Interesting at its four-hour running length, this latest offering from the “National Geographic Explorer” series would have been truly compelling at two hours.
It may seem as slow and meandering as the river it attempts to trace, but by methodically following the course of a similar documentary made 17 years ago, producers Cornelia and Peter Schnall have created a probing portrait of a nation in flux and a people not altogether sure of the ways their lives are changing.
The breakup of the Soviet Union has brought both the blessings and burdens of freedom to Russia. From the armament center of Nizhniy Novgorod, a city once closed to the West, to Astrakhan, on the edge of the river’s delta as it spills into the Caspian Sea, we see a nation trying to make sense of its past and future.
In Kazan, the first flush of entrepreneurism is held captive by the lawless chokehold of local gangs; the undermanned police are at their mercy. In Tolyatti , the technological successes of the auto works have wreaked environmental havoc on the surrounding countryside.
Farther south, in Volgograd, the former Stalingrad, heroes of one of the great battles of WWII struggle to understand their years of sacrifice in the face of a dissolving history.
In Astrakhan, the unchecked pollution of the chemical and gas factories have turned a once-proud model of an industrial complex into a dangerous dumping ground of toxic waste; its fallout has spread far to the south, threatening the very existence of fishing on the Caspian.
For years, no one could speak publicly of the fears and the dangers. Freedom, viewers hear from people along the river, has brought a voice, but it has yet to bring solutions. The Russians themselves know it will take time. And hope. Both of which seem to be limited commodities when attitudes are clashing and society seems threadbare.
And, still, through it, the Volga flows. It is still the nation’s lifeline, though more symbolic today than commercial. “The Volga,” sighs an old woman in the fishing village of Tishkova, “means life.” Then she drinks to the river, and the uncertain future she shares with it. It’s the image that ultimately holds all four hours together.