Kaleria Michailovna, the former head of the outpatients’ clinic in her home city of Penza 700 kilometres south-east of Moscow, is a respected and well-known figure back home. Her job put her among her city’s political elite. The shock of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, indeed of the entire system, still affects her life and that of all her generation. The intelligentsia who worked within the Soviet system did not profit from perestroika, quite the contrary.
Today Kaleria is a pensioner. Every two months, she and her friend Valentina travel to Warsaw together, where they sell second-hand watches, imitation vanilla flavouring, henna, pepper, ball bearings and cleaning sponges; anything that costs nearly nothing in Penza and therefore can be sold at a profit in Poland.
Svetlana Anatolievna comes from Brest, the town on the border between Belarus and Poland. Having lost her job as a music teacher through perestroika, she initially tried, like so many others, to make a living with cross-border small trade in Poland. While waiting for her customers, she read a great deal to dispel the boredom that makes up a large part of the work at the bazaar. In time, she realised that other traders were more interested in her books than the Poles were in her wares. So Svetlana had the idea of turning her passion into a business, and she opened a kiosk selling a large selection of Russian literature at the Jarmark Europa. Now she sells or lends out contemporary books, classics and novels as well as Russian music and videos.
Her bazaar library has become a lucrative business serving the thousands of Russian-speaking traders who spend from five in the morning to midday at the market and then somehow have to while away the rest of the day in cramped quarters.
The film follows Kaleria and Svetlana on their travels, at home and at the bazaar, and observes the effects of the EU’s eastward enlargement through the eyes of those who will always remain outside.
Time and again while making this film, there were situations in which I couldn’t shoot. For instance, on the border between Belarus and Poland. The camera doesn’t get to see what really happens there. In Russia itself, whether on trains or in public squares, we were constantly approached by extremely polite men in civilian clothes, who asked us what and why we were filming. Even the people on the streets were suspicious, especially if I pointed my camera at completely unspectacular things. We needed a lot of time and patience to shoot in public, and not least the diplomatic skills of our interpreter, Ina. Kaleria and Svetlana preferred to neither say nor point out certain things in front of the camera. I respected that. I came up against so many restrictions during filming that I often asked myself how important it really was to shoot a particular situation. The constant “nyet” forever threatened to trip me and the project itself up. Especially me, a filmmaker who prefers not to shoot truly exciting situations. On the other hand, I believe that the strategies usually adopted by TV reporters in such cases (pixelling out faces, re-enacting scenes or filming closed doors) only highlight the medium’s helplessness when faced with a situation in which something cannot be shown. Money or television backing might have opened many doors for me, but subsidies weren’t available for this film and the television didn’t want to get involved either. I had to find a form that suited both me and the (financial) constraints of the project.
So I decided not only to show the concrete images of the journeys my protagonists’ goods took in their bags, but also to explain the images I couldn’t show and thus incorporate the conditions in which the film was made. This gave the film a very unusual approach and form in which the images we couldn’t film are as important as the those we could, in which words conjure up images while the screen remains black or a text explains something that the images do not know.
These non-filmed images come to my mind when I look back. The things I recorded have been filed away, so to speak, and are thus forgotten. The images I didn’t record are brighter and more powerful than anything I could ever have recorded.