It’s a cold day in Russia. The snow is coming down. A woman in jeans and a white parka starts to cross a slushy road when an enormous dump truck turns left in front of her. The road is slick and the truck is going too fast. As it turns, its three left wheels come off the road, sending it skidding into a massive crash. The woman watches it all unfold, maybe 10 feet away from a sudden, violent death.

It’s a remarkable moment, all of it captured by a camera mounted on the dashboard of a nearby motorist. The unseen driver and his passenger react with shock and a few choice profanities, then decide to get out and help the truck driver. As they turn off the road, the dashcam’s view shifts. We never see the aftermath of the crash, but we do see the woman in the jeans and white parka. Seconds after she was nearly killed, she’s crossing the street again like nothing ever happened.

This is just one of dozens of similarly terrifying and surreally hilarious sequences in The Road Movie, a feature comprised entirely Russian dashcam footage. That’s right; there are no interviews, no narration, no explanatory title cards. Just dashcams. And it works. If you were so inclined, you could watch hundreds of Russian dashcam clips online. But as selected and arranged in The Road Movie by director Dmitrii Kalashnikov, the whole add up to something much greater than the sum of its parts.

In an email interview, Kalashnikov told me he spent a year researching and editing The Road Movie; the final 70-minute documentary was whittled down from 56 hours of raw dashcam videos. Some of the clips in the film have been watched by millions of people on sites like YouTube; a few have been watched only a couple hundred times. “The popularity of a video was not a criteria for me,” Kalashnikov explains. “I searched for some specific qualities.”

Kalashnikov first became interested in dashcams for what he calls their “fly on the wall” perspective. Although dashcams are still relatively rare in the United States, they are ubiquitous in Russia, where a legion of amateur videographers are constantly roaming the streets, unintentionally creating a massive, multifaceted chronicle of modern life from its trivial to its most extreme.

“There is no one controlling the camera,” Kalashnikov notes. “The driver puts it on the dashboard or windshield before he starts to drive and then doesn't think of it, unless something extraordinary happens. The camera even isn't ‘shooting.’ It's ‘recording.’ And everything is happening purely by chance. Also, the driver and passengers usually don't think about the camera, and that's why they act so naturally.”

That naturalistic quality turns The Road Movie into a fascinating petrie dish of human behavior, with the dashcam as its merciless microscope. The footage is loosely grouped by season, from winter to summer and back, but the juxtapositions are otherwise unpredictable. One clip might show the brutal aftermath of a deadly collision; the next could feature someone pulling into a car wash, only to get cut off by a gigantic tank. (Well, where else were they supposed to wash it?) Because you never know what’s coming next, the whole film is enormously suspenseful and surprising. I spent the film alternating between horrified gasps and delighted laughter.

And because dashcams are fixed in one position, The Road Movie’s framings and occasionally yield moments of accidental beauty and even grace — like the woman and the careening dump truck. The mixture of the sublime and the appalling, along with a consistently sardonic view of human nature, make The Road Movie look like a documentary directed by Jacques Tati. (It would make the ideal second half of a double feature with Tati’s Trafic.)

The Road Movie

The film is both highly voyeuristic and oddly intimate. A dashcam shoots the road, not the driver, which invites us to imagine ourselves as the heroes of each potential video, and to compare the subjects’ choices — whether they pull over and help someone in need or keep driving — to the ones we think we would make. We also get to eavesdrop on motorists’ conversations at their most unguarded and their most banal. And at any moment while they’re kibitzing about the weather or dinner, disaster could strike.

That was one of the things that stuck with me after The Road Movie, and what transformed it in my mind from a collection of outrageous found footage into a microcosm of existence in all of its splendor, tragedy, and stupidity. The film is a reminder that no matter where we are or what we’re doing, we are always seconds from catastrophe. A slippery road or a sudden fire could do us in when we least expect it. Out here, we’re all just trying to get by, hoping we’re the ones gawking at the meteor falling from the sky instead of the ones trapped underneath it.

As for Kalashnikov, he’s not quite sure what’s next. He says he might make a more traditional documentary, or he could do something else within the realm of found footage. Either way, he’s still got a dashcam in his own car — although he claims he rarely uses it. “My wife uses it,” he says. “Luckily, she hasn't recorded anything out of the ordinary.”

The Road Movie opens in limited release this Friday. For a full list of playdates, check out the film’s official site.

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