The Ballad of Bering Strait
review by Elias Savada, 21 February 2003

Emmy Award winner Nina Gilden Seavey's long-in-gestation cinéma-vérité documentary The Ballad of Bering Strait asks the proverbial question: If a Russian country-and-western band lands in Nashville will anyone listen? Or, if a nice Jewish girl from St. Louis makes a film about seven relatively unknown Soviet youngsters in search of fame and fortune in the heartland of America, will audiences come, watch, and cheer?

Hopefully, sympathetically, da! At least I have been persuaded that a group of highly motivated and classically-trained musicians (who all speak and sing perfectly understandable English) from Obninsk, a city sixty miles south of Moscow, is much more than just your five-and-dime blue-plate special. Of all the Nashville-bound performers grabbing for the brass ring, Bering Strait finally seems poised for the recognition that Seavey so obviously wants her audience to hoist upon these poised, anxious, and easily watchable kids. After a nearly four-year rollercoaster struggle (crisply edited down to ninety-eight minutes) to get their music heard and eventually embraced by the masses, these five jacks and two jills now find their vulnerable selves empathically captured on high-definition tape tumbling down hill after hill of busted record deals, occasional homesickness, and the difficult replacement of the original bass player. I was reminded of This Is Spinal Tap's spontaneously combustible moments when an apartment shared by several members of Bering Strait burns down. Ballad is anything but comic, however, as Seavey and her crew showcase the frustration of her foreign-born Jobs and that of their American-born manager Mike Kinnamon, a bald-headed father figure who counsels and houses the kids throughout their extended, emotional wasteland of broken dreams and re-discovery. Kinnamon deserves a yeoman's serving of gratitude for embracing these strangers in a strange land (the Russians and the film crew) and nearly losing his shirt (his other businesses failed as he tried to feed everyone) forever fostering those backstage Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland visions of performing at the Grand Ole Opry.

Seavey, whose two most notable efforts have been A Paralyzing Fear: The Story of Polio in America for PBS and Discovery Channel's The Battle of the Alamo, which she co-directed with Academy Award-winning filmmaker Paul Wagner, began the journey of her latest effort when she was searching to expand her oeuvre beyond her previous purely historical pieces. A huge country-and-western fan, she contacted then Arista music executive Tim DuBois in early 1999, inquiring if there was any up-and-coming talent she could photograph on the way to success. DuBois offered up seven Russian teenagers (well, the drummer was actually in his twenties) his label had just signed and Seavey took the bait. Traveling to Nashville, where the director heard the first four recordings by the recently arrived group, a deal was quickly struck. The Japanese co-producer, NMK, came aboard as filming started in July 1999, catering to the large base of C&W fans back home (oh, you didn't know it's big over there?). The downside of the film's release on Japan's high-definition service was its elimination it from Oscar contention in the Documentary category. It's certainly not the first time that a well deserving film has been shut out of the Academy Award competition by asinine rules.

Seavey's expected quick turnaround of eight months to deliver her feature evaporated with the unexpected demise of Arista. Questions about whether the film would continue, let alone get finished bore heavily on her; Bering Strait, which had formed by Ilya Toshinsky in 1990 under the name Vesyoly Dilizhans, was on the verge of losing its own battle with America and retreating to its motherland. Such heartbreak is the stuff great country-and-western songs are made of. The Ballad of Bering Strait multiplies that familiar refrain, panning across the numerous banner headlines as subsequent, seemingly solid, recording deals go awry amid various corporate breakups. Thank goodness for fairytale endings.

The digital imagery photographed by Erich Roland is rock solid, particularly in catching some of the Russian landscape when the filmmakers traveled back to the former USSR to backfill the personal perspectives of the individual artists (and their seasonally changing hair styles, colorings, and lengths, not to mention the additional ear piercings). Each member gets their time in the cinematic sun. Lead vocalist Natasha Borzilova recalls the sadness surrounding the death her father, a nuclear scientist contaminated in the aftermath of Chernobyl. Banjoist Ilya Toshinsky amusingly startles some Russian conservatory professors with his medley of Natchez Trace and Foggy Mountain Breakdown. Lydia Sanikova (keyboards, vocals) has trouble persuading her family that she'd rather sing professionally than become a lawyer. Alexander "Sasha" Ostrovsky (dobro, steel guitar, lap steel), Alexander Arzamastsev (drums), Sergei "Spooky" Olkhovsky (bass), and Sergei Passov (fiddle, mandolin) round out the troupe. Passov left the group after filming was completed and returned to Russia.

The film shines when the band shines. And the band shines when it's playing. The harmonies remind me of the Dixie Chicks and the Judds, which makes perfect sense since the songs in the film and on the CD were recorded and mixed by Brent Maher, who produced all the Judd albums and co-wrote many of their hits. The only problem I had was that the music heard on the film is generally muddied by unfortunate microphone placements. Now that I've gotten a taste of Bering Strait, I ache for more music and less talk.

The Ballad of Bering Strait is one of the handful of features to actually be digitally projected in the Washington, DC, market (an exclusive engagement at Landmark's Bethesda Row venue begins at the end of February), which happens to be home to Seavey, who founded and is current director of George Washington University's The Documentary Center (the film's co-production entity). I could have and should have caught Ballad when it played the Washington, DC, Film Festival last spring (where it shared the Audience Award); Bering Strait came onstage after the screening and performed a thirty-minute set.

The good news is that the film has already opened in New York City and Los Angeles, its theatrical presentation sponsored by CMT/Country Music Television and Microsoft's Windows Media Player in association with Digital Cinema. The bad news is that it's unlikely to find a much wider theatrical audience. Emerging Pictures presented the film to a variety of distributors just prior to the DC Film Festival screening, but Emerging's CEO/President (and founder of Cinecom and Fine Line Features) Ira Deutchman, who became attached to the film after it was finished, found that none felt there was an audience for a film about an unknown country and western band. Instead, Emerging is handling distribution chores itself. Country Music Television saw the film last April and quickly embraced the project and decided to allow the film to be seen in theatres before it airs on its cable channel on March 21. Michael Koch and Richard Lorber also announced the film would be the premiere release for their new DVD label later this spring. In the meantime, Seavey and her distributor are closely watching the box office (the New York opening was somewhat slowed by the massive snow storm last weekend) before possibly expanding into eight other markets considered good indie movie/music cities.

It doesn't hurt that Bearing Strait, the group's instrumental number on their just released CD (which proves that some fairytales do come true) on the hot Universal-South label, has just been nominated for a Grammy. The disk contains twelve great songs and three Quicktime movies, including a six-minute video compiled from Ballad footage (including some un-released material).

Just to expand with a final thought on how hard it has been for this group to get recognized, speaking from a critic who knew nothing of this film until yesterday morning. A bookstore across the street from the theatre that will be showing the film wasn't stocking the record. They said they had two copies, but neither could be found. I next went to Best Buy and scoured the racks under "B," to no avail. One of their snooty floor people told me their computer showed seven copies in stock. "They're there. Go find them." Where were they? Care to guess? Under "Strait," as in George. Some moron in the corporate office coded the release under the letter "S," figuring this must be a relative of that other country and western star. When informed of this error, store management shrugged.

And you wonder why these Russian kids have had such a hard time getting people to find them?

Despite all the hardships, disappointments, and crestfallen faces that overfill The Ballad of Bering Strait, you're watching a bunch of extremely well behaved and well-centered individuals bearing up under the strain of life far away from home. There's an infectious hope that permeates Ballad's short breath that will force many a viewer to embrace the film, its subjects, and their music, even if you have a hard time finding it, especially at Best Buy.

Directed by:
Nina Gilden Seavey

Natasha Borzilova
Ilya Toshinsky
Lydia Salnikova
Alexander Arzamastsev
Alexander "Sasha" Ostrovsky
Sergei Passov
Sergei "Spooky" Olkhovsky

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult






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