Civil Status A Documentary as Everybody's Darling By Barbara Schweizerhof

in 7th Oberhausen International Short Film Festival

by Barbara Schweizerhof

More often than not at festivals, the film the audience favours the most is the one the critics love to hate and the jurors deliberately ignore. Alina Rudnitskaya‘s Civil Status is the exception to the rule: the 27-minute short was cheered by the audience in Oberhausen, appreciated by critics and still got one of the main prizes. It stood out not only because it gave the audience the rare opportunity to laugh in an overall very serious competition program, alongside films like You, Waguih (Toi, Waguih), which we chose for the International Critic’s prize, Civil Status also stands for the general tendency of this year’s Oberhausen festival in more than one way.

First: it is a documentary, the genre that has been curiously dominant this year, while just a few years ago it was the rare exception among the lot of animated and experimental shorts, mini-essay-movies and mini-features. Second: Civil Status at first glance seems fairly ‘old fashioned’ and quite conventionally made. It consists of mere observations of the doings at a civil registry office in St. Petersburg, Russia; shot in gritty black and white, no voice-over commentary, the parts without dialogue accompanied by a meticulously chosen soundtrack of mostly classical music. We see couples filing for divorce, widows awaiting the issuing of death certificates, people getting married – and on top of that various sorts of demands, that do not fit so neatly into these categories because life is always more complicated than bureaucracy can foresee. For instance there is thisman, who wants to marry his wife for the second time. They have been divorced ten years ago, but now are living together again. Yet the divorce certificate is lost. Before they are able to remarry, new divorce papers have to be issued. What begins as an absurd comedy turns into tragedy: the lady behind the desk asks for the signature of the happy ex-wife and future-bride; she can’t come herself because of a sick child at home, explains the wannabe-husband. But there’s no way out: without signature, the lady behind the desk can’t proceed.

Rudnitskaya and her cameraman must have managed to become invisible – the people she observes are acting absolutely naturally and uninhibited, as if there was no camera present. This way she has captured lots of wonderful observations, snapshots of moments, which usually pass by unnoticed: there’s the bride, her face aglow with joy and right beside her the groom, uneasily twitching his mouth, rather tense if not quite scared of what’s ahead of him. Or the wife, who succeeds in a last minute explanation to persuade her husband not to sign the divorce papers, insisting on not having betrayed him. Rudnitskaya has edited these scenes with humour, but with enough sensitivity not to give away these people to ridicule. So we don’t laugh about them, but about the twists of everyday life that run crossways to what can be settled by certificates and ceremonies.

The stoical ladies behind the desks, the different people before – they all are the opposite of your average film beauties and rather represent the everyday ugliness of an economically struggling state. Yet the stylish black and white – intercut only shortly with some colour sequences – lends them dignity and treats them with tenderness, quite unlike most reality-TV-programs throughout the world. Funny and serious, diverting and intriguing at the same time, Civil Status evokes a feeling of nostalgia: it would be a wonderfully suitable film for what once used to be the preceding program of a main feature film in any cinema.