“50% of Russia’s budget comes from the oil and gas industry,” asserts the quote – attributed to Vladimir Putin – that opens Russian documentary Pipeline (2013). Director Vitaly Mansky traces the path of the cash cow that is the Urengoy-Pomary-Uzhgirid pipeline, glimpsing the lives encountered en route. The conduit stretches for almost 3,000 miles, providing the gas of western Siberia to the inhabitants of western Europe. Mansky’s doc covers the same distance, its observant lens highlighting the parallels of everyday life that recur along the way. “We hope this gas that’s underneath us will one day warm us as well,” croons a local politician, but his platitudes are cut short by those calling him out as a liar.
If there’s a single cogent political vein running through the disparate proceedings, it is how little of the power and profit coursing beneath their feet these people actually benefit from. The pipeline may not actually be the cause every malady inflicted on these people – though it would appear to be the direct culprit in some instances – but it proves a potent reminder. This is a tour littered with have-nots. Amidst the undeniable anti-capitalist bent, with Pipeline Mansky proves himself equipped with a keen eye for an unobtrusive, ethnographic and economic cinema. Nostalgia for a not-so-distant past made glorious by current woe is shared throughout several of the areas that the film visits, with various individuals either celebrating or solemnly commemorating its painstaking (and costly) construction.
In each geographic region that he traverses, he is able to witness some form of ceremony – from enormous carnivalesque parades to small traditional rites – and further colour his otherwise diverging vignettes. Indeed, the delicious bratwurst being devoured by the revellers in Köln is a stark and apposite juxtaposition to the fish of the Nenet reindeer herders, previously seen rotted by the pipeline. Films of this sort live or die by whether they ultimately find the through-lines that bind the people that they include. Last year’s Sacro GRA (2013) arguably failed to imbue its irregular cast of characters smattered around Rome’s major ringroad with a common ties. On this occasion, the central narrative is poignantly realised as well as richly augmented by light subplots. Festivities, animals, and the quiet mundanity of life filter through everything, whilst Pipeline never takes its eyes from the disparities at its centre. The languid pace and subtlety may mean it’s one for fans of the form primarily, but its worth the investment if the chance arises.