Features, Film, Film Review

BBFF DISPATCH#5: Mariupolis 2 (2022) dir. Mantas Kvedaravičius / Accidental Santa (2022) dir. Aigars Grauba

Part of the Boston Baltic Film Festival 2023


The Boston Baltic Film Festival ran in-person from Friday, 3/3 through Sunday, 3/5 at the Emerson Paramount Center, and will continue virtually through 3/19. Click here for the schedule and ticket info, and watch the site for Joshua Polanski’s continuing coverage!

“Also, I got gas poisoning,” one father says to his family, in a context where something so grim can be merely secondary information. That’s the world of Mariupol, a city in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine during the March 2022 Siege of Mariupol. It’s a world so engrossed in the war that director Mantas Kvedaravičius was captured and killed by the Russian fascists, leaving behind fiancée Hanna Bilobrova (a Ukrainian) to co-direct and finish Mariupolis 2, a sequel to their previous film about the ordinary lives of the city’s steelworkers and fishers. Kvedaravičius, a Lithuanian social anthropologist with a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge, leaves behind a documentary with very few comparisons in the history of the medium: a living, arguably unfinished record of the civilian first-hand experience of war.

According to reports from Bilobrova (via Reuters), Kvedaravičius went missing after trying to arrange for people to flee the city with them, and a few days later Russian soldiers led her to the dead body. “He was shot, not where he was found. There was no blood on the ground.” Lyudmyla Denisova, the Ukrainian human rights ombudswoman, adds to the story: “(Kvedaravičius) was taken prisoner by ‘rashists’ (‘Russian fascists’), who later shot him. The occupiers threw the director’s body out into the street.” Bilobrova, an inexperienced filmmaker, “managed to escape with the footage” and finished the documentary alongside the French actress and editor Dounia Sichov (who also edited 2022’s Return to Seoul). Kvedaravičius is honored with the main “director” credit. 

As expected, Mariupolis 2 is difficult to watch. Somewhat similar to Little Palestine: Diary of a Siege, shown at last year’s Boston Palestine Film Festival, this is real war—not a Redditor’s fever dream of Call of Duty. Buildings are hardly decipherable as buildings, food sparsely appears, and everything is ugly. But the reality of the matter is Kvedaravičius’s trip to Maripol, unfortunately, comes at a more inopportune time than Abdallah Al-Khatib’s record of life in Yarmouk in Little Palestine. At any moment, a mine could kill the very people on screen, a rocket could demolish the building behind them. The sounds unintentionally reveal the permanent incomprehension of foley artists to recreate the sounds of war in fiction film: in real war, sounds can kill. The people of Maripol no longer have the privilege to be phased by death or properly mourn. 

Life appears to be mostly an act of navigation. Focused on a church operating as a survivor’s refuge, Kvedaravičius’s camera is indistinguishable from a journalist’s pen or an anthropologist’s notepad. And he seems to know his subjects well enough to capture authentic, unscripted moments. Resourceful as one must be in these situations, each shot is recorded as nothing more than a shot—almost without the full recognition that at the end these individual records of life must be put together. Landscapes are occasionally captured vertically, presumably on a cellphone, out of convenience. One almost gets the sense that the devastating landscape imagery—filled with dust and debris, fallen buildings, and dead animals (one man locates two dead parakeets in the Russian-created rubble)—could come from a Snapchat story left on “public” for all to see. But they aren’t. Not unlike Jia Zhangke’s documentary work, Kvedaravičius and Sichov don’t want to cut, especially when it comes to empty shots of the devastated former city. These empty images linger sometimes for several minutes. Occasionally,  missiles interrupt the stillness—the deadness—of the broken scenery. But not usually. Resembling the archeological remains of Pompei or another now lost city of antiquity—images that an anthropologist and(!) archeologist would be familiar with—these images are a dirge for a dead city.

The Boston Baltic Film Festival is partnering with the Boston based non-profit Sunflower of Peace to provide medical and humanitarian aid to Ukrainians impacted by the invasion. They are also accepting donations to support this cause – you can donate through their official site.

I wouldn’t typically pair something as real as Mariupolis 2 with something as dumb as Accidental Santa, but that’s just how these dispatches worked themselves out, so here I am. A Latvian Christmas film, whose rights were recently acquired by Sony for a remake, is certainly inspired by family-friendly holiday classics like Elf (2003) and most directly Jingle Bells (1999), though it’s too derivative for my own taste. But let’s be honest: you already know whether or not you will enjoy this comedy based on the title alone. 

Incarcerated for robbing a bank, Bruno (Kaspars Karklins) receives a letter from a son he didn’t know he had that changes his life on a dime. His son will be leaving for the United States to join a junior hockey team in Boston (ayyyyee) shortly, and with his criminal record, Bruno fears he won’t ever be granted permission to enter the States. So, logically, he must break out of prison and meet his son before he leaves Riga.

After he escapes prison, Bruno disguises himself as Santa Claus and the family of a police officer incorrectly assumes he’s the Santa they rented for their family Christmas. (Yeah, you read that right: a private Santa.) The family is on the brink of collapse. At least that’s what the two children assume, so they demand from Santa the classic family miracle.

The police officer’s wife, Diana (Inga Tropa), carries forward the influencer theme from Upurga, which also featured Tropa in a key role. As an influencer (mostly YouTube?), she puts her phone in shopping carts and washer machines to capture her desired shot. I’m not sure why she does what she does, but the goofy angels, pointless as they may be, are among the film’s most interesting compositions, alongside some interesting cityscapes in the film’s first few minutes. Unexpectedly, these moments hold some brief excerpts of screenlife. Brisk as they may be, I’m always a fan of some well-positioned screenlife. 

But… you really need to love the commercialized Christmas to enjoy Accidental Santa (or Circenisa Ziemassvetki in Latvian—since its English title doesn’t bring up the correct search results)… and I don’t. The soundtrack, about half English and half Latvian, plays a series of recognizable (at least in English) holiday songs that, collectively, aren’t that easy to distinguish. And they play pretty much non-stop, so you really better love Christmas music (and the “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” type, not the “O Holy Night” ones). 

Enjoyable or not, I wouldn’t pair Accidental Santa with Mariupolis 2.

Mariupolis 2
dir. Mantas Kvedaravičius
112 min.

Accidental Santa
dir. Aigars Grauba
117 min.

Both films screened as part of the Boston Baltic Film Festival. Accidental Santa screens virtually via the festival’s website through 3/19.

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