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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (6/3/2020)

(Reviews of Vitalina Varela; Escape From Pretoria; Sulphur and White; and Women's Day)


There's no point in pretending that everyone appreciates the austere formalism of Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa. Having followed the short, Letters to Julia (1988), with his monochrome debut, O Sangue (1989), Costa filmed Down to Earth (1994) on the Cape Verde Islands. Subsequently, he has focused on the residents of the Fontainhas shantytown outside Lisbon, whose connection with Portugal's former colonies has earned it the nickname, `Estrela d'Africa'. Now, after Ossos (1997), In Vanda's Room (2000), Colossal Youth (2006) and Horse Money (2014), Costa returns to Fontainhas for Vitalina Varela, his most aesthetically rigorous and dramatically demanding picture to date.

Opening on a dimly lit alley abutting a cemetery, the action follows various mourners back to their shanty homes, with two friends helping tidy up the deceased's shack. Three days later, his widow, Vitalina Varela (playing a character named after herself) arrives at the airport and is so eager to disembark that she has to wait at the plane door for the steps to be wheeled into place. On stepping on to Portuguese soil in bare feet, however, she is informed by one of the cleaning staff that she is too late to see her ailing husband, Joaquim, and that she should return to Cape Verde because there is nothing for her in Fontainhas.

Bumping her head on a low lintel in the murky light in her late spouse's abode, Vitalina sits on a stool and looks at her reflection as she removes her earrings and ties a scarf around her head. The gentle hum of neighbourly activity fills the silence, as she makes herself at home. She wakes next morning in the same spot and places the white scarf around a silver crucifix positioned between two photographs of herself and Joaquim, which are illuminated by votive candles.

As she ties on a black scarf, Vitalina receives a deputation of friends calling to offer their condolences and she sits quietly, as they offer her tins of tuna and what seem to be Joaquim's working clothes. They eat, but she remains silent in their presence. Once she's alone, Vitalina speaks to Joaquim's lingering spirit and avers that she doesn't trust him, even though they have been married since December 1982.

She gets a visit from Ntoni (Manuel Tavares Almeida) and Marina (Marina Alves Domingues), who are living rough at the station and raiding supermarket dumpsters for food. Ntoni thanks Vitalina for the taste of home-cooking, but Marina prefers to smoke than eat. He was in jail with Joaquim and he surprises Vitalina when he claims that he was forever being pestered to come and decorate the shack so that it looked homely when Joaquim sent for his wife. She follows Ntoni into the warren of alleyways to give him a covered plate of food, but they had already disappeared into the night.

A man calls to tell Vitalina about Joaquim's final illness and how he had resisted going to hospital. She shows little pity and explains calmly that she has no intention of returning to Africa after having waited 40 years for her plane ticket. One evening, she goes for a walk around the neighbourhood and follows an ageing priest (Ventura) through some scrubby parkland to the chapel where he lives. Back home, Vitalina converses with Joaquim and castigates him for his shoddy workmanship in Fontainhas after they had made such a good job together of their 10-room house in Cape Verde. Speaking with soft resolution, she accuses him of frittering away his time and money on loose women and berates him for never sending funds home, even when she begged him.

Putting her earrings on, Vitalina hears men gossiping in the next room and she realises they are speaking about another woman who attended Joaquim's funeral. She orders them to leave and takes a shower, only for a piece of ceiling to drop on her head and she stares through the metal grille with a sense of grim disbelief that she has fetched up in this hovel after spending so long dreaming of it offering her an exciting new start.

Vitalina goes into the woods to chops some wood with a handy axe. She also drops into the chapel, where the priest informs her that he no longer says mass, as there is never a congregation. His right hand trembles as he describes the requiem he conducted for her husband before recommending that she returns to Africa because there is nothing to be gained by living in this squalid neighbourhood.

As he removes his purple stole, Vitalina asks if he remembers her from an incident in his first parish when he refused to baptise a coach load of believers and the majority were killed outside the church when their vehicle collided with a car. She had witnessed the crash and his distress when he had slipped n a pool of blood left by so many severed body parts. The old cleric reveals that he has paid for his sins in spiritual and monetary terms. But, while he continues to tend to his flock, he no longer believes and Vitalina takes no solace from his assertion that she will rejoin Joaquim in Heaven. Nevertheless, she asks the priest to say a mass for them both and he agrees.

That night, as the rain hammers on the tin roof, Vitalina curses Joaquim for not making the shack waterproof. She wonder why he gave up on life and became a lazy drunk like his friends after being such a diligent worker in Cape Verde. He had suddenly upped and left without a word and abandoned a decent life for dreams that soon soured in a place where they are treated like nobodies. As she hisses her whispered lament, Vitalina reminds her husband that he can no longer run away from the evil he has done, as he now has to stand and face up to his sins.

As the priest shuffles around the parish mumbling half-prayers for those entrusted to him, one of Joaquim's drinking buddies shows up at the shack. He has a key and Vitalina is woken by his intrusion. Missing his pal, he tells her how they used to cook pork on the stove before they fell on hard times and had to start selling household items and dealing drugs in order to survive. She listens in silence, as the harshness of her husband's existence is outlined. But she refuses to weep for such a wretched man, even though she continues to keep the flame burning in front of his photo, near which she has also placed two white roses.

Entering the chapel, Vitalina sits behind a man finishing his prayers. The priest comes to the pulpit and says a blessing for Joaquim and hopes that he will receive his reward after a lifetime of hardship. He becomes emotional and collapses to the floor. But Vitalina remains in her place and asks God why he favours men by giving them rest, when he seems to have no idea of the suffering that women have to endure. When he returns after dark, Vitalina is still in her seat and she asks if her husband had committed suicide. However, he evades the question in telling her to learn Portuguese in order to communicate with Joaquim.

Ntoni calls round with some groceries. He seems to have split up with Marina and he tells Vitalina that he is going to find an ugly girl who won't want to betray him. As he unpacks the bag, he recalls that his parents fell out when his father returned to Cape Verde to die. However, his conscience brought him back and he died in the same hospital as Joaquim. She recalls how he had been duped by another woman named Vitalina, who had stolen his savings. Yet he kept an album full of her photographs and she despised him for being so sentimental and vulnerable. But she also reminds Ntoni about the importance of love, as it can overcome all problems.

One night, Vitalina climbs on to the roof to secure the plastic sheets from blowing around. Back in the sanctuary of the shack, she wonders whether ghosts do only speak Portuguese and asks Joaquim if he would finally respond if she did and explain why he walked out on her. She reads from a newspaper cutting about Princess Elizabeth's first meeting with her future husband in 1939 that is pinned over the stove and wishes she was brighter and able to communicate better. But she also must reflect on the longevity of that relationship and on how she has been denied the confrontation she flew across the world to have with the man who had remained her life even after he had exited it.

Having found some letters among Joaquim's papers, Vitalina asks the priest to help her with the language and she repeats phrases from the Scriptures. As he recalls the moment of Judas's betrayal in the garden, however, he declares that the world was divided in two as Jesus's face shone with radiant glory in one half and was shrouded in darkness in the other. According to the old pastor, humanity was born out of the shadow and Vitalina, who is digging in the soil by a storm lantern, turns to look at him, as though she has recognised the two worlds that she and Joaquim had inhabited.

On her way home along the dark alley, Vitalina learns that Marina had died in a fire caused by a candle falling on to her mattress. In the first scene filmed in daylight, she attends the burial with the priest, who takes her by the hand and they wander around the cemetery as though looking for Joaquim's plot. This seems to bring a sense of closure and the film ends back in Cape Verde, as Vitalina and Joaquim work on the house that she had hoped would be their home for life.

A degree of supposition is necessary in trying to interpret events in this often ambiguous picture. But precise meaning matters less than the lyrical impressions left by Costa and his monologuish approach to drama and his painterly sense of composition. Together with cinematographer Leonardo Simões, he uses key lights to make living chiaroscuro sculptures that are often ingeniously framed in stone- or metalwork within the already boxy Aspect Ratio.

By keeping the camera rooted and by having his performers deliver their lines in perfect stillness, Costa also creates talking pictures, as though Rembrandt or Vermeer had returned to find inspiration in Fontainhas before it was demolished. It shouldn't be forgotten, however, that his great hero is Jacques Tourneur and it's always possible to discern traces of the three B horrors he made for producer Val Lewton at RKO: Cat People (1942), I Walked With a Zombie and The Leopard Man (both 1943). But there's a very modern feel to the soundscape designed and mixed by Hugo Leitão and João Gazua, which suggests the world beyond the frame that both intimidates and entices Vitalina, as she deals with the discomfort of dislocation and considers the possibilities of widowhood after she has finished her period of seething mourning.

Playing a variation on herself, Vitalina Varela speaks her mostly self-scripted dialogue with a wounded dignity that occasionally threatens to ignite through operatic sparks of fury. Haloed against the dilapidated dinginess of the crumbling interiors, she looks out of place, although her mood has probably not brightened much over the previous three decades. Her robustness contrasts with Ventura's quivering frailty, as he buries himself in the ghetto backwater to escape the nagging guilt he feels over the coach crash and the sense that God somehow conspired against him by putting so many unbaptised souls on his conscience. Yet, the cemetery sequence suggests a way forward for both Vitalina and the priest and, this hint of optimism, takes Costa's trancelike docufictional cinema in a potentially new direction.


Spoiler alert. Try to avoid the title of Francis Annan's Escape From Pretoria, as it pretty much gives the game away. However, as in the case of Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped (1956), to which this meticulous adaptation of Tim Jenkin's 1987 memoir is heavily indebted, it's not the outcome of the bid for freedom that matters as much as the painstaking preparations for it.

Deploring the state of South Africa in 1978, Tim Jenkin (Daniel Radcliffe) and Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber) joined the African National Congress, only to be arrested for detonating some explosive devices to disseminate propaganda leaflets on the streets of Cape Town. They were respectively sentenced to 12 and eight years in Pretoria Local Prison, where they are introduced to anti-apartheid campaigner Denis Goldberg (Ian Hart), who had been sentenced alongside Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, and fellow activist Leonard Fontaine (Mark Leonard Winter).

The latter is all in favour of joining Jenkin and Lee in trying to break out of the prison and helps distract the guards so that Jenkin can study the keys on their belt rings in order to make duplicates with a file and scraps of wood smuggled out of the workshop in a tea flask. Much to his delight, Jenkin creates a working key and even develops a turning device that he can operate with a broom handle from the side window of his cell. But there are tense moments when a key snaps in the lock of his outer door and he has to use a piece of chewing gum to retrieve a dropped key in the middle of the night.

Ignoring Goldberg's warning that they are part of a movement and should consider the reprisals that would follow an escape, Jenkin and Fontaine conduct a late-night recce to see how far they can get while a portly guard is making his tour of the cells to check everyone is sleeping. They have an agonising wait inside a store cupboard and are nearly betrayed by three drops of sweat on the corridor floor. But, while they prove it's possible to make significant progress without detection, Jenkin sleeps through an alarm bell and Captain Schnepel (Grant Piro) and his vicious sidekick, Mongo (Nathan Page), search the cells because they suspect the inmates are up to no good.

On Christmas Day, Fontaine accuses Goldberg of lacking the guts to make an escape. But other prisoners of conscience agree that they will pay the price for a successful break and distance themselves from Jenkin, Lee and their French cohort, who becomes all the more desperate to get out after Mongo cuts short a visit from his young son. So, after another random cell inspection, the trio decide to flee and are both aided and hindered by the fact that portly guard Vermelen (Len Firth) experiences tummy trouble while on duty. In order to give them breathing space, Goldberg smashes a light bulb and causes and power cut and they are able to find a taxi on the street outside the jail after smashing the last lock with a chisel and a screwdriver.

Apart from Alex Moumbaris being renamed Fontaine (after a warder in Bresson's film), this is a reasonably accurate reconstruction of Jenkin and Lee's flight from a supposedly escape-proof bastion. But, while Annan is indebted to LH Adams and Karol Griffiths for the taut screenplay, he owes most to editor Nick Fenton, who generates much of the suspense with his slick cutting between close-ups of Daniel Radcliffe's peering eyes and the wooden keys twisting and turning in the metal locks.

Sound designer Chris Goodes and composer David Hirschfelder also play their part in knowing when to intrude upon the often unbearable silences. Production designer Scott Bird similarly does a decent job, although the inmates have a much better idea of the layout of the prison than the audience, who are left to presume that each of the 11 doors on their route opens out on to another. Indeed, the actual escape is something of an anti-climax, as it goes without much of a hitch. Consequently, the real fascination lies in the manufacturing of the keys and the ingenious ways the conspirators find to acquire useful materials and dispose of any waste.

Much of the focus falls on Radcliffe, who remains as boyish as ever, in spite of a pair of large glasses and a bushy beard. But Mark Leonard Winter provides short-fused support as the French outsider, while Nathan Page makes a suitably menacing guard. Mercifully, there isn't much dialogue, as the South African accents are a bit ropy, in spite of the fact that Radcliffe was actually coached by Tim Jenkin himself.


Director Julian Jarrold has earned four BAFTA nominations for Some Kind of Life (1997), Never Never (2000), Appropriate Adult (2011) and The Girl (2012). However, his feature career is less garlanded, despite the fact that the eclectic quartet of Kinky Boots (2005), Becoming Jane (2007), Brideshead Revisited (2008) and A Royal Night Out (2015) all have their plus points. A steady storyteller rather than a distinctive stylist, Jarrold would appear to be the perfect director for Sulphur and White, which takes its title from a South African butterfly and has been scripted by Susanne Farrell from a draft prepared by David Tait, the former City trader who overcame his childhood traumas to become a prominent fundraiser for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. But the dramatic focus always feels somewhat awry in a film whose good intentions prove unable to disguise its flaws.

As a 10 year-old boy in South Africa, David Tait (Hugo Stone) prefers spending time with his mother, Joanne (Anna Friel), to his strict banker father, Donald (Dougray Scott). However, he dotes on the rabbit that Donald bought him and enjoys working in the garage store owned by his friend, Koetze (Grant Swanby). That is, until he is caught stealing a chocolate bar and is taken into a dark room behind the shop for punishment.

Flashing forward a couple of decades, David (Mark Stanley) is a fearless trader in the City of London and boss Jeff Connors (Alistair Petrie) is impressed by the way he holds his nerve in a crisis. Workmate Vanessa (Emily Beecham) is less enchanted when the married David invites her to Paris for the weekend. But his disappointment is tempered when Joanne turns up at the office after years of estrangement and he takes her number before making hasty excuses to return to his desk.

Back in South Africa, David tries to tell Joanne and the family maid Dora (Dee Rasedile) about the abuse he is suffering at the gas station. But he suffers in silence and the anger clearly contributes to his inability to play happy families as an adult. Having walked out on his wife and two small children, David has sex with Connors's wife, Amber (Rosalie Craig), at an Alice in Wonderland-themed garden party after discovering that Vanessa is involved with another wheeler-dealer, Filip (Max Belfort). However, Connors sees a lot of himself in David and promotes him. They also begin to party hard at seedy nightclubs, although David is still obsessed with Vanessa, who is intrigued with the sensitive soul hidden beneath the brash exterior.

Donald had also started abusing David after losing his job and Joanne had walked in on them together. As a 15 year-old back in Britain, however, David (Anson Boon) tries to avoid being alone with his father and allows Joanne to take him to the nearby church, where Pastor Henry (Trevor a Toussaint) prays over him. However, Divina (Sofia Barclay) flirts with him in the backseat of her mother's car, while Joanne becomes close to a fellow parishioner and runs off with him.

Having become engaged to Vanessa, David bows to pressure to introduce her to Donald. They have a tense lunch in the shadow of the Gherkin, during which David hisses that his kids are better off having an absentee father and Donald accuses his son of being a chip off the old block in a better suit. However, the wedding goes ahead (with Joanne peering at the happy couple through the hotel door) and David and Vanessa move into a large suburban house. Yet he continues to sleep with Amber and shows little interest when Vanessa becomes pregnant.

The birth sends David over the edge, however, and he is fired after falling down on the job. He begins drinking and watching porn and scoffs at Vanessa when she complains about his behaviour. Struggling to cope, he flashes back to the time his teenage self threw his father through a glass door for mocking his physique. But after a butterfly hovering above a skylight reminds him of the garage store, David is consumed with despair and he is standing on the edge of a white cliff when he is snatched back from the brink by the police.

Following an interview with Dr Mbeke (Lorna Brown), David tries to reconnect with Vanessa at his Thameside flat. But the meeting goes badly and, after seeing Joanne on her death bed, he realises that he has to turn his life around. Calling Vanessa in the night, he opens up on his past and she cradles his head as he sobs. When he tries to bolt the next morning, she takes his hand and leads him to her bed and she smiles when she wakes to find David cradling his son in the shower. As the film ends, Vanessa gives David a nod of encouragement, as he takes to the stage to make a black-tie speech as an NSPCC ambassador.

A closing caption reveals that the couple live in Surrey with sons Seth and Ethan and continue to work for family and child-related charities. We also see an inset shot of the real David Tait during one of his five fundraising ascents of Mount Everest. Further captions explain that 1:20 children in the UK suffers some form of sexual abuse and that 1:3 hides their pain. Such stark statistics hit home, but they feel somewhat tagged on after such a slapdash end to a narrative that adopts a DeMillean approach to David's abuse and consequent excesses. Clearly, the audience has to witness the causes of the trauma, but surely some part of this two-hour picture should have been devoted to the healing process and how David reinvented himself as a campaigner.

Building on Hugo Stone and Anson Boon's fine work. Mark Stanley provides a strong dramatic focus as David. But, despite Jarrold and Farrell's fixation with his City boy lifestyle, the tone always feels closer to James Dearden's Rogue Trader (1999) - which also featured Anna Friel - than Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). The hedonistic revels are staged with little imagination, as David shags the boss's wife under his nose and takes a circular saw to his racy sports car after being fired. But the descent into despondency is even more unpersuasive, as editor Chris Gill fast cuts between cinematographer Felix Wiedermann's swirling and distorted close-ups of a sozzled soul in torment.

Emily Beecham does what she can with a thanklessly underwritten role, but Anna Friel and Dougray Scott struggle to bring their ciphers to life. This sketchiness makes it difficult for viewers to relate to the characters and, thus, keeps them at a remove from a storyline that is intended to provoke an emotional response. As a result, sensationalism prevails over sensitivity and the story's eminently worthwhile message is subsumed in the process.


Returning to the Regent Street Cinema and the Curzon Bloomsbury on 8 March to mark International Women's Day, Dolya Gavanski's documentary, Women's Day, took three years to research and shoot. Focusing on the role that women played in the history of the Soviet Union and the transitions that they have since experienced in Vladimir Putin's Russia, this is a fascinating study of pioneers, patriots and survivors, who reflect upon their lives with an engaging mix of insight. empathy and wit.

The daughter of chess champions from Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, Dolya Gavanski was raised in the Soviet Union. She now lives in London, where she fulfilled a childhood dream to appear in a Shakespeare play before landing the role of Zarya, the world's strongest woman, in the computer game, Overwatch. But she has never forgotten the country that forged her and she returns to Russia to profile a group of women who have made very different contributions to their Motherland.

As a child, Gavanski had treasured a signed photograph of cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, who had proved to Soviet women that they were very much the equals of their male counterparts. Known as `the Voice of the USSR', TV newsreader Dina Grigoreva was a familiar face in her own right and she recalls the night she mistakenly called President Leonid Brezhnev a `representative' of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet rather than its `chairman' and was lucky to avoid a six-month jail sentence when a viewer wrote in to accuse her of perpetuating factual errors.

Svetlana Alexievich, the winner Nobel Prize for Literature, explains how Women's Day has become a bit of a standing joke in Russia, as men buy flowers and make gushing speeches each 8 March, but carry on regardless in their merry chauvinist way. Internet influencer Elena Krygina also feels the tradition has become old hat, as she notes that women use make-up to hide their insecurities. However, she also points out that it can help define individuality, as all Soviet women tended to look alike.

A bit of paint is also needed on the Soviet crest outside the Krasnogorsk Archive, where Natalya Kalantarova is the director. She confides that they don't have much on the Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras, but doesn't elucidate about whether this is because no one is nostalgic about Perestroika and the fall of the USSR or whether levels of bureaucracy and surveillance dropped. Estate agent Natalya Tomacheva recalls the songs of her youth and relates a story about how she was excluded from the Komsomol because she and two friends reproduced the cover of an Arabesque album and they were denounced as pornographers and prostitutes in front of the entire school.

Marin Gribanova, Dean of Classical Training at the Vaganova Ballet Academy remembers how the authorities used to make recommendations about the steps that were permissable in pieces like Georges Bizet's Carmen and Maurice Ravel's `Bolero' and she jokes that the aim was always to ensure that men kept women in their place. Gavanski comments on the stereotypical Russian women she has played down the years and reflects on arriving in Soviet Uzbekistan at the age of 12 after being born in Bulgaria and raised in Yugoslavia and being amazed by how her friend Shirin's mother had to serve guests rather than eat with them.

Women's rights activist Marfua Tokhtahodjaeva describes how the Islamic republics tried to resist Communist attempts to remove the veil and encourage women to take their place in a progressive society. We see fascinating archive footage of Muslim women burning their oppressive clothing. But the Party took a dim view of nonconformity and exiled dissident Natalya Malakhovskaya shows off the treasured stuffed bear that she had managed to take out of the country when she left, even though she had to repair its paws, which were cut off in a search for hidden documents. She now lives in Salzburg in Austria and reflects on how her grandmother had been a noted feminist in the 1920s, at a time when women were helping to promote revolution. But she was asked to leave for compiling an almanac of thoughts on female emancipation and equality.

As a seven year-old girl, Grigoreva saw Joseph Stalin during the celebrations for the 800th anniversary of Moscow in 1947. However, historian Irina Ostrovkaya describes the camps that he set up for the wives of detained dissidents and how their children were taken to orphanages to be educated as model citizens. The mother of iconic ballerina Maya Plisetskaya was held in such a camp after her geologist husband was executed for an unnamed crime. We see footage of Plisetskaya dancing and women chopping down trees in a frozen forest and Ostrovkaya curses the cruel injustice of the system. She further reveals that her mother's first husband, a composer from Kiev named Alexei Arnautov, was also executed in 1938 and she spent the rest of her life in fear that a careless whisper could bring more trouble.

Sociologist Marina Kashnina, doctor Lidia Khoroshinina and feminist historian Irina Yukina reminisce about the Childless Tax that single men and women had to pay from the 1920s and for which they remained liable until they had produced three children for the nation. We see clips of women undertaking a range of jobs and are introduced to Pasha Angelina, a female tractor driver who became a Hero of Socialist Labour. Her daughter, Svetlana, still takes pride in her achievement, as she recalls how she formed an all-women's tractor brigade and was summoned to the Kremlin for exceeding her quotas. Moreover, sculptor Vera Mukhina supposedly used her as a model in 1937 for her famous `Worker and Kolkhoz Woman' statue. Yet, when she died in 1959, her awards and her archive were seized by the state and have seemingly been lost.

Ironically, Olga Uskova's Cognitive Technologies company is developing driverless vehicles. She started out in artificial intelligence and launched her own company after her divorce because she had no other way to support herself and now she is one of the leaders in her field. Natalya Kaspersky has similarly built up the Infowatch Group after having made her fortune with the Kaspersky Lab sales company. She has been married twice and had families with each spouse and she recalls the panic when her young son was kidnapped, which was a harrowing experience as she is so used to being in control.

We see Alexievich crediting the nation as a whole while giving her Nobel acceptance speech. She recalls her childhood in Belarus and a visit to a grandmother in Ukraine who showed her a site of a battle in the Great Patriotic War, Maria Rokhlina survived the Siege of Stalingrad, where she served with a medical unit and she was famed across the frontline as `Little Red Riding Hood' because of her beret. She shows Gavanski a uniform jacket weighed down with medals and her flat is filled with red-coloured objects because anything blue reminds her of the cold she endured during the winter of 1942-43.

Natalya Vasilyevna endured similar privations in Leningrad between September 1941 and January 1944. She remembers the sacrifice her grandmother made when food was scarce, as well as having to step over the bodies lying in the streets. Women coped better than men on the meagre rations and were better able to deal with the sight of blood. Rokhlina shudders at the recollection of the lice that became a part of everyday life, but has nothing but fond memories of her husband, who proposed before she even knew his name. In her mind, she had called him Sasha and he had insisted that she used this instead of Ivan for the rest of their lives.

Gavanski's grandparents had also met during the war and their harrowing experiences meant that they never allowed anyone to leave food on their plates at the end of a meal. But not every wartime couple stayed together and single parenthood was the norm during the 1946 baby. Indeed, lots of men had two families and Angelina describes how her war veteran father had a child with another woman and tried to shoot her mother before abandoning her.

Following a short digression on Chernobyl (news of which was broken by Grigoreva, while Alexievich was close by nursing her dying sister), Gavanski focuses just as briefly on the break up of the Soviet Union. Tomacheva that Russia is obsessed with money and she feels as if her country has been stolen away from her. Grigoreva laments the speed with which time passes, but it has stood still for Rokhlina, who still feels as though she is fighting in the war alongside her brave comrades. In conclusion, Gavanski hopes her own teenage daughter will study Russian history and that she will come to appreciate the deeds (both great and small) of those women reaching out their hands across the generations.

Full of compelling tales told with conviction and compassion, this is a wonderful film that makes telling use of both personal testimony and archive material. Editor Nina Altaparmakova weaves the monochrome footage into the images captured by Mariana Kroutilin and Dmitri Loktionov to create a living tapestry that not only provides an alternative history of the USSR, but also highlights the part that women played in every aspect of Soviet life without always getting due recognition from their menfolk or the Party hierarchy.

Despite the epic historical sweep, Gavanski retains a degree of intimacy by chatting to the various women on camera and coaxing them into revisiting their pasts. It would be intriguing to know how she found such interesting and eloquent contributors, as everyone speaks from the heart and with a frankness that contrasts starkly (and somewhat understandably) with Mikhail Gorbachev's revelations to Werner Herzog in Meeting Gorbachev (2019). Clearly the meaning of 8 March has changed over the decades, but this moving record should now become a permanent part of the celebrations.

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