Daniel Edelstyn’s grandmother, Maroussia, was a dancer and violinist in czarist Russia. She was also the daughter of a wealthy distiller. She fled to Britain after the revolution.
When Edelstyn, a British writer and musician in his 30s, discovered an autobiographical manuscript of hers he resolved to explore her Ukrainian past. The distillery and a sugar factory the family owned are about two hours from Kiev. He decided to try to export vodka from his ancestral village to Britain. More than that, he’d make a documentary about the attempt.
“How to Re-Establish a Vodka Empire’’ is Edelstyn’s first film and it feels like it. It’s lively and careless (in a good way). Edelstyn tries all sorts of things. There’s much too much footage of him walking around — a little rumpledness goes a long way, and he’s a lot rumpled. There’s also newsreel footage, family photographs, contemporary interviews, filming of the documentary being filmed, animation, reenactments (Edelstyn’s wife plays Maroussia, Edelstyn plays his grandfather).
The reenactments are done so outlandishly that they’re more in the way of burlesques. Some are shot in the style of silent films. After awhile, all the cleverness becomes a distraction.
The documentary also feels like a first film in its forced-jocose tone and padding. An event or scene in a documentary doesn’t necessarily have to lead somewhere to justify itself. Failed meetings, say, can be more interesting than successful ones. But an event or scene needs to contribute something: pacing, texture, insight into character, stuff like that. Too many of the scenes here — a busted elevator, walking an elderly dog — seem included because Edelstyn didn’t have any sense of structure or, worse, what exactly he was after.
Edelstyn is like a version of Ross McElwee without McElwee’s supple intelligence, little of his wit, and none of his winning self-awareness. McElwee’s “Sherman’s March’’ (1986) initiated a revolution, one in which self-involved director-protagonists put themselves at the center of their documentaries. For such films to succeed, and many have worked quite well, one of two requirements needs to be met. Some larger subject has to provide ballast, as with Michael Moore’s agit-docs. Or the filmmaker has to demonstrate a capacity for McElweean self-awareness. That capacity can effect a transformation, turning what might otherwise be just narcissism into something richer, fuller, even intoxicating. You know, like turning potatoes into vodka?