Bradford 2012 Review: MOSCOW DIARY

Adam Kossoff's Moscow Diary does most things a good documentary should. We get a complex, intellectually fascinating subject (a famous writer's trip to Russia in the 1920s, and his thoughts on the nascent Communist party) presented as objectively as circumstances allow. There's an easy hook (the writer's affair with another man's woman) and a deeper, more academic angle (Kossoff shot the whole thing on a mobile phone, in part as a commentary on our relationship with technology and the ways it compels us to view the world). So why is it so dull?

Okay, perhaps 'dull' is a little harsh, but a film that should offer any number of ways to engage the audience ends up frustratingly unfulfilling. The story of the German-Jewish writer Walter Benjamin and the time he spent in Moscow in the 1920s, on the one hand we get the man's internal debates on the political and social change sweeping the country (Benjamin is viewed as one of the most prominent contributors to Western Marxist thought) and on the other, his infatuation with the Latvian actress Asja Lācis, then recuperating in a Moscow sanatorium after struggling with depression.

All of which is documented for posterity in the diaries Benjamin kept. Kossoff basically cherry-picks particular extracts from these diaries for a voice actor to recite while he attempts to retrace Benjamin's steps as the writer describes them. He takes us places Benjamin stayed, things he saw or failing that, shoots modern-day landmarks in Moscow that are somehow germane to whatever the voiceover is dealing with at that point. This is fairly guerilla film-making, with pedestrians openly staring at Kossoff - he's even forced to flee a couple of times as security guards approach to demand what the crazy tourist is doing.

You could sell it fairly easily on paper. Most of the diary extracts concern Benjamin's crush, which makes him sound giddy as a schoolboy, seemingly aware he's being jerked around but so infatuated with this highly-strung woman playing the ingénue he doesn't want to upset her. The observations on the further rise of Lenin's government and the change in people's worldview - Lācis included - are fairly even-handed, almost wryly detached. While this is still high art through and through the concept itself is far from intimidating or elitist, and the right director could hook a decent-sized audience with it.

But whether Kossoff is that director is open to debate. His first stumbling block is shooting with a mobile phone; this isn't Park Chan-Wook complete with a lengthy stint in post-production, but raw, low-resolution video complete with awkward, fumbling camera angles, The concept is fine. If nothing else, the sight of what such a lo-fi approach lets Kossoff do is fascinating to an extent, and the man does try to display some kind of cinematic flair - panoramic views out of a tram, or a glimpse across a busy shopping centre from the upper levels. But it's fundamentally clumsy, headache-inducing stuff.

Worse still, Kossoff also does Moscow Diary no favours by continually throwing in slow, methodical zooms on key talking points (a statue, a particular building, an array of lights) which - keeping in mind this is blurry, grainy, lo-fi digital video - is about as much fun as it sounds. They're carefully paced and timed, and you can appreciate there's a proper academic sensibility behind them, but there's nothing to detract from their also being a nauseating, pixelated mess. Regardless of their significance, this simply isn't something most people will want to spend much time contemplating.

And on a thematic level Moscow Diary feels similarly poorly considered in practice. The love story is affecting up to a point, but it doesn't go anywhere concrete or particularly happy, and this isn't really made to feel like a vital part of Benjamin's personal development beyond the general acknowledgement Lācis was an important part of the writer's conversion to Marxist ideals. While there is a note of cynicism to the observations on what Russia was going through eighty years ago, and Kossoff manages some nods to its problems now, none of these ever get developed beyond a quick nod of the head.

Forty-five minutes simply isn't enough time to adequately explore such a multi-faceted area of discussion and although Kossoff does take a stab at focusing on just one narrative thread, he never really finds a way to convey much more with it than a kind of bloodless melancholy. At an hour and change, with more polish, this could have been a far easier, more rewarding journey... but shot quick and dirty like this, for all its undoubted merit the film feels like Adam Kossoff's journey first and foremost, and more trouble than it's worth to unpack. Go track it down if you have an interest in the subject matter, but consider Moscow Diary cautiously recommended at best.

(Moscow Diary was screened at the 18th Bradford International Film Festival, held in the UK National Media Museum in Bradford from 19th-29th April 2012.)
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