“Is this a real border?”, Mansky asks the Ukrainian border control officer aboard his long-distance sleeper train. Aptly setting the scene from its opening, the 2005 film carries with it a thorough investigation into the notions of ‘home’, ‘homeland’, and ‘family’. To delve deeper into the topic of belonging, Vitaly Mansky ventures on a journey to find and speak with each and every one of his old high school classmates – ‘Gagarin’s Pioneers’.
After all, who better to ask about such meanings, than his fellow classmates – once bound together not only by their Pioneer’s neckerchiefs, but also by the greater oaths given to their now collapsed homeland, the Soviet Union. Whether he likes it or not, Mansky’s film is fuelled by a humanist undercurrent. The stories shared by his classmates bring out independent understanding, that when pieced together comes to resemble the collective message, that we are all essentially, perhaps quite unexcitingly , human. Although Mansky leaves the viewer to be the ultimate judge of the voluntary and artificial division some of his classmates have grown into – whether it is one between old friends across the Lebanon-Israeli border, or between bittersweet Russian Ukrainian divides – he is suggestive of the seemingly baffling character of these manufactured cases of displacement.
The film is a far cry from a descending tear jerker. Perhaps unintentionally, Mansky’s documented conversations with his classmates provide moments of pure, good-hearted humour. On one occasion, an old classmate of Mansky speaks of her German heritage, sharing her story of being the child of a German General and rationalising her tendency to be both very scrupulous and correct, but also to exhibit real cruelty. On another occasion, the television loses signal in the midst of Viktor Yushchenko’s post-election speech, as one of Mansky’s classmates proceeds to declare the start of a bloody Revolution, whilst tenaciously brushing her hair.
What is a ‘homeland’? Strictly speaking in terms of linguistics, the Russian word for ‘homeland’ is like the Ukrainian word for ‘family’, as Mansky manages to reconcile divisions in a scene in front of the grave of one of his classmates. Death humbles us. “Good question” is the response of Mansky’s old school teacher, the epitome of respect and fear at once. Perhaps we shouldn’t be looking for an answer to this question. Perhaps it is only our ability to acknowledge its timely significance that proves of real value. With no materials pointing to the actual existence of Mansky’s class in his old school’s archives, the film ends with a thoughtful consideration into the importance of remembering, as Vitaly brings his classmates and the days of the past back into existence with this sincere, and socio-politically fuelled documentary experience.