Few things are more complicated than the history of the Soviet Union. So it should come as no surprise that Rob Nilsson's film about Leon Trotsky — Russian revolutionary and founder of the Red Army — is not quite up to the task. What Happened Here? , which screened over the weekend at the Mill Valley Film Festival, is best described as a personal video essay, with Nilsson front and center, leading his small crew across desolate parts of Ukraine as they track down people living in the vicinity of Trotsky's now-vanished village, Yanovka. Nilsson's film begins by focusing on his own interest in Trotsky. But this interest seems literary and a touch romantic. Nilsson's identification with Trotsky began when he read My Life, Trotsky's autobiography, and it's unfortunate that the film doesn't take Nilsson's interest any deeper than a sort of intellectual crush.
What Happened Here? diverges from looking directly at Trotsky. We watch as Nilsson interviews poor farmers and peasants from Ukrainian villages near Trotsky's birthplace of Yanovka. These conversations are fascinating and filled with interesting and often conflicting perspectives — some of which appear to be generational differences. Those old enough to remember the bad days of the Stalinist purges and Holodomor (a famine that killed millions and some say was caused by Soviet economic policy) seem to view Trotsky sympathetically — as someone who, had he remained a powerful public figure, might have averted communism's devolution into a totalitarian state. The younger generations have no personal memories of such drastic hardships and are more ambivalent interpreters of Trotsky's legacy.