Dir. Martti Helde
Starring: Laura Peterson, Mirt Preegel, Tarmo Song, Ingrid Isotamm, Einar Hillep
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Those who are not familiar with the refrain "a terrible beauty is born" in William Butler Yeats's immortal poem "Easter, 1916" are best advised to seek it out and hold it dear. Those who are familiar with it need, in these dangerous times, to rediscover it and also hold it dear. Those who see Martti Helde's haunting film In the Crosswind will experience a heartbreakingly evocative piece of cinematic poetry that not only has the potential to bring Yeats's poem to mind, but in and of itself, is a film of uncompromising hope, sadness and horror. It is indeed a clarion call that we must also hold dear.
In 1941, the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were besieged by Russians intent upon ethnic cleansing. Thousands upon thousands of innocent people were rounded up and shipped to Siberian concentration camps. Given that Russia (the "Soviets") had annexed these states by force a year earlier, their goal was to remove all anti-Soviet "elements" from these countries. Russia's experience and intent has never known restraint in such matters. Only a decade earlier they butchered ten million Ukrainians during the mass genocide of ethnic cleansing known as the Holodomor. Given the smaller numbers of Balkan "agitators" than in countries like Ukraine, the Russians chose mass deportation, incarceration and forced labour - a much better deal for Russia than going to the trouble of mass murder.
As Helde's stunning film proves, though, Russia orchestrated a different form of genocide here - one that was both cultural (targeting many intellectuals and artists) and cruel in that it imposed a mass-living-death upon these people. Using the actual diary of one survivor of this outrage, Helde tells the story of Erna (Laura Peterson) who is separated from her husband and forced to live in foul, unsanitary and exploitative conditions with her daughter. Using the moving words from the diary, we experience happier times, inner thoughts and poetic ruminations of our lead character. Conversely, the film, via the same diary entries, recounts the horrendous rounding up and separation of families, the crowded boxcars, the sickness, the starvation and the exploitation/coercion/rape of women ("fuck me and you'll get bread for your child"). These entries are so rich and beautifully written that we get a strong sense of what has precisely been removed from these countries by the dictators intent upon Russifying those are left as well as parachuting in Russian immigrants to take the places of Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians.
Visually, Helde makes the extremely brave decision to render everything in sumptuously photographed images with delicate lighting, astounding compositions, fluid camera moves and bathing it all in black and white - sometimes high contrast, but more often than not, allowing for shades of grey, white and lovely, almost fine-grain detail in the blacks. Making suffering "beautiful" is the ultimate ironic choice, but it goes much further than that - the visual beauty allows us to experience the indomitability of the human spirit and is finally the thing that gives the film its heart, which is in sharp contrast to that spirit decidedly lacking in the Russian oppressors.
Braver still, Helde tells his story using living pictures of the narrative events. Sometimes intimate, at other times sweeping and expansive, the principal actors and background extras are all positioned in still life renderings of the physical actions as the off-camera words and both source and background music carry the internal movements of this piece. Using tableaux to tell a story cinematically is not only indicative of sheer bravery on the part of an artist, but it also serves to capture the participants. There's a notion amongst many cultures that photographs have the power to steal one's soul and metaphorically, the power of this notion is not lost on us as we watch the film about a whole generation that was captured by Russians in order to break their spirit.
The other important element of the film's visually gorgeous qualities brings us back to the poem by W.B. Yeats who wrote about the dichotomy of Irishmen slain by their British oppressors and how this tragedy was indeed the clarion call needed to keep the struggles going at any and all costs. In this sense, Helde's film is indeed reflective of the terrible beauty of the images he has captured.
Furthermore, this film is - as a film - a similar clarion call. One only needs to look at the 20th Century history of Ukraine in relation to its recent history. Russia is under the thumb of a dictator as foul as any of its Czars and the butcher Josef Stalin. Vladimir Putin is determined to restore Russia to its former glory. This time, though, there will be no pretense of a "Soviet" state. His goal is to create a "NovoRussia". Putin is starting with Ukraine, but if it's not stopped, it will not end with Ukraine. Many of the Eastern European countries, including the Baltics, are populated with huge numbers of ethnic Russians. Putin has declared that ALL Russians, no matter what country they live in are Russia's responsibility.
Watching Helde's terrific film, we're not only reminded of Russia's past assaults, but forced to acknowledge the reality that it can happen again.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: **** 4-Stars
In the Crosswind is playing at the Toronto International Film Festival 2014 in the Contemporary World Cinema programme. For tickets, times, dates and venues, be sure to visit the TIFF website HERE.
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