's power. The people we meet are unremarkable, yet oddly likeable; the viewer never tires of them, I think. If such footage had been widely available to Americans several decades ago, perhaps the Cold War would have been shorter or less scary. The unavoidable irony is that the movie could only have been made and distributed after it was no longer necessary in that way.
My Perestroika's run at the IFC Center has been extended beyond its initial week-long commitment, so do check it out.
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