The collapse of the Soviet Union hit certain Russian cities particularly hard. Having been a producer of Soviet weaponry, the city of Perm saw production halve, life expectancy drop and an estimated 49% of the population descend into a life of poverty and perpetual uncertainty. This led to many children fleeing abusive homes to live on the city’s streets, and it is a group of such youths at which Jake Mobbs and Nicolas Doldinger point their lens towards in their not-for-profit documentary A Russian Fairytale (2011). This affective and emotive work will screen at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios next week (31 Jan) as part of DocHouse Thursdays.
These street kids live in the basement of an abandoned building that they have dubbed Skazka (‘fairytale’) as it is a place where anything is possible. Indeed, this is not an entirely ironic choice as they speak about their home with conflicting sentiments. One minute there can be a romance and freedom in their voices, and the next a resigned sense of despair. One girl, Ksusha breaks hearts when showing the documentarians around their kingdom: “This is our room where we eat, play cards, sniff glue, inject…put make-up on, sleep, hang out!”
Following the course of these teenagers lives over a year or so, there are four central figures that dominate the screen; Irina, Kolya, Denis and the aforementioned Ksusha. They give matter-of-fact appraisals of how they live; freezing cold in the winter, regularly harassed by the police, disease-ridden and perpetually high on fumes. Their plight within A Russian Fairytale is enough to brings tears to the eye and this is exacerbated by watching failed attempts to leave the gang, or give up the drugs.
Each of the four resolve, or actually attempt, to escape Skazka at some point and regrettably the majority do not succeed. When Ksusha later says that she wants to “become an old lady and sit on a bench and gossip,” it is touching affirmation that her aspirations are few. Just to avoid dying young on the street. Despite the threats, shaking their habits either proves too difficult or their will too weak. Unlike the the other three, Koyla in particular seems to have a family whose support he could rely on, but still ends up back on the street bullying others.
A Russian Fairytale is a brilliantly compelling and unwavering piece of filmmaking, quite literally going underground to show people how life really is for these youths. Whether they are there by choice, or are victims of circumstance, matters not. Their fairytale world is always filled with woe, and to see some so young living a life so dire, is incredibly sad. Not an easy watch by any stretch, but a fascinating and moving one.
A Russian Fairytale screens as part of the DocHouse strand at London’s Riverside Studios on 31 January, 2013. For more info, visit dochouse.org.