Get SF Weekly Newsletters

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

What Happened Here? Is Little More Than an Intellectual Crush on Leon Trotsky

Posted By on Tue, Oct 11, 2011 at 8:00 AM

Leon Trotsky, late in life
  • Leon Trotsky, late in life

Few things are more complicated than the history of the Soviet Union. So it should come as no surprise that Rob Nilsson's film about Leon Trotsky -- Russian revolutionary and founder of the Red Army -- is not quite up to the task. What Happened Here? , which screened over the weekend at the Mill Valley Film Festival, is best described as a personal video essay, with Nilsson front and center, leading his small crew across desolate parts of Ukraine as they track down people living in the vicinity of Trotsky's now-vanished village, Yanovka. Nilsson's film begins by focusing on his own interest in Trotsky. But this interest seems literary and a touch romantic. Nilsson's identification with Trotsky began when he read My Life, Trotsky's autobiography, and it's unfortunate that the film doesn't take Nilsson's interest any deeper than a sort of intellectual crush.

What Happened Here? diverges from looking directly at Trotsky. We watch as Nilsson interviews poor farmers and peasants from Ukrainian villages near Trotsky's birthplace of Yanovka. These conversations are fascinating and filled with interesting and often conflicting perspectives -- some of which appear to be generational differences. Those old enough to remember the bad days of the Stalinist purges and Holodomor (a famine that killed millions and some say was caused by Soviet economic policy) seem to view Trotsky sympathetically -- as someone who, had he remained a powerful public figure, might have averted communism's devolution into a totalitarian state. The younger generations have no personal memories of such drastic hardships and are more ambivalent interpreters of Trotsky's legacy.

Far less compelling is Nilsson's directorial style and sophomoric treatment of the topic of history, which he approaches with the kind of skepticism we find in undergraduates who learn for the first time, to their dismay, that "history" is written by the victorious and powerful. Nilsson's ponderous voice-over narration is complemented by on-screen text that simplistically questions "history" as if it is a monolithic force whose deceptions can be thwarted or redressed only with Video Art 101 red-filter treatments of black-and-white archival footage (to indicate, of course, that we are dealing with communists) and screen-filling captions such as, "The powerless must suffer the virtues of the powerful," and "Did [the farmers] deserve death and destruction from those who promised bread and land?" It's hard to tell what such decidedly uncinematic devices are meant to accomplish. They certainly do nothing to penetrate the surface of the complex historical period being discussed.

Nilsson's key discovery is the story of Trotsky's hometown, Yanovka. Following Trotsky's exile from the Soviet Union in 1929 and assassination in Mexico City in 1940, Yanovka was the site of a Nazi massacre of the Jewish population. Despite being driven to discover Trotsky's origins, Nilsson focuses intensely upon the question of what happened in Yanovka -- and despite the fact that the answer is an interesting and worthy subject, Nilsson's treatment of it feels like a digression. He opens the film talking about Trotsky, and keeps returning to Trotsky, but never fully illuminates either Trotsky or the fate of Yanovka.

Nilsson spends too much time on rather flabby comparisons between Trotsky's now-vanished hometown and his own suburban Wisconsin roots. The parallels simply aren't there. In the end, What Happened Here? lacks a developed point of view. Nilsson admired Trotsky, wanted to research his roots, and accidentally unearthed a bone-chilling story of a forgotten wartime massacre. The stories told by Nilsson's interview subjects are often compelling and important, but the essay itself is formless and meandering.

The Mill Valley Film Festival continues through Oct. 16.


Follow Casey Burchby and SF Weekly's Exhibitionist blog on Twitter.

  • Pin It

Tags: , , ,

About The Author

Casey Burchby


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed

Like us on Facebook


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"