- Alexander Abaturov’s third documentary feature portrays a human tragedy in the Siberian taiga with the urgency of a disaster movie
Having been premiered at IDFA and currently showing at Docaviv as part of the International Competition, the frighteningly spectacular documentary Paradise [+see also:
film profile] encompasses the ecstasy and agony of the North Siberian landscape in a plot that follows an uneven human struggle against forest fires. Beneath a stunning close-up portrayal of a natural disaster lurks a narrative that openly discredits the Russian state: federal law considers remote or scarcely populated areas “control zones” where the authorities are not obliged to fight wildfires if the cost of extinguishing them exceeds the estimated damage. Over 80% of Yakutia, where Paradise was shot, is a control zone, and therefore its predominantly indigenous inhabitants are practically abandoned by the state and left to God’s mercy.
As a native Russian, born in the largest Siberian city of Novosibirsk, but living in France, filmmaker Alexander Abaturov has been restlessly criticising Putin’s regime since his first film, Sleeping Souls (2013), which revealed the mechanisms at work behind local elections, and subsequently in The Son [+see also:
film profile] (2018), featuring the inconsolable family of a young soldier killed during a special mission to Dagestan. First and foremost, Paradise is focused on concrete situations and destinies while the political context provided at the beginning through written text is an implied background narrative that piques curiosity for further investigation after the end credits.
Frames taking in vast territories, accompanied by cosmic music that recalls Eduard Artemyev’s famous score for Andrei Konchalovsky’s Siberiade, lend the film its sensitive texture, and suggest a sense of spaciousness and solitude. The people of Shologon village appear all the more lonely when they discover the fire burning on the outskirts near their vulnerable wooden homesteads. Despite numerous phone calls, help will not be coming from anywhere. If the fire reaches the lake, it will become a threat to the village, and everybody will have to flee with their most valuable belongings. Anxiety has permeated the air and, paradoxically, the shots of children playing and women singing add to this feeling, because one has the sensation of already grieving for these scenes that may well disappear forever when the inevitable disaster arrives. The majority of the screen time is occupied by close observations of preparations and almost hopeless, self-organised actions to fight back against the fire. The denouement is ambiguously open and unclear, despite the concrete and horrendous statistics about blazes that reached the North Pole in 2021 for the first time in history.
By combining his journalistic experience with deft filmmaking skills, Abaturov builds a dynamic story bristling with tension and suspense out of an extinction chronicle – obviously, the self-protective strategy of these defenceless communities on the periphery of civilisation cannot go on indefinitely. The truthfulness of the footage is indisputable; however, the dramaturgical order in which the “living material” has been organised is perhaps overly calculated in order to evoke specific emotions. And while it does succeed in holding the viewer’s attention and keeping them invested emotionally until the last minute, the well-intentioned spectacle element does take away a certain sense of authenticity.
Paradise was produced by French outfit Petit à Petit Production, and co-produced by Siberiade (France), Intermezzo Films (Switzerland) and ARTE France, while the international sales are handled by The Party Film Sales.
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