Stemming the Tide

in 24th Message to Man International Film Festival Saint Petersburg

by Carmen Gray

Alina Rudnitskaya’s latest film Blood (Krov), which screened in the full-length documentary competition at the 24th edition of Message to Man in her hometown of St. Petersburg as part of a successful international festival run, strengthens her position as one of the most talented and courageously honest filmmakers working in Russia today. She joined a medical team on the road to regional towns to collect blood from locals, who form long lines indicative of their desperate reliance on the 850 rubles paid for their donations — which is officially to aid healthy eating but for some is their only source of income. The hour-long black-and-white documentary has been praised both in and outside Russia for its raw, revealing portrayal of social truths about the current state of the nation and for the absurdist humour that buoys it up from these harsh realities.

The film shows nurses grappling matter-of-factly in brusque good cheer with the hoards of eager donors, some of whom faint from being needle-shy or malnourished, and others who must be turned away due to not having a clean bill of health, despite begging to donate. The medics relieve the stresses of the day with booze-soaked jaunts — one of which we see carries over into the working day for central protagonist Olga, who after being dragged from a local’s bed in the morning by her colleagues is still hiccoughing and dishevelled while fishing around for a vein in a bemused donor’s arm — a situation that in its grotesque comedy bears shades of Mikhail Bulgakov’s story collection A Country Doctor’s Notebook.

In one good-humoured drinking session, locals teasingly refer to the blood-collection team as vampires. While the nurses’ empathy for the donors is very apparent, it’s impossible not to expand the film’s title metaphorically in one’s mind from the literal to a vision of the vast arteries of the state running through the Russian Federation and the life-force of its people it is sucking for its survival, with little sustenance flowing the other way in terms of support. Blood is measured not by any metric system but by the bucket — a “crude” system, one nurse observes — underscoring even more the matter-of-fact, unembellished approach to the struggles of existence we see on film, echoed by an approach to documentary filmmaking by Rudnitskaya that could well be regarded as an antidote to propaganda, in its effort to deliver up unadorned and intimate access to the truth.

Blood is the second in a proposed triptych of hospital films for the St. Petersburg Documentary Film Studio director, who in prior, powerfully evocative and elegantly shot black-and-white short I Will Forget This Day focused on the faces of women minutes before they entered the surgery room to have an abortion. She is considering making a third film about IV treatment, since many Russian couples encounter difficulties in their attempts to conceive children. As with all her shorts, which also include 2008’s Bitch Academy about a school for women wanting to attract millionaire husbands, and 2005’s Civil Status, which captures relationship drama as it crosses with bureaucracy in the registry office, the specific situations shown reflect a wider dysfunction. We glean through details and remarks that those depicted are among many inhabitants struggling to live with dignity in a politically trying climate rife with economic hardship-individuals that through Rudnitskaya’s empathetic, intimate and very human filmmaking we are able to identify with closely, while at the same time we recognise through the lens of broader context the claustrophobic systems and breakdowns in fundamental support networks that hem them in and cause their at times desperate, outrageous antics.

Does Blood propose a solution to the social malady it portrays? Just by insisting on the truth, it embodies the basis of a cure.

Carmen Gray