Exit, Directed by Michael Eckels
Exit explores the harsh realities of life as an orphan in modern Russia from the perspectives of the orphans themselves. This is a documentary that gives way to the voices of its subjects, whose (nearly) continuous string of testimonies makes up the bulk of the film from start to finish. The subjects recall their lives as children and tell their experiences as adults directly to the documentary camera. At first it would seem that this is the extent of the film; looking closer, however, we find the unmistakable artistic hand of a purposeful documentarian.
The film opens with the ordinary scene of children shuffling out of a classroom with their schoolbags, apparently signaling the end of class. Our glimpse into the lives of these students is confined to this last moment of their school day (perhaps their last of formal education) – and it is an entirely ordinary moment. On the way out, a boy sneezes. The title screen follows with a single word: EXIT.
The significance of this first sequence only becomes clear at the end of the film (a fact which signals some problematic aspects of the film’s construction), but the next minutes – until minute 23, in fact – present the individual testimonies of once-orphaned Russian adults. They tell stories of thriving or surviving, of confinement or escape.
A clergyman confers blessings on churchgoers in the adorned setting of a Russian Orthodox Church. He tells us that he has gone through many challenges, including violence, in the course of protecting the less fortunate and leading a life dedicated to justice. He is an impressive man – and a former orphan.
Growing up in the orphanage instilled me with fortitude which has played an immense role in my life, and does to this day. In my experience, kids raised in orphanages are noble. They have a core desire for justice. There’s no hypocrisy in the orphanage.
Others echo his positive perspective.
We had a fine orphanage. I didn’t have a single bad experience there.
I cried, I didn’t want to leave. The teachers cried, the principal cried. I liked living in the orphanage.
This positive perspective is rare, however, and not many former orphans in this film have good things to say about their experiences. Many of their accounts are disturbing.
I ran away from the orphanage often, hung out on the streets, because the teachers harassed us. “Your parents threw you away, and now we have to feed you and raise you.” It was tormenting, so I ran away.
Basically, you’re nobody’s kid so they put you in the system and do with you whatever they want. We didn’t know kindness in the orphanage. We knew only the rod and simulated drownings.
What emerge are not simply the disturbing details of each person’s account, but also the combined force of these difficult stories. They deal not just with the realities of living in the orphanage – in fact, they mostly address the difficulties of life after the orphanage. Life on the outside, it seems, is just as difficult. The experience of growing up an orphan has shaped each subject of the film: in some cases the effects are described positively, as for the clergyman. But for others, the effects are disastrous.
The former orphans tell stories of abusive relationships, trouble with substance abuse, and jail terms. And even those who recall positive experiences of their childhood have less desirable words for the orphanage. ‘I liked living in the orphanage’, says a young woman, only to then reveal something that feels more immediate, more emotional.
My kids in an orphanage! No way. I know what that’s like. I wouldn’t want them in there. They’re better off with me. With their parents.
Most of the documentary consists exclusively of these testimonies, spoken against a filmed backdrop of their current lives: sometimes they march with inmates in the yard of a Russian prison; sometimes they interact lovingly with their children in the safety of home. The interviews are placed back-to-back, forming a continual flow of unrestrained commentary. Director Michael Eckels peers into the life of each subject, putting together voices and momentary glimpses of his documentary camera to present them in their own terms.
This open structure allows for a particularly nuanced testimony. It seems there is little editing structure with the intention of crafting any particular narrative about these lived experiences. Stories of anguish follow those that express happiness, seemingly without a trajectory of narrative. Each person speaks for themself. The cinematography (by Michael Eckels) does not interfere either, remaining stunningly static throughout the entire film. The camera hardly ever moves: people move in and out of the frame, but the camera remains still, which necessitates a large number of cuts. This approach suggests a separation between the documentary subject and the documentarian; one gets the sense that the filmmaker intends to capture these stories whilst maintaining a strict stance of complete uninvolvement.
Though the testimony is presented without interference, between each story materialise powerful images of children. Their faces fill the screen in black-and-white that contrasts with the world of the adults who tell their stories. They stare at us, convincingly breaking the cinematographic barrier between the viewer and the documentary subject. They blink, or they chew gum, and they all stare into the camera. The interference of these images within the string of adult testimony reveals a purposeful artistic and moral intention on the part of the filmmaker. Who are these children? Why are they staring at us? Why is their world so different from ours?
Though it only becomes clear toward the end of the film, these children are actually orphans. Their placement in the film between the testimony of former orphans juxtaposes the two realities; at times the resemblances between the adults and the children are so convincing that one initially wonders whether the latter are actors. But that is not the case: these are the same children we saw shuffle out of the classroom in the opening scene. Their experiences are just as real as those of the adults whose voiced stories give the film its meaning.
The colourless world of the orphanage juxtaposed with the movement and testimony of adult former orphans make these seem like two distinct time periods, though they are actually contemporaneous. The purposeful placement of scenes of children between scenes of testimony strengthens both: the children infuse the testimony with inescapable empathy as we are forced to recall that the adults, too, were once children; and we cannot but feel compassion for the children as well, whose difficult futures we see foreshadowed in the lives of the adults.
However, so much about the film is left to the end that the viewer has to guess their way through most of it. It is only in minute 23 (of a total of 32) that the orphaned children really come to life in the documentary. Until then, it is impossible to know who these children are. The mystery might be more interesting if there were also some structure connecting the testimonies together. A trajectory, a narrative, any sort of forward motion might have made these stories more powerful. As it is, each interview stands on its own. And although this allows for a nuanced collection of stories that don’t depend on each other for their own validity, because each story stands alone without connexion to the others, the film as a whole plods along: story follows story without anticipation for the next one. And until minute 23, it’s not really clear what we’re watching.
The testimonies do discuss some fascinating themes that emerge from experiences of orphanage and lives of hardship. Some express the need to escape. Others express fear of leaving. One woman tells her story of being held against her will by the staff of her orphanage and sent to a psychiatric hospital. (She picked the lock to escape.) Some are still institutionalised in homes for the disabled – or they’re in prison.
I can’t wait to get out of here, forget about all these institutions and live on my own.
A person sends himself back to prison if he doesn’t want anything better… I’m used to this type of group-living since childhood. It doesn’t get on my nerves. It’s easy for me to do time because everything’s the same. I have no idea what will happen when I get out.
Desire for escape and fear of life outside the institutions express a tension in the aftermath of an orphaned childhood. There is at once a sense that there is something beyond the institutionalised lifestyle ‘under lock and key’ and a fearful unknowing about what exactly that entails. Having lived most of their lives in these institutions, who knows what lies beyond them?
The final, essential question is this: who is to be commended for these insights? Undoubtedly the subjects themselves. It is not to the credit of the documentarian that his subjects are brilliantly human, open, and insightful about their remarkable experiences. The documentary filmmaker gets credit for that which he controls: asking the right questions, capturing the moments and stories that bring life to the subject, editing and constructing the film in a way that makes intelligent use of the medium. This film captures something significant about its subject matter, but its presentation is problematic. Its simplicity is useful to the extent that it creates the breathing room for the subjects of the documentary to express themselves. The film, by its simplicity, becomes the perfect conduit for the telling of difficult stories.
This is an accomplishment, but purposeful artistic choices complicate the picture. It tries at once to be an unbiased conduit and an artistic statement. But it cannot be both. A moral or artistic perspective precludes objectivity, and this film certainly has a moral standpoint. Or it tries to. What exactly it stands for is unclear: most likely an indictment of Russian government policy and its orphanage programmes. But if this is the case, the means by which the film communicates this point feel deceptive. There was a message after all, but rather than being forthright, it was hidden beneath a veneer of objectivity. It is an unfortunate consequence that the film ends up using, rather than presenting, the voices of its subjects. Scenes that one feels embarrassed watching on-screen because they are so private are an example of this. The viewer is placed in the uncomfortable position of voyeur; private scenes feel exploited in the service of proving a point.
The relationship between the documentarian and his subject is a sacred one: the former has every advantage; the output is entirely under his control. This imbalanced dynamic is even more pronounced when the director is white, male, American – and the subjects of the film are not. This is territory in which to tread carefully. This film’s subject matter is significant, its presentation is articulate – but it does not tread carefully. ■
Runtime: 32 minutes
Genre: Documentary, Short
Find out more
Eckels has worked as a photographer for The Moscow Times and Agence France-Presse. He holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in directing and screenwriting for film and television from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He was born in Middlebury, Vermont and resides in Moscow.
This critical review was commissioned and sponsored by the filmmaker.
Featured Image: A scene from ‘Exit’. .mECkels Film.