TJFF 2012: ‘How to Re-Establish a Vodka Empire’ corporatizes a personal story

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How to Re-Establish a Vodka Empire

Directed by Dan Edelstyn

UK, 2011

When Dan Edelstyn imported his first batch of the Ukrainian vodka, Zorokovich 1917, to Britain, he presented them to Ian Wisniewski, one of the country’s most “eminent and influential vodka experts”. After a careful tasting, Wisniewski deemed the spirit disappointing, and that competitive brands are “more interesting, more characterful”, and that they “have more body and weight on the palate.” A filmic foodie, with similarly discerning tastes and honesty, will find Edelstyn’s documentary, How to Re-Establish a Vodka Empire, very much the same.

When Edelstyn travels to the Ukraine to learn about the life of his mysterious grandmother, he uncovers the disrepaired remnants of his once family-owned vodka distillery. Determined to resurrect the village’s dilapidating economy and to tell his grandmother’s life of austerity and hardships, Edelstyn uses her story to rebrand the ailing spirit company and introduce it back home in London.

Director Dan Edelstyn’s Grandmother

Under the thin wrappings of the film’s bottleneck story contains an underlying political message awash with anti-Bolshevik and self-promotional sentiments.

When Edelstyn discovers that his grandmother was a part of the Russia’s Jewish bourgeois class, the film takes on her perspective of the Russian revolution; namely anti-red and pro-white. To call these written accounts of history ‘contentious’ is modest to say the least, but because they are not corroborated by academic or verified sources, the doubt becomes magnified.

At one point, Edelstyn himself points out that these stories are “short of factual details.” We have to take him at his word (or more accurately, his grandmother’s), and one’s ability to enjoy the consequent film relies heavily on one’s reticence to accept them at face value.

Whether or not these stories are true shouldn’t necessarily diminish the effectiveness of a film, but when disputable stories are used as the backbone of a documentary, and for a nepotistic marketing campaign, this causes a sort of ethical dilemma of authenticity. In short, the film posits a possible case of false advertising.

But for much of the film, Edelstyn dodges this potential hot topic and focuses, rather, on the creation and establishment of his newly founded namesake brand. As he travels between England and the Ukraine, he meets with possible distributors and investors along the way, using every opportunity to tell his grandmother’s life story.

This is problematic because Edelstyn literally corporatizes a personal story. As he incessantly ties her life with a product, her story becomes pecuniary, with its sole importance being for financial benefit. It becomes subservient to his entrepreneurial endeavors, thus becoming less significant and a touch banal. The ending tries to resolve this, but because it’s done with such a minimal amount of fanfare, compared to the rest of the film, it can feel entirely underwhelming.

This is so because the film offers sporadic moments of ingenuity and inventiveness. The most involving sequences of the film comes when his grandmother’s life is told through arts and craft recreations; interplaying stop-motion animation, green screen technology, archival film footage, and a surreal Vaudeville aesthetic. These parts are done so exceedingly well, they start to feel incongruous with the rest of the film, making its many imperfections stand out.

The film’s major draw is its interesting, if somewhat questionable, back-story and its creative cutaway storytelling devices. Edelstyn also does a good job with connecting his current experiences with his grandmother’s. But for all of its narrative appeal, this documentary plays out as a brazen act of self-promotion. While watching How to Re-Establish a Vodka Empire, it’s hard not to feel like you’re being sold to.

– Justin Li

Visit the official website for the TJFF

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