The subject of Vineyard native Victoria Campbell’s latest film, “Dimka,” is an enigma. A Russian immigrant living in Brooklyn who wears wigs and makeup, undergoes feminization therapy, and in many ways presents as a woman, yet he (his preferred pronoun) also collects WWII weaponry, rides motorcycles, visits rifle ranges, and sometimes wears men’s military uniforms — things that he considers inherently masculine. Of course, we all know that women can have interests typically associated with their male counterparts, but Dimka (Dimka Artemov) argues that a man can’t really be a woman, and a woman can’t be a man. This attitude is a bit mystifying, considering some of his subsequent actions.
By now, most of us know that gender is not a simple concept. In recent years, it has included the idea that not everyone falls easily into one of two categories — cisgender (identifying with the gender one was assigned at birth) or transgender (basically the reverse of cis). Campbell’s intimate study of one individual who defies such convenient labeling makes for a fascinating look into the nuances of gender identity and people’s very individualized perceptions of such, as well as a loving portrayal of an intelligent, humorous, very appealing individual and the friendship between himself and the filmmaker.
The 80-minute film, which also features the subject’s parents and other family members, explores Russian culture and history as well as gender issues. The loquacious Dimka, who loves to tell stories as much as he loves posing for the camera, variously shows off old photos of his parents, a Russian WWII rifle, and other military artifacts and uniforms. Dimka’s stance on Russian politics can sometimes be contentious, which is not completely surprising, given the climate in which he was raised — the former Soviet Union in the mid-20th century. At one point he uses a globe to try to explain his roots to Campbell, proving that Eastern European borders are as confusingly fluid as gender identity.
In making “Dimka,” Campbell has intentionally broken two of the basic rules of the documentary genre. She not only inserts herself into the narrative, she becomes far more than an observer but a second subject as well. And, she actually influences (or more often than not, tries unsuccessfully to influence) her subject’s decisions, ideas, and actions.
Throughout the documentary, which was filmed over the course of nearly 10 years, Dimka dives deeper and deeper into physically becoming a female. Along the way, Campbell forces him to question his decisions, out of concern that he may be making too much of the superficial. While Campbell can sometimes seem to be a bit naive in her questioning of her subject, her inquisitiveness actually helps open a door to the questions many of us would like to ask if we weren’t afraid of offending or hurting someone’s feelings. In this way, Campbell is exposing herself in a way far different from her subject, who literally, as well as figuratively, is willing to bare it all in front of a camera.
Among the many questions that viewers will be left with is, “What exactly is the relationship between filmmaker and subject?” It appears that they were very close friends before filming began, and their bond clearly grows stronger over the course of the doc. One wants to know how these two people from such different backgrounds met, and what bonded them so closely. We also want to know more about Dimka’s background — did he ever pursue any kind of career or further education? It would appear not, since Campbell encourages him at one point to try finding some sort of a job or other outside activity, but it seems that Dimka feels most comfortable existing in his own little world — a world that Campbell has very much become a part of, and that we, as an audience, are invited to visit for an hour and a bit.
The film is lovingly shot, and accompanied by a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack, made up partly of classical music performed by the film’s subject. Lingering, atmospheric shots of the projects where Dimka lives with his parents, as well as a rather seedy section of Los Angeles where he and Campbell stay during a visit, show the filmmaker’s appreciation for the beauty to be found in the ordinary. Despite the fact that she appears in almost every scene, Campbell filmed all of the footage herself, often by setting a camera on a surface somewhere so that she could capture her own interactions with her close friend. This less intrusive approach, without the addition of a crew, provides for an intimate and personal look at Dimka and his everyday life.
Like Dimka’s slowly evolving views of who he really is, the two friends’ relationship is also ambiguous and subject to change. He sees her as his ideal of female aesthetics (at least “99.9 percent”), but also seems to view her as a potential romantic partner — maybe. There’s nothing clearcut in either Dimka’s identity or in the friendship between filmmaker and subject. Which is fine — the ambiguity of the film is part of its appeal. Campbell didn’t set out to explore gender or sexual identity. We never even know Dimka’s sexual orientation. Is he … straight? Bi? Asexual? Some combination? The film provides not so much an education as an exploration of how gender is not at all a black-and-white proposition, but a study in the innumerable shades of gray.
Campbell’s previous full-length documentaries (“House of Bones” and “Monsieur Le Président”) were similarly based on subjects that she was intimately familiar with. The filmmaker tends not so much to seek out material for examination, but to capture the people and things that she has experienced during her journey through life. Campbell met Dimka while both were attending a Russian film festival, and the two developed a close friendship over time. She was in a position to capture someone else’s life journey in real time with brutal honesty. In the end, Campbell even reveals something very personal about herself, showing that she was as willing to expose herself to scrutiny as was her subject.
“I wanted to capture Dimka fully, and also let the audience swim in their own murky sense of gender — what it is and what it may not be,” Campbell said in a recent interview. “This person is so beautiful and so amazing. I just kept filming. I didn’t even think it would become a project. I just wanted to be there.”
With no agenda in mind when she undertook the filming, Campbell has managed to capture a truly honest look at a vibrant, unique individual, one full of contradictions.
The film is by no means intended to be a thorough dissection of its subject. Instead, “Dimka” is a lovely tone poem of a portrait of a very human, human being — flaws and all.
“Dimka” is available to watch at the M.V. Film Center on Friday, May 7, at 7:30 pm, or online during the SPECTRUM Film Festival. For details, visit mvfilmsociety.com/2021/04/spectrum-2021-dimka.