A man in a suit barks instructions at a group in uniform. One, in particular, displeases him, and the man berates the cadet as he works on his AK-47.
“Don't lose focus!”, he shouts. “Vova, how do you disassemble an assault rifle, dammit? Who the fuck showed you that the sight goes against the ground?” He pauses to glare. “Are you serious?”
The group is comprised entirely of boys. The one being yelled at can't be older than 12. An even younger boy looks at Vova with a measure of incredulity. They are on stage, preparing for some sort of function, armed with assault rifles.
Ksenia Okhapkina's stunning Immortal looks at life in the town of Apatity, an overgrown industrial village of not even 60,000 people in the north-western-most point of Russia, as boys and girls prepare for a ceremony to be inducted into All-Russian Military Patriotic Youth Army.
She documents their indoctrination into this Putin Youth, which starts from an early age (some of them don't even look on their teens). We hear how they are told about self-sacrifice, about medals awarded on death, about serving the state. We attend their lessons, meet their teachers, see how everyone is taught to fetishize war paraphernalia, to goose step, to live with their assault rifles. We participate with them in combat games, hunting each other through industrial ruins, where an announcer calls out “Killed in battle: return to base to resurrect”.
This is interspersed with views of the machinery from the mining corporation that is Apatity's main employer, large machines built with a single purpose: to dredge up and carry raw material for fertilizers in bulk.
In a show of self-discipline, Okhapkina doesn't impose a narration to give us her perspective – she just points the camera at her subjects and lets them speak as they will. The adults, emboldened, act up. The boys and girls perform as their trainers have taught them.
Her imagery, though, leaves little doubt as to how she feels about the proceedings.
The camera looks at life in the town through claustrophobic angles that would be perfect for a Nordic horror film: on an alley, partially hidden behind a wall; focusing on a railing, as shadowy figures run across it; just behind anonymous individuals, under their shoulders, rendering them faceless as they wait for something unspecified. There's the hint of something predatorial, waiting.
Anybody who believes in the freedom of the individual and the virtues of inquisitive thought will be revolted. Okhapkina's restraint, though, may run afoul of Poe's Law. While it is clear she disapproves of this brainwashing, someone who is on the side of the massive state apparatus could come out of this movie with a misplaced sense of patriotism.
Look how good a job we are doing!, they could think. And that's just Apatity.
That thought by itself is the most unsettling part of Immortal.