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Review: Love is potatoes (2017)

Directed by: Aliona van der Horst | 90 minutes | documentary

Filmmaker Aliona van der Horst (“Water Children”, “Boris Rhyzy”) has a Russian mother and a Dutch father. She doesn’t really know much about her Russian roots. The contact with her mother has never been such that they talked about it extensively, and now that Aliona’s mother is paralyzed and unable to speak, Aliona regrets. Through an inheritance – having inherited the log home with her nieces and nephews in which her mother grew up with her five sisters and Aliona’s grandmother, Aliona sees opportunities to uncover her family history. The result is “Love is potatoes.”

The six sisters may hardly differ in appearance, but their characters are quite different. Each of them has a different way of life and has dealt with the horrors of the Russian regime in its own way. The eldest, Liza, completely denies that anything bad was going on (“we were leading a normal life” and “nothing tragic happened to me”), the other, Lyuba, who has just died, first fled in communist ideals – where she only slept four hours a night because Lenin did too – and then she lost herself in religion. And Aliona’s mother Zoya left for the free west with her Dutch husband as soon as she could.

Letters and photos put the puzzle pieces of Aliona’s family history into place. The Second World War – in which all of the older sister Liza’s classmates who joined the army died in the first battle -, the loss of her great love, the abortions Liza committed to herself, the hunger winter, the fear of becoming a penal colony to disappear… Everything was in the service of the land, the bright future. People had to discount themselves for the big picture. As two of her children were dying, the superintendent demanded that Aliona’s grandmother come to work. They would die anyway, so why would you stay home for that?

When Aliona calls her aunt Valja – the youngest of the bunch – she encounters a wall of reluctance and suspicion. Calling with a mobile “hurts her ears”, but she doesn’t have a landline. To discuss things she has to meet Aliona, but when Aliona proposes to visit her she indicates that she does not want to. “You don’t understand a hunger with a full stomach,” and with those words she ends the conversation. It is also easy to read between the lines during the conversations with cousin Tanja and cousin Sasja. “Love is potatoes” has impressive scenes; like the one with the pile of shoes that keeps growing and growing. Because you don’t throw shoes away. What a completely different time it was to what we live in now.

The hand-drawn black-and-white animations by Italian director Simone Massi artistically show the horrors of history, but do not obscure them. “Love is potatoes” is a beautiful documentary about family, Russia and above all the unconditional, protective love of mothers for her children.

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