Compassion and Hope Amidst a Mass of Dead Trees – “White Sky” at EMPAC (10/08/2009)
Tonight I had the pleasure to view “White Sky” at RPI’s Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) and have a brief discussion with one of its filmmakers, Susanna Helke.
The film presented the daily actions, routines, and interactions of a family unit residing in the nickel mining town of Monchegorsk, located on the Kola peninsula in the North. The town’s chief industry has had the unintended consequence of destroying any and all plantlife in and around the city, despite shallow efforts to minimize the cloud of white dust that settles on the town as a result of production.
The film, however, is not a call for change nor does it touch too much on the environmental impact of industry beyond the motif of extended shots of dead tangled roots and barren streets. Rather, it’s about emotional interactions and relationships of a three-person family unit: Natasha, devoted mother; Katja, the wide-eyed daughter; and Igor, devoted husband and step-father.
Before you throw the film on your Netflix Queue (I’m being facetious – you won’t find it there), it needs to be said that the film is a chore to sit through. Though chronological in nature, there’s no compelling story arc that drags the audience into the film. Viewing the film is a chore and a task, though that seems purely by design rather than through any neglect on the part of the filmmaker.
Making it through the roughly forty to fifty minutes of the film is an exercise in patience and observation. The family is, as the filmmaker herself stated after the film was completed, “very Russian.” They’re restrained and stiff in their actions and expressions, and their demeanor and phrasing at times matches the bleak and color-less landscape they occupy.
To me, the most fascinating aspect of the film was its ability to capture moments of unique joy and open sentiment amongst the family members. Whereas we as Americans have been trained by displays of unabashed melodrama and reality television to accentuate and exaggerate emotions and movements for the camera, the family unit in the film had no such exposure or expectation of such behavior. Its beauty was in its authenticity; we begin the film with Igor being painfully aware of the camera and meticulously re-enacting the motions of his morning routine at work of prepping his oxygen reserves and gas mask for a day at the mine, and by the end of the film this same man who his own wife described as being averse to open displays of affection was expressing undying love and gratitude for his wife…all with a three-person film crew three to four feet in front of them.
The film is not without its faults. Ms. Helke herself openly admits that the prolonged shots of dead tangled roots interspersed with familial interactions was overdone a bit. However its value does not lie in its value as a standalone film, but as an exercise in attaining truth in small, brief moments through a a combination of re-enactments and passive observation.
The film was part of EMPAC’s “Unfiction” series of avant garde documentary films that attempt to convey truth through inventive and imaginative means that go beyond simple passive observation. More information on the series, as well as other events, can be found at EMPAC’s website.