How to Re-Establish a Vodka Empire

How to Re-Establish a Vodka Empire

Around about 2007 my friend Dan and Hilary invited me over and Dan told me that he’d been rooting around in his mum’s attic and found a remarkable document. A memoir written by his grandmother, a White Russian from Ukraine who fled the revolution and landed up in Belfast. Dan was mooting trying to make some kind of film about it. It seemed like an enough interesting story, but to be honest, not especially original. I already knew several people who had White Russian grannies and landed up in Paris, New York, Montreal and various other places. Sadly the history of the 20th is one of human displacement. Everyone has a granny and unfortunately for many of us, our grannies had to get the hell out of wherever they were brought up and make new lives for themselves in godforsaken places. In some cases, like my own, by the time granny left, the whole country disappeared and so there was literally nowhere to go back to. So initially I was, I admit, not overly enthusiastic. But I had forgotten one thing.


I knew Dan as a low-no budget independent even perhaps “underground” film maker, who supported his creative work by doing the usual: a bit of teaching and a bit of corporate/commercial work. Like all of us. But when Dan was making one of his first films that got attention (Berlin: Abandoned Heroes), and he was trying to find a name for his production company, he came up with “Optimistic Productions.” That should have told us all something. Dan’s got spirit. Bags of it.


And he seemed particularly taken with his granny Maroussia’s story. To be sure, unlike me and my other friends’ grandmothers, Maroussia had produced a well written, lucid account of her life, so there was something concrete to go on. Within a month or so, Dan and his wife Hilary went off to Ukraine with a Z1, to see if they could find his granny’s home town. They came back very, very excited.


Seven year later Dan’s film about the whole experience, How to Re-Establish a Vodka Empire, is in the cinema. I can only describe it as a labour of love. Love of film making, love of family, love of art, and a great love and trust between Dan and his many friends and supporters who have championed Dan’s dream.


The film traces the whole story of Dan’s discovery of the memoir, his initial visit to the winterbound Ukrainian village, his discovery of the vodka factory and his decision to try to bring the vodka to Britain as a social enterprise, to try to keep the factory going and bring some prosperity to the town. The whole process is documented by Dan and Hilary.


So, is it a good film? I was hoping it would be. I had faith in Dan and Hilary’s talent, but still I wasn’t sure. But I had a lot of questions. Is the story interesting enough? Don’t we have enough stories of exile and “discovering my roots” pics already? Didn’t it risk being maudlin?


I need not have worried. The inventiveness and visual artistry of the film – Hilary is an amazing artist and her art direction makes the film quirky, beautiful and highly original – lifts is straight out of conventional doc territory. The “silent film” re-enactments of Maroussia’s life, played out by Dan and Hilary and friends, are a brilliant self -reflexive counterpoint to the documentary footage. And they drive the story very well – we want to know equally what happens to Maroussia and what happens to Dan on his quest. Dan himself is an engaging, occasionally bumbling, charismatic and clearly stubborn character that we warm to. As I know Dan, I have to say that he really is what you see on the screen. The self-honesty is beautiful.


As a film about “discovery of roots” it’s less interesting, and hopefully it won’t be marketed that way. Pearl Gluck’s 2003 documentary Divan is a much more effective as a story of Jewish diaspora experience, as the film maker goes to Hungary ostensibly in search of a piece of family furniture, exploring Jewish culture and identity along the way. Maroussia’s story isn’t about Jewish culture at all, though in making the film Dan does consider his Jewish roots – this feels much less important in the overall story. His contact with the history of his long-dead father is much more affecting and important. And of course the key to the story is his relationship with the isolated and depressed little Ukrainian town. This is a fascinating story, bringing together the 1917 revolution the Cold War and the post-Iron Curtain situation – history made real and personal. It’s a great film about how history is not abstract, not even a “subject” but it’s us, it’s about us. After seeing this film I wanted to officially change the word “history” to “ourstory,” because it is!


Dan himself is not sure how much of Maroussia’s memoir is real, and how much she embellished for literary effect. It does not matter. Her story is real enough, and it produced the greater story, the story of how one hopeful, optimistic, slightly mad film-maker and his visionary artist wife went to the frozen Ukraine to search for a story that might have been a dream, and came back with a bigger question, How to Re-Establish a Vodka Empire?


So, there you have it. Once I saw a great piece of graffiti on a Montreal wall: “Sex, Lenin, Vodka” it said. That’ll do for a byline. Go and see it.

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