Nowhere Man, Please Listen
The mystery: Who is Leonid Loktev? In a series of scenes shot in the backyard, we hear Julia's voice off-camera as she tries to coax responses from him, or just an acknowledgment of her presence. "Dad, look at me," she insists (also in Russian); but his eyes, turned away from her, remain as blank as two mirrors sunk in shadow. "Are you mad at me?" Julia asks. "Did I do something to hurt you?" He doesn't seem to hear. But when told to say "Hi," he whispers it--then whispers it again and again and again, drooling slightly as he speaks.
Is Leonid a kind of automaton? Unfortunately for Larisa and Julia, the answer isn't that simple. In one of these backyard interviews, Julia asks Leonid to touch her. Her hand pokes into the frame, coming from behind the camera, and Leonid, slowly and unsteadily, manages to reach out and intertwine his fingers with hers. Although his expression doesn't change, the gesture requires so much determination from him that you feel a physical shock as the hands touch. You get another kind of shock later, when Julia asks what he thinks of her film. "It's shit," he suddenly whispers.
Leonid's brief moment of exasperation, conveyed impassively, is nothing compared with Larisa's growing fury. Twice she declares on camera that "I can't do this"--a statement she might well make about life with Leonid, but that she applies to her participation in the film.
Once, in the backyard, when Julia is trying to get Leonid to make a drawing or write her name, Larisa refuses to cooperate any longer. "I stopped trying to do this a long time ago," she says. "It drives me crazy," and she storms off. The second outburst, which is still angrier, erupts during one of Larisa's nightly dialogues with Julia. Periodically, the film gives an overhead shot of mother and daughter lying side by side in a rumpled bed. Julia asks questions--Do you miss him as he was? Would you remarry if you could?--and Larisa answers, usually with sharp, bitter wit. But late in the film, Larisa explodes. "I can't do this. It drives me crazy. You stick your finger in," she shouts at Julia, "and you twist it around ten times."
What a relief it must have been to Julia, to be screamed at by a parent. Like any child, she needed to provoke; and in making Moment of Impact, that need became nothing less than a way of connecting with life itself. To borrow a phrase from Larisa, the anger Julia elicited was her "proof of existence," a proof she could no longer get from Leonid. But to elicit that response, Julia had to mimic the quasi-limbo of her father. Like any filmmaker, she became unreachable behind the camera. What an affront it must have been to Larisa to see her daughter, too, turn a blank, glassy stare on her.
Intense, immersive, claustrophobic and obsessive, Moment of Impact is a film about the impenetrabilities we all run up against in family life, only more so. Surprising, inventive and canny, it's also about the emotional distance that exists between the subject of any documentary and the filmmaker--or for that matter between the subject and the audience. In some films that distance amounts to an imbalance of power, which the documentarian or the viewer is willing to exploit. Here, Julia Loktev makes the shrinking and yawning of the gap into a kind of drama--the only drama possible for people whose lives are now all anticlimax.
I'm tempted to call Moment of Impact the best black-and-white, Russian-language experimental film ever made in Colorado. But since it's opening in New York City this month--there's a two-week run at Anthology Film Archives--I'd rather compare it to the movie everyone wants to see. Maybe there will be good reason to be excited about Star Wars; it's too soon to tell. But while the crowds are lining up to visit that galaxy far away, you should know that Moment of Impact is one of this year's rare films from Earth.