On the surface, this may seem like a standard arthouse movie about 1950s Soviet life. As it is, this small but intense story of two canteen workers in a secret Soviet research institute is hard to look away from but, when you learn more about the DAU project, it becomes remarkable.
DAU is Europe’s largest film set, constructed in the Ukraine and representing a Soviet-era research town from the 30s to the 60s. For two years it was populated with tens of thousands of non-professional actors, who lived and worked in character around the clock. Cameras followed individuals around, capturing their unscripted interactions and, from this, over 700 hours of film footage has been produced. So far, 14 films have been released, with more to come, and Natasha is one of them.
The story that we watch centres around Natasha (Natalia Berezhnaya) and her younger coworker Olga (Olga Shkabarnya). They run a canteen that is regularly visited by scientists, including French physicist Luc (Luc Bigé). The women flirt with the men, spar with each other and drink a lot. At a late night party at Olga’s house, Natasha sleeps with Luc, who is gentle and kind, but yearns for Blinov (Alexei Blinov), who she says is more demanding.
The film is in no hurry to tell its story and we spend a lot of time with Natasha and Olga as they fight over who is going to mop the floor, and we are up close and personal for Natasha and Luc’s sex scene, which is not simulated. The tension comes in the third act when Natasha is invited to speak with Vladimir Azhippo, a man of power in the KGB (that’s his actual name and he really was an ex-KGB agent). Neither Natasha nor we viewers know where this is going and the threat is palpable. It includes a scene of sexual violence (apparently simulated) that I couldn’t watch.
Berezhnaya is remarkable, particularly for a non-professional actor. She is the focus of nearly every scene and carries us with her from the highs of her encounter with Luc to the lows of her crushing isolation and powerlessness. There is an extended scene where she breaks down and it’s hard to believe it was un-directed or scripted. Shkabarnya is also excellent, walking a fine line between likeable and frustratingly belligerent, a perfect foil for Natasha’s neuroses.
There have been allegations of abusive treatment of performers and Ilya Khrzhanovskiy, who co-directed Natasha with Jekaterina Oertel, has admitted that performers were pushed to their limits in order to provoke drama and authenticity. He believes that every person who signed up to the project did so because they wanted to experience an extreme situation.
Albina Kovalyova, a documentary director and producer who said she had been a casting assistant for the project, wondered whether Khrzhanovsky, by developing such a precise model of Soviet totalitarianism to condemn it, “may have become a despot himself and overseen behaviour that crossed the line from fictional abuse to the real thing.”Isaac Stanley-Becker, Washington Post, Jan 25 2019
I’m not sure how I feel about that. It seems too uncomfortably similar to the many other reports of abusive male directors, feeling entitled to do whatever they like for the sake of their art. That he feels he can’t be questioned about it raises a red flag and I wonder what freedom the many performers have to speak out, and how playing a character for two years has altered their lives.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.