SIFF Film Review – Dawn
If life is often absurd, life in the Eastern Bloc must have had exceptionally absurd particularities. These details are warped even further in Dawn (original language title: Ausma), a hilariously grotesque parade of everyday life in a Latvian farming collective: through denunciations and bowl haircuts; around chickens and snails; above children running to pledge allegiance; toward propaganda-speaking peasants and broadcasters; around villagers running up the hillsides and scythes tumbling from their peaks.
I use the word parade above to evoke spectacle, movement, and fluidity. Dawn’s depiction of the Latvia’s not-so-distant past recalls the Coen Brothers’ absurd, idiosyncratically-detailed takes on Americana. In one highlight comedic set piece, the hefty Mirdze (who implores her husband not to be woken before 3:00) is physically rolled out of bed while a local leader berates the couple for the state of their home – a scene which, like many, effortlessly shifts from ‘really funny’ to ‘wait, that’s not really funny’. Throughout this and other scenes, the film’s black-and-white cinematography intricately utilizes movement. Both the camera and its subjects are frequently in motion; as the camera smoothly pans and cranes, the people within frame move in straight lines at varying paces. During the pillaging of a church, one believer stops to pray just as a painting – her object of devotion – is lowered from its place of prominence; outside, an old man in a wheelchair moves out of pace with those carting off the haul. Scenes and shots further blur into each other, as when a father punishing his son for denouncing him suddenly finds the room attended by the judgmental village.
Tensions with legacy (of the past’s depiction of itself, and the present’s depiction of the past) play out in Dawn’s subject matter and artistry. Its direct critique may come a bit easy – what use is there in kicking a social system that has come and gone? – but the challenges the tensions raise are rich at the meta-level. The denounced father repeats several times the Biblical obligation for him to “inseminate and reproduce”, and the return loyalty obligation of their children (under penalty of death for violation). These flawed social duties were further altered, challenged, distorted and subsumed within the enveloping apparatus of Communism’s collectives. Who is the cultural progenitor today and who is the disloyal, victimized offspring? The traditions (like the father’s religion) dismantled by Communism and its long shadow? The subsequent free license afforded to dig deep into that system’s failure? The challenging present? And what do we – increasingly removed in time, and (likely if you’re reading this) in place and culture – do in commenting?
High art within the film is the wisdom of the collective as it’s found in a child’s scribblings, and comforting entertainment is the agricultural production reports. Yet the Soviet artistic culture also produced its own un-ironic glories. Dawn partially borrowed its premise from an abandoned idea from Sergei Eisenstein, the innovative director whose films lauded the system that Dawn satirizes. Eisenstein was also a master of movement, as in the famous Odessa Steps sequence in The Battleship Potemkin (1929) – a frenzy of fluid camera movements and jarring, disorienting cuts. Eisenstein was as globally influential as any director, and the sequence as directly imitated as any in cinema. Absurdity is partially the nervousness that comes with failed pretensions, the insistence on holding together an image that is plainly untenable. What Dawn inherited technically from Eisenstein is his smooth camera movement; its jarring dissonance comes from the knowledge that movement, or any change, can never be smooth.