I loved this film, and recognized in it something Eastern, something that is familiar to me, and some of my own thoughts. Or so I thought, because after reading the director’s statement and some interviews she gave, I feel this story is so much more than she herself actually managed to find in it.
The story is this: Olga Delane was born in Siberia, but she lived in Germany since she was 16. She feels German, speaks the language, and well into her 30s she is single and focused on her artwork. She travels back to her family in a small village in Siberia and asks them about love and relationships and a woman’s role and ideals.
I loved the film because I saw in it some things I can recognize: while initially everyone tells her that a woman without a husband and children cannot be fulfilled, the camera becomes a witness of daily life and relationship of the people who are convinced a woman’s role is to be a mother and a wife. And it soon becomes clear (to me at least) something I noticed since I was a child: the people who make strong statements about life, are actually unhappy, unable to build a different life for fear of breaking the limits of culture and for fear others will judge them.
In this sense I found the film honest and human. And then I read an interview with Olga Delane and I was so disappointed. The film is actually so much more than her view of it.
First of all, she seems to romanticize the gender stereotypes typical to Russian culture, and present a narrative I heard so many times before. Part of this narrative is that femininity and masculinity can only be understood in the traditional lines. It reminded me of a friend I had who was explaining me she has no problem with people being who they are as long as men don’t act like women or the other way around. She saw no contradiction in what she was saying and she had clear definitions of what being a man meant, or a woman, very similar definitions to what Olga Delane describes in this interview:
‘Q:What are the general characteristics of a Russian woman? A: A Russian woman loves to show herself, to be feminine, to be adored by men, to be a woman is very important. Dressed luxuriously, in trim. A woman always has a fascinating secret. The ‘classical’ role. A Russian woman can’t deal easily with the ‘feminine’ side of man. I love to be a Russian in Germany. As a Russian woman I will always be excused. ‘She is foreign, a Russian, and on top of that an artist.’
Q: And men? A: Russian men are protectors. They will do anything to please their women. In Russia, a man takes full responsibility for the happiness of a woman. He will offer you everything. Will even replace your worn shoelaces. He will travel 800 km a day to buy fresh fruit and vegetables for you. On the other hand, they are not so courteous, and generally do not speak so much.’
Oh dear, it does sound like a dream, doesn’t it? Yet how much of this ideal Russian man is just that, an ideal, part of the mythologies going around in Russian culture? We are looking at a country where domestic violence is such a problem (read 1,2,3), and where the idea that if he loves you, he beats you is still common. And in this context, I find idealizing dangerous, and a luxury to afford while living in Germany and in German terms.
Delane also goes on to describe how a woman in Siberia introduced her to a radical choice: ‘Either life in Germany, with all its comfort, modern privileges and well educated people, or a real life in Siberia, with a happy family, a care-taking husband and many children. And she said to me: Olga, come home…’. According to her, people in Siberia have emotional and passionate relationships. How they feel things with no compromises.
I am sorry I didn’t see any of this in the film. I didn’t see any passion, intensity, and all that without compromise. In fact I saw a lot of compromise. I saw commitment out of lack of choice. I saw the same women who think they have to be married and have kids to be fulfilled, quickly losing the mask, revealing that ‘enduring’ is probably the world that defines best their relationships with men. And I saw people that seem indeed full of heart, they have a certain humbleness, and they work hard and keep a sense of humor despite all hardship.
Perhaps you will see something else.