Nowadays, when you're watching anything "reality-based," you can't help but be hyper-aware of the fact that, while it's purported as presenting a situation plainly, there are producers in editing rooms manipulating the story for tantalizing dramatic effect. But with the documentary The Russian Winter, a record of the musician John Forté's travels across Russia, all doubt about its total authenticity (as well as your cynicism) melts away within the first few minutes, when the former Fugees producer candidly recounts the story of his past incarceration that led him to take positive advantage of his newfound freedom.
Director Petter Ringbom acts more like a landscape photographer than a filmmaker, letting the story of Forté's redemption tell itself rather than contriving drama. Audiences experience the harsh cold of the foreign country with Forté, struggle to understand the new language with Forté and discover new, local talent with Forté. Ringbom is simply there to capture it on video.
It's difficult to resist being charmed by the artist after screening The Russian Winter, given the film essentially plays out like Forte's personal diary. His unrehearsed honesty about his frustration (displayed by a scene in which he fights for sole authorship on one of his singles), his openness about his past drug conviction, and his generous talent (exemplified by his seamless collaboration with Russian artist Alina Orlova) can turn those who bought their ticket barely knowing anything about Forte into a die-hard fan by the time credits begin to roll. — Tara Aquino