In “Close Relations,” subtitled “The Ukraine crisis, my family and I,” prominent documentary director Vitaly Mansky uses the prism of his own extended family to explore contemporary divisions in Ukrainian society over the Ukraine-Russia conflict and to question what constitutes national identity. For Mansky, whose North Korean-shot doc “Under The Sun” is currently in U.S. cinemas, this film is equally full of absurdities, albeit more personal and less strikingly visual than his previous work. Featuring his mother, a sibling, aunts, cousins, and other family connections, it is more humorously home-movie-like, and also more of a gab-fest. Festivals and broadcasters will want to join the family, although additional didactics and graphics could help Westerners unfamiliar with the area’s complicated history.
Mansky serves as both voiceover narrator and provocative on-screen presence, interpolating between branches of the family who live in Lviv, Odessa, and Sevastopol in Crimea. He even visits the separatist Donetsk region and films with what looks like a secret camera.
Mansky was born and raised during Soviet times in Lviv, a large city in western Ukraine near the Polish border. He went to study in Moscow, and was just starting his career as a director when the Soviet Union broke apart. As he relates, “I became a Russian rather than Ukrainian citizen simply because I happened to live in Moscow. At the time, it seemed the obvious choice and I didn’t lose much sleep over it. As children of the Soviet Union, we couldn’t imagine a reality in which proper borders would strictly separate the former Soviet republics.” In contrast, the vast majority of his family remained in Ukraine, and now, in the post-Maidan-uprising era, find themselves on opposite sides of barricades.
While visiting his aged mother in Lviv (and trying to persuade her to wait in a long queue to vote), he traces their family background. One grandmother was a Pole from Lithuania. When, he wonders, did Lithuanian Poles become Ukrainians? What comprises nationality? Geography? Blood? Language?
And what about the inhabitants of the Crimea who essentially went to bed Ukrainian and woke up Russian, whether they liked it or not? Mansky examines some of the unintended consequences, such as the Sevastopol sports club that can no longer compete in the Ukrainian leagues, nor may they be part of the Russian championships, since according to UEFA rules they belong to an “annexed territory.” Mansky’s disappointed relative Maxim sighs and calls it a “transition period.” At the Sevastpol relatives’ home they also celebrate two New Year’s eves, in two languages, with different songs, because the Russian one arrives an hour earlier.
Meanwhile, in the Black Sea port of Odessa, Mansky’s sister Alona and her husband Igor fear that their eldest son will soon be conscripted. Although Putin denies it, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is still bloodily simmering, with thousands of lives lost since former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych fled the country. Speaking of Yanukovych, Mansky injects further dark humor into the film with a visit to the former president’s abandoned estate in Kiev, which proves to be as vulgarly decorated as that of any other international dictator.
Editors Peteris Kimelis and Gunta Ikere use the graphic of a timeline spanning from 2014 to 2016, along with the name of each city to help viewers keep track of Mansky’s meanderings. Although there isn’t one, a repeated graphic of the Mansky family tree would also come in handy.
While Mansky may not have been able to convince his various relatives to accept each other’s opposing views, the making of the film wound up having a major effect on his own life. As he notes in his closing narration, “I no longer live in Russia so I don’t have to consider events there my own personal tragedy.”