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“Turn your body towards the sun” is one of the sentences that a Soviet Tatar who was captured by the Germans at the beginning of World War II often told his daughter. Then he ended up in the gulag, since Stalin considered all prisoners of war deserters, traitors, people unworthy of life. About the almost 14-year odyssey of her father, his daughter Sana Valiulina, a Russian who has been living in the Netherlands for more than three decades, knows nothing. He never wanted to talk about that period, and she found out about what he survived only after his death, from the letters he sent from the Siberian gulag to her mother, that is, to his future wife.

The distinguished Dutch documentary filmmaker Aliona van der Horst recorded an artistic and poetic documentary mainly composed of archival recordings supplemented with Sana’s narration, i.e. her reading of her father’s letters. She is trying to find her father’s face in those old videos showing Soviet prisoners, and along the way she is trying to understand what that man had to go through. Only a few months after his 19th birthday and after the German attack on the USSR, he was mobilized and sent to war with millions of others, and was captured a few months later. Trying to understand what her father went through, the protagonist seems to be trying to understand herself, but also the history of her country, because prisoners of war were not something that was mentioned in the Soviet Union.

Big parades were held there for every Victory Day, where the surviving Red Army soldiers paraded, but her father was always on the sidelines. He didn’t even talk about the years spent in “re-education” in the gulag, and throughout his life he was considered a traitor to his country, although it could be said that he was the one who was betrayed by his country, rather than he was the traitor. And it is about one of those absolutely incredible life stories that is equally intimate, and yet tells so much about that insane Soviet dictatorship, that totalitarian mentality and cruel dictator who sacrificed millions of his compatriots with incredible ease.

Visually, “Turn Your Body to the Sun” is a striking and powerful documentary because the author used many archival footage from gulags located deep in the interior of Siberia. And while Sana’s father tells in his letters how he barely survived hard physical work in temperatures that went to minus 30, but points out that he was still lucky because he ended up in one of the less strict camps, Sana and her sister try to reconstruct his path. From the moment he was mobilized, from being captured somewhere in the territory of today’s Russia, through captivity in Germany to the moment when he was sent as a prisoner to France just before the Normandy landings when he managed to escape and surrender to the allies.

Until when he and hundreds of thousands of Soviets who had a similar fate were sent to England and when the war ended, Stalin practically sent all the surviving prisoners of war to the gulag for punishment. It’s an incredible story because we also see how Sana’s mother actually met her future husband completely by accident and how love developed between them even though they had never met before, and they had to wait almost ten years to meet. It’s as if the author is asking the question of how great historical events have affected the lives of ordinary, small people and how people who have lived through something similar can even explain all this to others. So until the end, Sana also understands why her father never talked about those creepy and unhappy years of his youth, but she will succeed in reconstructing that fascinating and tragic life.