At The Edge of Russia; a fascinating documentary which follows six soldiers stationed in one of Russia’s furthest northern outposts. Set against the brutal winter conditions of the Russian hinterland, the film offers an elusive insight into the isolated community of these men; maintained by rigid routine and fortified by vodka. At The Edge of Russia also delicately exposes on a human level, the ever remaining psychological debris left in the wake of Russia’s fall from power as the men struggle to assert their sense of purpose despite palpable futility. Rooftop’s Sheila Maria Lobo spoke to director Michal Marczak about realising the film and found out what it’s like to live and work at -40 degrees.
Rooftop Films: Describe your film for someone who hasn’t seen it.
Michal Marczak: Oh it’s a very cool documentary.
RF: What first drew you to the subject matter of the film?
MM: The writings of prominent journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski; a vivid and astonishingly observant explorer.
RF: At the Edge of Russia commences with Alexei’s arrival on the base. From that point onward, the audience gains knowledge about the other, older soldiers only through Alexei’s sometimes harsh, sometimes intimate experiences with them. Why did you choose to tell the story through the eyes of a young outsider?
MM: I was looking for dramaturgy in a place where it’s not that abundant, and thought that a young blank slate would be irresistible to patronize; bringing out the other soldiers’ characters.
RF: Living in isolation and in the absence of any real military intervention, one might expect these men to regress into hedonism and chaos. Yet, they maintain strict self-discipline and order, breaking only for the brief song, drink, or cigarette. Over the course of the film, the audience discovers that many of these men have issues with and fears of the society they have left behind. What insights do you think the film provides into modern Russian life?
MM: I think it shows how seriously the nation takes army duty. An integral trait of what we -especially being polish- perceive as ‘Russianness’. I would like to think it’s fading, but it actually seems to fluctuate. About the issues part, I guess most people have them, though obviously not everyone will run off into the tundra, but perhaps everyone should, as it’s undoubtedly cathartic.
RF: Do you think that an experience away from general civilization is a necessary rite of passage for people of today? Or are there any spaces within society through which one can discover life ‘at the edge’?
MM: I think it depends on the person. I’ve met some people with an impressive capacity to retract into themselves even in the loudest points of urban lands. Maybe it’s all about where you are born. If you were raised in the woods maybe build a hut in Times Square and see what it does for you. It may not be pleasant, but it’ll end up being propelling in some way. For me, I’ve been particularly stimulated by jumping between contrasting surroundings. As I said, maybe it’s not ‘your thing’ but it should most definitely be tried.
RF: Social anxieties aside, these men do still physically struggle to survive in a treacherous, uninhabited landscape. This also suggests the struggle of making a film under the same conditions. Can you tell us more about the challenges you faced?
MM: I gained some weight while shooting. At -40 all your body craves is an apparently endless intake of pure fat. Needless to say it’s extremely exhausting. The amount of energy you burn cuts your efficiency in half. After 6 or 7 hours on the outside shooting you come back and can fall asleep while brushing your teeth like a narcoleptic. It hardens you both physically and mentally though. I could easily fight bears these days.
RF: At the end of the film as the older soldiers are about to return home, you emphasize that there are 12 such bases on the frontier. Instead of pending reunions, one is left thinking more about the many soldiers that remain there… alone. What do you hope your audience takes away from At the Edge of Russia?
MM: My whole take on documentaries is individual perception. I try to nudge the audience in a certain direction and avoid definitive statements requiring the viewer to invest in the thought process, hopefully sending him home with something to chew on.
RF: What excites you about screening at Rooftop?
MM: It’s in NY and even when you don’t want it to be a bigger deal than any other festival, the thought of being screened to a NY audience is empowering.
RF: What’s your next project?
MM: I don’t want to give too much away, but it may turn out to be strong in nature. It is much more colorful than ‘At The Edge’ and it involves pornography and tribal people.