Small Screen Berkeley: ‘Dear Comrades!’ and ’17 Blocks’

Reviewed: ‘Dear Comrades!’ parallels recent events in the United States, while ’17 Blocks’ follows the life of one DC family over 20 years.

Dear Comrades! Photo: Courtesy Roxie Theater

Retirement isn’t for everyone — least of all, it seems, for film directors. Roman Polanski wrapped 2019’s J’Accuse when he was 86 (whether, as suggested, it’s his last feature remains to be seen); Jean-Luc Godard directed his most recent film at 88, and Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira put them both to shame by working into his 104th year.

In comparison, Andrei Konchalovsky is a sprightly youngster. His brief and only marginally successful Hollywood career now well in the rear-view mirror (remember Tango & Cash and Runaway Train?) , the 83-year old Konchalovsky continues to work in Russia, with his latest effort, Dorogie tovarishchi (Dear Comrades!) currently screening via the Virtual Roxie and Hulu.

Shot in academy ratio and in black and white, Dear Comrades! recreates a dark moment in Soviet history: June 1962’s Novocherkassk massacre. Taking place over the course of three days, Konchalovsky’s film tells the story from the (presumably fictionalized) perspective of Lyuda Syomina (Julia Vysotskaya), a World War II veteran and doctrinaire Stalinist now serving as a Novocherkassk city commissioner.

After a cut in wages and a tightening of rations triggers a wildcat strike at the city’s locomotive factory, thousands of workers march on town hall and send the local apparatchiks into a panic. Unsympathetic to the strikers’ demands, Lyuda supports the commission’s decision to call on the army and the KGB to suppress the uprising, at one point suggesting participants could – should? – be subject to the death penalty.


After KGB snipers proceed to kill dozens of protesters, Lyuda discovers that rebellious daughter Svetka (Yuliya Burova) took part in the demonstrations and is now among the missing. With the victims’ bodies quickly disappeared by the Red Army, Dear Comrades! second act details Lyuda’s search for Svetka, and her realization that the ideology she’s held dear since the Great Patriotic War is no longer winning the Soviet people’s hearts and minds – or, more importantly, feeding their bellies.

Uncomfortably, the events of Dear Comrades! parallel more recent events in the United States. As its politicians and bureaucrats scurry for safety after an inadequate security cordon is breached and stones come hurtling through office windows, the film reminds us that lying to the people — whether on behalf of communism, Trumpism, or any other ideology — is a dangerous game indeed.

Konchalovsky’s stated determination “to scrupulously and in great detail reproduce the era of the USSR’s 1960s” looks  successful to this casual observer, and the only notable discrepancy — a reference to Bangladesh, a country that didn’t exist until 1971 — may be a subtitling error. Regardless, this is a respectful treatment of an horrific event that is still commemorated today.

’17 Blocks’: 20 years in the life of 1 family

’17 Blocks.’ Photo courtesy Cinetic Media

Filmed over the course of 20 years, 17 Blocks (streaming via the Roxie and Rialto Cinemas Elmwood) is an emotionally charged documentary about an African-American family living only a few streets away from Washington D.C.’s Capitol building. The primary focus is on three siblings — brothers Emmanuel and Smurf, and sister Denise — and their mother, Cheryl Sanford.

Without giving anything away, director Davy Rothbart’s film — much of it filmed by family members on cameras supplied by Rothbart — details the tragedy, heartbreak and redemption experienced by the extended Sanford clan over the course of two trying decades. Does it cut too close to the bone? Maybe, but it’s pretty powerful stuff.