Movie Mondays – TraumaZone

There’s a prevailing trend in documentary making these days where the narrator becomes part of the story in a fusion of self-promotion and naked bias. Personally, I blame Super Size Me (2004). I feel a hot take brewing, but while that’s still on the boil it’s a return to inertia’s much-neglected Movie Mondays. For this post, I’m bending the rules a little to recommend a series of films rather than just one. It’s a bargain bucket deal: 7 hours of content for the price of 2. I want to wholeheartedly recommend Adam Curtis’ recent BBC docu-series, TraumaZone. It’s a darkly beautiful, nihilistic exploration of the collapse of the Soviet Union, as told by the people who lived through it.

Curtis, who’s known for taking a step back and letting the archive footage do most of the talking, fully disavows himself from any remaining voiceover responsibilities here. His ominous RP voice is nowhere to be found, replaced by just-as-ominous subtitling that appears every so often to provide some much-needed context. Besides these infrequent interventions, you can expect a collage of varied and lengthy archival footage, handpicked by Curtis, cut and stuck together like letters of different fonts on a ransom note. And just like a ransom note, while these snippets may come from different places when spliced together they begin to spell out something new.

When I was in university I studied an interesting module called Global Challenges from an Ethnographic Perspective. The title was a little high-brow, given the course just explored how our understanding of the world’s problems could be better understood through the eyes of everyday people. I see TraumaZone very much in this light – as a serious attempt at ethnography. The series places you in the shoes of people who were eyewitnesses to the disintegration of both of 20th century politics’ big ideas, first with communism and then with liberal democracy.

For a work of film in the documentary genre, the collection of footage and how it is curated by Curtis is a masterclass in characterisation, worthy even of a work of classic fiction. There’s President Yeltsin, a man driven to drink with all the political levers but none of the power; Natasha, a young girl who traipses Moscow’s traffic junctions to hustle for spare change; an unnamed elderly woman, forced to stand and atone before a people’s court for the crime of stealing to survive; and a mother of a young soldier who travels to the front line to convince her son to desert (to name just a handful). With this rag-tag assembly of characters, Curtis seamlessly stitches together a story which weaves the mundane with the seismic, the lives of nobodies and those of powerful people with the fates of everyone in their hands.

More than at any other time, it’s crucial that Russia the country is understood, and understood in separation to the oligarchs who have pillaged it of its wealth and treated ordinary Russians as collateral in their power games. As the war in Ukraine rages on into the winter and continues to tear apart the lives of millions, orphan thousands of children and displace people from their homes, TraumaZone has arrived at precisely the right time. Post-communist Russia is under the microscope like never before, but can we really be said to have learnt anything beyond the headlines? Behind the increasingly hostile front put up by Putin lies a nation sucked dry of hope by parasitic gangsters and snake-oil politicians.

A snippet that really symbolises this lack of hope comes in the first episode. A woman cutting up wallpaper is asked, “If you had a wish, what would it be?” to which she replies, “I don’t wish for anything. I don’t have any dreams, [and] even if I did, they wouldn’t come true.” I think the entire series can be considered as an investigation into this cynicism that cuts through Russian society, a cynicism which only worsened after the country’s failed flirtation with democracy. In the 15 year span that is the scope of TraumaZone, the effect of watching is as though you yourself are a participant in the twin events that unfold: the so-called ‘shock therapy’ of switching from communism to capitalism virtually overnight, followed by a failed attempt at democracy that was doomed from the start by a lack of public trust.

And then there’s the West’s role in it all. Curtis does a remarkable job in portraying its complicity in Russia’s humiliation. Companies, politicians, businessman, magazine editors and American evangelists alike all swooped in on the country as the iron curtain was lifted, eager to stake out their own claim in the new Russia. Rather than seeing footage such as Cherie and Tony Blair’s visit to the Kremlin as a touching sign that Russia had returned to the global community, a horror grips you. It’s a realisation that amidst all the greed and violence that was unleashed on Russia through the 90s, the attribution that Russians must’ve made between their new chaos and the countries promoting it as the answer to their problems would’ve been far too easy to make.

TraumaZone sucks out the marrow of Russia’s pain and lets you taste the hardship. As a video essay nearly 7 hours long made up of home videos, documentary snippets, and cut-up footage, I could easily view it many more times over and never watch it in the same way. That Curtis doesn’t say a word throughout the entire series – and yet manages to say so much – should set a new standard in documentary filmmaking. To get right at the heart of a nation’s present paranoia by looking at its past, and producing through this autopsy only more questions about the future, once again proves the power of giving a voice to the powerless.

TraumaZone is available to watch now over on iPlayer.

Words by Charlie Forbes

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