Sweet dreams are made of cheese. At least that’s the case for almost impossibly goofy Oleg Sirota, the star of Ben Garfield’s 9min documentary War & Cheese. A large dose of humour and a pinch of conflicting emotions are mixed together in this tale of high hopes and perseverance, so full of flavour and charm, it’s an experience to savour.
When Oleg Sirota learnt that his beloved motherland Russia was banning the import of all Western cheese, he sold his house and cars, took out a loan and built himself a cheese factory, with the ultimate goal of creating the perfect “Russian Parmesan”. A scrappy entrepreneur, Sirota also exhibits ideas and attitudes that are at odd with most of his audience, and Garfield’s film is an engrossing and honest character study, stripped of directorial flourishes such as music or fast-cut sequences, laying bare Sirota for the audience to judge and laugh along the way.
The idea for War & Cheese was born when Garfield’s friend, and future producer of the short, Audrey Kurganov returned from Moscow with a suitcase full of cheese. After he explained about Russia’s ban on Western cheese, the director thought it’d make an interesting documentary. When he heard about Sirota and his cheese farm, the duo knew they had found their guy. ‘The name of Oleg’s factory – Russian Parmesan – is an oxymoron to me, though to him it makes perfect sense. I wanted to understand this better, and get an insight into his worldview’ – Garfield explains.
The short offers plenty of laughs, but what elevates War & Cheese beyond a fun, quirky short are the conflicting reactions Oleg’s story conjure up in the audience. On the one hand, we are naturally inclined to root for the underdog, for the brave one, who takes a chance in the face of adversity and manages to turn it to their advantage. In this case, it’s the eccentric, but loveable protagonist. On the other, we are faced with an outsider of questionable morals and potentially dangerous nationalist political views, who is directly profiting from the fractured relationship between East and West. Garfield didn’t want to influence the viewers either way, which is why he decided not to have music in the film, a manipulative ahem, I mean persuasive tool, we editors love to use. The result is quite fascinating in that we can’t help but sympathise with Oleg’s adorable gullibility, even after discovering his extreme views.
War & Cheese has had a very successful festival run. I had the pleasure of seeing it on the big screen and experiencing the incredible effect it had on the audience first hand. Garfield has just finished another short documentary, shot in Cuba earlier this year, called Spelliasmous. It follows three young Harry Potter fans and their obsession with the franchise. I love the sound of this, so I’ll keep you posted!