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Film Review: ‘Domino Effect’

In Abkhazia, a splinter state in the Caucuses, a native sports minister and his Russian wife navigate treacherous cross-cultural shoals.

Raphael Ampar, Natasha Ampar, Aliona Niesmejanowa, Ludmilla Ampar, Sofja Ampar. (Russian, Abkhazian dialogue)

If documentarians Elwira Niewiera and Piotr Rosolowski had set out to make a purely fictional Eastern European black comedy, they may not have succeeded in capturing the pathos and absurdity that reality (along with judicious editing) so amply supplies in “Domino Effect.” Set in Abkhazia, a largely unrecognized country in the Caucuses that broke off from Georgia following intense warfare, the film revolves around the recent cross-cultural marriage of sports minister Rafael Ampar and his pregnant Russian opera-singer-wannabe wife, Natasha. Lacking obvious hooks, “Domino Effect” will need savvy marketing and strong critical support to attract the audiences it deserves.

Abkhazia’s hard-won independence bred a fierce nationalism, a policy of excluding all things not Abkhazian and a lingering, ambivalent resentment of its almost total economic dependence on Russia.  This directly impacts on Russian-born Natasha’s attempts to make a home for herself in this foreign land.  Natasha feels excluded and not without cause — accompanying her husband to his hometown for a traditional annual ceremony, she is told she cannot attend because she failed to bring a proper gift, a requirement neither her husband nor her in-laws bothered to inform her about. The filmmakers intercut between the woods where the whole village engages in a quasi-pagan feast and a bitter argument between the left-behind Natasha and her sister-in-law.

Rafael, on his side, accuses Natasha of feeling superior to everyone and everything around her. In this he is seconded by Natasha’s young daughter Aliona, a frequent visitor who loves her time in Abkhazia and castigates her mother for not trying harder to adapt. But if Natasha’s impatience and lack of graciousness sometimes verge on shrewishness, there is no escaping the country’s visible stagnation or the ludicrousness of its ambitions to impose itself as a full-fledged nation.

Certainly no one could fault Rafael for trying to elevate his country through his position as minister of sports. But the results would be flat-out humiliating if they were not so hilariously lame. The 19th annual soccer championships feature more players on the field than spectators in the stadium. Tryouts for high-school sports engender seriously lopsided, teetering cartwheels and stabs at simple calisthenics so inept that it’s hard to believe they are not deliberate self-parodies — a sentiment evidently shared by Rafael and other members of the selection committee, who alternately exchange weary looks of disbelief and bury their heads in their hands.

But the piece de resistance proves to be the Intl. Domino Championships, Raphael’s best chance to put Abkhazia on the map. Apparently after the war with Georgia, survivors had nothing to do but play dominoes — or so opine two old men in a tiny kiosk purporting to represent Abkhazia’s TV station. The championship boasts all the usual fanfare — or at least, Abkhazia’s version of fanfare. It rains on the opening parade, which features a smattering of militia in dress uniform followed by flag-bearing contingencies of the handful of nations that officially recognize this splinter host country, with single figures carrying flags of no-shows. The games themselves no sooner begin than a power outage plunges the room into darkness.

This is not to deny Abkhazia’s real charm. The capitol, Sukhumi, where most of the docu unfolds, served as a popular seaside resort in Soviet times. A fantastical but disintegrating pier, dilapidated once-luxury apartment buildings and a half-sunk ship, though offering little in the way of comfort or security, remain stubbornly picturesque. Shots of Natasha, Rafael and Aliona luxuriating on the beach, enjoying spectacular sunsets, coincide perfectly with the pic’s counterintuitively upbeat absurdism.dd

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Film Review: 'Domino Effect'

Reviewed at Documentary Fortnight, Museum of Modern Art, New York, Feb. 20, 2015. (Also in Hot Docs Film Festival; Visions du Reel.) Running time: 76 MIN. (Original title: “Domino effekt”)

Production: (Documentary — Germany-Poland) An Otter Films, Zero One Films production, in co-production with RBB, in co-operation with Arte. (International sales: Autlook Filmsales, Vienna.) Produced by Anna Wydra, Anne Carolin Renniger, Tomas Kufus.

Crew: Directed by Elwira Niewiera, Piotr Rosolowski. Written by Rosolowski, Niewiera. Camera (color, HD), Rosolowski; editors, Karoline Schulz, Andrezej Dabrowski; music, Maciej Cieslak; sound, Marcin Lenarczyk, Tomas Wieczorek, Niewiera, Jorg Hohne; sound designer, Marcin Lemarczyk, Francieszek Kozlowski.

With: Raphael Ampar, Natasha Ampar, Aliona Niesmejanowa, Ludmilla Ampar, Sofja Ampar. (Russian, Abkhazian dialogue)

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