Heading into Dmitri Kalashnikov’s documentary The Road Movie, I had one question. Would this film - to all appearances, a simple compilation of Russian dashcam footage - bring anything to the table that warranted a theatrical presentation, as opposed to one on YouTube? The clips are sourced from YouTube, after all, and presented in a format familiar to anyone who’s spent time on the internet. What is special about The Road Movie? How is it edited? Where does it sit in the documentary genre?
(Okay, fine. That’s more than one question.)
As for the content itself, The Road Movie is a smartly-curated mixtape. You’ve seen stuff like this before: footage shot from cameras fixed to automobile dashboards, usually depicting wackiness taking place outside. This dashcam odyssey begins slowly, introducing its Russian setting with a series of driving mishaps caused primarily by icy roads. Escalating from there, we see near-misses and non-misses, car accidents of every variety, bad driving, flooding and forest fires and all manner of inclement weather.
Then the Chelyabinsk meteor happens, and shit starts to get wild.
The best clips in The Road Movie are those that expose bizarre mini-dramas from everyday Russian life. A young woman flees a wedding. Seedy guys haggle with prostitutes. A military tank attempts to go through a commercial car wash. Road rage, police chases, and disastrous driving lessons mix with explosions, lost animals, naked people, and people high on drugs. One clip even documents a dashcam’s own theft and recovery. These tiny stories - minutes or less in length - are the stuff Weird YouTube is made of.
In-car commentary helps to make many clips laugh-out-loud funny, like when one driver encounters a bear running full-tilt along the highway and sighs “that’s just the fucking thing I need," or terrifying, like the family caught in the middle of a police shootout. Remarkably, nearly everyone involved in these clips seems self-aware to one degree or another. Obviously, everyone with a dashcam knows they have a dashcam installed, so many clips feature commentary about how everything is being recorded. “Did you record that?” is a frequent refrain; others struggle to work out how to operate their hardware.
Indeed, the nature of the cameras recording this material makes for an intriguing watch. Dashcams are, by definition, cold, impassive eyes, constantly moving forward and viewing everything with zero editorial distinction. The craziest shit in the world can take place outside the car, but the camera remains unaffected, even as drivers try to make sense of their surrounding world. There’s a curious measure of protection to the dashcam, at least psychologically - a sense that because everything’s being recorded, that people can be held accountable for their behaviour. That’s not true, obviously, as police-brutality victims can (or can't) tell you, but The Road Movie’s subjects’ reliance on their dashcams is fascinating - an indicator of the film’s status as a product of the “share and subscribe” age.
That’s all in the clips themselves, of course. Surprisingly, Kalashnikov’s curation is much more straightforward than one would expect - its aggressive trailer gives a decidedly false idea of what the movie’s actually like. A few montages here and there pump up the pacing a little, but most of it is just clip-on-clip. The dispassionate editing is both the film’s worst and best attribute, forcing its personality to rely exclusively on that of the footage itself; all the setups and payoffs are found entirely within individual clips.
The Road Movie has aspirations to become something greater than the sum of its parts. As a clip compilation, it arguably has little point other than entertainment: it’d probably be an incredible communal experience with a good house and plenty of booze. But considered as a single work, The Road Movie creates a fascinating picture of Russia as a nation so filled with desperation that it can’t help but generate next-level weirdness. The United States would generate a movie like this on a daily basis if it had this many dashcams, of course, but the fact this all comes from Russia adds another wrinkle.
The Road Movie’s true identity, then, is not as a theatrical YouTube compilation. Instead, it’s the descendant of exploitation docs like Mondo Cane or Faces of Death: ghoulish mixtapes of horrors and weirdness, real or invented, mostly originating from overseas, where you just know you’re watching at least some people die. Those films created a deranged, bleak exoticism around their subjects, and The Road Movie feels like a natural extension of that. Some viewers will be excited by that prospect; others will be horrified. But for better or worse, that’s the mantle taken up by The Road Movie.