Dir. Daniel Edelstyn, UK/Ukraine, 2011, 77 mins
Cast: Daniel Edelstyn, Hilary Powell, Conrad Asquith, Anthony Styles
Review by David Morrison
A warm, witty, and eccentric take on the Who Do You Think You Are? school of family-history-exploration-cum-documentary-film-journey, How to Re-Establish a Vodka Empire proves an enjoyable, if whimsical ride.
Rooting through his mother’s loft, director Daniel Edelstyn discovers a manuscript written by his Jewish grandmother, Maroussia Zorokovich. So begins a tale of privileged, educated Ukrainian life leading up to the 1917 Russian Revolution, followed swiftly by the details of Maroussia’s chaotic existence during the revolution’s bloody aftermath. The family loses everything and, after a spell dancing for the White Army, the young Maroussia flees to Europe, settling in Belfast where she now lies buried as a Catholic convert.
This eventful life is primarily captured via unusual animations created by Dan’s partner, artist Hilary Powell, combining cardboard and green screen to evocative effect. These animation sequences embrace the feel of early film techniques and feature Hilary posing as Maroussia, while Dan plays husband Max. There is a surreal, imaginative edge present here that adds much to the film’s lo-fi charm.
Maroussia’s story provides only one strand to the picture however. A present day documentary narrative follows grandson Dan as he seeks out the remnants of the family business empire in the Ukraine. Visiting the poverty stricken town of Dubouviazovka, he discovers that the Zorokoviches used to own a distillery, which is still manufacturing vodka to this day. Determined to help the local economy while reclaiming his roots, Dan hatches an ambitious plan to import the town’s vodka into the UK, relabeled as a brand inspired by his grandmother’s life.
Filmmaker Dan makes for an amiable companion on this quest for identity and economic restoration. He’s full of energy, a touch naive, but seemingly genuine in his desire to engage with his relations’ past. Whilst his attitude towards the Dubouviazovka locals seems at first a little patronising – it’s not surprising they’re suspicious of his stereotypical Russian-fur-hat-wearing-ways – nevertheless Dan’s optimism and entrepreneurial spirit prove infectious. As he approaches various sharp suited potential business partners, it’s hard not to be caught up in the excitement.
Notes of caution are sounded though, both financially and, more importantly, in relation to the use of Soviet revolutionary imagery to market a drinks product. An expert in Jewish history reminds Dan of the suffering associated with such imagery, warning against its exploitation. The advertising executives at Saatchi & Saatchi on the other hand are thrilled at the prospect of branding a story brimming with authenticity.
The film itself treads a delicate line between exploiting its subject matter and engaging honestly with the sense of loss and history encountered in Maroussia’s diaries. How to Re-Establish a Vodka Empire can cynically be seen as a canny advert for an imported drinks blend or, more sympathetically and closer to the film’s avowed purpose, as a well intentioned, socially conscious project that seeks to honour the memory of a remarkable woman.
Would Maroussia have approved this attempt to recreate a mini Zorokovich vodka empire, or would she wonder, as Dan does occasionally, why her grandson feels the need to return to a country that made her an exile? We will never know. Maroussia remains the star presence in the film, even as she lies in her grave on the Falls Road, a seemingly resourceful, articulate and intelligent woman, who lived through troubled times and left a captivating record of her extraordinary life. Perhaps, as an unexpected turn of events suggests, the best legacy one can leave is the generations that follow – family that survives to build empires, suffer great falls, and drink the odd shot of Ukrainian vodka.