Every single one of At The Edge Of Russia's 72 beautifully-shot minutes happen on the very outskirts of the nation, in a vast field of ice and snow. It's where one of twelve outposts was built by the Soviets in the '50s to patrol the arctic border — and in all of the decades since there hasn't been a single military incident to speak of. It's here, in the middle of a nothingness where nothing ever happens, that the film's main subject, a young military recruit named Aleksey, has just arrived to begin a year and a half living in a small hut with a handful of other Russian soldiers.
That may sound like the premise for a rather boring film, but the colourful cast of characters brings the screen to life. Surrounded by photos of Vladimir Putin and their families, with little more than some booze, a guitar and the constant, droning wind for company, the men are so richly detailed that at times it's hard to believe they aren't fictional. The fresh-faced Aleksey has a lot of lessons to learn about how to survive in the arctic — including 30 grueling hours spent in a hole dug out of the snow — but the bigger challenge seems to be finding his place in the social order of the hut. The men are gruff and hard — even the endearing Captain, who lost the fingers of one hand in a mining accident and likes to talk about the body's mystical "inner energy". But particularly difficult is the temperamental Walentin, a vaguely threatening figure throughout the film, who grows increasingly erratic as the day when he'll head back home to civilization — and the wife he fears will leave him — nears.
"Here you can't survive by yourself," the men explain to the new arrival at one point, "but no one expects it of you." It's seeing how Aleksey learns to survive with the others that makes At The Edge Of Russia so fascinating to watch.
Photo: Still from At The Edge Of Russia
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Posted by Adam Bunch, the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at email@example.com.