It is possible to make a documentary that is deeply involving without it necessarily making a statement, or having some type of rectifying conclusion. This is particularly true of a documentary dealing with a topic that, despite being acknowledged and not particularly far from reaching a Western audience, still remains mysterious and even, to a certain extent alien.
The provocation implied in the title seems clear. When We Talk About KGB is almost directly referring to this fundamental lack of knowledge of the wider world in term of the KGB and even of Soviet occupation in general. In this case, Maxì Dejoie, Virginija Vareikyte, is centered around Soviet Occupation of Lithuania. Throughout its duration, we are exposed to certain elements that illustrate the tension that occurred in Lithuania in everyday life. The compelling aspect of the film is that its filmmakers seem to be aware of the fact that along with the wider political and historical context that their documentary examines, the key to achieving a rewarding and, in many ways, different type of informative experience is by paying attention to the simple aspects of the tale. For instance, in a specific sequence, a priest and former revolutionary talks about how the soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar was absolutely vital to his awakening to religion. This allows us to see how religion, within an ethically anti-religious legislation, was by all means a form of rebellion. Likewise, another man in the film candidly reveals how when he was forty, he experienced a type of mid-life crisis, and his type of crisis revolved around a sense of guilt for not having done enough for his own country; this led him to joining the world of the underground press.
Another centre-piece in the film comes from the KGB prisons. The arrest and incarceration process is examined not only via interviews with former detainees, but also by way of filming a tour, with a heavily accented guy tour describing what might have happened in the cold, dark, moldy prisons. The tour scenes are almost bizarre, mostly because of the guard himself, reciting a script in a monotone way – a script that includes cheesy, macabre jokes, promptly and appropriately delivered by the man in an unimpressed way. By all means, these moments feel like comic relief, but also work perfectly with the underlying current in the film. When We Talk about KGB is certainly a film seen from an outsider’s point of view, and the strange informative tour resonates with the underwhelming quality of informative exposure in today’s world, whether it is through a museum guide, but also through the press or, in a modern way, the social media. Furthermore, the fact that the camera films in the midst of one of the ordinary tours in the prisons places us among the tourists; the outsiders. Essentially, after the tour alone, you might be shaken, disturbed and compelled to find out more, but the tour itself, alone, is not enough to fully grasp what happened in those troubled times.
By far the most important element of the film is its human aspect. The fact that the feature is carried by an intimate tone and doesn’t dare to make some self-righteous statement other than expose lives of individuals is what makes it rewarding also revels a lingering sense of secrecy and intimidation. Telling the stories of seven individuals, recounted by the individuals themselves, When We Talk About KGB‘s narrative arch is particularly attractive when telling that of an elderly man who was sent to a psychiatric hospital and now struggles with dementia, that has left big memory gaps. This element of forgetfulness, perhaps self-imposed, recalls Oppenheimer’s recent The Look of Silence. Another thing drawing a parallel with Oppenheimer’s film is that here too we have an encounter between a perpetrator of the terrors and one of the victims. In the case of Dejoie and Vareikyte’s film, the meeting is not as fiery, but nevertheless a significant conclusive moment. Here, a former KGB agent meets the aforementioned writer of the underground press, and in their conversation, suddenly, words seem to come out of his mouth with repressed intensity; words that perhaps he had been waiting to tell someone, anyone, for a very, very long time.
All throughout its duration, the film includes some nice, subtle moments of stylization. The best of these come when the stylization, associated with conventional filmmaking, is included in the narrative itself in an organic way. In one instance, a man re-lives his arrest by way of recreation, narrating the happenings as they are re-enacted. This unusual touch reveals admirable creativity. At little over the hour mark length, When We Talk About KGB is informative and affecting, and manages to occasionally show ambition without ever exaggerating.