“Paradise‘s strongest element is its excellent imagery. Cinematographer Paul Guilhaume uses both frame and in particular colour to create beautiful yet harrowing shots of the natural hellscape the citizens of Shologon have to deal with.”
There is a certain ironic metaphor in watching Russia burn in Alexander Abaturov’s Paradise, a documentary shot in the summer of 2021, well before Russia invaded Ukraine and set that country, quite often literally, ablaze. The sad realization comes later, when it dawns on the viewer that the men we are watching heroically trying to quench the flames of a giant forest fire as best they can, hoping to hold off the destruction of their village until the rain comes, will have been among the victims of the recent mobilisation effort. Ripped from a place their government in normal circumstances doesn’t care about, they are now sent as cannon fodder to a front half a world away, many of them likely not returning. Who is going to put out the next wildfire?
The village of Shologon lies in the heart of Eastern Siberia’s vast taiga, on the edge of a so-called ‘control zone’. This means that the sparsely populated area will get no help from the government if the cost of combatting a wildfire exceeds the cost of the damage done by it. The human cost doesn’t seem to be factored in here. So when massive fires erupted from an extreme heatwave last summer it was up to local villagers to save themselves and their homes. Abaturov’s documentary lays bare the disinterest Moscow has for its far-flung territories, but also how global warming is affecting regions that probably wouldn’t come to mind first, changing the lands around the Arctic Circle forever.
Paradise is also a film about heroism, and Abaturov deliberately constructs it that way. An initially calm and almost laconic reaction to the fires over the course of the film turns into grim determination and tense concern when the flames get nearer. Though it is not a Hollywood film, narratively it almost plays like one; all it is missing is a bombastic Hans Zimmer score. Unfortunately with a narrative generally also comes characterization, and this is where Paradise falls short. Most of the men and women the film portrays are interchangeable and virtually all unnamed. Given the stakes this makes it hard to identify with the film’s subjects, even though consciously one can empathize with the increasingly hopeless situation they are facing. Even during its short runtime there are lulls in which seemingly random people stand around and talk about fire.
Paradise‘s strongest element is its excellent imagery. Cinematographer Paul Guilhaume uses both frame and in particular colour to create beautiful yet harrowing shots of the natural hellscape the citizens of Shologon have to deal with. Hazy orange and yellow hues isolate human beings in the inferno, hitting home the terrible opponent they are up against, which the locals refer to as ‘The Dragon’. The powerful, almost painterly images stand in sharp contrast with a voice over telling a folk tale about the wind; the same wind that is blowing the Dragon towards the village. It’s a bit of poetry that doesn’t fully come alive, just like most of the film lacks a spark. Paradise works as an alarming reminder that global warming is real and is starting to have devastating and irreversible effects, just as it works as an image of a country in which the government couldn’t care less about its citizens, but in contrast to the flames on screen the film lacks a bit of fire.