London 2015: ‘Something Better to Come’ review


“Doomed to the dump for the rest of our lives. That is our reality.” This statement, spoken by a girl of just 14, may sound portentous but it exemplifies the perpetual suffering of the woebegone subjects of Something Better to Come (2014). Director Hanna Polak tried to give a voice to the disenfranchised children living hand-to-mouth on Moscow’s streets in The Children of Leningradsky (2005) and now she turns her attention on those scratching out an existence on the Svalka, a garbage heap situated just 13 miles from the capital.

Flocks of seagulls may hop across the sprawling mountains of rubbish, but so do flocks of undesirables – forgotten by their country and officially erased by the state. A state that they still seem to carry allegiance to despite their own predicament. From one of the disparate scavenging communities comes Yula, the girl whose dour proclamation is featured above. Returning to her year upon year, Polak crafts a portrait of Yula from the age of 10 to 24 that it is difficult not to liken to a combination of Michael Apted’s Up and Boyhood (2014).

Some people bemoaned the white male protagonist living in relative affluence in Boyhood – Something Better to Come provides the nostalgia-free alternative. When Yula is asked by Polak how she will remember her childhood, she answers matter-of-factly: “With tears. How else?” Polak largely avoids politicising her footage, only infrequently glimpsing towards the outside world as fireworks light up the night sky for a national holiday, people gather around a recycled radio to listen to Vladimir Putin speaking, or someone warning her that she’s “filmed enough”. Instead, the primary focus of the piece is in capturing the authentic humanity – hopeful, angry, foolish, funny and flawed – amidst the uncanny surreality of the situation. The dump buried beneath a crisp wintry white looks almost beautiful in one instance, only for a subsequent shot to show falling snowflakes appearing grey like ash.

The grainy visuals of the older digital footage emphasise the harsh realities of the lives lived on the Svalka – not least when compared to the significantly crisper recent footage. Yula’s life takes turns aplenty during the time Polak has returned to her, with multiple pregnancies and a sojourn with her abusive grandfather whose welcome to his daughter and granddaughter is far from warm. It makes the optimism of the title, taken from a Maxim Gorky quote used at the film’s conclusion, seem an unlikely attitude for most picking their way over the Svalka. “You should hope for the worst, then everything will turn out just fine,” says Yula at one stage. It’s a tragic insight into the despondency that has engulfed so much of her adolescence and remains a heart-breaking problem for so many forgotten souls. That Something Better to Come manages to give its own hopeful conclusion while speaking for them is its most endearing attribute.

The London Film Festival takes place from 7-18 October. For more coverage, follow this link.

Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson