Making the political personal seems to be one of the running themes of this year's New Directors/New Films and, Robin Hessman's wondrously thought-provoking My Perestroika—literal translation "My Restructuring"—truly brings that concept home. Like a Russian version of Michael Apted's 42 Up, Hessman's doc, which begins and ends with the national rite of the first day of school, observes the lives of five everyman classmates through the juxtaposition of their Soviet childhood home movies (i.e. unofficial history) and old communist documentary footage (the official history) and present-day interviews. As an American expat who spent a good part of the turbulent '90s living as an outsider in Leningrad and Moscow, tightrope-walking between cultures during the Cold War's thaw, Hessman possesses an East-West street cred that pays off in spades with her honestly reflective and unselfconscious subjects. A Glasnost-worthy openness shines through every face.
And the faces are a philosophically diverse bunch indeed. The stars, and symbolic touchstone, of the film are a happily married couple Borya and Lyuba, former political activists and now history teachers both. Then there's their still idealistic friend Ruslan, a onetime punk rocker-turned-banjo-playing metro busker. At other points on the spectrum are apolitical Olga, a single working-class mom, and Andrei, a wealthy businessman who took advantage of capitalism's rise to open a chain of high-end men's shirts stores. Andrei also embodies the many circular contradictions of post-Soviet Russia, lamenting that all his countrymen now care about is food and vodka and that conformity is inherent in the Russian mindset. This before Hessman cuts to a closed-door meeting in which we hear Andrei attempting to institute a dress code for his employees—to which an underling reminds him that dress codes won't work in Russia.
But even as the country has gone from communist conformity to capitalist conformity in its own unique way, the USSR's parallel history to that of the U.S. makes My Perestroika thrilling viewing for those who grew up in the '70s and '80s on this side of the Iron Curtain. Borya insightfully discusses freedom bringing with it a loss of idealism—no values to fight for anymore—but also acknowledges the "romantic opposition to the system" he had as a rebellious youngster. His defiantly wearing shirts reading "U.S.A." as a teenager is no different from those Reagan-era American punks proudly sporting T-shirts with hammer-and-sickle signs. Hot emotions trump Cold War politics every time.
Which is also why the charming doc's clear-eyed nostalgic approach to the dissolution of an empire works so well. Hessman understands that an appeal to nationalism is really an affair of the heart. Lyuba laughs with embarrassment as she recalls feeling compelled to stand for the national anthem in front of her TV set at home as a kid, of experiencing an inexplicably deep emotional connection. This heartfelt memory is every bit as crucial to comprehending Soviet mind control as anything found in a textbook. The subjects may now make fun of their naïve upbringing, but it's a joke heard round the world. Here in America, 9/11 and the financial meltdown exposed our own capitalist façade. That we're beginning to awaken to the hard truth and limits of our form of government like Russia awoke from its own communist utopian fantasy in the '90s makes Hessman's film timely as well.
Of course, this isn't to dismiss our equally important differences. It's hard to imagine Western kids coming up with the equivalent of the strange "funeral of Brezhnev" game that was played in the wake of the revered leader's death (yup, Hessman's got the home movies to prove it) or the Soviet habit of broadcasting "Swan Lake" whenever a historic event occurred, which is how Ruslan remembers being alerted to the Russian tanks rolling in during the failed coup of '91. Indeed, the specificity of My Perestroika—from its upbeat score consisting of everything from traditional tunes to Russian hardcore, to its footage of the "mass healings" that sprung up after communism's fairytales were exposed—is what makes the film so riveting. As does Hessman's choice of not matching image to voiceover like when Borya expounds on his country's uncertain future while the camera lingers on his young son innocently playing at the family's dacha. Earlier on voting day Borya had sarcastically suggested, "Let's go vote for the American president." To which Lyuba replied, "No one is asking us." "Well, no one is asking us here either," her husband then reminded her. It seems that in Putin's Russia these wry history teachers and their comrades are still waiting for the truth to set them free.