Another film by Finnish director, Pirjo Honkasalo, 3 ROOMS OF MELANCHOLIA is nothing short of amazing. (Released in 2005, but a stunning piece of work that I’d never seen before).
The documentary opens on a graphic: ROOM 1 – Longing. Then, a fortress on the island Kronstadt northwest of St. Petersburg, holding down its tiny place in the vast and icy Baltic Sea. Young Russian boys, around 10 years old, run through a cold courtyard before the sun has yet come up at this military academy. Following drill sergeants barking commands, they use their scrawny limbs to pull themselves up on a chin-up bar, their knobbly knees jut high into the air in a syncopated frenzy.
I sat in the theater trying to figure out why these kids were there and who the hell thought it was OK to run 10 year olds as if they’re adults. A woman’s voice begins introducing us to a few of the boys, one by one. None of the stories are good ones. One boy was abandoned, found in a garbage can, and brought to the school; another’s father is a mercenary so, when his mother died, he wound up at the military academy. Every boy we meet is orphaned or from severe poverty. Many of the boys’ parents died fighting for Russia in a battle or skirmish so the boys essentially become their replacements.
Honkasalo’s close ups of their wide-eyed, sometimes sleepy, and eager to please faces are startling. The boys, particularly in target practice, waver between childhood and manhood. Some are nervous and tetchy with their guns while others are relaxed, enjoying it. She spends a good deal of worthwhile time on their faces, allowing us to study the complex emotions that flit across them. As a filmmaker, I found myself wondering, “how did she film them while they were so unaware? Where was her camera? How long was her lens?” Of course, you can always cut out people glancing at the camera but we see their faces for long stretches of time. They’re so engrossed in their training, the camera is forgotten.
At one point, the boys are watching state news. The images show an empty theater after Russians foiled a Chechen terrorist attack. Dead Chechen women, undetonated explosive strapped to their bodies, slump in the red velvet seats. I felt myself thinking, “They’re 10. They shouldn’t see this.” But this is part of their training, what they are going forth to do and who they are going forth to kill.
Near the end of Room 1, the boys who still have homes and families are allowed a home visit. I thought I understood the longing of room one: it is for childhood, for parents, for security. It broke my heart to watch these tough faces beg their parents on the phone to pick them up, to let them visit, to reassure them that the dog won’t bark at them when they come back home. This is one part of the longing but she reveals more.
One boy, Sergei, who had both parents killed in Grozny, Chechnya heads home to visit his grandmother. He suffers a lot of abuse at the academy because other boys believe he is Chechen, which is to be regarded as a wild animal in Russia. Sergei is convinced that he is Russian and his fealty lies with it. The first room ends on Sergei explaining that he already knows war and death. He’s eager to be a soldier. He longs to kill bad people. That will be his life.
ROOM 2 – Breathing. It opens in Grozny, Chechnya. The streets are deserted, save for dogs. A lot of dogs. Amidst the rubble and chaos, the dogs look at the camera with bewildered expressions. There’s no food, no water, nothing but earth, shrapnel and concrete rubble. Then we see the people. Small boys clamber over the rubble with toy guns, shooting at each other. A woman has rigged a pulley to the outside of a barely standing concrete housing complex. She and her daughter carefully pull up buckets of water.
We then meet Hadizat, a woman who gathers up the children of Chechnya and smuggles them out to relative safety in neighboring Ingushetia. She has come to fetch 3 small children from their dying mother. The scene is so horrible, it’s painful to watch. Hadizat tries to reassure the children that their mother will visit once she is better. The 3 kids, all under the age of 5, know perfectly well that they are saying goodbye to their mother forever and sob hysterically.
The content of Room 2 is almost blinding in its intensity. But there is one thing I intensely disliked about Room 2 – it’s in black and white. And it looks to me like she shot it in color but then pulled it all out in post (an effect that particularly grates on me because you can tell the film images are meant to have color). But mainly I don’t like it because it’s distracting to have it in black and white. It reminds me that it’s a film, that it is some sort of Art. It makes what is going on in Grozny less real to me.
ROOM 3 – Remembering. Hadizat gets the children out of Grozny and brings them to a small refugee camp in Ingushetia. We meet some of the other children in the house as the same voice over from Room 1 explains how they got there. One girl, now 17, was raped by Russian soldiers at the age of 12. The fetus was aborted at 7 months. Another boy, Aslan, lost his father in a bombing. His mother was driven mad by the daily raids, the planes, the bombings. She tried to throw him off of a 9th floor balcony.
Aslan is also about 10 years old. He watches the planes flying overhead and the far-off smoke plumes from Grozny with a terrifying comprehension in his eyes. Unlike the boys at the academy who are being trained to fight and to hate, Aslan is already full of on-the-ground training. He will fight and kill – or be killed – by our young boys from the military academy.
The children sit around a TV in the small house, watching the same news report about the Chechen terrorist bombing in the theater that we saw in Room 1. But these young faces stare at the dead, blindfolded, explosives-laden women with grief. These are their mothers.
Honkasalo’s film brings us full circle, an unbreakable circle of violence and death.