Big Snakes and Found Footage in the North Caucasus. GAIFF CRITICS WORKSHOP REVIEW

Big Snakes of Ulli-Kale begins with phone footage of children throwing nitrate reels of a newly discovered century-old feature film into a fire. Aside from making any lover of film history wince, this sequence conveys Big Snakes’ thematic focus on rediscovering histories that, given the current political climate of Russian director Alexey Fedorchenko’s country and those around it, are disappearing in real time.

That film-within-the-film, which makes up much of Big Snakes, is a trans-Caucasian project that includes not only ethnography but also depicts major Russian artists as they undergo spiritual and artistic transformation among the Vainakh peoples of the North Caucasus. Fedorchenko, who also plays a fictionalized version of himself attempting to understand these histories, treats this material with equal parts humor and seriousness. The humor lands, but the gravity of the discovered films remains unconvincing, largely because form and content diverge. Diegetically, Fedorchenko and film historians testify to the aesthetic sophistication of the discovery, yet the actual footage demonstrates insufficient regard on the part of its real-life makers for era-appropriate film grammar, acting style, and production design. Fedorchenko’s character even suggests that colorizing the footage makes it more “realistic” and provides viewers a “better connection” to its time, a baffling declaration that registers primarily as the real Fedorchenko’s excuse for not considering the craft of his “found footage.” What remains is a playful attempt to instill pan-regional solidarity and gesture toward the repair of strained relations; given the gravity of these aims, however, playfulness is not enough.

Forrest Cardamenis