Vladimir Putin's Russia is a complex place. Spanning 16 regions and across eight time zones, Russia is a country of dichotomy. It's at once home to multi-billionaire oligarchs (whose wealth has been accumulated only since the fall of communism) and secret tribes practicing their own laws based on religious sectarianism. It was only in August that an Islamist sect of over 70 people, including 27 children, was discovered having been living in an underground catacomb for over a decade. Russia, as a country, is definable only by its contradictions. It's a nation of massive cultural, economic, ethnic, political, and religious disparities—a modern-day feudalist state built of communities that are small, insular, and proud.
A pre-title card to Andrey Gryazev's Tomorrow states that the events that follow may or may not have actually occurred in reality. Such an inherent and overt contradiction undermines the documentary's claims to factual accuracy. Gryazev captures the intensely personal lives of his anarcho-libertarian subjects as they roam the streets of Moscow shoplifting, gleaning from trashcans, and attempting to overturn parked cars. This small group of civic revolutionaries reject money, ownership of property, the established governmental regime, and the hypocrisies of law enforcement. Co-founders and de facto leaders Oleg and Koza call their son Kasper "Russia's youngest political prisoner."
When Kasper's ball is kicked under a police car late one night, the group flips the vehicle onto its roof, and on their first successful attempt. Through footage of the resulting news coverage we learn that Oleg is Oleg Vorotnikov, a.k.a. Vor (thief), and that Koza is Natalia Sokol, a.k.a. Kozlenok (goat). Their group of radicals is Voina (Russian for "war"). They use what they see as the extreme political situation in Russia to create extreme political public actions, but Gryazev omits the fact that Voina is one of the world's most notorious guerrilla art terrorists and self-confessed nemeses of the Russian state.
Oleg and Koza have lived for over 13 years without money, documents, or a settled home. They describe their lives as the "unwhored path." In 2008, Voina protested inside the State Biological Museum in Moscow, staging an orgy under the banner "Fuck for the heir Puppy Bear!" (in Russian, a reference to the then-incumbent President Dmitry Medvedev). Subsequent actions included "Casually launching cats at McDonald's workers" (the title is self-explanatory) and "How to snatch a chicken, or how one Cunt fed the whole of the group Voina," in which group member Natalia furtively liberated a frozen chicken from a supermarket. Voina can perhaps be best described knowing that three former members defected to form a splinter group: Pussy Riot.
Tomorrow reportedly cost less than $2,000 to make, and in return for unparalleled access to the group, Gryazev had to become a member. Gryazev's handheld HD camcorder is quiet and unobtrusive; the only acknowledgement to his presence occurs in a brief moment during the opening sequence—presumably retained and subtitled in order to anchor the audience's viewing expectations. After a successful premiere at this year's Berlinale, and an equally successful follow-up screening at the Moscow Film Festival, the group filed a lawsuit against Gryazev claiming that the film was unauthorised, that the footage was stolen and subsequently falsified. Understandably, Voina resists commercial exploitation of their work, though the director's rights were upheld. Gryazev is philosophical about his subsequent treatment by Voina, saying, "I did not completely understand who these people really are. The main thing about them is that they're always against everything, this is their fundamental principle."
Where the state of contemporary documentary is still feeling the effects of personality-led, agenda-based filmmaking, Gryazev's soft, observational approach tends toward the Direct Cinema of D.A. Pennebaker, Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, and Albert and David Maysles. The intimacy with which Gryazev is taken into the group reveals their empathy, and the combined respect and attention that they hold for one another is evidenced through their care of Kasper, who acts as a prism through which we maintain a familial contact with the group. Crucially, Voina's controversial public profile is never revealed to the audience. Furthermore, the group's members remain entirely identifiable throughout. There's no indication of their disapproval of Gryazev's filming, perhaps because it would distance us from Voina's cause, however just; we can only presume that the director is truly sympathetic, and that it's out of deference to them that he includes the proviso that introduces the film.
The cultural and political landscape that the group exploits in order to engage in aggressive and inflammatory protests is further muddied by governmental bureaucracy in the thralls of economic expansion, overtly authoritarian methods of law enforcement and international media interference. In such unstable conditions, Tomorrow provides a different point of view. Gryazev's intimate approach only allows viewers access to one side of the story, but it's presented with pin-sharp clarity and is utterly humanizing. Kasper's present is a volatile place, his tomorrow—one way or another—belongs to him.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from October 10—21. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.