Hot Docs 2018 Review: THE RUSSIAN JOB Makes You Laugh on the Inside
A beautiful, dead-pan absurdist gem, the film is a rare comedy about modern labour in documentary form.
How is this for an elevator pitch: What if Roy Andersson directed Roger & Me?
No pitch is necessary, because a collaboration between a Czech journalist, Petr Horký, and freelance photographer (and regular contributor to the New York Times) Milan Bures, has delivered a beautiful, dead-pan absurdist gem, The Russian Job.
Shot in the gargantuan AvtoVAZ factory in the city of Tolyatti, which is nestled on one of the widest stretches of the Volga River in Russia, everything in this movie is huge. The Lada monument at the front of the factory is the size of a building, and is still dwarfed by blocks upon blocks of factory space. It is a tribute to the size of everything in Russia when the state is involved (see also: China).
There is a recurring static shot of two red lights and a loud-speaker that dominate, like a perched pterodactyl or gargoyle, the endless buildings of the assembly plant, and the town beyond. Horký uses this like a title card to inject the set-up exposition to bring us up to date on the state of Russia's most mocked automobile.
The Lada facility has a surplus of employees and a dearth of production. The State, with all the requisite pomp and circumstance -- parades and rah-rah speeches and the like -- imports Swedish CEO Bo Andersson (no relation to Songs From The Second Floor, You The Living director, Roy, that I am aware of) who is a wunderkind in the private sector, having worked as a ranking executive worked General Motors, SAAB. Prior to his acquisition by AvtoVAZ, he turned around another Russian automaker, the privately run GAZ Group. He is gung ho (see what I did there) and ready to lead the efficient, agile, and lean revolution!
Bringing along his Czech wife as a PR executive, he enters the fray of entrenched 20th century, 'old Russia,' with a 21st century corporate machete, and the results, as documented here, are strange, albeit strangely familiar. The film's tagline is precise and apt, "They wanted a revolution, but nothing should change."
Horký was given access to the numerous recesses and inner workings of the factory, mainly because everyone assumed he was state media, not an independent journalist, the company voluntarily opens doors to some unusual places. Take for instance the Walrus Bathing Club, a company extra-curricular organization that facilitates regular Polar Bear Swims. They are looking for a new snow-blower to clear the path for the barefoot, perhaps slightly overweight, swimmers. The bureaucratic nightmare of getting funding, and the requisite passive-aggressive sniping, for the mythical snow machine is a sublime peak into the priorities and nature of the human spirit.
Or note the pop-cultural hallucination -- ok, capitalist nightmare -- involved in the re-launch of the signature Lada car. Rock music, young blond girls robo-Twerking, and reaction shots of the old-guard executives, as the shiny new economy-car rolls out under bright, social media, lights. Culture shock does not even begin to describe the friction: East meets West, Management vs. Worker, and workaholic culture surrounded by epic sized vacation opportunities. As a viewer you will likely find your sympathies ricocheted across the spectrum of characters; albeit Putin and the State vaguely loom in the background.
As the axe continues to hack away the dead-weight at the company, the inevitable workers strike looms, politics press down on the company, and nationalism rears its head. In the meantime, Bures keeps framing Andersson off center in his executive home with a Bear-pelt off to the side.
Remember how Errol Morris set up his subjects in Gates of Heaven to tell the story as much through framing as through what they were saying? The imagery and the effect here is not so much laugh-out-loud, but a more knowing smile-on-the-inside feeling. That does not diminish how deeply funny The Russian Job manages to be. This is a rare, humorous, take on modern labour movements, and it comes in documentary form. Come for the comedy, stay for the composition.