The weekenders who thank God it's Monday

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The Independent Culture
Lucy Blakstad, the producer of last night's Modern Times, "Weekenders" (BBC2), is a graduate of what you might call the Sans Serif School of film-making - a style determinedly spare in its visual language, which orders the world that falls within the frame of the screen as carefully as a graphic designer. The school's founder is probably Nicholas Barker, on whose influential Signs of the Times series Blakstad worked as an assistant director. When handled badly, the patience of this style, its taste for still-lifes pregnant with meaning, can be excruciating (you get a lot of false pregnancies, in short).

But Weekenders used the conventions well - if there were the occasional shots that tipped over into affectation (an extreme close-up of sweetcorn bubbling in a pan, for instance), more often than not you could have freeze- framed its images and turned them into the sort of postcards that sell well in contemporary galleries. This is an ambiguous metaphor, of course. Even if you don't subscribe to the fetish of authenticity which observational documentaries have falsely created, it's possible to wonder whether television should be composed quite so artfully. When you see a "Home Sweet Home" tea-towel hung in tasteful isolation on a washing-line, flapping against a stormy grey sky, the neatness of the image aroused admiration and suspicion in equal measure.

But then this is never exactly dishonest, because it addresses available materials in a way that more manipulative visions wouldn't - when the camera stares fixedly at the details of people's lives it is as if TheWorld of Interiors had finally decided to come clean, to acknowledge that life consists of steam irons and deodorant-sticks as well as willow trugs and Wedgewood creamware.

A better metaphor might be Japanese flower-arranging, with its ethic of found materials and its creation of miniature landscapes. Those observed obviously collaborate in the arrangements of their private lives. Diana, exhausted by the exigencies of packing for the weekend, was presumably happy to be filmed slumped amid a heap of shopping bags. The interview was a story of frantic, ceaseless activity but the illustration was a glum tableau, a woman besieged by double domesticity. It was a picture of a real mood not a real event. Similarly the family who had one refusenik daughter, who hated the country, took part in a little charade of adolescent sulkiness: three pairs of legs walked across the screen in unison to be followed, after a couple of seconds of empty field, by a trudging fourth. Rarely have knees looked so sullen.

I enjoyed Weekenders, in spite of a grumpy reluctance to concern myself with the worries of people with two houses, but it couldn't have formed a stronger contrast with Russian Wonderland (BBC2), a gripping series of films about daily life in the former Soviet Union. Here people can afford two lives, one for weekend wear; there they can barely scrape together the means to lead one. The title of the series is just right, a bitter allusion to the surreal illogicality of life. On Monday, for instance, you were given the story of a mother trying to persuade her son to desert from his company, then stationed in Chechenya. The soldier's commanding officer appeared startlingly understanding about this. "If he leaves his gun, I'll go to prison," he said, "if he takes his gun with him, he'll go to prison". The tone of voice suggested that desertion was merely a logical puzzle, not an assault on discipline. "They won't let us on the plane with these," said the soldier's mother, pulling three grenades from his pockets. Last night, in an even more distressing film, you were shown Russia's use of abortion as a contraceptive - an assault on women and foetuses that you'd be tempted to describe as inconceivable, if that wasn't the exact opposite of the problem.

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