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Hot Docs 23: Tensions between Soviet history and modern capitalism captured in new documentary on Ragnar Kjartansson

Soviet Barbara: The Story of Ragnar Kjartansson in Moscow will have its world premiere at Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival on April 28, 2023.

This latest documentary film from Gaukur Úlfarsson (Gnarr, 2010) follows Icelandic contemporary artist Ragnar Kjartansson while he takes on the opening of a brand-new arts center in Moscow. Political influence, history and censorship weigh down on the project as war looms on the horizon.

“We initially went out to make a documentary about a fantastic and colorful artist opening a huge museum in Moscow,” says the filmmaker in a press release. “We had the idea to follow Ragnar around through the final days of installing his work. And then, as with documentary filmmaking, something happened that changed the story. I feel that filmmaking is a lot like fishing. Soviet Barbara was our attempt at a big catch, a wild salmon. Instead, we caught a unicorn."

In December 2021, shortly before the Russian invasion into Ukraine, Kjartansson opened a monumental exhibition at a new arts center in the heart of Moscow. In this former power plant for the Kremlin, renovated to showcase Russian culture, the main attraction is an unprecedented living sculpture called Santa Barbara. In the nave of the massive building, a group of 70 people acted and produced one episode every day of the American soap opera Santa Barbara, in Russian. With a goal of 100 re-enacted episodes, the living sculpture is halted on the day of the invasion of Ukraine.

The documentary is described as an insightful and ambitious look into the ideas of one of today's biggest names in contemporary art. „Soviet Barbara poetically captures the cultural dialogue between rival superpowers in the last days of the cold war, and the way ordinary people in Russia lived through times of dramatic change. Now, thirty years later, dreams of cultural openness turned to dust after the invasion of Ukraine. Issues of freedom of both nations, individuals, and artists arise and become ever more pressing.“

Screenings for Soviet Barbara: The Story of Ragnar Kjartansson in Moscow at the 2023 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival:

  • April 28, 2023 5:45pm TIFF Bell Lightbox World Premiere
  • May 8, 2023 8:30pm Isabel Bader Theatre