How To Re-establish A Vodka Empire is a creative look at Dan Edelstyn’s attempt to retrace his lost Ukrainian heritage and relaunch the family vodka brand.
Revolutionary Revival by Laura Bennett
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
How to Re-establish A Vodka Empire is in many ways a quirky twist on a classically-told tale. The scene is set from the start. As the opening credits role, the figure of the film’s creator and star, Dan Edelstyn, looms into shot through the half light as he rummages around in his mother’s attic with a torch. Unexpectedly coming across the handwritten memoirs of his Jewish Ukrainian grandmother, this discovery sparks off a passion that leads him in search of his family roots and transforms into an obsession with reviving the economy of the depressed Ukrainian town in which his grandmother spent her youth.
Despite a distinct whiff of popular celebrity genealogy programmes in the early stages, the film avoids cliché due to its creative handling of the story, thanks mainly to Dan’s wife and co-creator, the artist, Hilary Powell. Her collages and models, accompanied by sepia reconstructions acted by friends and family and de-rigueur black and white silent movie montages, lift this film from factual documentary into a moving reproduction and evocation of the issues faced by Jews in Eastern Europe during early-twentieth century.
As Dan begins to find out more about his grandmother’s life his interest grows. Having lost his father at the age of three, this chance to find out more about his background is too good a chance to pass up, and he decides to travel to Eastern Europe to hit the ancestral trail in a way his father never had the chance to do. Taking Hilary with him to document the journey, Dan’s arrival in a distinctly snowy and unglamorous Kiev is initially a frustrating one, conceding that his grandmother’s manuscript was “great on atmosphere but short on factual detail.”
After several wild goose chases and dead-ends in the city’s forbidding archives, Dan finally discovers a reference to a family-owned sugar factory in a town 2 hours outside the city. On arriving in what seems to be a relatively uninspiring spot, Dan’s initial enthusiasm is quickly dampened when he finds out that the factory has long since closed, sending the small town’s industry and major employment provider on a downward, post-Perestroika, spiral.
However, all is not lost. The viewer accompanies Dan on this voyage of discovery as his Russian interpreter brings him closer to the apparently friendly and welcoming locals. Despite the closure of the sugar factory, the Zorokovich family vodka distillery, the existence of which comes as a genuine surprise to Dan, is still prospering on the other side of town.
After having been taken to visit the distillery, Dan confesses to camera that he felt like a man possessed. He sensed that the workers were imploring him to return to take over the distillery once again in his family name, and to help it grow and breathe life back into the struggling local economy.
Dan is intoxicated by the idea. Despite the attempts of friends and family in London to bring him back to reality, on his return to the UK he begins by setting up meetings with various alcohol industry bigwigs, trying to find a partner to help him import his family vodka.
At this point in the story, the film takes a decided turn. A warts’n’all account of Dan’s struggle to set up the fledgling vodka business here in the UK, he does not hold back in showing his own emotional involvement in giving life to his idea with blood, sweat, and tears. Battling to find a way through, Dan returns to the Ukraine a second time and meets with much more hostility in his family’s town. The initial optimism and sense of homecoming gives way to a feeling of frustration bordering on fear on Dan’s part amid thinly-veiled hostility from the locals.
Just as it seems that things are at rock bottom, and a newly-pregnant Hilary starts to lose the plot when it appears that Dan has sunk all his money into the venture to the tune of them possibly losing their home, influential partners inexplicably seem to creep out of the woodwork. With Saatchi & Saatchi onboard to help with the branding, there is now only one way this can end, despite hapless Dan’s seeming lack of business acumen.
Rounded off with a party for friends and family to celebrate the apparent success of the Zorokovich vodka launch, the story dovetails nicely as Dan and Hilary delight in the birth of their first child. A distinct whiff of artistic licence doesn’t detract from what is an entertaining, heartfelt story given an unusual and imaginative treatment.
How To Re-establish A Vodka Empire is released in the UK on March 16th 2012