By Iain Cunningham, Graduate Student, Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures
It is not often that we are confronted by a genre of film that bears familiarity to us while maintaining its ability to instill contemplation, to appear to us as strange and novel. VOY is certainly such a film. Directed by Maxim Arbugaev, himself a former hockey player, VOY presents to its viewers a narrative rich in interpersonal complication, personal hardship, and overcoming of obstacles. It is a documentation of the story of the first Russian national blind soccer team, but within it is not only the generalities of their competitive performance, but rather a meditation on achievement itself. For those of us less knowledgeable about the world of sports, VOY sidesteps many of the barriers in understandability and instead focuses on the lives and personal struggles of the players. The filmmakers were allowed to be close to the emotional realities of the team, showing them in practice or with their families and blending this seamlessly with their competitive performance; there emerge main characters and protagonists among the players and the coaches.
A moment I have often returned to in my memories of the film was of Sergey Manzhos, the team’s captain, and his home life. His narration of how he lost his vision is juxtaposed with him fishing with his wife. Having caught a fish without eyes, he jokingly yet sincerely expresses his kinship with the creature – a kind of kinship that the players on the team maintain with each other wordlessly and unquestioningly. One player speaks about his excitement upon meeting a woman on the street, and his comrades listen supportively. Another is concerned about his progressively increasing back pain and goes to visit the doctor seeking a prognosis. It is these moments where the beauty of the film lies – the relationships between the team members that allow varied and meaningful moments of everyday life to reveal themselves.
These moments are not isolated to the sphere of the personal and private, however, but also are maintained in the competitive sphere as well. Close up shots of players shaking hands before a match simultaneously signal the excitement and expectation of their upcoming performance as well as the respect and comradery the players maintain with their fellow competitors. The competition scenes more familiar to those of us that have seen sports documentaries in the past become simultaneously intimate and intense. The investment the viewers feel in regard to the outcome of the match is only possible with this revealing of private life and focus on relationships. A new coach for the team presents some interpersonal hardship as players adjust to the new situations in which they find themselves. The previous coach who feels that he is losing his team for which he cares unconditionally is a feeling relatable to each of us. This makes all the more admirable his arrival for the final matches, where his unconditional care and kinship for the players is manifested. Arbugaev’s mastery of documentary narrative is shown here and evinced by the ease with which viewers become emotionally invested in the future of the team.
VOY gives the viewer pause to notice what often goes unnoticed in life – the qualities of everyday life. The distinction between private and public life are gradually broken down. It allows us to find as much importance in these aspects of overcoming as in the moments of competition when more eyes are upon us.