A moment of reckoning. A haunted drive. An imagination running amok. Drinking into oblivion. A compromise of a journalist forced to tell half truths to please the Soviet authorities. A career of self-discovery and torment. These are just a few elements of «Written by Sergey Dovlatov», the latest film by Moscow-based director Roman Liberov. The film became one of the best features of Academia Rossica’s Slovo festival that recently took place in London.
Shot on a relatively small budget the film is vibrant and vivid, portraying Dovlatov’s life and journey through the army, Samizdat and his eventual immigration to the United States. Through a clever use of audio, animation and special effects, the film rests on narration, entirely made up of quotes from Dovlatov’s books. His laconic irony and sardonic wit immediately recognisable, easy humour and self-deprication are tightly woven through the entire film.
Liberov did not set out on an easy task when he decided create a series of documentary films celebrating Russia’s writers. Liberov aims to synthesise documented work with the author’s mind, stitching together narrative, animation, music and natural sound to get into the mind of the author. The art of the film, he says, is secondary. «We’re not really telling the story about what happened to someone, but rather talking from that person’s point of view. Our biggest goal here is to see the world from the eyes of this person, to portray their own reality, to get into their minds.» Liberov calls that getting into the minds of people he loves, if he dares to love them in the first place.
Liberov’s love for Dovlatov is evident. Masterful use of animation as if glues and lights up Dovlatov’s photographs onto the windows of the buildings where the author lived, and the mind easily fills in the gaps: you can see and hear him having tea, smoking, writing, thinking. His thoughts show up as words on screen, sometimes seen through rainy windshield of a car. Quotes dance through the streets. Soviet bureaucrats who don’t let him publish his works in the country, made up of animated pencil drawings. His narration read by an actor who emulates the author’s signature irreverence.
Dovlatov’s complex universe is a maze of Leningrad’s by-gone era and noisy streets of Forest Hills, Queens, where Dovlatov, now a published author, spent his last years. A life of self-search, an ache to be discovered, an eventual rise and success of Dovlatov’s rise as a publisher of The New American and a storyteller with the famed New Yorker. His life, as his writing, is sharp, yet harrowing and lonely, often aimless, even more often drunk. The loneliness is evident, although it aims to hind behind the wit.
At the screening of the film in London’s Mari Vanna, the audience often erupts with laughter. Too familiar are his works, too closely they strike home. Liberov says Dovlatov’s unmistakable language is all about arriving at simple truths. Yet these truths require a tremendous amount of work. «Dovlatov writing as we have come to know it today is highly polished, unmistakably honest, yet never trivial. Sometimes truth that borderlines on banality, requires quite a bit of effort. » adds Liberov.
You can learn more about Roman Liberov and his project through his Facebook page.
Also, check out Roma Liberov’s blog about his current project about Ilf and Petrov.