A job advertisement is posted with a difference: the only requirement is that the applicant must not have been to the theatre before. The job? To spend an entire year watching theatre, dance, and other live performance, and to review every show on the Internet. 21-year-old Alissija, from a separated Russian family, moves from her small-town home to Estonia’s capital Tallinn to experience and review 224 separate works for the stage.
Marta Pulk’s 2019 documentary A Year Full of Drama tracks a 365-day experiment by the Estonian performance company Kinoteater: find someone with no experience in the performing arts, force them to consistently engage with the industry for an entire year, and observe how the immersion in art changes the individual. It is a fascinating idea, and the company commits fully to it – not only capturing the successful candidate via documentary over the year but also paying them a full-time wage in return for their attendance and reviews.
The successful candidate is Alissija, a somewhat directionless 21-year-old woman from an immigrant Russian family. Her parents have separated and divorced. She fears a future of working a supermarket checkout like her mother. She rebels through facial piercings and dread-locked hair. It is rapidly clear why Alissija was the candidate picked for the project: she is passionately seeking meaning in life, and it seems eminently possible that art is the venue through which she might find it.
She is a fascinating protagonist, and very easy with whom to relate. Marta Pulk has achieved a strong connection with her subject as well, creating a deeply intimate and honest portrait of both successes and failures, and good moods and bad. If the idea of watching 224 plays and performances in 12 months sounds exhausting, you should see how gruelling it appears in practice. A Year Full of Drama pulls the viewer into Alissija’s life very effectively, and makes her ultimate fate as dramatic as any fictional feature you are likely to find.
In concept it would seem a tremendous documentary. It practice it struggles somewhat. The set-up invites expectations of a profound insight into the performative process, and despite some wonderful-looking snippets of Estonia’s arts scene no such insight ultimately develops. It also stretches rather too long, including numerous sequences that – while interesting to one degree or another – do not add to the overall purpose of the documentary. It muddies the waters a little too much, turning a promising experiment into a personal profile instead. This ‘mission creep’ results in something interesting that seemed initially to promise much more.
It is possible I am being too hard on A Year Full of Drama. While I mostly write about film, my education is in theatre and drama studies. I have been a professional actor, director, and playwright in the past. This documentary certainly captures the emotion and power of live performance, but fails to present its audience with too much more. Annoyingly, where it ends is precisely where it becomes the most interesting; with any luck Pulk will stay around a little longer to see what happens next.
A Year Full of Drama is currently available online via the 2020 Sydney Film Festival. Click here for more information.