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Monday 17 December 2012

Art Doc Fest 2012 - Reflections on Russia's Main Documentary Festival

Russia’s main documentary film festival closed yesterday after just over a week of screenings in five halls of the Khudozhestvenny cinema in Moscow. The large quantity of films – in Russian but not all by Russian documentary film-makers – meant that many of the films I'd intended to watch will just have to wait for another occasion. The Festival Director, Vitaly Manksy, on his Facebook page and elsewhere gave some indication of those competition and non-competition films to look out for but to be there in the right place at the right time in a festival is not always easy. In spite of having missed out on much of the festival, there is still is a lot to say about it and common themes running through this year’s documentary output. One could clearly perceive a number of tendencies as well as some of the pressures that documentary film-makers work under (very few of these films will get to be shown on Russian television, apart from the small 24 doc station that has a very limited audience).

 The jury chairman, Russian feature film director (Andrei Smirnov) in his closing speech spoke of one of the novelties of this festival, namely the considerable number of films shot in Russia by foreign film directors. Referring to a number of films shot by foreign directors on Russia (from Robin Hessman's film on perestroika to Jake Mobbs' film on street teenagers in Perm) he stated "I would send our nationalists to a movie hall and make them watch films made through the eyes of people from Europe and America". The discomfort that Russians feel when viewing foreign made documentary films referring to often difficult social subjects is sometimes rather palpable and Smirnov's words came as a strong corrective to this anxiety at having one's most difficult secrets revealed which sometimes generates almost a kind of hostility.

 The festival itself which has something of a rather more alternative format than the Moscow Film Festival held in late June although still not departing too radically from the mainstream (though with a more liberal than conservative ethos) is, perhaps, one of the reasons why some hard-hitting films about Russia by foreign film-makers get shown here and would not get shown elsewhere in Russia without considerable difficulty. Some of the foreign documentaries generated a great deal of interest, especially My Perestroika directed by Robin Hessman which looks at the lives of five Russians who live through the late Soviet period experiencing the collapse of the Soviet Union and then learning to live in an entirely new country. It is, genuinely, a fresh look at these years from compared with much else that has been made about the perestroika years (outside of Russia). While the five people whose lives are looked at can't said to be completely representative of Russians as a whole, the portrait of perestroika through the changes that these people went through is one of the most fresh and original captured as yet on a foreign-produced film about the subject. Another film called Флирт по-Русский (Flirt: Russian Style) and produced in Germany also had a generally warm reception from some of those who had watched it.

More hard-hitting looks at Russia dealing with subjects that could produce discomfort in a Russian audience (and that their radical social problems should be captured so well not by Russian but by Western directors) came from a British and a Belgian film. Both Jake Mobbs whose film dealt with a group of teenagers from Perm who live the life of the street through often tragic family situtions involving themselves in drug and substance abuse (A Russian Fairytale) as well as Yasna Krainovich’s Belgium-made film (produced by the Dardenne Borthers film company, DERIVES) called Summer With Anton about religious-military summer camps for youth provoked in some viewers a certain defensive mechanism questioning why it should be foreigners displaying Russia's most painful social realities (instead of questioning why these truths are so rarely captured in Russian documentary films). However, the Jury President Andrei Smirnov explicitly praised these two films and the main prize for the competition films he awarded was also a film directed by foreigners, this time Swedes.

 These foreign views of Russia were complemented by Russian views of abroad. They were clearly different- one film retold the life of a Russian woman who had married a Kurd and spent the rest of her life living in Iraq. It had something of the imprint of Sokurov (whose voice can be heard telling the story). This emphasis on narrating her story as much through voice as well as through visuals set it apart from many documentaries. Some beautifully shot scenes also lended their weight to make this worth reviewing. Another film that managed to inspire was Tatiana Daliyiants’ film on Venice called Venice Afloat. After shooting a film on the Venetian cultural elite, she has here decided to draw her attention to other classes of Venetian society- those that rarely get noticed by either the cultural snobs or the average tourist. The craftsmen and boat makers are the subject of her film rather than the aristocracy, the beauty of the city itself or the tourists. She brings an almost kind of Free Cinema style to her subject at times and like the writer Predrag Matvejevic in his excellent book A Mediterranean Breviary is interested in creating a kind of philology of Venice (and the Mediterranean)- not just fixing the temporal & the ephemeral but rendering the quotidian poetical. It is not a typical Russian glance (and maybe this is because she is of Armenian stock) but it is imbued with a different respect for the life of her subjects following them with the footsteps of a poet (and the film-maker is also a internationally-recognized poet translated into many languages), not simply those of a clumsy dirty realist. A glance that reaches beyond the narrow domains of that eternally futile debate over positive cinema that has exercised so many in the past decade in Russian cinematography.

 The reaction against chernuka of the 1990s was to be to call for a positive view of Russia. This summer this old chestnut was repeated in the form of an open letter by young cinematographers to the Cinematographic Union, headed by Nikita Mikhalkov. Some read it as a clear attack on certain members of the cinematographic community. One of these presumed targets, Marina Razbezhkina (a powerful force in contemporary Russian documentary as an influential pedagogue), stated at the Moscow Film Festival this summer that she felt the letter was, in part, directed against her among others. The rather hysterical tone of some of the letter was to include an attack on film festivals abroad accused of selecting only 'negative' Russian films feeding what it called the 'necrophagic' tastes of European viewers. Of course, the hyperbole of the letter may not have particularly reflected the real situation in cinematography but it certainly seems clear that official financial channels for any type of social realist cinema is going to be blocked. However, the fact that the last year has been a year of protest was clearly reflected in some of the choices of the festival.

Two of the films from the main competition had as subject matter the recent demonstrations with one of them being a major portrait of one of the major political figures of the protest, Sergei Udaltsov. Other films covered the political satire of a popular television programme which was to be taken off the air, as well as a very intimate portrayal of members of the art group Voina- a film made with $3,000. Otherwise the collective film made by Maria Razbezhkina's students on the protest Зима Уходи (Winter, Go Away) was the final addition to this season of political documentary films. To my mind the quality was variable. The portrait of Voina Завтра (Tomorrow) by Andrei Gryazev - a fascinating document in its own right disappoints by failing to fully illuminate the circumstances of the group. Yulia Byvsheva's film Путин люби нас! (Putin love us!) was a film detailing a group of actors involved in a theatrical production whose relation to the protests was explored through a look at their peripatetic explorations moving from stage to street and then back again. However, perhaps the strongest political documentary was Evgenia Montaña Ibañez's film entitled Марш! Марш! Левой! (March, March with your Left!) which was both a very intimate portrait of the oppositionist Sergei Udaltsov as well as some of his followers during a hunger strike along with footage of the May 6th demonstration in Bolotnaya Square which, for once, gave an authentic picture of what it felt like to be there on that day. One might say that simply for this part of the film alone, it deserves praise as the most accurate portrayal of the true events of that day. The film, of course, was far more accomplished than just that. Aleksandr Arkhangelsky got it right when he stated that this documentary avoided all the traps that a political documentary can fall into. Evgenia Ibañez, from the evidence of this debut film, certainly appears to be one of the brightest hopes of a new generation of Russian documentary filmmakers.

A more determinedly aesthetically-minded approach was taken by established Russian documentarist Victor Kosavkovsky in his Да Здраствуют Антиподы! (Long Live the Antipodes). In his award speech Kosakovsky made a reference to those in the documentary community hostile to his more purely aesthetic approach to documentary cinema (an approach that was described to me by one festival goer/documentarist as without a main idea). Once again this prescriptive marginalisation of alternative approaches is one of the more disappointing aspects of discussions on cinema in Russia today.

Other fine films included Denis Klebeyev´s account in 31 Рейс (Voyage 31) of a small Kamchatkan village isolated from the outside world apart from the arrival of a kind of off-road vehicle laden with all the necessary produce. The way that the film-maker manages to record the life of two of these drivers and the community in this place almost completely cut off from the rest of the world capturing for the camera 'life taken unawares' was a genuine feat. The same could be said for Elena Demidova's Саша, Лена и железный дракон (Sasha, Lena and the Iron Dragon) with the humour of the film coming from the addresses to the camera operator who becomes a kind off-screen presence not an observer but the invisible observed. A tale of two residents from a Khruschevky flat about to be evicted by the iron dragon of a bulldozer this film comes closest to rendering finding moments of humour in deeply dramatic circumstances. The film had a kind of Barnetian lyric sensibility to it.

A film about Russia´s football ultras by Konstantin Smirnov (Не Футбол) and another film on a Russian commune by Anna Moisenko (С.П.А.Р.Т.А. - Территория Счастья) trying to build an island of communism in a country of wild capitalism were descriptions of alternative collective identities that have grown and devleoped in prost-Soviet Russia.

One film which genuinely deserves a whole post of its own is Liubov' Arkus's Антон Тут Рядом (Anton's Right Here)- a look at an autistic child and his incredibly difficult fate, the film is as much a reflection on the power of the camera and cinema itself as well as a look at the emotional autism of society as a whole. The film for me, in many ways, was the film of the festival and, likely to be one of the great documentaries that will mark this coming decade in Russian cinema. Reflecting on this diversity and richness of these films one can only feel optimism about the future of documentary in Russia and yet reflecting that hardly any of these are likely to be shown on Russian television one feels a certain despair at how much talent seems to have been wasted.

The beginning of the festival was also marked by a very grave reminder of both the power and the vulnerability of documentary film. A police raid at the home of Pavel Kostomarov, the documentary film-maker of the film Срок (The Term) - a look at Putin's third term - and the confiscation of master copies of this film was a striking blow against the freedom of expression and documentation and a challenge to the whole documentary film community. 

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