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The Last Relic (Viimane Reliikvia)

Insightful and compelling documentary about Russia’s future interrogates the politics far beyond her borders - from the Baltic Competition of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival

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The illusion of understanding is often created by way of the mainstream news media’s supposed authority. However, it offers only a limited understanding of the political, cultural and social realities. Director Marianna Kaat’s, The Last Relic (Viimane reliikvia, 2023), takes us inside Russia’s political conflict, to develop a fuller and more nuanced conversational understanding.

Shot over four years in Russia’s fourth largest city, Yekaterinburg, Kaat follows political activists who are resisting Putin’s vision of a return to Russian imperialism. Her subjects propel an intellectual debate about the current situation, and not always through agreement. Words become volleys of gunfire, like the intense debate between Anatoly, a political philosopher and human rights lawyer, Galina Vasilievna. They talk over one another, growing increasingly frustrated, yet what they’re saying reminds us that there’s not a single political solution or idea.

Neither the film nor its subjects are so naïve as to believe that change is simple. Even if they were to replace Putin with Navalny, would this create change? No, because society needs to change. But when the majority of Yekaterinburg’s population have bought into Putin’s vision, change will be a slow-burning struggle.

We’re always in search of a way to understand what’s going on around us, or, in the grander sense, to understand our contemporary world. Age doesn’t necessarily bring with it clarity, even if we expect it to. As children, we can be naïve, see the world as being black and white, but as adults we become part of the conversation. We inevitably come to realise how expansive the grey is that sits in-between, and we retreat to a commonly shared default position.

A young activist, member of The Left Block gauges the mood effectively with two words: “Enlightened cynicism.” This is that default position, in which he correctly observes that people are aware, but feel powerless to change anything. It feels accurate, not only in Russia, but even in democratic countries, where the freedom to speak up, to protest, which are not always identical, are being restricted – here in the UK, workers’ rights and the right to protest is under siege. While The Last Relic addresses Putin’s Russia, it resonates far beyond the country’s borders.

Kaat essentially constructs what is at times a montage mixed with a recurring series of arcs between its subjects. Asking more questions than it answers, the director embraces a developing discourse, and uses her film to disseminate ideas. For the less politically astute audience, The Last Relic is a thoughtfully provocative film that has the power to stir an enlightened awareness, that hopefully does not lead to the default position of enlightened cynicism.

A moment of note is when someone in the film says, “Everybody believes in the future.” She’s correct, and in Russia, some believe in a free and democratic country, while others dream of resurrecting the imperial past. Is it that different from the UK, where an argument could be offered that, for some Brexiteers, voting to leave the European Union was motivated by the desire for Britain to return to the heyday of its imperialist past, whatever that would look like in the present day? At risk of having digressed, Katt directs us to consider the cyclical pattern of the struggle for the future, between opposing social, cultural and political forces.

The Last Relic presents the spectrum of pro and anti-sentiment towards the current Russian political regime, while also capturing a preference for silence. As one man reminds his friend, they shouldn’t be talking about politics, they should want to survive. This one moment, which carries with it a humorous intonation, conveys the perilous reality of political activism in Russia.

Kaat’s film is a stirring and energising call for us to engage politically, wherever we live, to shape whatever a better political, cultural and social future looks like.

The Last Relic just premiered in the Baltic Competition of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.


By Paul Risker - 19-11-2023

While technically an English-based film critic and interviewer, Paul shows his political disgruntlement towards his homeland by identifying instead as a European writer. You’ll often find him agree...

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