What started as a film shoot evolved into a mammoth project which saw the cast eating, working and sleeping on a period set – for years. Is its creator a genius or a monster?
I first heard about Dau five years ago, and have been figuratively banging on the door ever since, to no avail. Two weeks ago, the door opened – literally. I am invited to a mansion block on London’s Piccadilly where, behind an anonymous black door, lies another world. The lobby is dimly, atmospherically lit – a room out of a David Lynch movie. A man in a 1940s-style suit and hat stands pulling back the curtain and peeking on to the street – except he turns out to be a mannequin. A bald security guard with a Russian accent takes my signature and photograph. Photography and recording are forbidden. A friendly American woman guides me through labyrinthine corridors painted black and red and grey, the walls plastered with Soviet-era posters and photos. There are more mannequins in vintage costumes in startling places: hanging from a chandelier, kneeling and kissing a Soviet flag. There is a large mannequin workshop. There are modern editing suites behind frosted glass walls. There is a restaurant serving Georgian cuisine, and a function room in 1940s-style decor. The sound of a dog barking carries down the corridor. “That’s a real dog, by the way,” my guide says. You can’t be too sure.
I am here to watch some films. Dau is a film project, or at least, it began as one. Now, nobody knows how to describe it. It has been called a “Stalinist Truman Show”, a serious anthropological experiment, even a “Soviet Love Island”. In scale, it has been compared to infamous movie shoots that spiralled out of control, such as Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. But Dau also has echoes of the Stanford prison experiment – in which students lost sight of the fact that they were playing a role, acting as guards and prisoners rather too enthusiastically. Stanford’s experiment had to be shut down after six days; Dau’s continued for three years.
We were sleeping and waking up in the clothes we had worn inside. When we were out, it was like visiting another time