Credit: Jour2fete
by Luke Gorham Featured Film

Paradise — Alexander Abaturov [Cinéma du Réel ’23 Review]

March 31, 2023

While global headlines are presently dominated by Russia’s ongoing onslaught of imperialist atrocity, Alexander Abaturov’s Paradise turns its eye to the country’s east, where casual bureaucratic cruelty fixes the Republic of Sakha’s taiga-dwelling denizens in perpetual danger. An opening text scrawl offers specifics: in summer 2021, an extreme heatwave and resulting drought triggered massive forest fires, and it was decided that in certain, rural areas, no government-backed firefighting intervention was needed if the anticipated damages fell short of the expense to challenge the blazes. It was left to local inhabitants, then, to fight The Dragon, as the cascading, racing flames were so dubbed. This opening is immediately followed by a young girl in the village of Shologon (where the documentary is set) attempting to memorize a passage: “Advise me, sacred mountain. How does one reconcile man?”

It’s a question that is, of course, unanswerable to any satisfying degree, but one which guides and pervades all of Abaturov’s observational, largely unstructured (in any conventional sense) Paradise, the query itself the closest we get to any kind of statement of intent. Everything is freighted with potential meaning. What of a government that places financial consideration above the lives of its citizens, particularly within this context where 80% of the regions affected by the enacted policy are dominated by ethnic minorities? What happens to a community’s collective psychology and identity when survival is a daily concern, life-and-death stakes rendered a mundanity? How does one’s notion of futurity reorganize itself around new realities? To the degree that Abaturov attempts any answers, he takes care to do so presentationally rather than discursively. Scenes of controlled burns, strategically felled trees, and planning sessions weave with those of wild horses kicking up dust on village streets, the glow of a tablet reflecting on a child’s face, and locals eating sandwiches on lunch breaks, flames licking at the edges of their carved-out, temporary haven. Masks are a common sighting in Paradise as well, the associated suggestions of 2021’s Covid-era living both thematic companion and refraction of the community’s looming fiery threat; iconography we’ve internalized over the 2020s is subtly and powerfully abstracted in its opaque inclusion here. But no scene or rhetorical throughline is over-enunciated or saddled with maudlin sentiment, the weight of the film’s images to be read in the accumulation of spaces between them.

This careful restraint likewise applies to Abaturov’s approach to visual construction, which is essential to Paradise’s considerable power. Thick, ochre-orange smoke clogs the film’s frames, its backgrounds choked in desaturation. There’s the insinuation of armageddon in its almost spectral compositions, black ash peppering  the smoldering landscape — more than anything, Paradise’s visual character recalls the post-apocalyptic, sci-fi-inflected imagery of the Floria Sigismondi-directed music video from Sigur Ros’ “Vaka.” But thankfully, there is no needless aestheticizing here, which would have the effect of cheapening the very real human concerns inherent — spectacle is never the strategy or personality here. Abaturov instead keeps his formal designs humble, trusting in his portrait’s essential power to reach viewers. In one scene late in the film, a local worker, one of many in the group, beams, his unruly mustache entirely frozen, tendrils rigid as they move over his upper lip. There’s melancholy in Paradise, but as in that indelible image, there’s also a curious joy; in the land, in each other, and in surviving. The Dragon is still out there, uncertainty remains, help may not come. But we smile our way into tomorrow, as best we can.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 13.