Thanks to formatting outliers like prestige VOD releases, visual albums, and one-off miniseries, there’s been a lot of recent discussion about what is & what is not Cinema. The Oscilloscope-distributed documentary The Road Movie is a form-breaking bombthrower in the context of that discussion. Although it’s a feature-length document of real-life events, the film has much more in common with YouTube compilation videos, Faces of Death bootlegs, and World’s Wildest Police Chase television specials than it does with proper documentary cinema. Presented without narration or context, The Road Movie is a curated highlight reel of Russian dash cam footage, which is infamous for providing some of the internet’s wildest, most panic-inducing snapshots of real life. The Road Movie‘s assemblage of these clips is more matter-of-fact than artful, rarely slipping into curated montage when a lengthy, uninterrupted joy ride will do. Still, its raw footage presentation of surreal, hyperviolent imagery captured on Russian roadways in the 2010s feels more alive & excitingly unpredictable than what you’ll find in the typical cinematic documentary. It’s an excellent argument that the rigid definitions of what is & what is not cinema deserve to be torn down (or barreled through in a flaming 18-wheeler, your choice).
When discussing the insane, unreal footage caught on Russian dashboard cameras, it’s tempting to assume that, by extension, Russia is an insane, unreal place. It’s the same effect that Florida’s lax journalism & privacy laws have on the state’s cultural reputation, as they allow more news stories about petty crimes to leak into national headlines than other states do, making Floroda look like a post-Apocalyptic hellworld by comparison. In that way, Russia’s dash cam footage says less about how “insane” Russia is than it does about what you can capture when cameras are always rolling. The ubiquity of dashboard-mounted GoPros in Russia means that more of the country’s absurd, unbelievable road incidents happen to be documented for digital perpetuity. Much of The Road Movie‘s runtime is inane conversation from disembodied voices as cars drive around isolated, snow covered roads. Russian drivers are shown fiddling with GoPros, unsure how to properly attach them to their perches. They discuss the dash cams’ legendary online presence, fully aware of how their country is perceived because of them. They also occasionally get into accidents – wild, life-threatening incidents of automobile pandemonium that would never have been captured in the days of celluloid. The cheapness of digital photography had bestowed upon us a terrifying gift.
Of course, The Road Movie‘s main draw is going to be as a rubbernecker’s wet dream. Cars flip over, catch fire, spin out, and swerve through iced roads with total abandon of human control. Crazed drug addicts, wandering cattle, falling comets, and almost any other possible obstacle you can name invade the screen (and the roads) as simple commutes turn into unreal visions of Hell. If The Road Movie documents any one phenomenon in particular it’s not how “insane” Russia is; it’s what happens when the artifice of man-made infrastructure breaks down and driving an urban vehicle becomes a survivor’s trip through Nature at its most destructive. If there’s any question whether this dash cam compilation qualifies as proper cinema in its earliest, most conversational stretch, it’s wholly answered by the time cars are shown slowly drifting through the center of road-consuming wildfires, documenting the world’s phenomena you’d have to have a death wish to deliberately capture on camera. Thanks to these cameras’ increasing affordability, those phenomena are now open to be recorded in even the least respectable corner of documentary filmmaking: the YouTube clip; it’s a democratization of the tools of filmmaking that can only make for more wild, mesmerizing documents of real-life phenomena just like it. Like with most formal challenges to the boundaries of modern cinema, my only real complaint about The Road Movie is that I didn’t have a chance to see it projected on the big screen. It is totally cinema and also a total nightmare.