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Friday, 13 December 2013

Art Doc Fest 2013- A look at the Films Awarded.

To summarize a festival like Art Doc Fest is rather complicated. As one of the most important (if not the main) documentary film festival in Russia (and devoted almost entirely to the subject of Russian themes,or at least shot in Russia or in the Russian language) it is the main showcase of Russian documentary cinema. It is also a genuinely popular film festival with the Moscow film-going public (a number of films were packed full and in the case of some almost overfilling) and yet it receives far less public funds than certain film festivals where audiences are bussed in to fill up empty seats (known to happen at certain festivals where cinematic excellence is less important than ties to cultural and political bureaucrats). So in spite of the miserly financial support it receives from the authorities it punches well above its weight in film festival ratings. Its lack of public funding may be explained by the fact that it is willing to show films on more controversial subjects (so, for example, it has shown in the past controversial films on Khodorkovsky, on Politkovskaya and this year showed the Russian-German co-production Putin's Games on the preparations for the Sochi Winter Olympics , a film highlighting the almost unbelievable levels of corruption as well as the severe unease and disruption that the games have caused the local population. These controversial films are often the most fully-packed sessions in the festival, given the unlikelihood that other major movie theatres will show these films after the festival.

However, politically-controversial films at this festival prove to be more an exception than a rule. In fact, this year one was hard put to find any directly political film apart from the film just mentioned. The two films on Pussy Riot were conspicuous by their absence - both the Lerner and Pozdorovkin film which attempts to provide a certain 'objective' glance and the much more 'subjective' (but in my view more interesting) film produced by the film collective Gogol's Wives (the failure to show the Lerner and Pozdorovkin film probably reflects some circumstances beyond the control of the directors of the festival given that the film had been planned to appear at the festival). 

What are quite common, though, are socially-sharp commentaries on life in Russia and the Gran Prix award winner was no exception. Alina Rodnitskaya's film Кровь (Blood) tells the story of a mobile team of nurses who worked for the Russian blood donor service. Unlike in many other countries, in Russia giving blood comes with a monetary reward. While not large in many people's terms, in provincial Russia the 850 roubles doled out to donors (equivalent to about $26 US) may not be an insignificant sum. Rudnitskaya follows the team around exploring both their own lifestyle and observing the donors themselves as well as their interactions with the team. It is a strong film precisely because it serves as a metaphor for society at large. Watching it on the same day as Putin's Games one felt even more the scandalous inequalities between the corrupt businessmen defrauding billions and the desperate provincial inhabitants forced to sell their blood to survive. Rudnitskaya, moreover, is a superb observer of social institutions and the minutiae of everyday life embedded in people's interaction with them. Previously films of hers have been about a marriage and divorce registrar office in her film Гражданское Состояние (Civil Status) or her even bleaker masterpiece Я забуду этот день (I will forget this day) filmed in an institution that we only find out towards the end which institution it is being shot in. Again her filming of this abortion clinic and the social anxiety brings to the fore the realities of social and sexual inequalities. The award of the main prize to Rodnitskaya was a sign of confidence in her mastery of her surgically brilliant dissection of the social body of Russian society through these portraits of institutions and the individuals linked to them.

The best full-length film of the festival award as well as the best film of the year award went to a debutante. Daria Khlestkina's Последний лимузин (The Last Limousine) was a fine portrait of a once-elite car factory in decline. The factory,after  having received an order for three classic ZIL limousines for a Red Square parade at the Kremlin, appears to have been given a new lease of life. This, however, at the last moment proves illusory when a call from the Kremlin administration informs them that the Limousines that they have spent so much effort in building will not appear in the parade after all. This tragi-farcical finale serves as a Kotlovan-like tale of the absurdity of Russian life in general and that of the Russian working classes in particular. The film is a sincere and genuinely warm portrait of workers brought up in the Soviet epoch and genuinely dedicated to the factory and their work. It is also a portrait of the world of migrant workers in the factory and their relationship to the surrounding environment. Two worlds which according to the director practically don't communicate. Khlestkina explained how the subject matter was given as a task set by Marina Razbezhkina in her school for documentary film-making (a school which has engendered a whole generation of documentary film-makers) and, although the suggestion was that there was little point searching for this environment in Moscow itself, Khlestkina came across the Likhachev factory: one of the few examples left in the city of a still working factory. In many ways she has made an extraordinary portrait of this environment. The Post-Soviet return to the figure of the worker was anticipated in Svetlana Baskova's recent documentary and feature films and in this festival another film was devoted to the subject in Svetlana Bychenko's film Нити Никала (Lamp Filament) about the demise of a factory making the old 'Lenin lamp'. Once again one gets the same melancholic portrait of a workforce dedicated but doomed. 

A Special Jury Prize was awarded to the film by Inna Lesina Морфолгия (Morphology - one of those extraordinary explorations of the world of an individual. In this case the universe explored was that of a forensic pathologist and the world of the morgue. What makes this short 35 minute film special is that it is a portrait of someone whose philosophy about life has extraordinary depth. His citations of Chekhov, Tom Waits and interest in art along with a deep sense of humour makes this one of the uplifting films of the festival in spite of the subject matter.


A Jury special mention was given to Madina Mustafina's film Еще Чуток, Мрази (A Little More, Scumbags). This film about the life of a transsexual has come on the trail of her much discussed previous film Милана (Milana)- which had both its champions as well as detractors. The earlier film was shot with what, Masha Karp has called an 'invisible camera', contrasting it almost entirely with Liubov Arkus's activist intervention. In Mustafina's latest film she once again manages to enter almost entirely into the life of its protagonist in a fairly invisible way. The film is set in Kazakhstan but the protagonists are Russian speakers. Highlighting the LGBT community and the main protagonists, Zhenya's, decision to opt for a sex change, it is the kind of film that is likely to garner interest outside Russia for its subject matter alone (giving the new homophobic laws in place). Yet it is much more than a simple exploration of this environment. The film has a very different aesthetic to many of the others on show and many in the documentary community in Russia are skeptical and unaccepting of Mustafina's way of filming. It must also be said that even the protagonist of the film had issues with the director which led to the rift and the abandonment of the shooting after nine months. However, in many ways the award seemed more than justified in encouraging Mustafina's rather unique style of film-making in the Russian documentary world. Mustafina is yet one more of the former students of Razbezhkina who have been scooping up prizes here at Art Doc Fest as well as elsewhere.

Madina Mustafina with her tutor Marina Razbezhkina.

Other awards included the Лавровая Ветвь (Laurel Branch) awards. Of these were the film Катя (Katia) which was to win the Best Art Film award. A film on a journey to India by a marginalised Russian from the Moscow region, it has gained both critical plaudits as well as attention because of the later notoriety of its cameraman, Sergei Pchelintsev, suspected of murdering a dissident Russian priest Pavel Adelgheim. This gruesome fate of one of its team (and a very competent cameraman Pchelintsev was said to be) will obviously distract from a dispassionate review of the film itself. A fine Russian language review of the film has, however, been written by the film critic Zara Abdullaeva in a  blog for the journal Искусство Кино .

Other awards of note went to the cameraman for the best in his profession to Mikhail Gorobchuk for his part in two films - one by Rodion Ismailov entitled Моя Родня (My Kith and Kin), an intimate exploration of his daughter's journey to native Azerbaijan and the other a film entitled Дыхание Тундры (Breath of the Tundra). The film by Ismailov has won a number of international awards and I will write about it in a further post.

Daria Vedritskaite won a 'Laurel Branch' for best debut film for her За Рекой...Последние - her slow moving but at times highly poetic exploration of a community of Old Believers.

These prize winners were just a few of the many significant films shown at the festival. Over the comings weeks I'm hoping to add some more posts. Disputes over prizes never go away but, to my mind, the jury of Art Doc Fest did chose some of the stronger films in competition.

As a postscript to this post, the presence of so many award winners from Marina Razbezhkina's school of documentary film, it would be wrong not to mention that one of her own films was in the competition. Оптическая Ось (Optical Axis) gave a general overview of societal changes in its comparison between the photographs of a century ago taken by Maxim Dmitriev. A portrayal of societal groups, it doesn't go in for sharp social observation like many of her students but nonetheless one can only welcome a return by the pedagogical master of documentary to documentary practice.

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