» Wintry exoticism


Director: Vitaly Mansky,

Russia, Czech Republic, Germany, 2013, 121 min.

Three crosses in the snow – not Christian ones, different ones. They are the starting point of a journey from the Urengoy Gas Fields in the Northern West Siberian Basin, the second largest natural gas field in the world, to Cologne in Germany. The crosses, which return at the end of the journey, symbolize the new religion: gas, or more aptly, money, illustrated by the quote that precedes the images: “50% of Russia’s budget comes from the oil and gas industry – V. Putin”.

Pipeline, Vitaly Mansky’s film, and winner of this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival’s documentary competition, follows – it is asserted – the route of a gas pipeline. We are presented with scenes from life in various places supposedly situated along the route. The scenes are interspersed every now and then with a bright image of shiny blue and yellow pipes with red arrows, wheels and meters. They must represent the gas works, the underground, the wealth. Above, in the east, everything is grey, when it isn’t white with snow.

The further west we travel, the more colour in the images, and in the lives represented.

Usually it doesn’t make sense to talk about what is not in a film, but in this case, it does. A quote from the Odessa Film Festival: “While working on his film Mansky set himself the main task – to avoid political situations and to minimize the details of the devastation while depicting living conditions in out-of-the-way places.”1 But how can a film about a Siberia-Europe gas pipeline route not be political? Firstly, the pipeline was built during the Cold War by Russia and Western Europe; secondly, the revenue goes not to the people who live on the trajectory but to political oligarchs in the Kremlin; and thirdly, an experienced urban filmmaker depicts urban locals. Such a film is bound to be political: firstly on an international level, secondly on an economical level and thirdly on an aesthetic level.

The film starts with a short exposé about the pipeline’s history: the field appeared in 1966. The pipeline from Urengoy to Europe was built between 1982 and 1984 – in the middle of the Cold War, something the film mentions “in passing” in the text accompanying the title of the film. Its construction however was no small matter: it was financed with 3.4 billion German Marks in credits over a four-year period provided by a consortium led by the Deutsche Bank. In addition, companies from the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Italy contributed to the project in various ways.2 Interestingly, while the American Government, most notably under Reagan, saw Europe’s adventure with Russian gas as a threat to its allegiance and as rendering it vulnerable to Soviet threats, the CIA saw the enterprise as beneficial, as it made the West stay tied to Eastern Europe, softening the political climate and East-West tensions.3 It seems to have been one of the few things Reagan and Thatcher disagreed about.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, maintenance of the pipeline is in the hands of Russia, Ukraine and the former Eastern European states it passes through. State gas companies have since been privatized into OAO Gazprom and UkrTransGaz, but have also been brought back under state control, the state being the main shareholder. According to The Economist, Gazprom “serves two masters” and acts “as a bottomless wallet for Russia’s rulers”.4 As is to be expected, the locals hardly seem to profit from this wallet. Gazprom now faces an anti-trust investigation by the European Commission, which will have repercussions for Putin as well.5

Pipeline is a visually strong film. It arouses curiosity by sharing part of an activity before showing the rest. In the beginning, we see a man in medium shot making forceful up and down movements in a white landscape; gradually we learn he is making a hole in the ice, which reveals nothing but black water and dead fish. There’s a surreal image of a few rows of red chairs at an intersection, which turns out to be the location of a commemoration. Brilliant though the build up of such a scene may be, the film presents little more than clichéd ideas and imagery of Russia and Eastern Europe. We have seen the dilapidated state of affairs, the horrible working conditions, the sad commemorations and the stiff, medal laden old generals. The people in the film get very few opportunities to talk, let alone tell us anything; there are no other sources. Rather, the filmmaker quietly observes, keeping his distance, making us look at them without getting to know much about them. By evading the political, Mansky has rid his film of meaning. Instead, he gives us well crafted but empty images; wintry exoticism for the Western eye. _

1 www.oiff.com.ua/en/2013/news/truba-vitalija-manskogo-na-odesskom-kinofestivale.htm

2 Soviet gas pipeline: U.S. Options by John Hardt and Donna L. Gold, US Congressional research paper, 1982, accessible on digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metacrs8790

3 The Soviet Gas Pipeline in Perspective, Special National Intelligence Estimate, 1982, http://www.foia.cia.gov/ sites/default/files/document_conversions/17/19820921.pdf

4 Russia’s wounded giant, The Economist, March 23rd, 2012. 5 idem

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