Thoughts on Dovlatov (Довлатов 2018)

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2019 Taipei Literature Film Festival.

We in the West know about Soviet Realism, the dictum that art must be about how the State and Party lead the people to prosperity, but how does a society feel with only one kind of art? Dovlatov (Довлатов 2018), directed and cowritten by Alexei German, Jr., with Yuliya Tupikina, gives us a glimpse by following famous-late-in-life Russian émigré writer Sergei Dovlatov (a tone-perfect Milan Marić) around Leningrad for a week in November 1971 as he suffers isolation, rejection, indignities, and the loss of friends to death, arrest, and emigration—the lattermost an option he would finally take in 1979.

Dovlatov tells his mother that he’s barred from the Union of Soviet Writers, virtually a sine qua non for publication, and the film just gets bleaker from there, gallows humor notwithstanding. He’s working on a novel, but to make ends meet he takes on various reporting gigs that prove too absurd for him to take seriously. One editor wants him to write a poem full of “heroics and glory” about offshore oil drilling, but what he turns in is campy and ironic. It’s not just him: There’s a perennial parade of writers cycling through the editors’ offices, entering with a manuscript and leaving with a rejection, with their manuscripts sent to local schools for scratch paper.

What can they do but congregate at socials and parties, talking of art and artistry and art-world gossip? The film’s nostalgic sepia hue (shot by Lukasz Zal) is most noticeable here, but the coziness of these affairs is undercut by how the dialogue is written and sound-edited (by Ivan Gusakov and Dimitriy Vasilev). People flow in and out of conversations—threatened to be overwhelmed by background noises and other conversations—but never seem to reach a conclusion, creating an atmosphere of disconnection, dislocation, and faint paranoia.

The central irony of the film is that these artists of various mediums offer solace and support to each other via solidarity against the ostensibly solidarity-focused aesthetic regime of Soviet Realism. Regardless of what they think of each other as individual artists, they agree that, as future Nobel-laureate Joseph Brodsky (Artur Beschastny) says, “We are the defenders of Russian art.” They didn’t start out with that goal, but circumstances have forced them to recognize that any art that doesn’t toe the Party line is, by definition, engagée. The question on everyone’s minds: What happens when they die?

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