Meaningful Connections

Memory in Aliona Van Der Horst’s "Love is Potatoes"
Love Is Potatoes

Love is Potatoes (Liefde is aardappelen, Netherlands/Russia, 2017) is a documentary first and foremost about personal memory and family history. Aliona Van Der Horst is the director of the film and its principle guide. Born in Moscow to a Russian mother and Dutch father, raised in the Netherlands, Van Der Horst’s introspective work begins with a small village house on the outskirts of Moscow, her mother’s dying gift to her. Having never spent much time in Russia or in her mother’s home the house becomes the space through which the director learns about her mother, the family that she left behind, and attempts to trace her own place within the fabric of that memory. Understanding personal suffering also becomes a way for Van Der Horst to better understand her native Russia and the changes that besieged it over the course of the twentieth century. 

The majority of the film takes place within the village house, as the director inquisitively navigates its abundantly filled rooms, converging corridors, hidden attics, sourcing brilliant collages of old pictures and remnants left behind and capturing the wandering in and out of family members and neighbours who are happy to see her return.

More than nostalgia the director creates a vacuum from which the house appears like a gateway to the rest of the world. The reading of her mother’s letters, the dialogues with relatives, the comprehension of familial and wider socio-political history contained in them (for instance Stalin’s use of mass fear to induce individual cooperation), all become focalized through the house. As we listen, we peer through snow-covered windows, glance over decaying pictures and observe elderly grandmothers wade behind old wooden furniture that extends to the ceiling, lined almost poetically with rusty colourful piping and a singular light bulb descending to illuminate the room. Besides entrenching the viewer well within the house and thus ensuring close participation the film’s equal strength lies in exercising restraint and creating distance.

The most existential level of restraint can be found with the director’s use of old photographs in the film. Often shots capturing a whole photograph, most memorably the five sisters sitting in a park (Van Der Horst’s mother included), are motionless and lengthy. The viewer gets to focalize with the director and observe in the same way she does, for a long time, trying to eek something new from something old. The real strength of these shots is in that they allow us to observe the beauty of the figures represented but at the same time they block us from sharing in the life of the characters. We are literally stuck in the present moment, looking at people who appear as shadows, once real people, now remnants, almost mythical monuments of a time long gone. Van Der Horst finds the most direct means of expressing her yearning for her mother by allowing us to feel the pain she feels not being able to ‘step into the past’ and experience first-hand the life of her mother and her family. In this way the director plays with the most filmic of film’s properties – time, allowing us access into her life by denying us access to her mother’s.  

While on such occasions the director distances us from the past to evoke pain on others our interaction with the past is not so distant but may be even sobering. For instance, in one scene the contemplative aspect of the director’s memory, searching through her mother’s remains, is lyrically translated into, what feels like, a single take, navigating a large room teaming with mementos, objects of significance, and pictures of family. The voiceover accompanies the navigation. The effect gives the impression of a literal wandering through time. The shot is sobering because, despite the physical distance with the past remaining, it literalizes the sense of ‘digging through’ the past to find its meaning in and for the present, thereby bridging any feelings of pain with those of love.

A film which otherwise may have been far too straightforward in terms of narrative becomes more interesting at the point of disruption. The home narrative in the film continues to be interrupted by free-flowing animation, black-and-white with occasional tinges of colour, consisting of parallel hard chalk lines which constitute the figures of characters, peasants at harvest. The shapes continuously move and transform, moulding into one another, new characters being born from old. The animator, an Italian Simone Massi, comes from a peasant family. His lines are coarse, his movements lyrical. On the surface they evoke the monochrome flows of Jacques Drouin while underneath they have something in the way of Edvard Munch, who in one of his lesser known paintings scratched the surface after completing the work to edge his pain into the very soul of the image. Some of that pathos can be found here, connecting the animation well with the direct footage of Van Der Horst at home.

The connection between the real and the animated is negotiated even more clearly through sound. In some cases, soft sound bridges are created with the flying away of birds being the acoustic connector between the contemporary events and the transformative animations. The impression is one of fluid continuity. In other cases, there are rigid cuts with the sharp wisp of a sickle and a woman harvesting wheat interrupting the clean narrative. With such cuts, memory disruptions are literalized. Subtle associations are also created. Among the free-flowing lines of the animation we can make out a mother in red caressing the child growing in her stomach. On the other end, literally and temporally, the daughter Aliona answers the phone, she calls her aunt and talks about her mother. The child responds.

Memory in Aliona Van Der Horst’s Love is Potatoes (2017) remains inextricably locked, tied to the past, but at the same time it permeates the present. Photographs and letters are not tokens of nostalgia but active sites from which Van Der Horst begins to understand the heritage of her family and her connections with those who remain. As viewers we follow her, we often feel her pain. The one issue the film has is that it ends where it should really begin. After everything we have discovered we are back in the silence of the house. So much is left unsaid. This could have been lyrical but appears unfinished. There may be more to say about the relationship with her mother, more to say about the effects of the socio-political context of Russia on Van Der Horst personally. The broken narrative and the beautiful animation opened much possibility for the director to channel and reconcile more deeply internal conflicts. Some of those channels remain open and best remain open for her to build on in future work.