Artur Aristakisyan spent a good part of the 1990's filming a group of homeless folk in and around the Russian city of Kishinev. Remarkably, he was homeless himself.
The night Hands won the Nika (the Russian equivalent of the Oscar) for the best documentary at a glittering awards ceremony in Moscow, Artur Aristakisyan went out into the February snows and wandered the city. It wasn't a stunt to draw attention to his remarkable study of the harsh realities of streetlife. It was simply that he had nowhere else to go, as he was as homeless as the beggars he had spent so long filming.
To say that this is a difficult picture is the understatement of the year. Apart from a few snatches of Verdi's Requiem, there is no soundtrack. All the action is silent, with the only voice being that of the director talking to his unborn son. The footage is black-and-white and mostly of the handheld cinema verite variety. It's so rough and ready, it feels like it's from another time, let alone another place.
But the scenes depicted in this ten-chapter documentary were shot in Kishinev, the capital of Moldova, in the 1990s and Aristakisyan's "heroes" are compellingly eccentric, yet also agonisingly vulnerable. There's Tsar Oswald, a double amputee who gets around town on a tin trolley; and Yazundoka, a hunchbacked bag lady, who somehow managed to survive a firing squad and claims to have the head of her would-be executioner in the case she constantly drags behind her.
Unfortunately the voiceover is much less affecting than the imagery, but what imagery it is. Comparisons have been made with Tarkovsky and Pasolini, but Aristakisyan deserves to be regarded as a uniquely individual filmmaker.
It's possible to sympathise with the narrator's assaults on the system, but his philosophising is, well, very Russian, and his exhortations to his unborn offspring to reject society and embrace beggary are anything but persuasive.