Placebo's philosophical conundrums

Placebo: Alt:Russia

Dir. Charlie Targett-Adams

There are so many reasons to watch this documentary about Placebo’s 2014 tour across Russia. The most compelling one is… well, I’ll get to that.

The opening image of a shadowy figure walking up a dark road embodies Placebo’s alt-rock reputation as well as the path that Russia has carved for itself through the world. The film travels with Placebo on a ten city tour across Russia. While they are there, band member Stefan Olsdal interviews creatives about their experiences in contemporary Russia. The real question posed in the film is, does Russia live up to its bad guy image? Do Russia’s citizens have freedom of expression?  

Brian Molko onstage

Brian Molko onstage

The production values of the film are high end and many scenes are reminiscent of a well-made music video. This is no surprise as it’s directed by Charlie Targett-Adams who has a background in high-end fashion commercials and has made a number of film clips for Placebo, amongst other bands. You can expect beautiful compositions, saturated colours, and compelling cut-aways. Placebo themselves, although ostensibly the support act in this documentary that’s meant to be about the creative spirit thriving in Russia, are positioned as heroes and gods. And why not?! They are taking the road less traveled by playing cities rarely visited by Western bands.

As Placebo tours Russia, bassist/guitarist, Stefan Olsdal, interviews artists working in a variety of media. There are many backstage moments to please Placebo fans. The soundtrack is thumping (inspired, I’ve got Placebo on high rotation as I write today). The first part of their journey across Russia on the iconic Trans Siberian Railway is stunning. All of these though, the train, the band, the crowds, and the scenery, feel like distractions from the question that was asked right at the start, “has Putin’s Russia destroyed the creative spirit of independent artists?”

Stefan Olsdal interviewing 

Stefan Olsdal interviewing 

The real interest and the emotional engagement are found in the interviews. On their travels through the vast country Olsdal spoke to artists, architects, musicians, and even the owner of an indie TV station. In his narration Olsdal, talks about the political landscape and his search for the creative spirit. He equates rock with freedom of expression, tolerance and the breaking down of walls. There are really only glimpses of this freedom of expression but that isn’t because it doesn’t exist in Putin’s Russia. We feel its presence just off-screen.

There is no doubt that there is some wonderful art being created by the interview subjects. The interviewees range from international stars like Petr Pavlensky, Jana Romanova, and Recycle Group, to local stalwarts who are content doing their thing for a smaller, local audience. On the whole, the art isn’t political or subversive. It was significant, however, that, as the film moved closer to Moscow, the art became more political. This seemed to indicate that as freedom of expression was challenged more directly, artists moved to assert their independence.

It was clear that the most political of the artists were facing censorship. In this respect the reality in Russia really lives up to expectations. We would expect the authorities to shut down all cable links to Rain TV if they are broadcasting a live feed from the conflict in Ukraine, which is exactly what happened. The film presents a wonderfully complex picture of a Russia in which artists can, and do, flourish. Political artists are sometimes persecuted but they are not helpless victims. There is an ongoing push and pull between the arts and the government. This is a dynamic culture.

Stefan and Steve overlooking the city

Stefan and Steve overlooking the city

It’s a fascinating documentary and framing it around a non-conformist international rock band not only brings a larger audience to the issues but also raises complex questions about complicity and privilege (which the band addresses in the opening scenes).

The most compelling reason I found for watching the documentary: images of real Russians in a real Russia. There is something universal about teenagers flocking to a rock gig. To see fashions and houses and bars and stadiums demystifies Russia for me. I’m well immersed in the art world in Australia and so to get inside studios and to see animators working with digital interfaces gives me a strong sense of connectedness to artists in Russia. Placebo: Alt.Russia breaks down misconceptions and teases out philosophical conundrums all to a driving soundtrack and divine imagery.

Placebo: Alt.Russia is playing at the Melbourne International Documentary Film Festival. For information and tix hit the website.

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