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SHEFFIELD DOC FEST 2020

Review: Please Hold the Line

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- Pavel Cuzuioc’s mostly observational documentary follows cable technicians at work across Ukraine, Romania, Moldova and Bulgaria

Review: Please Hold the Line

The most evocative early image in Please Hold the Line [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
is a thick sea of disused telephone cables, sprawled out beside the entrance to a server farm. They resemble a chaotic, abstract, expressionist sculpture, a neat preview for a film that looks askance at the supposed technological revolution we currently live in. Pavel Cuzuioc’s film is a deadpan, politically engaged work that, like his prior features Secondo Me [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
and Digging for Life, should find further play at festivals that specialise in adventurous documentary. It world-premiered at the online edition of Sheffield Doc/Fest, which commenced last week.

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A multi-stranded road movie of sorts, Please Hold the Line has a deceptively simple premise: its aim is to document nothing more than an assortment of cable repairmen going about their work in their respective territories. But Cuzuioc uses this repetitive structure to make a more abstract point about the role of the mass media in our lives and our reliance on the imperfect hardware through which we access it.

The film begins in the aforementioned server farm in Cricova, Moldavia, elegantly presented in patient master shots that bring to mind Nikolaus Geyrhalter (Cuzuioc was actually the sound recordist on Geyrhalter’s recent film Earth [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Nikolaus Geyrhalter
film profile
]
). For viewers who aren’t familiar with electrical engineering, their effect is very mysterious – these grey, blinking boxes could be the difference between our ignorance and knowledge. Then, the editing jumps to locations in its direct vicinity; we’re introduced to technicians at work on their maintenance jobs in Kyiv, Ukraine, Buzău County in Romania and the seaside resort of Tsavero in Bulgaria.

Cuzuioc is particularly interested in Ghenadie from Moldova and Oleg, stationed in Kyiv. Ghenadie, working for Moldtelecom (Moldova’s national telecom operator), visits a clientele largely composed of elderly people, for whom internet and particularly TV are a necessity if they want to stay in touch with the wider world. These are not digital natives: an old lady at his first home visit assumes that “input” means “in-butt”, as in one’s bottom.

As it tracks Oleg’s work for Ukrtelecom, Ukraine’s monopolistic telephone company, the film fully clarifies its time frame (the spring of 2019) and set of themes. Diegetic audio news reports of the new president Volodymyr Zelensky’s inauguration punctuate the sound mix, as Ukraine’s recent history and the threat of fake news loom large. There’s a picaresque feel: Oleg carries out repairs for an old painter who laments for the promise of true communism (for him represented by anarchist Peter Kropotkin), and for a Russian Orthodox priest who breaks the film’s fourth wall and lectures the camera about the book of Genesis’s prediction of our networked society. “In the beginning was the word,” he reminds us. With these eclectic references, we see Please Hold the Line’s strength as a stealth art film – its observant camera acting like a tuning fork, picking up strange echoes and vibrations.

Like in the features and documentaries of Corneliu Porumboiu, Cuzuioc gets some mileage out of subverting mundane instances of bureaucracy. The rounds of electricians calmly tweaking fuse boxes do represent something larger, although its point may be too subtle to fully register in its compact runtime. Still, Please Hold the Line is an artful look at a part of Europe grasping towards connection, and the unsung workers who help achieve this.

Please Hold the Line was produced by Pavel Cuzuioc under his Pavel Cuzuioc Filmproduktion banner. Additional support comes from the Bundeskanzleramt Österreich. World sales are courtesy of Syndicado.

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