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Cinema of Hidden Histories: Leontina Vatamanu’s Siberia in the Bones (2019)

Siberia

By Brandon Konecny.

Moldova has a fascinating recent history, and Leontina Vatamanu is perhaps its most articulate cinematic chronicler. Poke through her films, and you’ll realize that her cinema is one of hidden histories: whether it’s exploring one of Moldova’s most famous modern poets and politicians in Grief of Ion Vatamanu (2007) or covering her home country’s high emigration rate in I am from Moldova, Looking for a Job (2008), her work concerns people whose stories you likely don’t know but, once seen on screen, aren’t easily forgotten. In her new film, Siberia in the Bones (2019), these hidden histories are those of four Moldovans who survived the second wave of Stalin’s deportations. It just fetched the Best Documentary Award at this year’s Gala of the Cinemas, and after watching it, you’ll see why this award was well deserved.

Her topic is a bleak one. In 1940, Josef Stalin, one of history’s most twisted paranoiacs, began forcibly expelling thousands of Moldovans to the remotest parts of Siberia. They were crammed into train cars and given nothing to ensure they’d survive the long journey – no light, no food, no water, no warmth. And many didn’t survive. The reasons for these Moldovans’ deportation were usually baseless and had more to do with their societal status than any actual offense they had committed against the regime. They were intellectuals, businesspeople, respected community members – basically anyone whose only wrong was achieving a measure of success in Moldova before its annexation.

These horrors are a matter of record, of course, with now-declassified facts and figures revealing the frightening extent of Stalinist repression. But one figure perhaps isn’t as well known: among the deportees were 11,889 children. The mere mention of such a number seems to ignite an explosion of questions. What were these children’s names? Were they deported with their families? How could a child survive the harsh Siberian climate in preindustrial Russia? If these children did survive, what effects could such an experience have had on them? What crimes could these children have possibly committed to have justified their deportation? These are the inquiries Vatamanu seeks to answer in her film, and she does so with magnificent success.

This success derives largely from the effectiveness of her style, which has become increasingly refined with each film she’s released. One of her earlier documentaries, The Wired Prut (2011), covers the Moldovan government’s efforts to remove barbed wire fences along the Prut River that separated Moldova from Romania during Stalinist times. But she doesn’t merely document the perfunctory activities of governmental officials as they remove the fencing. Instead, she imbues seemingly banal tasks with poeticism, be it a close up of military personnel applying their tools to the barbed wire, the newer steel jaws of their pliers contrasting with the rusted fencing, or a shot of a village priest observing the ice covering the Prut.

Vatamanu, though, isn’t in the business of only foregrounding visuals at the expense of documenting spoken testimony. Throughout The Wired Prut, she includes interviews with people who’ve lived near the Prut for years, some of whom are old enough to remember the times when the fencing didn’t separate them from their Romanian neighbors across the river. This is fitting, because her task, which she fulfills with terrific intent, is always to emphasize the human element of history. Much like the work of historian Howard Zinn, Vatamanu demonstrates that history, in its most genuine form, is made of common people’s stories, not official pronouncements handed down from governments or party bossmen.

This same fixity of purpose appears in her later film I Love You, Ion and Doina (2014), which centers on Ion and Doina Aldea Teodorovici, two Soviet-era singer-songwriters who played important roles in Moldova’s independence and tragically died in a car accident years later. In addition to the gorgeous cinematography and penetrating interviews that typify her previous work, Vatamanu now adds layered, kinetic images of Ion and Doina to her artistic arsenal. Thanks to Petru Postolachi’s deft handywork, the figures in these photographs appear to glide across their background, not in the way cut-out objects move clunkily around in, say, Harry Smith’s masterpiece Heaven and Earth Magic (1957), but in a way that makes it seem as if Vatamanu exhumed the photographs’ subjects and through cinematic technology, breathed new life into them.

These elements find their greatest expression in Siberia in the Bones. Here, you’ll find the hallmarks of Vatamanu’s style, all of which she coordinates into a well-structured film. It contains four episodes that focus on surviving deportees, each one preceded by footage from her interview with Dr. Zinaida Bolea, a psychologist who discusses the effects these deportations have had on both the survivors and Moldova in general. The interviewed deportees are wonderfully endearing – one, in fact, is Vatamanu’s real-life mother, Elena Curicheru-Vatamanu. But most important, Vatamanu introduces something new here – she supplements these interviews with reenactments, and it’s the inclusion of these reenactments that make Siberia in the Bones her finest hour to date.

To understand why this decision is so notable – and why Siberia in the Bones deserves every syllable of praise it’s received – you need to realize what artistic challenges reenactments present. For one, many documentarians have little to no experience with actors (a lot of documentary filmmakers I know would likely feel out of their depths working with actors, and child actors at that). For another, reenactments have almost ossified into a bona fide cliché, especially in made-for-television historical documentaries and the countless true crime documentaries that unabashedly imitate Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line (1988).

But Vatamanu triumphs in the face of both challenges. She elicits stunning performances from all her actors, many of whom are young children, and creates reenactments that fully immerse us in the sensuous world of these interviewees’ experiences. This second point is worth pausing over. Part of a documentary’s potency derives from the power of human testimony. It’s a power that inspires viewers to empathize with an interviewee’s words, not because viewers saw firsthand what the interviewee described and can confirm its veracity, but because the vividness of the account demands our attention. By enfleshing an interviewee’s recollection with concrete entities and places, though, a filmmaker risks robbing the documentary of that very power, as if to suggest that an interviewee’s words are insufficient on their own or that viewers need live action footage to keep them interested in the film’s subject matter. It’s this very pitfall, in fact, that led film critic Richard Brody to lament that reenactments are “the bane and the curse of the modern documentary film.”

Maybe Mr. Brody should have watched Siberia in the Bones before issuing such a sweeping condemnation. Far from blunting an interviewee’s communicative fervor, these reenactments intensify it. Watching these four child deportees being forcibly extracted from their homeland urges us to see the subjective dimension of trauma, because at bottom trauma is a deeply personal experience. It’s something that can be talked about but never fully translated, a gulf that can be identified but never bridged. Realizing this, Vatamanu doesn’t try to convince viewers that the reenactments are detail-for-detail recreations of described events, as many true crime documentaries attempt to do these days. Rather, she tries to evoke the feelings of what these interviewees have communicated to her, often by using elements that characterize the emotional lives of children, such as vivid colors, sounds of murmurous fighting between adults, or visual emphases on characters’ gestures. This strategy, it turns out, is exceedingly effective. When we see Elena (Ionela Blanaru) cling to her doll the moment soviet officers close the unlit train car’s doors, when we hear her fellow travelers’ weeping and screaming all around her as she finds a spot to sit on the floor, you feel the sense of terror that enveloped Elena the day she observed these events. That isn’t a robbery of this interviewee’s experiences; it’s a testament to them.

Brandon Konecny is a regular contributor to Film International and an attorney. His work has appeared in Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, The Enquirer-Journal, NCCU Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Law Review, Journal of Fandom Studies, Journal of Religion and Film, Film Matters, and Jurnal de Chișinău.

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