While the United States ratcheted up sanctions on Russia, a crowd of Russians and Americans alike came together on a Williamsburg rooftop last night to participate in the most universal of pastimes: staring at highway wrecks.
At the Rooftop Films screening of The Road Movie, bartenders poured so-called Russian Road Kills. The drink was a cheeky nod to Dmitrii Kalashnikov’s film, which gathers over an hour of Russian dashboard cam footage, running the gamut from horrifying collisions to car-on-bear chases to negotiations with roadside prostitutes (no, pee play was not discussed). The footage that appears in the film had previously been posted online, so watching it strung together with minimal editing was something akin to disappearing down a YouTube wormhole on a lazy Sunday. Even the breathtaking view from the William Vale’s rooftop was no competition for the surreal landscapes on screen: apocalyptic forest fires, harrowing snowstorms, and comets shooting over sepia-toned cityscapes.
During a post-screening Q&A, Kalashnikov told the crowd why he spent a year of his life making the film, which won’t be released here until early next year. “The dashboard cam videos are quite unique in the documentary sense, because the distance between the camera and the persons who are behind the camera, who are the characters in this film, are very close,” he said. “They don’t think about the camera. They act very natural.”
It’s that “fly-on-the-wall concept” that caused the crowd to laugh, during the film, as a faceless couple bickers after narrowly avoiding a fatal wreck. In another scene, a couple watches as a parachuter appears out of nowhere and slams into a building. “I want to ask him, was that your first attempt?” deadpans one of the incredulous witnesses.
While The Road Movie depicts brutal collisions that’ll make you chomp down on a knuckle, it’s mercifully free of grizzly, Faces of Death-style carnage. Because the dashboard cams are fixed in one place, the aftermath of a given highway wreck often occurs off-camera, causing us to wonder “is he alive, or is he dead,” Kalashnikov observed. “You don’t know.”
In some cases, the answer could be found in the YouTube comments, but for the most part, Kalashnikov said, “I didn’t try to find out the context of the videos… It wasn’t my purpose.” As a result, the viewer gets no contextual information; there’s purposefully no narration. In one instance, a driver attempts to overtake a convoy and is stopped in his tracks as a bunch of uniformed tough guys hop out of their cars in the middle of the road and beat their chests. The film doesn’t bother informing us that the enraged toughs are from SOBR—a Russian equivalent of SWAT, though Kalashnikov later explained it in the Q&A.
Kalashnikov chose clips depicting incidents that were “funny, fascinating, crazy, tragic”—everything from an armored tank cutting someone off at a car wash, to a troika crash that can be seen at the 50-second mark of the compilation below (this and other clips embedded in this post are shown as they originally appeared on YouTube, not as edited for the film.)
Of course, there’s plenty of road rage. With its dashboard perspective and talk radio often blaring in the background, the film feels a lot like Grand Theft Auto when the sledgehammers and guns come out. In one scene, an emaciated man, as if high on bath salts, jumps onto the hood of a car and pounds his head against the window even as the driver accelerates in a terrified panic.
Throughout all this, passengers use the sort of foul language that Kalashnikov said isn’t permitted in Russian theaters. In one scene, a pair of seemingly drunk drivers crash through a guardrail and plunge into a river. “Holy shitballs!” one of them declares with mind-boggling nonchalance as the car moves across the water. “We are sailing.”
Though many Russians keep dashboard cams running in case they need the footage for insurance purposes, Kalashnikov believes that highway collisions are no more frequent in Russia than they are here. “I’m sure crazy situations happen everywhere,” he said. “But how the person in the car can deal with it when something happens, that is interesting in the anthropological and sociological point of view. Maybe in that sense Russian people are a bit different.”