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Friday, 3 June 2016

10 Reasons Why Moscow's DOKer Should Become a Major Venue On the Global Documentary Film Circuit.

Between May 19th and May 24th the DOKer International Documentary Film Festival took place at Moscow's central October cinema. It marked the festival's second edition. This festival (and its accompanying all-year round DOKer Project) must now be seem as the main venue for international documentary film in Russia. Complementing the Russian-centred (ArtDocFest) or the niche documentary festivals (Flahertiana), the fact that Russia has a fully-fledged and independent documentary film festival is one of the most positive moments for film in Russia in 2016. Here are ten reasons why it can become firstly a major feature in Russian festivals and secondly a significant film festival on the global documentary film circuit.

1)      This is a film festival genuinely independent in conception and realization. While festivals of this kind should be funded, DOKer received not a penny from government funds. It has arisen purely from the efforts of its own team entirely and has managed to establish what is surely about to become an important fixture on the international documentary scene. Having in two years established its own reputation as the major international documentary film festival in Russia, developing in what are rather abnormal and schizoid times, a significant ‘mainstream’ festival with the capability of attracting very high quality documentaries from every continent.

2)      It is a festival which has already attracted quite a significant public thirsty for discussion about documentaries and about the ‘real issues’ that they often provoke. For a new film festival (in its second edition) to fill what is probably the largest cinema screen in Moscow for its opening and closing ceremonies is extraordinary. For it to do so for a film festival of documentary film is unprecedented.
A full house for documentary film at one of Moscow's largest film auditoriums.

3)      The Q&A sessions for the public with filmmakers who attend the festival (and especially the screenings of the parallel DOKer Project) are not just` 10 minutes tacked on at the end but very often occasions for real dialogue. Filmmakers – both Russian and (during the festival) those coming from abroad - can expect an audience which is intelligent and searching. An audience comprising of people who are not passive consumers of films but who, after watching quality documentary film, can and do become active proselytizers of documentary cinema. (the groundwork done by the DOKer Project since 2011 has meant that this community has already been formed).

4)      The DOKer team does not suffer from any individual's attempt to mark it off as their festival. That is, DOKer is without the autocratic paternalism of Nikita Mikhalkov and 'his' Moscow International Film Festival nor does it embody the more liberal (but still rather patriarchal) protagonism of Vitaly Mansky and 'his' ArtDoKFest. It is a genuinely democratic festival in its ethos and organisation. It is also an apolitical festival in the better sense of the word for one that aims to be a mainstream festival (it doesn't censure 'controversial' films nor does it actively attempt to impose any protagonist-like position). It tries in very trying and complex circumstances to build up a 'normal' international festival. During the first DOKer festival last year it was willing to demonstrate its civic courage by publicly showing on its screens a message of solidarity for imprisoned filmmaker, Oleg Sentsov and also screened a film by Alyona Polunina attempting to deal with the Ukraine conflict from the viewpoint of its documentary heroine, a liberal 'intelligent' who decided to travel to Ukraine to meet the 'Maidaners'. The film screening of Varya proved to be its only public screening in Russia given that the Ministry of Culture subsequently decided to refuse it a licence and so effectively censor it. The screening at the festival led on to a very impassioned Q&A. proving that the festival was capable of becoming a forum for sharp issues brought on by its films.
DOKer's two main programme directors Irina Shatalova and Nastya Tarasova
5)      For those who recall the debates over the lack of recognition for women in the filmindustry sparked by Jane Campion’s remarks about the inherent sexism offestivals such as Cannes, DOKer is a project and a festival whose main directors women and permanent staff (in fact Russian documentary film is very much a sphere in which women predominate). DOKer just happens to be this way, that is, it is not a woman’s film festival but a festival in which gender equality is finally more of a reality than just a goal. Another reason why it sets itself apart from other festivals in Russia like those mentioned above.

6)      While the festival was run and organized by volunteers (given funding realities) this was a highly professional festival. To give just one example not usually mentioned when talking about film festivals the 36 films that required translation were done both voluntarily but also showed an exceptional level of professionalism. Like much in this festival although the work was truly Herculean there .
Other members of the DOKer team and volunteers.

7)      As the winner of the Grand Prix, Carlos Mignon, noted one of the main themes of the competition was that of inter-cultural communication and the festival itself was a fine example of this cross-cultural communication. In this way DOKer can be seen as a much more contemporary international festival than the main Moscow International Film Festival precisely because here one senses a real sense of the potential for a cross-fertilisation of ideas and styles that is not always so obvious in Moscow’s showcase festival. Obviously the scale of DOKer is much smaller but its spirit is already much more international.

Yuri Arabov, Russia's best-known scriptwriter at the opening of DOKer Festival 2016
8)      The reputation of DOKer among Russian documentary film festivals surely has potential of gaining predominance precisely because it pretends to showcase documentary as such and not just documentaries on Russian themes or in the Russian languages (such as Art Doc Fest does), nor just a specific type of documentary (such as the observational documentary as does Perm’s Flahertiana). These two are both excellent documentary film festivals and have a very significant role to play but DOKer in a mere two years has gained definite advantages over them for being the main documentary festival in Russia. All DOKer films are projected with both English and Russian subtitles (if they are not in those languages) and by so doing this alone it has meant that it has set its sights on being the only truly International festival of documentary film in Russia. Moreover, by avoiding the niche territory (nonetheless, it has also managed to captured one niche field by being the only festival in the world with a special programme devoted to IT documentaries) it also lays a claim to becoming a mainstream international festival of documentary film.
Mike Lerner, British film producer and jury member of DOKer

9)      DOKer has made a special effort in inviting excellent teams of jurors to judge its films in competition. If last year they managed to attract one of the greatest documentarists of our times Viktor Kossakovsky, this year they attracted a very wide range of globally renowned and highly-professional figures from all sectors of the film world (editors, producers, distributors, directors, screenwriters, critics as well as film programmers).  So this year juries comprised of people like Mike Lerner (a previous award- winner at the Moscow International Film Festival documentary competition), Sara Fgaier (probably Italy’s most promising film editor), Pirjo Honkasalo (an award winner of three awards at the Venice Film festival for her ‘The Three Rooms of Melancholia’) as well as industry and all-round figures or industry figures such as Giovanni Robbiano (a member of the European Film Academy) or Alexandra Derewienko and programmers like Dorota Lech (who programmes films for Toronto and Hot Docs). This plus some impressive figures from the Russian film world – Georgy Molodtsov (programmer at the Moscow IFF), Alyona Polunina ( a well-known documentary film-maker in Russia) and Mikhail Ratgauz (one of Russia’s most well-known independent journalist/ editors as well as film critic).
Carlos Mignon, winner of this year's Gran Prix award.

10)   And then there are, of course, the films. 1,700 submissions from 97 countries out of which 40 were selected. Films selected were practically all premieres  in Russia. These films certainly demonstrate that DOKer is already well-established on the international circuit of documentary film (they included many Russian premieres of films that has fared well at some of the most well-known documentary festivals – IDFA or Hot Docs etc. Many films were certainly world class documentaries and the festival certainly had a very varied repertoire. So very fine aesthetic experiments such as Mark John Ostrowski’s Sixty Spanish Cigarettes would appear alongside other films which concentrsted on its deep psychologically-driven story such as Carlos Mignon’s intensely-ambitious film about the encounters and disencounters within a family. Equally, in the IT competition the film which won the main award (Dreams Rewired) was one that would delight ardent cinephiles the world over. The fact that Alexander Rastorguev’s latest film on Norilsk was presented at DOKer is also an indication that Russia’s most original documentary filmmakers take this film festival seriously.  


DOKer in a very short space of time has proved that it is worthy of a place in the global documentary film circuit and has shown in only its second edition that it is able to organize a full-scale documentary festival which does attract large while numbers of filmgoers even while foregoing any state support. There certainly exists the skills and competence among the DOKer team to make this an ever-growing feature (adding further fixtures as the festival progresses- this year a Master Class with Mike Lerner was one of the side events) with the confidence that this can one day belong to the Class A of documentary festivals. Now, of course, there is the long road to climb for the kind of funding and national and international recognition that it has proven to deserve.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

DOKer II Day One and Two and Further Recommendations

A clip from the opening film Ruch and Norie.

The 2nd DOKer International Film Festival has got off to an excellent start with some excellent films. The opening film at the festival took place at one of Moscow's largest cinema's 'October' on the central Noviy Arbat street. That an independent festival of documentary cinema can open at Moscow's major cinema and call almost entirely fill its main screen (something that only the main Moscow International Film Festival is able to do) is a sign of genuine hope for the future of documentary in Russia indicating a real thirst for reality in a world that seems to be becoming ever more phantasmagorical.

Day One and Day Two saw some very powerful films being shown. The opening film was a hymn to cross-cultural communication in the guise of a story of friendship between a young Japanese anthropologist and an elderly Latvian grandmother from a small ethnic community and entitled Ruch and Norie. Very strong visually and able to transmit deep transmit human emotions in such a way that palpably moved the audience to this unforced story of a very unlikely friendship.

Day Two had some gems too. One was David Bernet's Democracy with an in-depth and behind the scenes look at the European parliament and the battles and pressure on a German Green politician by big business. Day Two was also the long-awaited Russian film by the Rastorguev film Norilsk: A First Person Account which I'll be reviewing soon.

   The New Zealand film The Ground We Won a cinema verite film by Cristopher Pryor and Miriam Smith on the bawdy world of a rugby team of New Zealander farmers. There were interesting shorts such as the film Guillo - a tale of freedom and loneliness.

Today has some excellent films too. Starting with a film about Trieste that sismograph of Europe. Perhaps the film that I'm most waiting for having lived in the city for two years. A tale of immigration unlike others in which the immigrants and the city of reflect each other as in a poem by Umberto Saba that great cantor of this atypical Italian city. The gaze of the city from a filmmaker from Marseilles, Jean Boiron Lajous, and his documentary subjects has also had some very positive reviews from the Italian press.

A clip from the film Terra di Nessuno on Trieste

The theme emigration is also touched on in the next film today entitled Sixty Spanish Cigarettes, a minimalist metaphor for Spain's bleak and growingly desperate socioeconomic in which emigration is one of the only ways out. This is the first time it will be shown outside of Mediterranean film festivals.

The third film in the main competition is Lenin Park, once again a Spanish-language film, this time from Cuba. A documentary by Carlos Mignon and Itziar Leemans. Taking its name from a Havana amusement park where the Kessel Brothers share their last memory. A film elegy on the death of a mother, on the difficulty of life without her and once again a film on emigration.


Today's films also include four shorts and three films from the Let IT Dok! competition. The only IT documentary competition in the world- an area that DOKer has marked out completely for itself.

Tomorrow's film from the Let IT Dok! competition Capital C is said to be one of the most awaited films of the festival. A crowdfunded film on the crowdfunding and shot in 24 countries, the film has already been making waves throughout the world.

 Two more films deal with an African subject matter (or rather Euro-African links). Both Warriors and Leaving Africa promise to be of interest:

 On Monday the Let IT Dok! competition has another very strong contender in the guise of a film narrated by Tilda Swinton explaining how the mania for new technology is as old as the hills:

A glowing four star review in the Guardian reveals details as to why this may be one of the films to look out for at this festival and a film that most determinedly references early Soviet cinema.

An Pakistani film shown at IDFA A Walnut Tree and an Iranian film Wedding shown at Leipzig also are likely to surprise and delight audiences.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

International Documentary Showcased in Moscow: Year 2 of the Doker International Film Festival.


The Second Edition of the DOKer International Documentary Film Festival will be opening in a couple of days time and will last from May 19th to May 24th. It has already established a reputation as the only genuinely international festival of documentary film in Russia. Unlike festivals such as Art Doc Fest it doesn't concentrate its gaze on Russian documentaries, or films with Russian subject matter or in the Russian language. And unlike Perm's Flahertiana festival it does not devote itself to a niche of purely observational documentaries. Instead it tries and succeeds in its goal of bringing high-class art documentaries from every continent to Moscow thus contributing to that much needed dialogue with the international documentary community. A brief look at the upcoming programme of the festival shows how the DOKer team have rapidly earned their reputation of being the main forum where international documentaries can be seen and discussed in Russia. This year at just its second edition, 1,700 films from 97 countries have been submitted. Many of the films have been specially invited to the DOKer festival after their world premieres at such prestigious world film festivals such as the Berlinale and Locarno and at the highly regarded documentary film festivals such as Canada's Hot Docs and Amsterdam's IDFA.


This year as well as the main competition programme showcasing some very fine feature length films from New Zealand to Peru and the shorts programme (hosting those new filmmakers who may well go on to become the next generation of leading documentary filmmakers), there is a new competition programme featuring a rather unique genre of documentaries that has, it seems, no other major festival platform in the world. This is the "Let IT Dok" programme of documentaries on Information Technology.


All selected films will have their Russian premiere at this festival. The festival itself sprung up as a result of an extraordinarily heroic experiment by a small team of documentary filmmakers who, since 2011, have been bringing documentary film to many towns and cities across Russia (and not just to its capital). The DOKer Project doesn't limit itself to films showings but also organizes discussions with the team behind the film, master classes, closed screenings before world premieres and often assists and supports the local theatrical releases of Russian films. On top of the festival screenings the team have organised over 350 screenings of documentary films to an audience of over 30,000. Sometimes these screenings have paved the way to participation in various important film festivals.

All this hard work has paid off with the formation of this festival, now in its second edition after an extremely successful first run.

Four Russian films will be introduced at the festival. In the main competition programme, Maria Murashova will present her Collectors of Sea Grass whose first screening took place at the Dvizhenie Film Festival in Omsk where it won the first prize in the Documentary Competition. There are two short films by Vladimir Golovnev (Two Childhoods) and Yulia Panasenko (Intro- the second film of a dilogy, the first of which won various important national film awards). In the "Let IT Dok" section, a well-known web documentary interactive project is taking part created by the large team of documentalists under the direction of Alexander Rastorguev and Alexei Pivovarov with their film project "Norilsk In the First Person"

Mike Lerner, a jury member who will be giving a Master Class at the Festival

The three juries who will judge the films are made up of some very fine professionals in their field. Mike Lerner, the British producer and director who was nominated for an Oscar for his film Hell and Back Again. Lerner is also the holder of six Sundance Festival awards and two Emmy's. His work has also touched Russian subject matters such as Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer. As has the work of Pirjo Honkasalo whose 2004 portrait of Chechnya in her film Three Rooms of Melancholia won many international film awards including three special awards at the Venice Film festival in 2004. It created a stunning portrait of the tragic affect of the Chechen conflict on children in Russia and Chechnya prompting the New York Times critic to call it "one of the saddest films ever made". There are jurists from Italy- Giovanni Robbiano, a scriptwriter, member of the European Film Academy, who works at Praguee's prestigious FAMU and Sara Fgaier, perhaps Italy's most outstanding film editor who has worked with Pietro Marcello on his extraordinary films as well as with Gianfranco Rosi- the documentary filmmaker who regularly receives main prizes at the most highly regarded film festivals in the world with his fascinating documentaries which leave the feature films far behind in the consideration of juries. As well as working on The Silence of Peleshian, Sara Fgaier has worked on the extraordinary film The Train to Moscow: A Journey to Utopia using found video footage about Italian Communists who travelled to the 1957 World Youth Festival in Moscow and who discovered a world not altogether matching their utopian imagination. Russian jury members include the film director Alyona Polunina whose glimpse of an extraordinary middle aged Moscovite Varya who set off on a voyage through Ukraine meeting what should have been her 'enemies' lit up the audience at least year's festival with an tempestuous discussion. The film was then to find itself in censorship problems with the Minister of Culture refusing it a license. One of Russia's most interesting critics (not just of film) and journalists Mikhail Rathaus will also serve in a jury as will Georgiy Molodtsov one of the real 'movers and shakers' in Russian documentary film and a curator of the superb documentary programme of the Moscow International Film Festival.

Sara Fgaier, one of Italy's best film editors who has worked with Gianfranco Rosi and Pietro Marcello.

The opening film of the festival to be shown on May 19th will be the Latvian film Ruch and Norie - an splendid film on cross-cultural communication which talks of the encounter of two exotic worlds: that of a young Japanese anthropologist and a grey-haired granny Ruch from a small ethnic community in Latvia. The director Inara Kolmane won many national awards for her film and has become a real star in Latvia cinema. The closing and awards ceremony will take place on the 24th May. These will both take place at the Cinema October on the Noviy Arbat.  



Sunday, 28 February 2016

The Untapped Significance of Russian Documentary Film.


A still from Elena Demidova's film about Gazprom workers Men's Choice. 

A few days ago there appeared on one of the most interesting English-language blogs on Russia (Sean's Russia Blog) an interview with the Russian documentary film-maker, Elena Demidova. An interview that I'd very much encourage people to read - whether they are curious about Russia or film critics. Apart from being one of the most interesting places to go for a real, concrete analysis of what is actually happening in Russia (I'd add two great more politically engaged blogs here: the Russian Reader and People and Nature), Sean Guillory's blog has now thrown a rare spotlight on one of those immense and almost entirely untapped sources which could provide people outside of Russia with a way to resist that poverty of imagination when it comes to 'picturing Russia'.

Indeed how many articles and analyses will the 'informed Russia watcher' have read about Gazprom without ever imagining for one moment what the life of a worker at one of its oil or gas fields is actually like. As Guillory argues in his introduction to the interview the viewing of a documentary film like Demidova's opens up our visions all too often narrowed by the turgid commentary of yet another newspaper article fitting into the same narrow field of vision which we are accustomed to. Instead a documentary film like Men's Choice gives us a new opportunity to imagine from an original perspective:

What I saw was something outsiders rarely hear about Russia—the lives of the thousands of people, mostly men, who travel extraordinary distances to Russia’s far north to work in the natural gas fields. These men work on rotations—a month of constant work on, and a month back home. This labor forces them to be separated from their families for long periods of time. Why do they do it? For money, quite simply. Working at Russia’s vast gas fields is far more lucrative than the work available in the small towns and villages many of these men hail from.
I found Men’s Choice fascinating for its human touch against the backdrop of hard labor and a harsh environment.
In fact many of Demidova's films allow us to peer through into life lived which has been denied us by so much 'Russia discourse'. Whether they concentrate on Lesha's tour of his burnt out village to highlight the forest fires in the summer of 2010 or the couple resisting eviction from their khruschevka flat (a typical 5-storey building built in the Khruschev era and symbolic of what is now seen as poor quality housing) in Sasha, Lena and the Iron Dragon, her films give that kind of insight into the texture of people's lived lives. Portraits that break against the hierarchy of classification and deny those 'fixed images' through which a view of Russia is imposed.


A still from Demidova's  Sasha, Lena and the Iron Dragon

It is the rare newspaper which will even print an article about the ongoing truckers strike in Russia denoting something of the hierarchy of concerns for editors when it comes to Russian news but how can we start to even imagine the life of a long distance trucker in real, concrete detail without having watched Sergei Kachkin's On the Way Home with its intimate portrait of a trucker and his wife as well as an extraordinary sequence of truckers and their radio communications with each other telling us more about life on a Russian road than any mere article could imagine to conjure up.  


The subject of Sergei Kachkin's On the Way Home a long-distance truck driver.

(Here one could equally launch into a passionate defence of other documentary forms when it comes to the truckers strike or other social acts of social resistance whether it be in the extraordinary photos posted in the anattrrra.ru live journal or in Victoria Lomasko's very fine documentary drawings of the truckers discussing and preparing their nationwide strike. How, too, can we imagine the real circumstances of the activity of independent trade unionists without having watched Svetlana Baskova's documentary One solution- resistance (upon which her film For Marx shown at the Berlinale was based)?
What are the hundreds of articles on Boris Nemtsov able to tell in comparison to the extraordinary film portrait by Zosya Rodkevich My Friend Boris Nemtsov shot when Nemtsov was still alive? Or those other documentaries such as Winter, Go Away  allowing us to see a collective portrait of Moscow in a time of political turbulence or those other political portrait films, for example Evegenia Montan'a Ibanez's portrait of the now imprisoned Left Front leader, Sergei Udaltsov, or the Term project by Pivoravov, Kostomarov and Rastorguev in many ways more interesting in its individual sequences than in the finished film. Followed up by their recent Realnost project and their previous experiments in devolving power to the film subjects by letting people shoot films about themselves, the ability to grasp 'Russian reality' politically and socially is within reach. It's just that the opportunity is all too rarely taken up.


A scene from the almanac film on Russia's protest movement of 2011/2 Winter, Go Away
It would be hard in this single post to list the whole gamut of documentaries in Russia and its near abroad worth watching. Yet I hope to start doing this in follow up posts on this and include some interviews with documentary film-makers both here and in other venues such as film journals like the Bright Light Film Journal where I published a general overview of some of the more established figures in the Russian documentary film world. I also hope to discuss the situation surrounding documentary film-making in Russia looking at documentary film festivals such as ArtDocFest and the new and exciting international documentary film festival in Moscow DOKer which developed out of a project to bring both Russian and world documentary to the Russian public (and not just to Moscow's but throughout the whole of the country). The institutional set up will also not be ignored, although it is pleasantly surprising how the desperately inane activities of Russia's Ministry of Culture in trying to dictate documentary norms have not been as successful as it hopes. 


The poster for the 2016 2nd DOKer Film festival to take place in the Spring

Indeed, the inanity and short-sightedness is not restricted just to Russia's Ministry of Culture. One's scepticism could and should extend to the inadequacy of documentary establishments outside Russia. I have written elsewhere about the 'splendid isolationism' of the British press and film critics when it comes to foreign language film. Maybe it is necessary to talk, too, about the myopia of some of those who have the ability to change things in the documentary scene itself outside of Russia. I recall a visit by Nick Fraser of BBC's Storyville to Russia's Moscow Business Square in 2014 to judge some promising new documentaries being pitched there. It seemed to me that Fraser failed to appreciate the particular world of Russian documentary. It was, for example, French television which had the sense to acknowledge the force, relevance and innovatory approach of Anna Moiseenko's documentary Abdul Ballade about a Tajik folk singer and migrant who composed ballads about his daily life in Moscow even though this and many other films of considerable interest were first pitched to the phlegmatic Fraser. Just one of the examples as to how myopia from those who could change things regarding the reception of Russian documentaries in Britain prevent them from doing so. 


Folksinger and migrant Abdumamad Bekmamadov, the protagonist of Anna Moiseenko's A Migrant's Life
In spite of all the myopia of many film commissioners in the UK and elsewhere, there are reasons for hope. These films will in any case be precious documents in years to come. This generation of documentary filmmakers will surely gradually become discovered and rediscovered in time. And the contacts between and the mutual influences of documentary filmmakers between Russian and elsewhere have already brought many fruits. A process of miscegenation is already happily underway. Films like Marco Raffaini's Italiani Veri (on the emergence of Italian light music in the Soviet Union) or the forthcoming Soviet Groove by the Franco-American ensemble of Louis Beaudemont and Alexei Gittelson enable us to look back at Soviet reality with completely unexpected eyes as does the film by the Austro-Russian duo Elena Tikhonova and Dominik Spriztendorfer Elektro Moskva, a fascinating essayistic documentary on the Soviet electronic age and its legacy as well as the larger than life figure of Leon Theremin. Russian documentarists, too, have given some fascinating portraits of foreign societies. Victor Kossakovsky and his students Spanish film ballet Demonstration is one of the most extraordinary films on popular unrest and strikes to have been made in recent years. 


A scene from Elektro Moskva

All this may go past the heads of Britain's semi-ignorant film establishment (though there are some fine exceptions among independent British film critics such as Neil Young and Michael Pattison very much open to the aesthetic lure and significance of the art documentary from this part of the world) but sooner or later future historians, as well as future film scholars, will be making their rediscoveries both of these films and of their priceless value as both documents of their time and as film documentaries in their own right.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Apparatus, a new online journal on Film, Media and Digital Culture in Central and Eastern Europe.


A new international research journal has just been launched which will be focused on film, media and digital culture and is focused on Central and Eastern Europe (that is much of the Post-Soviet space). The first issue of this bi-annual journal is now online, open to access for all- academics, interested journalists as well as film buffs interested in this area of the world. Unlike some other online titles it is truly looking for an international and multi-lingual audience. The articles can be in any of the languages spoken in Central and Eastern Europe as well as English (and indeed in the first issue articles are in four different languages: German, Ukrainian, Russian and English) and the website as a whole is trilingual: in German, Russian and English. Twelve authors were engaged in writing four peer reviewed articles, five reviews and an editorial and their geographical spread is also fairly wide: Austria, Croatia, Germany, Russia, Sweden, UK and the US just as the geographical spread of the subjects involved. There is a core editorial team of four including Natascha Drubek as Editor in Chief, Irina Schulzki as Review Sections Editor and Mario Slugan who is the Managing Editor. Among its Editorial Board are names very well-known to those interested in Soviet and Post-Soviet Cinema and a mark of true quality of thought including Naum Kleiman and Oleg Aronson as well as Vladimir Padunov from Pittsburg.

This is its official launch statement by the editorial team:

Dear colleagues and friends!

The editorial team of the international research journal APPARATUS is pleased to announce its launch and the release of its first issue.

APPARATUS is a peer-reviewed online journal focused on film, media and digital cultures in Central and Eastern Europe. The main aim of the editorial team is to keep abreast with the practice of the leading international research periodicals. Our basic editorial principles are:

OPEN ACCESS the journal is freely available online ensuring maximum accessibility and international dissemination of journal content

DOUBLE BLIND PEER REVIEW all articles undergo a double blind peer review process

The novelty of the journal consists in its MULTI-LINGUAL CONTENT
articles and reviews are published in different languages,
including those used in the regions the journal focuses on,

as well as in its MULTIMEDIA FORMAT the electronic publication allows contributors to insert not only figures and links,
but also audio- and video-files directly within texts.

APPARATUS is supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) and hosted by the Free University of Berlin. Long-term storage of published materials is ensured by the German National Library.

The initiator and chief-editor of the journal is Dr. Natascha Drubek. The international Editorial Board includes leading scholars, archivists, curators and artists in the field of media research of Central and Eastern Europe. Apparatus accepts both unsolicited and solicited submissions. The journal is published twice a year either as an open call issue or a special issue.

You can find out more about the content of the site in English, German or Russian, read the first issue and submit applications on:

www.apparatusjournal.net

The journal also has a page on Facebook which one can like and on which articles for the journal as well as other articles on relevant subject matter will be posted:

https://www.facebook.com/apparatusjournal?fref=nf

The articles published in the first issue include articles on Vertov's and Medvedkin's Film Trains and Agit Steamers of the 1920 and 30s. The next article is a much more theoretical article in Ukrainian on the difference between the use of the terms 'apparatus' and 'dispositif' (introduced by Jean-Louis Baudry in the 1970s) and how drawing a distinction between the two concepts may help us to analyse such a film like Parjanov 'The Shadow of Forgotten Ancestors' or Leonid Lukov's early post-war second part of 'A Great Life'. Other articles cover art rather than film as such with Inke Arns comparing Moscow's Collective Actions Group with Poland's Kwiekulik. Mark Lipovetsky then discusses how Pussy Riot laid bare both neo-traditionalist discourse but also the underlying hypocrisy of some of the liberal opposition. He locates the actual performances as a cultural return to and rebirth of the 'trickster trope' which was powerful in the Soviet period but declined in post-Soviet times. Then come the reviews of books (including one of Evgenii Margolit's vital 'The Living and the Dead: Notes on the History of Soviet Cinema 1920s-1960s as well as Philip Cavendish's fine book on 1920s Soviet cinematography).

A final review article is devoted to the Festival of Archive Film Belye Stolby by Georgii Borodin, the great animation specialist of the old Musei Kino team.

A great start to what promises to be a fine new venture in international research on a whole number of original topics in this growing field.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

DOKer 2015: the birth of a major new international documentary film festival in Russia.

2015 so far has been one of the most difficult and depressing years for Russian cinema and especially for Russian film festivals. The starving of funds to some of the very best film festivals in Russia such as the 2morrow/завтра film festival or the Art Doc Fest which had its government funding taken from it by Culture Minister, Vladimir Medinsky, in one of those demonstrations of the assertion of bureaucratic and political control of which there have been many in the past two or three years. A similar threat to the Vologda International Film Festival (VOICES), (a festival which screens independent European cinema) has been only partially avoided. So while news over the past year has been generally negative, seeing existential threats to high-quality and well-established film festivals, there now seems to be at least one silver lining in this gloomy atmosphere. This is represented by the emergence of a new major documentary film festival from a team who have for the past four years taken documentary films from throughout the world to Moscow and the Russian regions. The team behind the Doker project consisting mainly of Irina Shatalova, Igor Morozov and Nastia Tarasova, producers and directors of documentary films, have since 2011 organised 300 screenings of non-feature films throughout Russia. This project, moreover, has finally led to a full-blown festival in which the links built up over the past years have ensured that it has a truly international feel to it. The festival will screen 45 films from 32 countries and five continents. The films will come from far and wide: from Belgium to Afghanistan, from Argentina to South Africa.


Victor Kossakovsky, described by Robert Greene as 'one of the greatest documentarians alive', will head the Main Competition Jury.

The jury too will be composed of an almost entirely international team. Apart from Victor Kossakovsky who many see as Russia's greatest living documentary film-maker and even according to one account 'one of the greatest documentarians alive'  (and who will head the main competition jury) and the Russian director, screenwriter and producer, Alexei Vakhrushev (who will be part of the shorts jury) all other members are from outside Russia. Greece is represented by the film critic Vassilis Economou who has reported from a number of A-list festivals and who writes for a number of film sites, the USA  by Anna Nieman, Poland (the camera operator Mateusz Skalski who was took the award for best camera work at the Krakow International Festival), the Danish cinema scholar Tue Steen Muller, Slovakia (Peter Kerekes, the producer of the irreverent documentary film Velvet Terrorists and the Portuguese producer Pedro Fernandes Duarte.

The festival run completely independently and on a shoe string will consist of three programmes: a main competition programme, a shorts programme and a special programme entitled "Cinema in Cinema" which will include films on the shooting process of films as well as about film directors. The opening film will be the South African film Calabash on the first ever football World Cup to be held in an African country:


The festival will take place in two stages. The first stage will be from Friday this week to Tuesday next week  (May 22nd to May 26th) where all the films will be shown at the DomZhur cinema near Moscow's Arbat. In September there will be repeat screenings of the winners and award ceremony. The organisers have announced a crowd funding campaign for the festival, the link to which can be found here: httt://planeta.ru/campaigns/doker2015

Free tickets to the screenings can be booked here: doker.timepad.ru and more information can be found on the festival site here: www.midff.com


Sunday, 3 May 2015

A Boris Barnet Project.


A book on Boris Barnet now seems to be a long abandoned project of mine: it has even been some time since I’ve re-watched a Barnet film. Yet while the idea refuses to leave me there has been always one issue that tormented me: 
How to deal with the weightlessness of Barnet?



If I'm not mistaken Evgenii Margolit once suggested that Eisenstein and Barnet could be seen as the two forces (maybe constellations?) in early Soviet cinema which pulsate and attract different, if not opposing, forces. …  yet while Eisenstein left a seemingly endless trail behind him of written documents which give witness to almost every thought process of his imaginable and so help illuminate his creations, Barnet left almost no documents behind him but his films.

How then to work with this silence of his? Compared to the verbosity of Eisenstein and the relative verbosity of those such as Pudovkin, Kuleshov, Dovzhenko etc who left many written accounts (even if not such detailed ones as Eisenstein), Barnet's reticence feels unbearable for any would-be author on a book about him? What could such a book look like?  


Maybe there is one solution. To turn a Barnet project into something that would illuminate not simply his cinema but the time in which he lived.

There, of course, is still the chance of writing a good cinematic account of each of his films attempting to look at them from the cinematic context of the time as well as his place in Soviet film and world cinema. Fascinating things would emerge if one looks at Barnet in the context of, for example, French poetic realism and exploring Barnet’s relation to his contemporary Soviet colleagues. Yet writing about Barnet could include much more than a cinematic account. 


Maybe one can see what one can learn from an anthropological viewpoint, from a sociological viewpoint, from literary studies, a studies of gestures, city studies, fashion studies and then try to recreate Barnet's films from all this. Yet all too often this approach is one that often kills the object of study by dissecting cinema from fashionable scientific approaches rather than the films still themselves remaining obscure objects of desire.


If almost anything could illuminate Barnet, maybe his films too can illuminate a whole universe of social relations in the first four decades of the Soviet Union. In a very different way than from the films of Eisenstein. Thankfully Soviet cinema had both Eisenstein the cerebral genius and Barnet the intuitional one: well clearly it's not that simple, but... While Eisenstein often seems like a sun that blackens out all other planets (Pudovkin, for example) there is a sense in which Barnet managed to transfer himself to another solar system so that doesn't need to be seen to be in any competition with Eisenstein. 

So perhaps there are things that one can learn from Barnet that one can’t possibly learn from Eisenstein and this resides in his more direct link to the mores and social reality of his time and to Soviet byt than Eisenstein does. A study of Barnet can thus be more a study of his time than a study of Eisenstein might be. 



I have often thought how just as a reading of Baudelaire led to Benjamin’s Arcades Project, a Barnet project could also develop infinitely into some comparable project of the Soviet times in which he made his films. 

Here are some of the folder names ready into which endless notes can be written: 

Red Pinkertonism, chemical/biological warfare paranoia in the Soviet 20’s (Miss Mend); 

Virgin Lands (Alyonka); 

the kvartirny vopros (Girl with a Hatbox and House on Trubnaya); 
amateur theatres in the Soviet twenties (House on Trubnaya); 
poetic/artistic disputes after the revolution; the poet Bagritsky; Odessa in the aftermath of the Revolution (Poet)
the history of the Russian and Soviet circus (The wrestler and the clown)
love triangles and the personal and the political (By the Bluest of Seas; Bountiful Summer);

Barnet as the poet of weariness (The Old Jockey, Whistlestop);

The emotional scenario (By the Bluest of Seas).
The spy thriller (Exploits of an intelligence agent) etc, etc.

Then there's the relatively unexplored worlds of the Mezhrabpom Studios and the lack of English-language studies of lyric comedies in Soviet film (if it were not for Barnet would there have emerged a Danelia or a Ioselliani? and what of the direct influence that Barnet exercised on his assistants Khutsiev and Gaidai who worked with him on Liana?).

Then there would have to be lengthy folders on everyone Barnet worked with: from scriptwriters to actors and cameramen: Shershenevich, Erdman (or to be more the Erdman’s as he worked with three of the family), Garin, Rodchenko, the émigrés- Otsep, Anna Sten etc as well as the story of Koval'-Samborsky who after acting in Barnet's early films left the Soviet Union, was an emigre, then fled the Nazis and was then sent into exile before his rehabilitation and reappearance in Barnet's Poet, the established Soviet actors  eg Nikolai Kriuchkov. The various theatres and directors from which Barnet poached his actors etc. (Protazanov; and the Meyerkhold, MKhAT actors etc)   



These are just some of the folders that come to mind when developing a Barnet study and surely these would just grow and grow. So this Barnet project is not going to be in book form any time soon...

Monday, 30 March 2015

Prince Lemon's (aka the Emperor of Bananas) hostile takeover of Russian theatre!



Living in Russia in 2014-2015 and trying in some way to make sense of what is happening in Russian culture feels like a daily battle for sanity. That once famous catchphrase that the lunatics were taking over the asylum doesn't feel radical enough somehow. Attempting to describe the sense of absolute impotence at the spectacle of the takeover of the Cinema Museum by a band of barely competent, ideologically-correct tools (patriotic and Orthodox hammers) is one of those moments when writing a detailed account almost feels like a kind of self-harm. How could all of this have actually happened? And was there really so little resistance? No permanent general strike by cultural workers? The story surrounding the Tannhauser production in Novosibirsk is also developing into another cause celebre which seems to signal yet another nail in the coffin for independent culture and illuminates one more stage in this story of culture wars going on since early 2000 between moralists (whether of church or state- and they are often the same) and independent artists that came to the fore so dramatically with the trashing of the Beware Religion exhibition at the Sakharov Centre in 2003.


The latest stage in this saga could be deemed as the one in Prince Lemon took over the theatre (if you know your Gianni Rodari as many Russians do, or at least used to do). Prince Lemon today has arisen in the form of a former 'Emperor of Bananas' who goes by the name of Vladimir Kekhman. Having controlled the import of one third of the bananas which were brought into Russia in the 1990s and playing, in general, a not insignificant role in the development of Post-Soviet Russian capitalism he decided like Bulgakov's (or rather Gaidai's) Ivan Vasilievich that he wanted a change of profession. So the oligarch has in recent years turned ballet and theatre director. I'm not sure if history is very replete with this type of metamorphosis. Somehow I doubt it. Though I've always been intrigued by the fact that Silvio Berlusconi was said to have written a preface to a new edition of Erasmus's In Praise of Folly (I've still yet to get my hands on a copy of his actual text). Kekhman seems to be just as mired as Berlusconi in some very dubious business practices (if one knows Russian one could listen to this small item on Russia's independent Dozhd' television channel) and managed to find a typically British legal loophole to avoid any of the irritating trials that his Italian counterpart has been intermittently subject to. But instead of searching for political power to cover up his misdeeds he and others in the Russian elite are attempting the route of cultural domination.

Vladimir Kekhman, the former Banana Emperor, who has taken over the Novosibirsk Theatre of Opera and Ballet
From the import of bananas to the director of a major Russian theatre is not such a large step in contemporary Russia even if you have a few fraud problems with Russia's state bank. It seems that the trick is simple: supply a suitably patriotic or moralist quote for a Ministry of Culture website denouncing the blasphemous nature of a slightly ose' theatre production and, hey presto, you even get to bag the director's job a few days later. Here's the quote that Kekhman produced denouncing the Tannhauser production in Novosibirsk:

As a believer who has been christened in the Orthodox faith, and as a Jew, I take this [production] as an insult. It is a demonstration of internal godlessness in the style and in the spirit of a union of warring infidels. I won’t hide that I spoke today with Mezdrich and he told me that he won’t abandon this production and will stand to the end. I consider that he must resign and that this production must be removed from the repertoire.”

And soon enough a new job in the theatre world was coming the way of the banana emperor and this major new 'force' in the field of Russian culture. Prince Lemon (who Kekhman actually played in one of his own productions), it seems, in today's Russian post-Soviet form of oligarchic capitalism, wishes to direct theatres as well as selling bananas and real estate:

The grotesque figures directing and controlling culture in contemporary Russia - from Medinsky to Kekhman, - and those religious authorities like the Metropolitan Tikhon's, and assorted Chaplin's (along with the performances of the religious activists such as Enteo) who stir moral panics against any original artistic production not to their liking, is not (yet) the only story in town when it comes to Russian culture but it feels as though their aggressive and increasingly repressive bombardment of independent artists in Russia is reaching heights that feel vertiginous.

It appears that they won't be content until some form of 'moral control' is exercised at all levels of theatrical production. Reported comments from a high-level official in Putin's administration, Magomedsalam Magomedov, suggests that the state now wants to control theatre production before it gets into the repertoire. Moreover, with his dangerous talk of only showing productions which 'unite people rather than those that divide them' is quite clear that the state officials and the economic elites are interested in using the arts once again as a mobilizing tool in society promoting its own version of patriotic fervour.Whether the resistance of the theatrical and other artistic communities can amount to something real is yet to be seen. The public statements of support by people like Mark Zakharov are welcome as is the very public call from the independently-minded Russian Film-Makers Union to call for the reinstatement of Boris Maezdrich and the resignation of Vladimir Medinsky. How the cultural bureaucrats will react this latest act of apparent insubordination remains to be seen.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Sergei Eisenstein and Don Quixote


For readers of this blog who don't read Spanish here is my attempt to summarize an interview with Naum Kleiman by Tatiana Pigiarova published here. Tatiana describes how in the rooms where Eisenstein's widow lived after the death of Russia's greatest film director amid the personal objects of Eisenstein - the Bauhaus furniture and the Mexican carpets can be spotted the figure of Eisenstein dressed up as Don Quijote mounted upon a movie camera which stands in for Rocinante.

Eisenstein's interest in Spain was multi-faceted. In his memoirs he spoke of Meyerhold's production of Calderon de la Barca's play El Principe Constante (The Constant Prince), the Spanish Baroque of Picasso and El Greco which was more of an inspiration to him than Italian Baroque- in fact he would write an article entitled El Greco and Film. Besides all this there was a script for a film entitled Spain set in Spain during the Civil War.

The puppet figure of Eisenstein as Don Quijote which was made by some artists for the Eisenstein Museum to commemorate the fact that Eisenstein was part of a short film where he took on the role of Don Quixote during a Congress of Independent Cinema in September 1929 (the first film festival in history). The avant-garde filmmakers from all of Europe (as well as from America and Japan) met in Switzerland at the Sarraz Castle invited by Helene de Mandrot, the owner of the castle and an art enthusiast. Eisenstein, Alexandrov and Tisse were in Germany at the time waiting for their visas to get to Hollywood and decided to join the other film-makers there. So as well as the future General Line (or The Old and the New) Bunuel's Le Chien d'Andalou were projected. Bunuel himself was expected but didn't turn up. And between jokes and discussions the participants decided to shoot a film at the festival. The idea for the film was inspired by Eisenstein and Hans Richter: the struggle between the independents and the 'great names'. 

They were aided by the French critic and author of a book on Eisenstein, Leon Moussinac (dressed as Artagnan) and Jean-George Auriol, the editor of the Revue du Cinema who, using typewriters at the Congress as machine guns launched an attack behind banners made from journals. These two quickly developed the script of this work which entered cinematic history as The Storming of La Sarraz and was also directed by these critics. Tisse' filmed it with his camera and the castle stuffed with medieval relics acted as the set. Madamoiselle Bouissounouse from the Revue du Cinema with a white dress and reels of film around her bust  and fastened by chains to the castle was to incarnate Independent Cinema. Her defender, the caballero Don Quixote (interpreted by Eisenstein) carried his medieval armour, helmet and lance and mounted upon Rocinante, his trustworthy movie camera.

Independent Cinema was to defeat 'Commercial Cinema' impersonated by the Japanese Moitiro Tsutji who was to commit harakiri. Eisenstein recalled that the castle owner was to remember both him and Tisse with fond memories and would repeat to herself a refrain "Ah those Bolsheviks, those Bolsheviks, the only real gentlemen".

Enough proof suggests that this film did exist at one point with certain images having been preserved by the Cinema Museum. Photograms of Jean-George Auriol with his typewriter-machine guns, of Leon Moussinac dressed up as Artganan and Eisenstein in medieval dress playing Don Quixote still exist. It's thought that the film was taken by Hand Richter to London to develop and edit and that possibly it was lost in the train or was confiscated by customs.

The story of Eisenstein and Don Quixote didn't stop there and in fact Eisenstein had been approached by Feodor Schialapin to make an adaptation of Cervantes novel. However this project was to be realised not by the Soviet director but by Pabst (though still with Schialapin in the main role).

Eisenstein is still present in the film of Don Quixote that was eventually adapted by Grigory Kozintsev in 1957  through the influence of the 19th century caricaturist and painter Honore Daumier. Eisenstein's wife Pera Atasheva was to donate to Kozintsev several books and reproductions of Daumier which had belonged to Eisenstein. One such reproduction was to hang in Kozintsev's office and through Eisenstein would influence the aesthetic of Kozintsev's 1957 film adaptation of Cervantes' novel. (Eisenstein's script Spain also found its way into his film Alexander Nevski).