One of the things I missed most about New York when I was living in Ho Chi Minh City was theaters like the IFC Center in the West Village. While looking for a Thursday night diversion recently, I discovered that the director of My Perestroika, Robin Hessman, and one of the families she profiled in the documentary, the Meyersons, would be attending a screening of the film that night at IFC.
The film tracks the lives of four subjects, from their childhood in Soviet Russia through their coming of age during perestroika to the present Putin-dominated day. In addition to documenting the day to day of schoolteachers Boris and Lyubov Meyerson and their son, Hessman turns her lens on a French shirt shop franchisee, a hopeless punk rocker, and a wealthy wife cum billiards company saleswoman.
In a film such as this, history and politics are certain to loom large, but Hessman manages throughout to establish Soviet culture as a context rather than a subject. This is a film about people; the tagline, after all, is “A nation’s history is personal.” Still, I was not surprised when, during the Q&A, audience members, both Russian and American alike, either directly questioned Hessman and the Meyersons about politics or paired their comments with statements about the dire situation in Russia.
At one point, an American man asked Hessman if she ever felt compelled to question her subjects directly about politics. She offered an explanation of the relationship between the personal and political in Russia. For many people, politics existed parallel to their everyday lives during the Soviet era, and the two very seldomly intersected. It was only during the 90s that free elections created that intersection. Under Putin, the personal and poltical have since diverged into parallel existences again. The Meyersons’ answers to similar questions seemed to echo this idea; things are not getting better, and they will not at least until Putin is out of the picture. But we’ll keep living our lives.
This idea of a parallel existence between the personal and political, where seldom the two shall meet, seems very much to apply to life in Vietnam, as well. The questions I get about living in Vietnam often imply an overriding idea of the place, one essentially defined by one-party communist rule. But Vietnam is a country of about 88 million people in which membership in the ruling Communist Party stands at 3.6 million. And while the I consider the Vietnamese to be tremendously well-informed–the sight of xe om drivers cracking the morning paper is still fresh in my mind–it also struck me as a fairly apolitical place. Like perestroika, doi moi and subsequent reforms have placed the focus squarely on a now obtainable better future.
And that’s why I think, as a journalist, filmmaker, or documentarian of another stripe who lives long term in a country like Russia or Vietnam, one’s attention naturally veers from the overtly political and begins to focus on the ways in which people create paths of self-determination in places where human rights and civil liberties are curtailed. It’s why the topics broached in a soap opera seem as fascinating as the outcome of a party congress, why consumer trends can seem revelatory, and the choice of one motorbike over another is suddenly fascinating.
When you crack open that monolithic idea of a place and start examining the minutiae of everyday life, you realize that you could spend your entire life in a place, and never come close to offering a definitive portrayal of it. You can only ever offer glimpses and impressions–hopefully rendered with respect and discipline (which Hessman certainly does in My Perestroika). There will always be people whose instinct is to boil down a place or a people to an essential truth, but for journalists and documentarians, I think the best possible retort will always remain, “Yeah, but…”
My Perestroika is successful, I believe, because it acknowledges a widely held belief about a certain place in a certain era, but offers plenty of buts.