27 October 2010

My Joy: a powerful cinematic exploration of post-Soviet traumatic memory

Traumatic memory is central to the latest film by Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa, My Joy (Schast'e moe). The film tells the darkly picaresque story of a flour deliveryman who, on a journey through rural Russia, encounters petty corruption, theft and violence. While clues such as the uniforms of the militia indicate that the film is set in Russia, it could take place almost anywhere in the rural, post-Soviet sphere. On his own website Loznitsa suggests that this is important to the film, saying ‘it is connected with the degradation and dying out of the space that speaks in the language of Platonov’s The Foundation Pit’. The local, rural dialects that form one aspect of Platonov’s language, and the culture they represent, are certainly strongly present in the film, although deeper affinities can also be found in its narrative ambiguity, journey structure and Dostoevsky-like examination of human baseness, cruelty and morality. What is most striking about the film, however, is its attitude to the past, or more specifically, how past traumas persist in the present.

The film opens in a light, almost humorous mood, but gradually descends into something altogether darker and more disturbing, as the petty incidences of violence begin to increase in seriousness. The main narrative is interspersed with flashbacks to World War II that relate to the backgrounds of several of the characters. It gradually becomes clear that the film is drawing a parallel between the random violence and brutal struggle for survival of the war and the ills of present day post-Soviet society, in which Darwinian laws seem to apply in a savage and primitive way, and in which any sense of morality is lost. Thus one of a gang of opportunistic petty thieves has been mute since his father was brutally murdered by Soviet soldiers in his own home; similarly an old man recounts how he murdered a Red Army officer who had stolen presents that he had looted from Berlin for his fiancée; the same man is later willing to pose as a relative of a dead officer and sign for his body in order to steal his coat. In another sequence, an old man dressed in a ragged uniform and Soviet medals stumbles along a country road muttering and laughing as he recounts piling bodies into a mass grave. His response to being asked for directions is to strike out viciously with his stick.

This intertwining of the past and the present makes the explicit suggestion that the memories of the extreme violence of the twentieth century are still strong in post-Soviet psyche and society. On more than one occasion, a character makes a statement along the lines of ‘all sorts of things happened here, but no-one talks about them’. My Joy attempts to do this talking. The resultant portrait of contemporary post-Soviet society is grim and unforgiving, and leaves little hope for redemption – even the likeable main character turns into a mute murderer at the film’s bloody close, unable to express himself other than through brutality. The transformation of the film's main character makes a powerful statement about the endemic nature of violence and lack of morality in post-trauma societies. The only reservation that could be made, perhaps, is that the film neglects a basic recognition of the poverty and difficult living conditions that also lie underneath the violence and corruption that are shown. Nevertheless, despite this skating over of some of the socio-economic nuances of the society it explores, My Joy remains a powerful examination of how traumatic memories live and fester in the societies that bear them.

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