On the face of it, Rob Dumas’s debut documentary, The Nonsense Express, tackles a familiar subject: a band struggles for recognition on an ambitious tour; its members heave equipment and hangovers across indifferent cities; they play to non-existent dive-bar crowds; cancellations lead to huffy, inter-band stand-offs; bouts of de rigueur alcoholic revelry are had.
But lugging along on a tour of the homeland on the public transport systems of eastern Europe with the London-based Belarusian Sasha Ilyukevich and his band, the Highly Skilled Migrants, is a lot of fun. A feeling of intimacy is evoked by the director’s warm-hearted voice-over – Dumas was, after all, along for the ride – as the band suffers one amusing let-down after another.
Then, after all that, something quite unexpected and beautiful occurs.
The cornerstone of the film is the gently vexatious relationship between Sasha and his bassist, Ned. Sasha, the unquenchable romantic optimist, has self-organised the tour at long distance. Nothing can go wrong: the word is out, the people there will understand his Cyrillic lyrics. Ned – witty, aware, with lank, rock-band hair – wants to believe that this could be big or, at least, legendary.
But mild paranoia kicks in when Ned’s double bass is destroyed en route to Russia. Despite Sasha’s assurances, the gigs turn out to be deserted. Ned’s early attempts at worrying his comrades to success give way to ever more mordant asides to camera and an endearingly crazed resignation.
Things go so badly that this could all have fallen easily into a clichéd pit of meaningless rancour or, one suspects, have been a preamble to a cheesy breakthrough. But as the band’s imagined path to success leads to one dead end after another, there is a sense of release and serenity, the letting go of unanswered prayers.
A pivotal scene finds the Highly Skilled Migrants brought low by disappointment, having too hastily cancelled an appearance at a music festival near Moscow – and later watching in silent horror a TV broadcast of the thousands of intense fans they could have been performing for.
Shaken, Sasha takes the band to visit his mother in Belarus. As ever making the most of any situation, he arranges one last gig in his home town with a guaranteed turnout. The audience is captive – the venue is a psychiatric institution.
This could have been played as a final ironic laugh at ill-fated plans, a last humiliation after all the disappointment. But instead – though sad in retrospect – the episode is a delicate, moving contemplation on what it is to have forms of freedom and enjoyment decided by others. The “us” of a band in a self-obsessed industry turns into the “we” of solidarity with others.
Any documentary is to an extent at the mercy of events and relies on the actions and intentions of its protagonists. Sasha’s last, apparently desperate move conceals a generosity to others that later the Belarusian government routinely oppresses. But the film-maker also has to take advantage of whatever situation arises and Dumas has shown he is one to watch, both now and in the future.
The Nonsense Express is currently screening at festivals and in pop-up events.