Broadway, The Black Sea (Vitaly Mansky, 2002)

BroadwayBlackSea

NB.  The Open City Documentary Festival is having a special focus on the documentary maker Vitaly Mansky. It fell to The Scientific Anglian to write programme notes for two of the screenings. Broadway, The Black Sea screens at the Regent Street Cinema in London on Friday, 8th September at 8:15 pm. For tickets go here.

“Carnival is a pageant without footlights and without a division into performers and spectators” said Mikhail Bakhtin. The Russian philosopher had in mind not only a literary genre, but a whole way of approaching the world; non-hierarchical, egalitarian, but unruly. Vitaly Mansky’s Broadway, The Black Sea would embody Bakhtin’s ideas about carnival perfectly were it not for us, the audience, safely seated in the comfort of the Regent Street Cinema. Otherwise, it valorises carnival as powerful creative and communal event, rather than mere licentious spectacle.

In the film, people from the social margins of southern Russia and the countries of the South Caucasus, unable to afford the trappings of an official vacation, gather together to form a makeshift holiday camp, one that is rebuilt and demolished each year, like a Black Sea Burning Man, and which appears out of the mist like a ramshackle Brigadoon. Everyone pitches in; setting up the makeshift funfair games, pinning pornographic posters to the walls, and setting up tents.

Once the camp is set up, the revelry can begin: the Broadwayers spend a few weeks singing, laughing, playing and (emphatically) defecating together. The singing is hoarse but spirited, like the laughter. The playing verges on the dangerous, as mammoth amounts of alcohol are consumed, and holidaymakers ride camels and pose for photos with monkeys.

As for the defecation? Strangely key to the film. The scenes of people squatting together over the latrines somehow manage to sidestep a sinister voyeurism, instead underscoring the community theme and the feeling of equality that Mansky senses at the heart of this makeshift resort, while stressing that life is rarely pretty. Thus, Mansky’s notion of community is sharply defined, not fuzzy or sentimental.

While editing the film, Mansky had in mind the earthy, teeming paintings of Brueghel. As a result, the film is packed with action, incident, and detail. The camera roams manically around the campsite. Young men hurtle round recklessly in a car to a soundtrack of pounding Russian- language rap music. A seemingly drunk man remonstrates with his monkey while other Broadwayers haul carnival props around in the background. A woman gives birth in the sea at night-time. The chaos is relentless yet irresistible.

The end of the film takes pains to show that after the chaotic revelry, life returns to normal, as a deluge lashes what remains of the half-dismantled shanty town. Observant viewers will notice a similarity to the end of Mansky’s later film Patria O Muerte. Finally, over a setting sun, an intertitle informs us that the process will begin again next summer.

When Mansky brought the film to London in 2010, he told the audience that he hoped that documentary, in Russia as in elsewhere, will be saved by forging a real sense of community, not through voguish social networking trends. Whether this has come to pass in the intervening seven years is up for debate, but Broadway, The Black Sea demonstrates a grass roots community built for the purpose of fun, taking its organisation and execution deeply seriously.

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