The old Soviet Union is not dead – it is still very much alive in Magnitogorsk – an unsightly town in the middle of Russia. Director Gabriel Tejedor was attracted to the place because it was described as a ‘Mad Max movie set’. He was not disappointed, but in the midst burning steel and smouldering socialism he found some very real people.
Driving through Magnitogorsk, the camera of magnificent DOP Camille Cottagnoud reveals an impressive decor setting of gigantic pipes and chimneys, spewing red flames and dense clouds.
Everything looks oversized, hot and industrial, stripped of humanity. But in the middle of this hellish inferno, Tejedor finds a warm family and a society built by and dependant on the Kombinat steel factory.
The people’s relationship with the industrial conglomerate is ambivalent: on the one hand their entire existence revolves around it: all of the jobs and a lot of the entertainment is provided by Kombinat.
But the steel plant is also responsible for the horrendous air and water pollution in the region, causing cancer and other diseases, such as the learning difficulties suffered by the daughter of Guenia, one of the film’s characters.
Guenia is the brother of Sasha, around whom the film revolves. Like the town, he leaves a tough first impression. But very soon we learn about his unexpected leisure activities: at night he swaps his working boots for fine leather shoes to practise his salsa, which he dances with some merit.
Through Sasha we get to know his family, as well as that of his dance teacher – all of them people who have toyed with the thought of leaving their home town, in search of a better and cleaner future.
Their parents’ generation represent the old Russia, with their love of traditions, security and authority. They see no point in questioning their existence. The air may be polluted and there’s no fish in the lake, but there’s food and housing and family and friends, all of which leads to discussions which give an insight into the soul of Russian society.
Director Tejedor quietly paints the picture of this community by following the activities of his characters, leading up to Victory Day, which is celebrated with impressive displays of arts, crafts and weaponry.
The camera spends a great deal of time at the dance studio, closely following Sasha who visibly puts his heart and soul into the movements, and the director shows a keen eye for subtle forms of communication, whether transmitted via body or word.
Kombinat is a beautiful portrait of this typical, and of course also very universal, community, where people are driven by basic human needs and capable of creating a loving and warm society under the harshest of conditions. It celebrates the resilience of people and the basic goodness they possess. It is also an avowed aubade to the steel industry – its rawness, greatness and allure.
It doesn’t judge, but shows you how and where to look, so you can find beauty in everything: a dark factory hall, a sky lined with smokestacks, the movement of a shoulder, a look of love in an eye.
Director: Gabriel Tejedor. Country: Switzerland. Time: 1h 15mins