How To Re-establish A Vodka Empire (12A)

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The ViewLondon Review

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Review byMatthew Turner16/03/2012

Three out of Five stars
Running time: 75 mins

Engaging and frequently fascinating documentary that plays like a mash-up of Who Do You Think You Are? and a Sugar-free episode of The Apprentice.

What's it all about?
Directed by British filmmaker Daniel Edelstyn, How to Re-establish a Vodka Empire begins when Edelstyn finds a box of letters and papers belonging to his Ukrainian grandmother, Maroussia, and learns that his once wealthy family were forced out of their homes during the Russian Revolution in 1917. With his partner (Hilary Powell) in tow, Edelstyn travels to Ukraine and discovers that along with a disused sugar factory, his family also own a still-working vodka distillery, so he sets about trying to revive the business and import the vodka into Britain.

At the same time, Edelstyn gets his friends and family to illustrate the rest of Maroussia's story, either by acting in filmed inserts (in which Hilary plays Maroussia) or by sharing their own recollections (Edelstyn's mother). The filmed inserts and various animated sequences are overlaid with a voice reading Maroussia's letters, so the film effectively tells two stories at once.

The Good
The combination of Edelstyn uncovering his family roots and also trying to establish a vodka brand in the UK means that the film plays like a mash-up of the BBC's family history programme Who Do You Think You Are? and a Sugar-free episode of The Apprentice – there are several enjoyable scenes that wouldn't be out of place in either of these shows (Edelstyn meeting a 100 year old woman who remembers his grandmother, or getting his spirit assessed by a vodka critic). However, what makes the business side of the story particularly engaging is that Edelstyn witnesses the decline of his family's village first-hand (their two visits are markedly different) and so his quest begins to take on an air of social responsibility.

Edelstyn is an engaging presence in front of the camera (Hilary does all the camerawork), but he rather pales in comparison to Maroussia, whose letters are both fiercely articulate and genuinely heart-breaking – aside from a chilling account of fending off an attempted rape by a Bolshevik neighbour, her assessment of her own marriage is remarkably candid.

The Bad
The film is a little rough around the edges and some of Edelstyn's voiceover work feels forced and uncomfortable, e.g. it begins with him asking “How did I come to launch my very own vodka brand?” in a self-conscious and irritating way. Similarly, a late-arriving change in his personal circumstances means that the story takes a new direction of sorts, so the intriguing social responsibility aspect gets frustratingly side-lined and the story of the Ukrainian village seems unfinished.

Worth seeing?
How to Re-establish a Vodka Empire is a likeable, emotionally engaging documentary that tells an intriguing story. Worth seeking out.

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How To Re-establish A Vodka Empire (12A)
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Content updated: 21/09/2018 18:11

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