Renowned Ukrainian filmmaker brings Russian corruption to light in My Joy
The award-winning Ukrainian documentary and feature filmmaker, Sergey (Sergei) Loznitsa, made entertainment news in late February when he harshly criticized the European Film Academy (EFA) when the body made what he considered a weak statement on the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. However, when the EFA imposed a ban on Russian films from their awards, Loznitsa disagreed, noting that all film artists should be recognized for their good work.
Ukraine has a history of extraordinary filmmakers, a few of whom lived their lives there and several who were born and partly raised there but left for the U.S. Dziga Vertov was among the most significant documentary and newsreel filmmakers of the silent and early sound era. A Bialystok Jew, he worked in Kiev/Kyiv and the mining area of the Don. Among his most brilliant, yes, even revolutionary, films are The Man with a Movie Camera, Enthusiasm, and Three Songs for Lenin. Maya Deren was born in 1917 in Kyiv but moved to the U.S. when she was five with her family to escape anti-Semitism. She made avant-garde shorts and dance films that still are studied across the world by film students and enthusiasts. She was the first filmmaker to receive a Guggenheim grant and is known as a founder of the independent cinema movement in the U.S. In 1943, she and Alexander Hammid made the forever classic Meshes of the Afternoon.
It's good to look back into history, but in Sergey Loznitsa, we have a modern expert in capturing truth and art on film. Born in Belarus in 1964, educated in Ukraine and Russia, Loznitsa moved from being a scientist to the field of filmmaking during the 1990s. He started making documentaries in 2000 and later also feature films. Some are available for streaming. State Funeral, In the Fog, and The Event can be streamed. His most recent documentary Babi Yar. Context is soon to be released. His most recent fictional feature, Donbass, opened the Cannes Film Festival in 2018, and probably will be available for viewing here.
I screened his first fictional piece called My Joy from 2010 which is available on DVD from Kino Lorber and possibly for streaming. There is no joy in this outstanding drama which was shot in Ukraine. This film is based on a road trip that Loznitsa made through rural Russia, and it is the road trip from hell!
A young truck driver travels into provincial Russia hauling flour and other freight. He encounters one dangerous person after another, plus one old man who is a ruined human being, a soldier in World War II whose life is in shambles. Anyone with a sliver of authority uses it to abuse others. Those without authority respond in fear and obedience. If they don’t, they perish. Most hideous to see is a pacifist teacher, a single parent raising a small boy, who speaks his mind and has his head beaten into an altered state.
Loznitsa uses a technique of long takes, often with a moving camera, sometimes hand-held. My Joy is a form of fiction but has a documentary quality which makes it all the more disturbing. The camera moves along, capturing whatever happens in front of the lens. Nothing is melodramatic. It’s seemingly life as it happens. Life is grim. In the first sequence, a corpse is pushed into a muddy grave. People are beaten, shot, and executed. Goodness is knocked out of people. We don’t spend much time getting to know any particular character in My Joy, but we form a group portrait of criminality for those in command and terror among the populace.
The camera of every filmmaker observes. In the case of Sergey Loznitsa, the camera seems especially clear-eyed.
Audrey Kupferberg is a retired film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her late husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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