Imbuing the harsh realities of the northern arctic frontier with a warm, human touch, “At the Edge of Russia” artfully slips from nonfiction parameters into a near-narrative mode as it portrays a raw recruit’s first months at a Russian army border post. An impressive debut from Polish helmer Michal Marczak, this immensely likable doc will be hard for fests to resist, and could lure some comers on the distrib front for upscale, art-oriented vid play.
Arriving at night in what looks like an impossibly cold environment, young Alexei Zarubin is assigned to clean floors, wash dishes, take water waste outside and dig pathways through eight-foot snowdrifts in front of the aging military station. He’s surrounded by vets, some old enough to be his father, and though Zarubin is chided from time to time for rookie mistakes, Marczak goes to great pains to underline that he’s not being verbally or psychologically abused in any way.
Indeed, what emerges in “At the Edge of Russia” is less a young man’s coming of age than a study of a growing cross-generational bond that men under such harsh conditions must form. Some of the oldest men at the post take Zarubin under wing and give him advice (how to avoid frostbite) and unexpected insights. The good-looking youth, fresh from college, impresses the guys with his staying power when they’re holed up in an ice cave.
One of the few men who’s identified during the course of the film, Valentin Voronov, reveals some of his inner demons, such as his deep distrust of women after two divorces. The end of Voronov’s first stint marks the film’s poignant finish, but not before the men celebrate two key dates on the calendar, Border Guard Day and Victory Day, which brings out the patriot in everyone.
As an outsider Pole observing Russians, Marczak is respectful but determined to get as close as possible, and his evident humanism lifts his docu above many past works about grunts in uniform. As a filmmaker, he’s not seduced by the inherently gorgeous and awesome landscapes surrounding his subjects, showing greater interest in the soldiers’ penchant for reciting the work of poets like Lope de Vega or playing guitar. Not once does anyone comment on the absurdity of the task at hand, since no border incursions have ever occurred at this or other northern Russian posts, and the only likely invaders the men may encounter are animals.
Under what must have been horribly difficult conditions, cinematographer Radoslaw Ladczuk achieves wonders in digital video, while editor Dorota Wardeszkiewicz applies a rigorous pace, never rushing progress but packing plenty of incident into 71 minutes’ playing time. Invisibly to the viewer, Marczak brought several soldiers together from various stations, lending a slight fictional patina to scenes that are sometimes staged and sometimes not.