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Review: "The Road Movie"

The "found footage" genre has been around for some time, in both fictional form (1999's The Blair Witch Project) and nonfiction form (1927's The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty). If one considers the overwhelming amount of available found footage content online, namely through social media videos that people Snap or Tweet or Facebook Live every few seconds, it becomes clear that we need to gauge this appropriated art catalog through a new cultural viewfinder. It also prompts us to ask this important question: What public imagery is worthy of being curated for studied viewing?

Russian filmmaker Dmitrii Kalashnikov's The Road Movie (distributed by Oscilloscope Laboratories) is a good example of social videos being culled together to give us a surprising and thoughtful insight into how we behave and feel -- today. The Road Movie is a moving image montage that is comprised of dashboard camera footage from dozens of Russian drivers, from all walks of life. As the film opens, we witness inclement roads giving way to a treacherous possibility for a traffic accident. Our drivers and passengers endure and nervously laugh off the uncertainty of the situation. But this is just Kalashnikov setting us up for what's to come.

It's key to understand how limiting and also liberating the visual framework of The Road Movie is. You see, the dashboard camera footage always gives us the front field of view, which most of the time is of the road. Whatever happens outside the four edges of the frame is not for us to see. We can hear the voices of the driver (and the passengers he or she is riding with) of every particular section, but we mostly never see anyone. We hear ambient noises: windshield wipers, the car radio and the weather outside. Each vignette builds a curiosity and then a suspense, as we have to piece together what exactly is happening or has happened or will happen.

I won't spoil some of the big surprises, but I will mention that some of my favorite moments didn't involve any of the film's many spectacular car accidents but instead conveyed the carnality of individuals with road rage. At one moment, a man who is going down the wrong way of a one way street pulls out what looks to be a sledgehammer to scare off our driver. During another section, a drunk woman who must've ran away from a wedding reception literally runs on top of a car, starting at the front hood, in the middle of the night. It becomes clear that with each dash cam vignette Kalashnikov is cranking the escalation knob and is preparing us for another shocking real-life moment.

What does it all mean? Well, it gives us a cross-section of modern day Russia. I was surprised by how ubiquitous dash camera recording is among civilian drivers. Visual proof is the new currency of the century it would seem. It also reaffirms some unnerving universal truths for all of us. For example, during one of the film's ugly car accident moments, a mortified mother's voice can be heard from the backseat calling one of the drivers involved in the accident a "bitch" simply because she's a female teen who was driving. We're not even sure if it was the teen who's to blame, but already, the dated (and incorrect) societal stereotype of women being bad drivers is reawakened by the mother's scold. Another example dips into some voyeuristic and dirty-minded interests as we hear a few guys try to panhandle a hooker (the footage is of the dark highway road, so we never see them in this section) only to later realize they were never going to buy her services -- they were just curious about what it would cost in that area. As they drive away, they reflect with a giddiness you would hear from teenagers buying their first pack of cigarettes.

The Road Movie doesn't overstay its welcome either. Clocking in at just over an hour, it packs enough shocking action, moments of black humor and a reaffirmation of how most people are inherently good, help to make its impression indelible. Near the end of the film, as two men engage in a fist fight after one of them felt he wasn't given the right of way, we hear on the car radio a political conversation about Russian elections. The radio voices cynically muse on the idea that Russia should resort back to cannibalism and this audio is a perfect juxtaposition to the brute fisticuffs we're seeing in front of us on the turbulent highway. It's the kind of cinematic moment that you can't write or direct.

You simply have to find it.

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