By Ani Abrahamyan, Graduate Student in the Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures
“Будь проклят этот проклятый гараж!”
“Be damned this damn garage!”
—from Eldar Ryazanov’s tragicomedy Garazh (1980)
Screened as part of the “Portraits in Permafrost: Cinema of the Russian Arctic” film series at Indiana University, Nataliia Yefimkina’s Garazhane (Garagenvolk, 2020) captures life behind the heavy and rusty garage doors in a small mining town in the Kola Peninsula. Prior to the screening, the audience viewed Yefimkina’s pre-recorded introduction to the film, in which she shared that the initial idea for Garazhane came to her while filming B-roll for a different project, when she realized the aesthetic and narrative potential of the garage dwellers. After the screening, the audience got a chance to hear a discussion led by Russell Valentino (Indiana University) and Marya Rozanova-Smith (George Washington University). The Russian title of the film is a clever play on the word gorozhane (townspeople), suggesting a sense of community created in the midst of rectangular constructions intended as garages, but utilized more as storage containers, as was noted by Professor Russell Valentino during the discussion. Yefimkina’s camera grants entry into a male-dominated world filled with “treasures” of sorts: metal scraps, underground tunnels, icons, musical instruments, and historical paraphernalia. Ironically, not a single car can be found inside the garages.
At first glance, the film is an invitation to observe thrifty artists and home-grown entrepreneurs in their improvised art studios, chicken coops, gyms, scrap metal shops, and so on. Their creative efforts, however, are haunted by the Soviet past, which brought the settlement to existence. As Bolsheviks claimed power, the region underwent vast transformation: the indigenous Sami people were forcibly collectivized and relocated, while the discovery of rich mineral deposits in the area prompted rapid industrialization and urbanization. The camera documents remnants of industrial might and urban development at every turn—the very existence of garages suggests that perhaps at some point in time the townspeople were wealthy enough to own cars. However, rather than serving as material to break away from the past and spring into the future, these traces of former power entrap garazhane in Russia’s bleak present.
The passage of time is one of the central motifs of the film. It is depicted from the perspectives of generational bonds, recollections of the past, and hopes for the future. The characters share with nostalgia memories of former better days filled with hope and vigor. One man, a retired miner, takes his young grandson into the depths of a five-story underground tunnel which he dug with his bare hands. When asked why he undertook such a promethean project, he shrugs: “I don’t know why I have been digging. […] I knew all this would be left to you, to future generations.” The garages seem temporally divorced from the outside world. It is a Bergsonian subjective durée—a sense of agency gained by anticipating the future—challenged by the merciless objective time of the outside world. Soon after bequeathing the garage to his grandson, the elderly man passes away.
The film captures philosophical monologues, folk superstitions, and ethnic tensions. One character is portrayed in his humble garage addressing Putin’s portrait, which hangs aloft the man’s head: “You’re the only fucking brother I have. Everybody’s gone. […] And you’re just sitting there, always watching. And you never smile. Always serious. Fine fella. The shepherd… The shepherd… He adds a touch of dignity to our garage.” With these last words the camera zooms in on Putin’s portrait, revealing a thick crack running across the frame’s glass. Another man repeatedly tells a story about having gifted his girlfriend eight roses shortly before she was killed in an accident, trusting his interlocutors and us—the audience—to associate an even number of flowers with a bad omen. Yet another character, presumably of non-Russian ethnicity, attacks his Russian friends during a drunken brawl in a poorly-lit garage. He follows physical blows with derogatory ethnic slurs, as another man films the fight on his phone. The viewers are left to grapple with the ethical implications of these and other incidents after the screening. Of course, the ability to create something out of scraps requires genuine creativity, and yet, it begs the question: why are these men forced to scavenge the wasteland of the past to give meaning to their lives?
Some characters seem to ask a similar question. Their sentiments are manifested most vividly in the poems recited throughout the film. One young man—an aspiring musician employed at the local mining plant—is filmed on his journey to work. As he makes his descent deep into the darkness of the mine, his voiceover reads:
I wonder how to reconcile the tensions produced by Yefimkina’s ethnographic project in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. On the one hand, Garagenvolk celebrates the characters’ adaptability to the unwelcoming climate of the Kola Peninsula and their efforts to resist the squandering of human potential. On the other hand, against the backdrop of recent and ongoing events, the film can be interpreted as a cautionary tale about the fatalistic inability to escape both the past and the endless snow of the future.