Nestled at the edge of Siberia in Russia’s Ural mountains, Chelyabinsk is one of the most polluted cities on earth.
Half documentary, half visual art, Harmony embraces dark and smoky shots of the city’s heavy industry to create an atmosphere of inescapable permanence and a tradition of hard work. But the omni-present factory floor only provides a backdrop to the film’s main focus: the drive, determination and creativity of the city’s young athletes. Mixing short, steady snapshots with a diverse soundtrack of Russian rap, hip hop and opera, the film builds a portrait of budding ice hockey players and rhythmic gymnasts as they strive to reach the highest levels of Russia’s proudest sports.
“At the offset of the film, we aimed to use the city and sports as an allegory to understand the wider picture of Russia, and on a subtle level explore the dynamics between power and the importance of beauty and success,” film maker Frederick Paxton and producer Maria Babikova told The Calvert Journal.
But even in the bright lights of the dance studio, things are more complicated than they seem: many of these young athletes are pushed almost to breaking point, ruthlessly measured against the strict hyper-masculine and feminine ideals each sport embodies.
The film marks a homecoming for Babikova, who grew up in the city and trained as a rhythmic gymnast for a decade.
“The idea of going back to my old gym was intimidating but interesting to me”, says Maria. “I was torn between not wanting to dig up the old childhood ghosts and desperately wanting to explore and understand them. What we found hard to witness was the expectations placed on young people in terms of their role as men and women in society. I felt the weight of it growing up, and the relationships and dynamics of this is something we discussed in the making the film.”
The film also highlights Russia’s unwavering emphasis on success in competition, pushing even amateur athletes to build their lives around sport. While the image plays into stereotypes of Russia as a nation obsessed with sporting glory, Paxton and Babikova say the film will build on and expand Western stereotypes, rather than enforce them.
“There is a reason some of those stereotypes exist”, the pair say. “We try to place our focus on the subtler and more hyper-real issues that apply to the everyday reality — not the cliché good versus evil.”
While the unwavering work ethic and desire to achieve built into the Russian system can be seen as a weakness, it can also be seen as one of its great strengths, Babikova and Paxton say. “Making a film that explores the everyday reality of Russia was important to us. It is beautiful and complex, but problematic and confused country …but aren’t we all?”, they say. “This approach allows the viewer to make up their own mind about the complex and problematic reality of modern Russia.”
Harmony will be having its UK premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest on June 9 and June 10. For more information, click here.