An unnamed mining town, deep into Northern Russia, inside the Polar Circle near Murmansk. Most of the men have worked down the pit at some time or other, and they have the ill health to show it. Just about each of them has a garage – the Siberian equivalent of a shed or an allotment – somewhere to retreat to, either alone or with a group of (usually male) mates.
Each garage looks roughly the same from the outside, and yet they are put to quite different uses. There’s the one used for band practise, the one in which 3 people lift weights, each looking in a different direction. There’s the one owned by the atheist carpenter who makes icons and negotiates with the local priest who doesn’t want to pay for his order. And there’s the one containing a man on his own, speaking hopefully into his shortwave radio.
For 73-year old Viktor, expanding his garage has been a lifetime project. As there’s nowhere to go but down, he’s spent his life digging deeper and deeper. Friends know him as “mole”, and now his garage has five storeys. The film opens with Viktor taking his grandson through the subterranean rooms which he is just about to bequeath.
Occasionally we are allowed to venture outside. An early scene has a couple of hapless men trying to negotiate a tow truck and an engineless bus through the town’s winding roads. You have the feeling that this is going to end in tears, but mainly we watch them trying the same manoeuvre over and over again. Like many of the stories we see, it’s always the hope that dies last.
Later we visit the one restaurant in town, where they play music and sad couples hold onto each other in a desperate dance. You’ll probably have your own reaction, but it reminded me of both the video for Pulp’s Disco 2000 and the working men’s club in Educating Rita, where all the forced jollity made Rita desperate for something else – anything else.
Garagenvolk has 1,000 stories to tell – most of them sad. The Death Metal band that we see practising don’t play any more, as most of them have now left town. Other people talk about leaving – to St Petersburg, to Prague, to the Bahamas – but while they are making other plans, they stay put. The furthest away from home that many get is to their garage.
It helps that the landscapes that we see – some with the roofs covered in deep snow, others in high Summer – are often achingly beautiful. I’m not sure how much of the lighting is natural, and how much has been set up by the camera crew, but many of the scenes look like oil paintings – particularly those that show several garages next to each other, each with an open door behind which someone is doing something quite different to their neighbours.
Garagenvolk shows a series of vignettes, snapshots of ordinary life. For some reason that I can’t quite articulate, it reminded me of Jim Cartwright’s play, “Road” – about the quiet desperation of working class lives: sad, desperate glimpses of people who haven’t given up quite yet, but look like they could be on the verge. And yet at no time do you have the feeling that director Natalija Yefimkina feels superior to the people she is filming.
The manner in which these stories are relayed could have been very patronising, but Yefimkina does not judge. Instead she keeps a respectful distance as she non-intrusively silently watches each of her protagonists living their lives, and gives them the opportunity to speak, to drink vodka, to fight, or to sit quietly in their shed with their various hobbies.
A repeated image is a portrait of Vladimir Putin, gazing down from within several of the garages. One man says to his portrait “you’re just sitting there, always watching. And you never smile. Always serious. You add some class to our garage.” It is hard to tell whether he is being ironic. But for better or worse, this is the story of Putin’s Russia.
Garagenvolk ends in tragedy – in a death and a beautiful graveyard, another rare chance to experience air and natural light. In a nearly final scene, a man outside the garages tries to fly a drone. It rises, and then falls to the ground, unable to keep hold of its motor. This serves as another metaphor for what we have been watching in the past 90 minutes.
You probably have to be in the right sort of mood to appreciate Garagenvolk. There are no exciting car chases – no obvious structure. The scenes that we see could have been shown in a quite different order without affecting our understanding. Yet if you are prepared to go with it, and just sit back and enjoy what you’re watching, this is a highly rewarding film.