In her work, Russian-Dutch filmmaker and designer Polina Medvedeva explores how resourceful individuals create informal economies in order to circumvent restrictive government regulations and overcome economic hardship. Shot in her hometown of Pskov in western Russia, her 2015 film The Champagne Drinkers: Russia's Informal Economy from the Back Seat of a Taxi takes its title from the Russian proverb: “One who doesn’t take risks doesn’t drink champagne.” The film follows over a dozen of the city’s unlicensed cab drivers, many of whom began using their cars as taxis after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the closure of area factories. The illegal practice is now so widespread that one driver claims “every second person is a taxi driver.” These men and women chat about their lives and work with Medvedeva as she captures their conversations from the back seat. Her interviews last as long as each ride, and these interactions shed light on the precarity of their work with poignancy and humor.
In her film, Medvedeva also interacts with other locals, including an Orthodox priest facing a heavy debt load, former traffickers of household goods, and a brusque car mechanic, all of whom speak of their struggles with frankness and wry humor. Though the artist shot the film in the midst of the Ukrainian crisis, her subjects nevertheless insist that they would prefer to focus on survival rather than politics. Still, Russia’s fraught international position seems to weigh on Pskov’s inhabitants, and some drivers use their unofficial network to share news about current events. Medvedeva sees the city’s informal economies as offering locals a means of performing small acts of resistance against a repressive government.
The Champagne Drinkers is simultaneously a travelogue, documentary, and journalistic essay. Medvedeva draws on her personal experience growing up in Pskov, where her father drove an unlicensed taxi he created with parts from two separate cars. While she spent her first twelve years in Russia, she has lived in the Netherlands ever since, and thus occupies a unique position as both an insider and outsider when she returns to her hometown. Though we never see her, the artist is a constant presence in the film via her voiceover, which provides English translations of her subjects’ statements in an aloof and authoritative tone meant to mimic the poorly dubbed Western films she watched on television growing up.
Presented for the first time as an installation, The Champagne Drinkers is accompanied by an arrangement of car seats, between which the artist has placed smartphones displaying short videos of everyday life in Pskov. In contrast to the footage of taxi drivers moving through the city, these clips—which the artist recorded earlier this year with a smartphone—depict the activity that takes place between rides, when drivers deliver pizzas or go fishing.
While their social mobility remains limited, Medvedeva’s subjects move freely through the city in their cars, acting as their own bosses in an increasingly complicated economy. To a certain extent, their intervention in the official taxi economy echoes the disruption that apps such as Uber have enacted in the West. As her handheld camera bumps along in the back seat, Medvedeva reveals how a vehicle can function not only as a means of transportation from one place to the next, but also as a site of communion, conversation, and freedom.
About the artist
Polina Medvedeva (1989, Soviet Union) studied at the HKU University of the Arts Utrecht and the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam. She is currently an artist-in-residence at the Ramses Shaffy Huis in Amsterdam. Her videos and documentaries have been broadcast on television and screened at festivals including the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (industry section); Eye On Palestine Festival, Antwerp; and Dutch Design Week, Eindhoven. Her work has also been shown at venues such as WIELS Contemporary Art Centre, Brussels; Al-Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art, Jerusalem; Rotterdamse Schouwburg; Art Brussels; Center for Visual Arts Groningen; and De Nieuwe Vide, Haarlem.