The quietly powerful documentary "My Perestroika" opens with images of uniformed children covering a massive parade ground in Moscow, with one youngster thanking the Soviet leader at the time, Leonid Brezhnev, for their "happy childhood." As the camera continues to pan across that sea of similarity, we hear a woman's thoughtful ruminations: "I can't say I wanted to be like everyone else, it wasn't that exactly, I simply was like everyone else."
The voice belongs to Lyuba Meyerson, one of five ordinary Russians featured in filmmaker Robin Hessman's compelling portrait of the generation who came of age as the USSR crumbled around them. The title is a fitting play on the term Mikhail Gorbachev would choose to refer to the political and economic reform he ushered in during the mid-'80s, making the public personal, which is exactly what the film does.
Hessman's impressive documentary debut captures those massive political shifts without scholars or pundits, but through the eyes of an eclectic and articulate group who let us into their lives today, and look back at their childhood, as they try to explain the forces that rocked their world.
The U.S.-born filmmaker had a long interest in the country, heading there just out of high school, earning a cinematography degree there and spending her early career producing the Russian version of "Sesame Street." When work brought her back to the States, she found herself still wanting to tell the story of her generation of Russians. In 2005, she began filming interviews, collecting archival footage and in the process discovering a remarkable trove of 8mm home movies from her subjects and others of that generation.
The Meyerson family, Lyuba, her husband Borya and their young son Mark become the centerpiece. They were a good choice for all sorts of reasons, their candor and their insights chief among them. The couple teach history at Moscow's School No. 57, where Mark goes to school, so they are engaged in the real work of making sense of the country's past for a new generation. They also were very much a part of the Communist system growing up — becoming Octoberists as youngsters, wearing the red kerchiefs of the Pioneers in middle school, joining the Komsomol as soon as they were old enough, with Borya doing the mandatory military service. Lyuba is the admitted conformist, Borya the rebel. They live in the same apartment where Borya grew up.
The rest of the group Hessman assembles began years ago as classmates but turned into adults representing a range of experiences and attitudes. The renegade is Ruslan, who spent years as a founding member of a popular punk band, NAIV, before becoming disillusioned with its growing commercialism. Now he plays for pennies in the subways.
Andrei is the closest the group has to a mogul, making the most of the country's economic changes; he's now the owner of a thriving chain of men's boutiques selling high-end French shirts and ties. Olga, who was the prettiest girl in the class, is now a single mother scraping by, sharing an apartment with her sister and nephew, and paying the bills by working for a company that services pool tables around the city.
Hessman takes her time with her subjects, letting us get to know them as they, in turn, end up introducing us to a side of Russia few of us have probably seen. It is quite something to watch their home movies of summer vacations, their first day of school. Those carefree images become a stark contrast as they sit in their kitchens or offices and talk of their growing frustration with the political system, the reality of politics and reform in Russia today. They are candid in detailing the shortcomings — their country's and their own.
"My Perestroika" reminds us that no matter how repressive a government, no matter how entrenched attitudes may seem, underneath the surface there are countless individuals very much like us.