Every now and then one sees a biographical film that not a lot of people know a lot about, but grow to understand after the film’s end. Dovlatov is the Russian film of the Soviet-American writer Sergei Dovlatov.
It is November 1, 1971. Leningrad resident Sergei Dovlatov has a talent and a yearning to write, but the Soviet government won’t accept his writings. His writings are very truthful to what is happening, but the Soviet government wants writings that glorify the nation, especially the Soviet regime of the time, and champion factory workers. With Leonid Brezhnev in power, the pressure is even harder as writers of such are either censored or unemployed. Dovlatov is denied membership into a Writers Guild and can’t get any of his poems or stories published. Dovlatov is reduced to pounding out articles for a factory magazine like many of his peers. Dovlatov is expected to help contribute to a film from the factory where workers dressed up as legendary writers commemorate Soviet achievements on the eve of the Revolution. Dovlatov can’t take that seriously and his superiors aren’t happy.
His married life is a frustration. He is on the verge of divorcing his wife Lena and he’s currently living with his supportive mother. He is allowed to see his daughter Katya. Dovlatov does find a break from it all. Each day he meets up with many other literary comrades going through similar struggles in this Communist regime. They listen to jazz, play music and tell stories of their frustrations.
Dovlatov’s life during this six-day period seems like a daily ritual. He begins the day with assignments he finds uncomfortable, tries to make the necessary connections to get his Guild status, and ends his day in a literary and artistic salon with colleagues of his own.
However there are two incidents that shake Dovlatov up. The first is when he’s sent to do a celebratory article of subway builder and poet Anton Kuznetsov. They meet in a subway dig with the intention of doing a ‘pure and prose’ article, but both are shocked to have discovered skeletons of children from a World War II bombing. The second is when he meets with a friend who’s a Black Market dealer. Often throughout the film, Dovlatov talks of looking for a German doll for his daughter. He talks with the man, but the police crack down on him and shoot him dead. The film ends after those six days.
I’ve seen a lot of biographic films. I’ve seen a lot of biographies that are frequently from birth to death. There are even some that focus on the period of a person’s life where they emerge into their greatness. They could be a short period of time but most end up being a long period of time. There have often been a lot of films that focus on that one moment in a famous person’s career that either makes or breaks them, like the Emancipation Proclamation in Lincoln or the writing of In Cold Blood in Capote. It’s even possible to use a week’s period of time that could be when this famous person chances leading into the future path of greatness.
Here in Dovlatov, the focus is on six days. Usually a film maker would pick out a six-day period that could be what changed Dovlatov. Instead the film focuses on a six-day period that could be any six-day period in Dovlatov’s life before he finally defected to the United States in 1978. I think what the focus of the film maker was intended to be was to focus what it was like for Dovlatov to live in Soviet Leningrad. The filmmaker’s intention is to have Dovlatov’s feelings and mindset resemble his works of writing. We shouldn’t forget that soon after the death of the USSR, writers that defected or writers that talk of past-Soviet life became writers of high fixation. Dovlatov may have died in 1990 at the age of 48, but his writing became hugely admired in Russia.
The film doesn’t just show life in Soviet Russia at the time, but gives the viewer a good feel of it. It seems slow at first, but it is very telling. It’s about a writer seeking renown or simple publication, but won’t get credentials because he won’t conform to the writing style the Soviet government demands. During his life, he sees the troubles and the weariness of people in Soviet Leningrad. We should also remember that Leningrad was the name of St. Petersburg during the days of the USSR. What he sees is ugly and hard. Even his own personal life is a frustration. He may get a break when he’s at the parties with his artistic colleagues, but it’s only temporary. The next day, he has to go back to doing what the government wants him to do. One can see the frustration he goes through. One could even understand how trying to get a German doll for his daughter isn’t really something simple and may actually be valuable for this film.
This is the latest film from Russian director Alexei German Jr. German Jr. has had racclaim for his films in the past like 2005’s Garpastum which was nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, 2008’s Paper Soldier which won the Silver Lion in Venice and 2015’s Under Electric Clouds. In this film he directed and co-wrote the script with Yuliya Tupikina, he delivers a piece that’s less of a film with a beginning, middle and end and more of a film that’s a portrait of a famed writer. It’s interesting they casted a Serbian actor, Milan Maric, to play Dovlatov. Maric has a reputation as a stage actor and this is Maric’s first film role. Maric does a very good job getting into the heart and soul of Dovlatov and he plays the part very well.
Dovlatov may not make sense to most people who see it at first. For those that are into writers and into the writing of Sergei Dovlatov, it’s a good look into the inside of the man and what made his writing.
What can I say? Illnesses have a lot to do with why I’ve been late in publishing my blogs from the VIFF. However things have been getting better lately. So I can come back at it.
One thing I like about going to the VIFF is I get the chance to see films that are ‘off the beaten path.’ One of which was the Portuguese film Djon Africa which was a good story to watch.
The film begins with a 25 year-old Portuguese man names Miguel. He works construction during the day and is musician Djon Africa by night. He is a bit of a slacker. He was raised by his grandmother and has family roots in the African island of Cape Verde. However he doesn’t feel at home in Portugal. He’s asked about his father and his grandmother often says ‘a bit of a player and a scoundrel.’ One day he goes clothes shopping with his girlfriend and a storeowner suspects him of shoplifting. Racism?
One day he comes across a good amount of money. He makes the decision to travel to Cape Verde in search of his father. The problem is he has nothing to go with. He doesn’t know what his father’s name is, which town he lives in or who his family is, other than a sister who lives in the capital city of Praia. Nevertheless he is determined. During the flight, Miguel already begins envisioning the Cape Verde he knows nothing about by dreaming of the stewardesses dancing in the aisle.
Then Miguel arrives in Praia, the capital city of Cape Verde. Even as he gets off the plane, he notices how more picturesque Cape Verde is in comparison the Lisbon. The first place he goes to do his search is visit his aunt. Unfortunately he hears the bad news from family in mournful prayer that his aunt has been deceased for a year. He learns the aunt has family in Taffaral, but when he gets there, he learns he’s possibly in the wrong Taffaral; Cape Verde has two Taffarals. To make the search more frustrating, Miguel loses a lot of his belongings after a night of getting intoxicated on Cape Verde’s firewater liquor grogue.
During that time of island-hopping from place to place, he comes across the natives in various ways. He comes across a lot of younger girls who have taken aback with his dreads and even call him ‘Bob Marley.’ He comes across a goat-herder Maria Antonia who impulsively gets him to work her land. He agrees. One can sense that Miguel is losing focus in his search for his father and has started falling in love with the country he never knew. Then he gets a phone call from Portugal. It’s his girlfriend back in Lisbon telling him she’s pregnant. The film ends with one final image of Miguel walking the street.
It’s a common story to see sons search for their father. We see it time and time again. However this does have its own way of telling the story. The biggest ingredient is the land of Cape Verde and the people themselves. The people that Miguel come across, the places that he visits, they make for Miguel’s time here and are key to changing him as a person. It’s even people like the farmer who teach Miguel to be responsible. The meeting face-to-face with his father doesn’t happen, but I believe it was the intention of the film to be a lot more than that.
One thing about the film is that it gives a lot of charming images of Cape Verde: of the people, of daily life, of the geography. All of which play a role as it is part of Miguel’s experience in Cape Verde as he tries to find his father. During the time he learns a lot about where his father comes from even though he hasn’t met him face to face. Miguel even learns more about himself.
SPOILER WARNING: DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW THE ENDING: The ending where you see Miguel walking down the street will get you wondering. Especially since it’s after his girlfriend calls Miguel to let his know she’s pregnant. Sure, we simply see Miguel walking down the street, but it does get you wondering. Will Miguel be like his father that he decides to stay in Cape Verde? Miguel has sure come to embrace the island. Also that image where Miguel walks down and an older man in dreads looks back: possibly his father. It may give you the idea that the two may meet someday soon. Maybe it’s best that the movie end there, with the two not meeting and with it being unclear Miguel will return to Portugal for his girlfriend. They say film should leave people asking questions instead of getting answers.
Top notes go to directors Joao Miller Guerra and Filipa Reis. The personal couple are most experienced in making documentaries and short films. Here you can sense that the story is told documentary-style as Miguel learns something new every day and grows as a person. Also worth admiring is the performance of Miguel Moreira. He doesn’t do any over-the-top drama in his acting. His acting is all about growing inside as a person, and we see that in the film. Also deserving high recommendation is cinematographer Vasco Viana. The images of the geography of the land and the people are very key in this personal story of Miguel. Vasco delivers excellent images that help make the story.
Djon Africa may come across as a boring film at first, but it’s a story about personal growth. You have to see it to understand it, as well as understand the ending.