Both governments and people alike assert nationalistic identity on remarkably arbitrary terms. Ukraine declares that it is its own state, then Russia claims the Crimean region for itself, then the Donetsk region announces that it is its own state, and the politics only become more muddled from there. At stake in this conflict are the Ukrainians themselves, whom the documentary Rodnye (Close Relations) observes often can’t lay claim to the identification in pure ethnic terms.
Director Vitaly Mansky, born and raised in Ukraine, technically became Russian because that’s where he lived when the Soviet Union collapsed. His mother explains that they are originally of Jewish/Polish stock, among other things. After the Maidan uprising and its fallout in 2014, Mansky’s family, scattered across Ukraine, suddenly became divided by political lines, both figuratively and literally. Over the course of a year — “the most difficult year in Ukrainian history since World War II,” as multiple politicians proclaim — he visits these relatives and watches the situation unfold alongside them.
The national war over just what Ukraine should be going forward plays out in miniature among Mansky’s family. There are stalwarts who direly miss the days of communism, fierce nationalists, Crimean separatists and every other variety of “ist” one can think of. For these people, the debates of the moment are more than the abstractions outsiders can afford to treat them as — Mansky’s young nephews stand a real chance of being conscripted into the army, for instance.
Rodnye’s journey, which takes the audience from the farm-dotted countryside into the thick of rebel-controlled Donetsk, does not settle for any pat answers on who is “right.” The sole “answer” it can turn up, if it can be called such, is that regardless of what people believe, there will be someone in power ready to pander to them for their own gain, and that these distinctions are all purely constructed perception. Not exactly an inspiring takeaway. Mansky does not preach this to us; he seeks only to provoke responses from his family members. He’s making an ersatz video album, not a screed.
Though its characters are intimates of the director, Rodnye constantly seeks to frame them against the larger context of history in the making. This can be as simple as filming two women debating in a café through a window from across the street, visually establishing that they are merely two in a crowd having one of many conversations. We see it in a man standing in the middle of an unfinished apartment, framed against the cityscape outside. Paradoxically, these people are both moving events forward through their actions (or inactions) and helplessly propelled by the greater forces around them. This is an astute study of the intersections between the personal and the political.