Galina Vishnevskaya, who plays the title character in Aleksandra, is a tough old woman. At the time of the film’s release she would have been 81. Born in 1926, this means she is old enough to remember the hard years of Stalin’s purges and the Second World War. As a resident of Leningrad she would have lived through the Siege of Leningrad, in which an estimated 600,000 or so Russian civilians died. When that was over, she had to sit through whole of the Cold War with all its twists and turns. Then of course, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, which for many people would have bought uncertainty and worry. In short, she’s old enough to be capable of remembering the vast majority of 20th Century history in some way or another. You can see it in her eyes, burning with memory and age.
Aleksandra was filmed in Chechnya during full wartime. I imagine such a predicament did not worry Vishnevskaya in the slightest. At one point, Aleksandra, visiting her grandson in a military base in the war-torn region, is handed an AK-47 to investigate. She looks it over and up, points into the air, glaring down the sights. It’s the glare of a woman who has seen plenty of these things before.
Little happens here – the film consists of little more than Galina Vishnevskaya pottering around a Russian military base in Chechnya talking to the young and largely bored soldiers. A few times she takes a walk to the local marketplace, where some Chechens view her with suspicion and others view her as another human being. The slow pace allows us to soak in the film’s conversations and ideas. Aleksandra is about as anti-war a film as you’re likely to come across, almost naively so, but it is also a film about how different generations of people perceive themselves and the world around them.
At the heart of this is sentiment is a scene in which Aleksandra befriends a Chechen woman about her age at the marketplace. We visit her home, which is a little apartment that is somehow still standing amidst other buildings that weren’t so lucky. The two women between them have seen a lot of war, and the Chechen lady would not be acting irrationally if she treated our protagonist with anger, bitterness and suspicion, such is the history of Russian activity in Chechnya. But our Aleksandra is not Putin or Stalin. She is an old lady who felt alone at home after the death of her husband and wanted to see her grandson. Politics has a habit of pushing identities upon us, of crafting divides between people which fall apart as soon as one shares a cup of coffee. Politics may have told me I am a Serb, and I can choose to believe that, but ultimately it doesn’t matter when I sit down to talk to a friend from Kosovo, Bosnia, or Croatia.
The younger generations in Aleksandra seem more in hock to the identities pushed upon them. The young men that populate the military base in which Aleksandra sleeps in are mostly bored young Russians. They appear to have little to no interest as to the ideological reasoning behind their being there, and they all appear to desperately wish that they were somewhere else, somewhere with women, any kind. The presence of Aleksandra on their base appears to remind them of this fact even more painfully. The young boys look up to her as if she were their own grandmothers. They look as if they expect helpings of goulash and syrniki to magic themselves into being in her presence. And who would blame them? Some of them are conscripts, men with no intention or desire to be there. Others, such as Aleksandra’s grandson, are career soldiers. They look tired, unable to cope almost. We meet a few young Chechen men as well. They are largely suspicious of Aleksandra, understandably so. They keep their distance.
There are flaws in the film, for sure. It’s naivety about the political aspect of war is a good one to have, but it is also suggests that this film subtly ignores the day-to-day dread of living in such a war. My almost complete ignorance of the context of the Chechen war means that I really cannot say whether this is true of the film or not, but this is merely my impression of the film: that it’s profoundly humane, anti-war, idealistic bent also perhaps smudges some of the potential complexities of the social context of the war out of the way. Again though, my ignorance of the Chechen war means that I am not best placed to discuss whether this is a good observation or not.
Directed by Alexander Sokurov, most famous for Russian Ark, a feauture-length film shot in one single continuous take, Aleksandra lacks the visual bravura of that film. It is largely shot in greys and browns, a world where colour seems non-existent. Make no mistake, this is a dusty film, as dusty as any Western. Sokurov’s direction is very purposeful, his script equally so. The performance of Galina Vishnevskaya is easily the towering strength of the film. She may be old and tired, but when she walks into a room she stands an inch taller than any of the soldiers she is surrounded by. And yet, she is capable of such tenderness and sweetness too. The kind of presence one would expect from Slavic grandmothers, truly.