How To Re-Establish A Vodka Empire
Twenty-three. That’s how many times I found myself either muttering, spitting or yelling the words “FUCK OFF!” at befuddled, bumbling filmmaker Daniel Edelstyn during his documentary cum extended booze commercial How To Re-Establish A Vodka Empire.
It’s all Nick Broomfield’s fault. Ever since he first treated audiences to his onscreen persona of bumbling middleclass posho able to disarm and dissect racist demagogues, serial killers and genuinely inhuman monsters (Courtney Love and Carol Burnett immediately spring to mind) it seems no-one can make a documentary anymore without (a) making themselves the star of it and (b) bumbling around like an ineffectual Hugh Grant impersonator. Louis Theroux, Dave Gorman, Dave Gorman’s speccy mate; they are all the illegitimate offspring of Broomfield, their increasingly banal, self-indulgent films content and risk-free parodies of the master. Broomfield risks life and limb spending time with Afrikaaner white supremacist Eugene Terreblanche, Theroux meets Paul Daniels and Jimmy Saville. For How To Re-Establish A Vodka Empire, the bumbling Edelstyn courageously ‘risks’ his financial security in order to make a film about his exploits trying to sell expensive vodka to Sefridges.
Beginning ostensibly as a voyage into his family history after the ‘chance’ discovery of his grandmother Maroussia Zorokovich’s journals, Edelstyn and partner, artist Hilary Powell (who seems to do most of the actual filming, as well as the Guy Madden-influenced fantasy sequences), journey to Ukraine and seek out Maroussia’s hometown the depressed, poverty-stricken village of Dubouviazovka. Born into a wealthy Jewish family in Tsarist Russia, Maroussia lost everything in the Bolshevik Revolution and, upon discovering the family used to own the local distillery, Edelstyn decides that the best way to honour her memory and bring prosperity back to Dubouviazovka is to import the village’s vodka to the UK. It’s a crazy plan but it just might work. Particularly if you’re a posh, bumbling, middleclass twit narcissistically basing your first feature documentary on your own life.
So, with the aid of some sepia-tinged fantasy sequences illustrating Maroussia’s tumultuous life which also serve to comment on Edelstyn’s struggle (Look! Maroussia escaping execution at the hands of the Bolshies is just the same as Edelstyn’s meeting with local bureaucrats!), How To Re-Establish A Vodka Empire charts Edelstyn’s attempt to carve out his own niche in the UK’s luxury vodka market while beset by highs and lows; people like the vodka, people don’t like the vodka, they almost lose their cavernous artists’ loft studio (we’re told), Powell has a very minor freak-out then announces she’s pregnant, Saatchi & Saatchi get involved, they have a baby, their dog dies, they supply vodka to Selfridges and trendy, London hipster bars, it all works out in the end. Za vashe zdorovya!
In concentrating on his own story however, Edelstyn loses sight of Maroussa’s which is genuinely fascinating as she goes from wealthy Jewish capitalist to showgirl to wife. A political and financial refugee she escapes the fledgling Soviet Union, wanders Europe, settles in London. She’s a writer, a musician, a performer. Too poor to eat during the day, at night she hangs out at the Savoy with the likes of HG Wells and his wife, drinking champagne. Eventually joined by her husband and having just given birth to Edelstyn’s father, she moves to Belfast in the aftermath of the Irish Civil War and while her husband joins the Orange Order and the Masons, ingratiating himself with Ulster’s ruling Protestant elite, she defiantly renounces her Judaism and converts to Catholicism, siding herself with the city’s oppressed Catholic minority. A bold, independent woman, the snippets of her life How To Re-Establish A Vodka Empire gives us just don’t do justice to her.
How much you enjoy How To Re-Establish A Vodka Empire rather depends on how much you like Edelstyn, how much you want to see him succeed. If you’d like to see the locals drag him off into a hidden room of the vodka factory and torture him Hostel-style, you’ll be disappointed. If you’d like to see him lose everything, you’ll also be disappointed. I was disappointed.
Daniel Edelstyn, Hilary Powell