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Saturday, 23 February 2013

Jake Mobbs, British documentalist, on filming in Russia.

In a recent post Tatiana Daniliyants I posted an interview with a Russian filmmaker who has filmed abroad (in her case, Italy). This post tries to look at the experience of a British documentary filmmaker, Jake Mobbs, who has made a journey in the opposite direction filming his documentary in Russia. The film premiered at the ArtDocFest (Russia's main festival of documentary film). It was singled out for strong praise by the Chairman of the Jury, Andrei Smirnov, during the closing ceremony (and also later in a print interview with the Russian New Times). A social documentary, initially shot to support a charity in the city of Perm, it has very high production values and, as well as in Moscow,  premiered in London last month to a packed audience at the Riverside Studios. The subject matter of a group of street kids who organize their own society in spite of a hostile environment and deal with a truly toxic situation arisen in part due to the catastrophic social effects of post-Soviet transition is, of course, not a new subject and yet this type of socially-based documentary seems to have become - post-perestorika- ever more rare in Russia. The film is being released at a time when the figure of the child in Russia has become politicized due to the promulgation of a new law banning adoptions of Russian orphans to the US and the opposition voiced by part of civil society to this new law.   

Could you tell me what the catalyst was for filming in another country and how you think it is (would have been) different from filming a social documentary in the UK?

I first got the idea to make a film in Russia when I went to Perm to visit my sister who was working with Love's Bridge, a charity working with under-privileged children. At the time I didn’t have any intention to make a feature-length film, but to produce a short promotional film to support the charity. Over the next few years, it grew into a much bigger project - a longer, cinematic film that could potentially be broadcasted and reach a bigger audience.

Although there are similar charities in the UK, most of them already have a wealth of media support and may not have invested the time and effort as Love's Bridge did in my idea to make a documentary. Throughout this project, it wasn't particularly easy to obtain support and advice from the charities in the UK. The living conditions in Perm and the freezing weather, gave our film a striking and unique angle that you would not find in a story set in the UK and as a result, we managed to secure necessary funds to start filming.

How was your film was received in Russia?

It was an honour to hold our first public screening in Moscow. Initially, I did not expect it to be accepted into the festival. Although the film isn’t political, it is difficult for many Russians to appreciate a film about an uncomplimentary side of Russia made by a foreigner. In the end, it went surprisingly well and Andrei Smirnov commended me for coming to Russia to create a wonderful and important film.

ArtDocFest is a fantastic festival and very liberal in its ideas. The organisers and audience were extremely welcoming towards me and my film. As to why I gave the film the title 'fairytale', it took a bit of explaining and discussion after the screening, but it was clear to them that I had given these teenagers a stage to tell their story and it was an important story to tell.

Did you have any models (films or filmmakers) when you thought about making this film in Russia? Have you been particularly struck by any films about Russia shot by foreign filmmakers or any films shot in the UK by Russian filmmakers?

There were two films that struck me as extremely powerful when I was researching this topic. One was about homeless children living on the subways in Moscow called Children of Leningradsky, made by a Ukrainian filmmaker. The other was a film about homeless people living in train tunnels in New York called Dark Days. I was compelled by both of these films and they inspired me, not just in their style but from the change in the way you view homelessness after watching it. I haven’t seen many films shot in the UK by Russian filmmakers, apart from a selection of short documentaries shot by Russian students, shown at the Russian film festival in London.

How was the actual process of film-making in Russia - what felt strange or unusual and what difficulties did you have in filming as a foreign film-maker? (Were there any advantages or disadvantages about your status as a foreign film-maker?)

I think Russia is a relatively straightforward place for filming, as long as you carry a stamped document explaining what you’re doing, in case you’re stopped by the police. In Perm, the police presence is minimal and if you don’t stand out too much, you can easily film without being noticed. We were caught out once when the teenagers in our film were raided and we were ordered to hand over our tapes. Fortunately, we were filming on flash cards and after some confused inspection, these were handed back to us. Most institutions were happy with us filming after we explained our project. On some occasions, permission was granted because the film was made for a foreign audience. The unique situation of a foreign filmmaker taking interest in their work made it more appealing for them to spend time helping us.

Why did you decide to film the subject that you did?

From the first time I met the teenagers in Perm in 2006, I knew that their stories would make an interesting film. There were about 15 teenagers I met, which the charity were either working with or had worked with, and it was clear to me out of all of them which ones would work best in the film. Some were memorable characters with strong charisma and some of the quieter ones just had remarkable stories. Whilst filming, we focused on about six, and this was further narrowed down to four who made up the majority of the film. It helped immensely to have the charity behind us because they had a clear back-story for each character and could help locate them.

Is there anything especially interests you about any Russian documentary films that you have seen? What is your overall vision of documentary film-making? What trends and tendencies in documentary particularly interest you?

I find Russia a fascinating place, so any documentary made in the country interests me. I enjoyed Winter Go Away - which gave an important insight into the political protests from the view of the demonstrators. Contest, about a beauty pageant in a women’s prison in Novosibirsk was a great way of understanding life inside Russian prisons. I also enjoy the work of Marina Goldovskaya, especially A Bitter Taste of Freedom about Anna Politkovskaya. These are all very personal films about real Russian characters.

A Russian Fairytale Trailer from A Russian Fairytale on Vimeo.

I see documentary as a platform to educate and inspire change. For an hour or two, you can experience the lives of others, so far-flung that you may not have even known of their existences otherwise and sometimes it can take courage to step inside this world. It’s important to see some element of hope in a documentary - which gives people the inspiration to get up and make a difference, by donating or contributing to street action.

Films made about ordinary people who choose not to conform to society’s rules have a particular interest to me. There’s a growing trend to break rules, to make a mark and be noticed, whether politically or otherwise. Films that capture this spark and show our society in a new light are becoming increasingly important.

Synopsis of the Film : Street kids Kolya, Irina, Ksusha and Denis describe the abandoned building they live in as ‘a Fairytale place’ where anything is possible. Their gang have relied on each other since they were young kids; stealing, begging and turning tricks to survive on the streets of the broken, post-Soviet city of Perm, Russia.
All born in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, they have created their own kind of society as together they battle with freezing temperatures, harassment from the police and their very vulnerable existence, using drink and drugs to block out the horrors of life and escape into fantasy.
The four face their brutal, unforgiving world with grit and often caustic humour, but now, on the brink of adulthood, time is running out for any of the group to escape their toxic situation.


Thursday, 21 February 2013

Aleksei German 1938-2013

February 21st 2013 is a day for Russian and Soviet cinematography that can only be compared to those fateful days such as 29 December 1986 or 26 October 2003. A titan of the last generation of Soviet cinema has died and Russian culture has been deprived not of a world but a whole universe. To compare German with Andrei Tarkovsky or Elem Klimov is surely no hyperbole and German's place will be up there in that Pantheon alongside the Eisenstein's, the Dovzhenko's and the Barnet's of a previous generation. There were, perhaps, three or four titans of that generation and now, perhaps, there are only two or three left (Alexander Sokurov who straddled the Soviet / Post-Soviet divide, Kira Muratova and, arguably, Marlen Khutsiev and, further afield in other reaches of the Soviet space, perhaps just Artavazd Peleshian, Shavkat Abdusalamov and Rustam Khamdamov,who in some way also belong to the highest spheres of Soviet cinematography). Andrei Khrzhanovsky and Yuri Norstein play a similar role in the world of animation now that Fyodor Khitruk has left us too). The relative silence of many of these figures in recent decades is testimony to how today's world seems to have little appetite for this level of true classical excellence. Muratova and Sokurov being, more or less, the only exceptions here. So in many ways the death of a German or a Klimov causes us to mourn twice - first because the Twentieth Century cinematic equivalent of a Gogol or a Dostoyevsky has just died and second because of all those projects which were never completed. One can breathe a sigh of relief that German at least completed all but the finishing touches to what is likely to be his masterpiece Hard to be a God (or one of its alternative titles The Chronicle of the Arkanar Massacre) and that at least this film didn't share the fate of, for example, Victor Erice's La Promesa de Shanghai (The Gesture of Shanghai) withdrawn by his producer when he was deemed to have worked too long at it or the fate of Klimov's Master and Margarita.

German has recounted a number of times that he conceived this final film in 1968 in the Crimean resort of Koktebel when he heard that Soviet tanks had gone into Czechoslovakia. He was used to waiting years for his shelved films to be eventually released just as he was also used to them drawing a complete blank from the viewers. Jonathon Romney's piece in The Guardian in 2000 Romney on German described the Cannes reaction to his film Khroustaliov, My Car! in 1998 where he stated that he'd never heard the clatter of seats flipping up as people left the screening coming so thick and fast as during that film. He went on to compare the film as being cinema's Finnegans Wake and added:

It is a wonder the film was ever completed. It has been called impenetrable but it has its spaces and silence too - and the very first shot, as a dog chases a motorcycle down a snow-covered boulevard at night, is one of the most haunting images of recent cinema. Khroustaliov, My Car! resembles nothing else in cinema - although if Fellini, Tarkovsky and Tati had pooled resources to update a Gogol story, they might have matched it. 

German himself recounted the reaction of the Cannes jury chairman that year, Martin Scorsese, who stated that he felt that he should have given the prize to German but how was defeated by the fact that he couldn't really give this film first prize when he himself couldn't understand this film. Yet this wasn't only the reaction to this film. His earlier film My friend Ivan Lapshin made a decade and a half earlier was greeted with howls of incomprehension not just by the public but also by his fellow filmmakers, Andrei Smirnov and Elem Klimov. As German himself told the story, Andrei Smirnov and Elem Klimov, who had not spoken to each other for three years because of some dispute, warmly agreed with each other as to how they found German's film delirious. Perhaps, the first western critic to genuinely understand the brilliance of German was the Italian Giuseppe Buttafava who entitled an essay on him Alexei German or The Form of Courage. The Russian film critic, Anton Dolin, explained what German's courage consisted in with this remark:

The artistic problems he has sought to solve are insurmountable. And yet he keeps trying. There’s a saying: “To solve a difficult problem, you need a Chinese. To solve an impossible one, a Russian.” They must have been thinking of German.  

This courage was evident in his film Trial on the Road (1971) where he challenged some of the then great myths of (what is known in Russia as) The Great Patriotic War and this film would then give birth to both Sheptiko's response The Ascent and Loznitsa's recent response to Shepitko's film In the Fog. The three of them represent, along with Klimov's Come and See some of the greatest films ever to be made on this theme. Choosing to recount the fate of an individual who had deserted to the Germans only to return to the Partisans, Aleksei German showed an immense courage to make such a film at that time which not even someone like Shepitko could stomach (her film was in the form of a polemical response).

Today tributes have been pouring in to German many of them recognizing his true place in the Pantheon, film journals are reprinting old articles and old interviews and, finally, it seems the absent viewer for even German's most difficult films will be found. I can only hope that Moscow's cinemas will finally allow me to see a full screen 35mm version of Khrustalyov Mashinu, a pleasure hitherto denied me as well as his latest film. A small selection of scenes is available on youtube of this film here:

Here, too, is the end of his film Khrustalyov:

A whole host of actors were to consider that their greatest role to have been played in one or other German film - and the list of actors who appeared in his few is very impressive (from Nikulin to Bykov, from Yarmolnik to Tsurilo, from Andrei Mironov to Aleksandr Filippenko, from Lia Akhedzhadkova to Aleksey Petrenko).

In the coming weeks I hope to take a closer look at the importance of the German legacy as well as report on some of the many reactions in the Russian film community to this unique filmmaker. A director who denied certainty and tore through the veils that too many have used to picture the past, any past- one of the very few who was both hyper-real and hyper-honest in his vision.

Aleksei German Senior, Aleksei German Jr and Svetlana Karmalita at the Eisenstein Library, Moscow April 2010.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Tatiana Daniliyants: On Filming in Italy: a Gaze from Abroad.

Tatiana Daniliyants is an artist who works in three distinct media: poetry, photography and film. she graduated as a Master of Fine Arts from the Moscow Surikov Academy of Fine Arts and also at the celebrated Higher Courses of Film Directing and Script Writing. She also participated in a Master Class under the celebrated Polish director Andrej Wajda in Krakow and has established The Butterfly Angel film company. She is a member of the International Union of Art Photographers and has published three volumes of poetry.

Here rather than giving a full portrait of the very varied artistic career of Tatiana Daniliyants (which I hope to do so in a fuller piece published elsewhere), I wanted to concentrate on her work as a documentary film-maker who shoots her films not in Russia but in a foreign country- in this case, Italy. As she explains in her answers during my interview for a documentary film-maker this is not necessary an unusual step and the examples abound. Nonetheless it is, perhaps, rare that an artist has is so profoundly immersed in the culture and life of another country as Tatiana is in Italy. The dangers and threats that cultural isolationism and exceptionalism pose are still, all too commonly, present. Russian film has often been at the vanguard of cinematic trends precisely because of its openness and porousness. As I have argued a number of previous posts in this blog the links between Italian and Russian (or Soviet) culture have been particularly rich ones throughout the twentieth century and this is continuing into the twenty-first. I am hoping that this post will be one of many too which will focus on documentary film in Russia today. Here is a transcript of the interview:

I would be very interested to hear about how you think your own way of filming a foreign country (in this case Italy) may differ from how you would film your own country?

Replying to your question I wanted, first of all, to remark that when filming another country you find yourself in a situation peeping from a special distance, you become, if you like, a special type of pioneer or explorer. Just as there were explorers of countries and continents: North America, uninhabited islands, Madagascar for example. I want to say that the gaze of the director filming in another country always has this a priori, as I see it, quality of a "blank piece of paper" even if, of course, you are preparing your film, researching your material and sometimes you've already done some preparatory research. On the other hand, a documentary film-maker, in any case, (if she is not making a film of edited archive material) is always a pioneer ready and open to unexpected turns of events. In the case of shooting in another country, to these unexpected turns of events, one can include the foreign language in which your characters communicate.

How were your films received in Italy?

I've made three films in one way or another linked to Italy. A short film Frescoes of Dreams with the Italian actress Cecilia Dazzi and two films which I would call a 'Venetian City Epic': The Hidden Garden (2008, 53 mins) and Venice Afloat (2012, 63 min). Since I've been associated with Venice already for almost 20 years (I first came to Italy, to Venice in fact, on a scholarship with the Peggy Guggenheim Collection of the Gallery of Contemporary Art) and I lived and visited this city around... well, certainly 50 times and, of course, I know a lot of native Venetians ... my idea was to tell the story of a Venice "hidden"from the view of tourists to the city, this unique city in a unique situation.

Both films were shown in Venice, both in the context of the Venice Film Festival at the Forum which was organised by the City Municipality and the local Cinematographers Union. The Hidden Garden was also shown at the House of Cinema in Venice at San Stae.

The films had a wonderful reaction. At all three of the showings. The last film shown at the Cinema Astra on the Lido provoked by laughter (even at places during the film where I was not expecting this reaction) and tears... this was very touching. Venetians are very sensitive to what is authentic and, of course, if there were to be even a hint of something that wasn't quite natural they would have immediately been alert to this.

Do you have any models for your type of film-making? What do you think of foreign documentary films made about Russia (or Armenia) and other Russian film-makers who have made important films about, for them, foreign subjects? Are there any particular films which you found interesting?

It's difficult for me to talk about such trends, rather, it's rather difficult to separate these trends from any other general trends... you see, if one looks attentively at European film production then one discovers that all European film-makers go around the world filming some 'hot topic' (or less than hot topic) or other. The most significant thing about documentary film is to broaden the limits of the known (including in a geographical sense). The fact that, for example, Wim Wenders has filmed his film Notebooks on Countries and Cities in Japan or a director from Brussels, Rob Rombout, has shot a film at the Flahertiana festival of documentary cinema in Perm entitled Perm Mission and hundreds and thousands of other directors have made similar choices to film outside of their country... arouses absolutely no surprise. This is an essential part of our profession, an entirely natural part of it. At the Art Doc Festival there were many such 'criss-crossings': Russians who shoot abroad, and foreigners who shoot in Russia... This is the norm.

I'd also like to ask you something about the process of shooting in Italy - what felt strange and different, what advantages and disadvantages you had in filming as a foreign film-maker? And why did you decide to shoot the particular subjects that you did?

Filming in Venice, however astonishing this may seem, was very easy. Practically all agreements we reached were arrived at immediately and, in spite of reaching them so quickly, they were all adhered to. In general, there is a sense of precision and accuracy inherent in Venetians. In addition, the participants wanted to do even more for us, the film crew. For them, just as it was for us, participating in these two films was some kind of important 'mission' to try to immortalise the images and categories with which to describe their native city.

The first film of the diptych - The Hidden Garden - talks about the so-called cultural elite of the city- poets, artists, actors, in a word, people with an unusual vision. However, if one looks more closely, one discovers that all Venetians are thinkers, aesthetes and very different from inhabitants of other Italian cities; it seems that the beauty of the city has an enormous influence on their way of life and way of thinking. The second film Venice Afloat - continuing this theme - is about one day in the life of those who maintain and secure the life of the city through its only transport system - water transport. It recounts the life of those who work on the public transportation system of the city, skippers of the vaporetti -  Venice's river tram, and fishermen, fire fighters and so on.

Finally, what could you tell me about Russian documentary film in the past ten years and what are the different kinds of pressure on film-maker in Italy and in Russia.

In recent times documentary films have become more 'heated' and more willing to react interactively on social and political events in the country. If you like, they have become more socially engaged. These are, in general, interesting developments even though, from my point of view, no one has managed to revoke the need for a documentary cinema which is linked to culture and art, and most importantly, to the discovery of the human being. Ultimately, humankind is the basic 'subject' of practically any successful cinema. Susan Sontag wrote a lot about this and it is difficult here to disagree with her. The human being and  human kind - this is what interests film-makers and spectators throughout the world - in Russia, Italy, Madagascar. And it will continue to interest them as long as the cinematic muse exists.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Russian & Soviet Documentary: A Historical Excursion (Part Two- Medvedkin, Yutkevich, the 1960s and Mikhail Romm)

The problem of writing a short piece on documentary is that a day later one regrets not mentioning this or that film or director. Well, in Chris Marker's extraordinary film about Alexander Medvedkin he mentions (towards the end) the discovery of a colour film made by Medvedkin in 1939. This film was made using chromide gelatine colour technology and recorded a physical culture parade on Red Square. Medvedkin had been planning a satirical film on 'the tragic fate of the Russian peasantry' but it never got made. Instead Medvedkin with the film 'Blossoming Youth' marked his permanent return to documentary.

Emma Widdis sees Medvedkin's return to documentary as essentially a tragic story given his hopes of continuing with the theme of his great masterpiece Happiness. For Widdis, Medvedkin never found the same voice again, and had to sing again 'in a different voice'. This voice was essentially a documentary voice and between 1959 &1989 he made eighteen documentary film 'essays' for the Central Studio of Documentary Film. Widdis goes on to categorize them as being essentially of a single strand in documentary

In all of them he used the same method: the re-editing of pre-existent footage from diverse sources in order to create his own montage, given structure and meaning by a voice-over, usually provided for by Medvedkin himself. His angry narrative aimed ... to leave 'no place for a second opinion' ... he brought the full weight of his substantial experience to bear.

Owing, perhaps, as much to content as to form Medvedkin's post-war films have rarely been shown and, although, the common view is that they are political pamphlets in many ways directed against 'easy targets' in the Soviet Union - the West, colonialism (or imperialism) and so on, some of these films of these films really do seem ahead of their time.  A Chronicle of Alarm, for example, denounced a new evil - that of crimes against the environment as well as animal experimentation. Ludmila Dzhulai in her book Documentary Illusion was to say about his anti-militaristic film Reason against Madness (1960) that his harsh, emotional narration plays a large role in this film of denunciation, yet cinematographic devices have an even greater effect. Medvedkin's documentary films are dismissed in most accounts as being too much in step with the Soviet ideology of the time and rarely shown, they may some day warrant a reappraisal in artistic terms. It is difficult to say from many accounts - Emma Widdis's two slight pages give a solely thematic account and even Chris Marker's sympathetic film Le Tombeau d'Alexandre (The Last Bolshevik) is a film (and a brilliant one at that) of its own time. Widdis all the same accepts that Medvedkin was utterly sincere about the documentary films he made concluding that As the world changed around him, Medvedkin held firm to his beliefs. Marker's final shot in his epistolary documentary also suggests that Medvedkin's complete reappraisal may be some time in the future.

The Day of the New World was one of the first attempts to portray the Soviet Union as an entire country on a single day. 97 cameramen worked in different parts of the country to capture a single day in the life of this country (that day being August 24th 1940). The film was headed by Roman Karmen and Mikhail Slutsky and based on a suggestion by the writer Maxim Gorky. The film had 200 separate episodes and somehow the complex editing of such a film did achieve a cogent narrative. The film form in fact would serve as an example to other similar projects such as Slutsky's A day of the war filmed in 1942 and A day of a victorious country. Other films like this would be made even in later post-war periods.

The immediate post-war years left, it seems, few documentary masterpieces. However there is one tantalising film little written about (and it seems hard to track down) edited by the great film-maker and theorist, Sergei Yutkevich named 'The Youth of Our Country' and made in 1946. A colour documentary film on a Physical Culture parade it was said to have been highly praised by Henri Matisse and would make a fascinating comparison with Medvdekin's 1939 film.

It wasn't until the 1960s that documentary film genuinely got back on its feet in the Soviet Union. yet strangely one could argue that the Thaw period feature film had become more documentary in its style (the mythical and myth-making era of Stalinism was over and there was a definite return to a more documentary-like realism in films generally). A fiercely argued over essay by Yutkevich in 1964 Thoughts on Cine-truths and on Cine-lies was to shake up the documentary world accused of inertia and, in many ways, served as a catalyst for a return to documentary in the late 1960s.

The Great Patriotic War continued to be, perhaps, the most significant theme in documentaries. One of the major films made and well-received at the time was Roman Karmen's The Great Patriotic - a large epic chronicle of the war.

Other films were made by Solvtsov on the siege of Leningrad and some would give a more personal or intimate take on the war. An artistically original film on the Battle of Stalingrad was made by the great Thaw director Grigory Chukhrai with his film Memory. He would later go on to make a documentary about the film director Mark Donskoi. The 1960s would also mark a search for new characters and a new emphasis on the human. Documentary was now seen, in many ways, as a study in the nature of humans or человековение. V.P. Lisakovich's Katiusha is said to be one of the prime examples of this new trend in documentary.

Yet few of these films reached an impact outside of the Soviet sphere. The single greatest documentary film of the 1960s was to be made by a director outside the documentary world. While Mikhail Romm's Ordinary Fascism was to run into extraordinary difficulties not being shown outside of film festivals like Oberhausen. It was said that the gray cardinal of the Politbureau Suslov asked Romm after watching the film 'Mikhail Ilich, why do you hate us so?' Yet as Evgeny Margolit so cogently argues in his essay on the film in his monumental study of Soviet Cinema, this film didn't try to make points about the identity of fascism and communism as revisionists in the 1990s so often tried to argue. Margolit states that "the former he passionately hated while he remained faithful to the latter to the end of his days". However, the film did have a definitely anti-Stalinist bent and the subtext of the film was certainly how Stalinism was entirely alien to any revolutionary ideals. Romm's film was no historical chronicle of Nazism and entirely alien to those films which had been made about Nazism either in the Soviet Union or abroad. Romm here was trying to show the soil on which fascism and Nazism grew. Picking his way through two and a half million metres of film and thousands of photographs to make this collage film, Romm emphasized his debt to the principle of silent montage feature films and to his master and teacher Eisenstein.

Yet, as Margolit argues, the single thing that makes this documentary a sensational artistic feat in itself was Romm's decision to use his own voice in the film. While during the Stalinist period the voice over was predominant, the voice of the film director was impossible, even in Margolit's words, under categorical prohibition. The voice over would be imposing and enunciated with steely precision whereas Romm's ironic, caustic intonation in his running commentary would undermine and break up the official and external meaning of each cadre. In many ways Romm's documentary was even an assault on himself and his own previous film-making experience during the Stalin years. Margolit's argument that Romm's film gave birth to Khutsiev's unique film on the aftermath of World War Two 'It was in the month of May' is a powerful one. Khutsiev's view of the war was a truly unique one. Khutsiev would be one of those (along with Elem Klimov) to finish Romm's follow up documentary (later entitled 'And nonetheless I believe...' which would look at contemporary issues.
Romm's humфnism, scientism and documentality of vision would be present even in his feature film Nine Days of One Year.

Other feature film-makers of a different generation would also make documentary films of some significance. One which had a particular significance for the development of his future career was the Georgian film-maker Otar Iosseliani's film on a cast iron factory Чугун where he worked 'undercover' (or at least unbeknown to his fellow workers) for a year. He debunked all the stereotypical images of Soviet labour as he was to do in his later masterpiece Листопад (Falling Leaves) one of the greatest films made in Soviet film in post-war years.

Before I turn to the perestroika years in post three of this series, two figures of exceptional relevance will be spoken of in a separate post. One is a key figure in the Thaw and Stagnation periods whose one documentary film has still yet to be granted the full significance that it truly merits. The other is an Armenian documentary film-maker who some regard as the only true successor to Dziga Vertov and montage cinema in the Soviet Union.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Russian Documentary : a Historical Excursion. (Part 1 - early Soviet to World War 2)

In the following weeks and months I'm hoping to devote much of this blog to a consideration of contemporary Russian documentary as well as profiling documentaries on Russia and Russian subjects and trying to highlight a number of new trends in Russian documentary film and profile some of the lesser known Russian documentary filmmakers whose films haven't yet reached foreign shores. However, here I want to take readers of this blog on a historical excursion of types with a few notes on some of the highpoints of Russian or Soviet documentary in the past.

Historically Russian (or Soviet) documentary has often been at the vanguard of worldwide trends and it is not for nothing that two of the most powerful figures in the renaissance of French cinema in the 1960s - Jean Luc Godard and Chris Marker - would set up their Vertov and Medvedkin groups. Vertov's documentary output continues to be outstandingly fresh viewed even in the light of today. For all the revisionism present during the late 1980s and 1990s attempting to consign Soviet cinema to the historical dustbin, the lessons that Vertov has to offer have still not been fully learned even today. Jeremy Hicks in a recent book on Vertov Dziga Vertov: Defining Documentary Film  has shown how the lessons of Vertov have never really been fully assimilated even by those who championed him. Hicks concludes that Vertov's approach is even more relevant in today's new digital age than ever before:-

Digital mastery seems to herald a new scepticism towards documentary as an objective register, further weakening the Griersonian realist tradition. Vertov's explicitly partisan exhortation, as well as his scepticism towards the image and recording process, echo central themes of the digital age. (some also argue) that his search for non-narrative solutions to the organisation of material anticipates those of the database.

The fact that few, up until some years back, were ever acquainted with much more than his Man with a Movie Camera only showed how limited people's understanding of the true Vertovian contribution really was. 

 Yet if Vertov was the giant to which nearly all monographs and studies in the field of Russian documentary have centred around, the Soviet documentary world was a far, far more interesting world than most give it credit for. Medvedkin, of course, also changed documentary film history with the extraordinary story of the Кино-поезд (The Film Train) experiment. Chris Marker was the great rediscoverer of this fascinating story in the West but it is also recounted by Emma Widdis in her book on Medvedkin. Widdis tries to get at the essence of the experiment while discussing Nikolai Izvolov's description of the significance of the Medvedkin experience:

According to Izvolov, [the film-train team] was the first to realise that the screen is not a mirror, but a transformer of life'. It would seem more appropriate, however, to suggest that Medvedkin's team were remarkable for their exploitation and expansion of the potential of the screen precisely as a mirror- reflecting to the spectator his or her own life, in all its unsavoury reality... The film-train productions represented communities to themselves granting the local space the symbolic weight of representation... To see oneself captured within this magic mirror must have been both exciting and disturbing, a process of de-familiarisation that would enable a new kind of awareness of both self and community. ... A deep-rooted belief in the ideological weight of participation underlay the philosophy of the film-train. 
Widdis notes how the local community were involved in the actual production process of the film-making.

As well as Vertov and Medvedkin, another fascinating development in Soviet documentary bore the name of Esfir (or Esther) Shub. Shub began her career editing foreign films at Goskino. Her compilation film Fall of the Romanov Dynasty as well as later films were made through

searching, finding, "opening" historical film-documents - but not in film libraries or archives ... (but) in the deep cellars of Goskino, in "Kino Moskva", in the Museum of the Revolution lay boxes of negatives and random prints and no-one knew how they had got there.

Jay Leyda goes on to state in his celebrated history of Soviet cinema 'Kino' that:

More sensitively than Vertov and more carefully than any newsreel editor in the world, Esther Shub examined the whole archive of preserved newsreels, frame by frame, finding the implications and connectives in each shot that only a skilful editor is trained to do. Trained primarily in the editing of 200 foreign fictional films and ten Russian films, Shub gave the newsreel a new dimension when ... she brought back to life, footage that had hitherto been regarded as having, at the most, only the nature of historical fragments. By the juxtapostion of these 'bits of reality', she was able to achieve effects of irony, absurdity, pathos and grandeur that few of the bits had intrinsically.

Often histories of Soviet documentary film will tend to ignore the many other names and films that were so significant. Victor Turin's Turksib from 1929 may be mentioned and a recent BFI DVD and Blu-Ray copy have finally given this film the critical significance it deserves in showing its influence on British documentary filmmakers in later years.

The number of great documentaries made by those who would (or had already) become great feature filmmakers is also significant. Those who have seen Kalatozov's 1930 film Salt for Svanetia will soon dismiss suggestions that the true genius behind his later Thaw classics from The Cranes are Flying onwards was Urusevsky (even though Urusevsky was undoubtedly a Picasso of the camera). Kalatozov himself started off as a cinematographer. This film with a script by the Ego-Futurist, Constructivist and Brecht translator Sergey Tretyakov is one of the films that most amazed me in my early days of watching Soviet cinema. I was overjoyed to read Jay Leyda's account of this film which coincided with my own first impression of it as a Soviet Los Hurdes. Leyda comments:

The film that will always be identified with (the Svanetians) as los Hurdes in Spain are identified with Bun'uel's Land Without Bread, is Kalatozov's Salt for Svanetia. The two films are always linked in my mind - they are both sur-realist in the literal sense of the term.

Like Bunuel's film it was also bitterly attacked by members of the community it depicted and for many of the very same reasons.


Roman Karmen is, for many, the archetypal villain of thee Soviet Socialist Realist documentary. And the disgust is palpable in a long essay by the Russian film critic and scholar Alexander Deriabin on documentary ethics:-

Karmen was, first and foremost, the first genius of self-publicity in Soviet cinema never missing an opportunity to point out that only he was able to shoot this or that ... Later ... Karmen became the monopolistic possessor of unprecedented administrative resources ... to travel to all the hot spots of the world in order to film what other Soviet documentary filmmakers could neither see nor shoot ... In this respect, Karmen more closely resembles Leni Riefenstahl than the unfortunate Vertov, who was accused from all sides during the first years of perestroika of being an "accomplice of the regime" and the embodiment of a totalitarian filmmaker.

Nonetheless, Karmen was an influential filmmaker far outside the bounds of the Soviet Union and still remains one of the great war documentarists whose name still remains in the history of world documentary. 

The very fact that during the war years one in four cameramen perished gives an indication of their vicinity to the heat of events and the newsreel was suddenly to acquire fundamental significance. 'The defeat of the German Armies Near Moscow' was to be the most widely shown film of the war (renamed elsewhere Moscow Strikes Back). 

Also the truly astonishing war documentaries by Alexander Dovzhenko set in the Ukraine would also remain significant classics. For the scholar Peter Kenez, Dovzhenko's 1943 documentary Battle for our Soviet Ukraine has

Dovzhenko's highly individual style, characterised by lyricism and attention to the beauties of the Ukrainian landscape... He was among the first to utilize captured German newsreels in order to make his points.

The films by Dovzhenko went beyond documentary in many ways. A critic from Izvestia at the time called it a "modern man's chronicle of events and a heroic song" while another critic suggested that the frames not only illustrated the text, but also melded with it to produce a single artistic whole. 


Thursday, 7 February 2013

Selections from recent items from the Giu Viv Facebook Page

For the last six or seven months I have been adding many items of news on Russian and Soviet cinema as well as additional items of interest on my Facebook page. (The address for any Facebook users who have yet to 'like' the page is )  Of course, not all readers of this blog have a Facebook page, so I have decided to share some of the links and recent news items that I reported there on this blog too.

Recent News. 

Belye Stolby archive film festival : Gosfilmofound opened its 17th festival of archive film. Like each year it remembered actors and directors who have died in the course of the past year as well as celebrating anniversaries. A film collage made in 1928 about actors from Stanislavsky's celebrated MKhAT theatre marked the 150th anniversary of Stanislavsky's birth, documentaries from various countries on the 1943 Teheran Conference marked the traditional section on World War two chronicle. But perhaps the truly impressive section is devoted to archival finds. This year a very small fragment of Eisenstein's 'Bezhin Meadow' was shown for the first time ever. Two animated films from 1931 - one by the master Tsekhanovsky and another by Vladimir Suteev. Vladimir Erofeev's 1928 documentary 'Afghanistan' turned up in Prague and was gifted to Gosfilmofind. 'Belye Stolby' also managed to gather up 13 minutes of Raizman and Gavronsky's film 'Circle' from 1927. The great imagist poet Vadim Shershenevitch worked on the script of the film. Another film which, though not a Russian film, had some success at the festival was a film by the documentary film maker Giancarlo Bocchi dedicated to the life of an extraordinary figure Guido Picelli - an anti-fascist fighter, almost like a Che Guevara avant le lettre who placed himself at the head of social and political struggles. He eventually died fighting during the Spanish Civil War but also spent a period in the Soviet Union. He was to experience Soviet repression just as he was to experience the repression from his native Italy to France and Belgium which both expelled him for his participation in social struggles. 

Svetlana Baskova's За Маркса (For Marx) is being shown at Berlin. I've written about this film in an earlier blog (and intend to write more on the film). The site Kinote ran an interview with Baskova. In it she  talks about the opposition, the so-called creative class, why there won't be a revolution but a merciless revolt and her move from the underground actionism of her Зеленный Слонник (Green Elephant) to a more mainstream cinema. Here's the link in Russian Baskova interview

Political pressure on the documentary world. Just before the Art Doc Fest opened a police raid on the home of one of the directors of the political documentary film Срок (The Term) became headline news in Russia. More recently pressure has been put on the television channel - 24 Doc. I wrote "In another sign of political pressure on independent television the creative director of Russia's only major documentary TV channel has not had her contract renewed. There seems little doubt that this decision was one that came from the Presidential Administration who put pressure on the owners 'Rostelekom'. This television channel is the only place where high quality and often controversial documentary films are shown in Russia today to , if not a large, then a significant audience. Another depressing sign of state incursion into the documentary film world after autumn's police raid on the homes of filmmakers of the political documentary The Term (Срок) " The article dealing with this in Russian is available here creative director of 24 Doc dismissed

Russia's leading film critic gives his opinion of the 100 films chosen to be shown in Russian schools The proposal that all pupils in Russian schools should be taught about cinema was generally given a positive reception even though with many qualms about how this would be put into practice. A list has since been made up and this is the summary I gave of an article by Andrei Plakhov with regards to these 100 films: "Here is Andrey Plakhov's response to the list of 100 Soviet films proposed to be taught in Russian schools- a list which is, in Plakhov's view, extremely conservative from many points of view- for example choosing three films from Sergei Gerasimov and not a single film by either Muratova, Pyriev, Balayan or Paradjanov seems highly absurd. Choosing the 1988 Little Vera as the cut off point ignores a quarter century of very important names from Sokurov to Balabanov and Zviagintsev. Leaving out Mimino from the list Plakhov also sees as a great lost opportunity in a society which has forgotten its great internationalist traditions and in which xenophobia is flowering. In short Plakhov declares that the excellent idea of bringing films to classes has been undermined by the lack of vision of those who have chosen the films." Here is the original article in Russian Andrei Plakhov on the 100 films

Kira Muratova honoured with a Rotterdam Retrospective. The great Odessan filmmaker Kira Muratova has finally been honoured with a full retrospective of her films at a major film festival, Rotterdam. The festival stated (and I would subscribe to every word): "Kira Muratova is one of the most phenomenal artists that emerged in Eastern Europe in the past fifty years. What makes her so unique is that she does not fit with any institutionalised film tradition or film context except her own ones. On the contrary: she has always been opposing and breaking every niche she has been put into. This is one of the reasons why she is not fully recognised in the festival world and among cinephiles."
Rotterdam festival site on Muratova retrospective. 
  Alexei Fedorchenko returns to Science Fiction. Alexei Fedorchenko returns to science fiction after his mockumentary «Первых на Луне» (First on the Moon) to adapt the Strugatsky's «Малыш» (Space Mowglies). The scriptwriter will be Mikhail Maslennikov and producer Dimitry Vorobiev. Strugatsky adaptations from Tarkovsky & Sokurov have become world film classics in their own right and German's film scheduled, according to some reports, to be on the screens in April will surely join them. Time will tell whether Fedorchenko's film will be in that league or in the league of more mediocre adaptations. Three adaptations of this particular Strugatsky work have already been made but without particular success. Fedorchenko to screen Space Mowglies.

Evgeny Margolit's book on Soviet Cinema History Finally Published. For Soviet cinema historians this is surely the news of the decade. Margolit is one of the most inspiring scholars of Soviet film history and the news that he has published a large tome of over 500 pages (after many decades of activity) is welcome news indeed. I wrote on the page A collection of Evgenij Margolit's masterful essays on Soviet cinema from the 1920s to the 1960s has finally been published. Incredible that this is his first published book after 40 years of study in the field of Soviet cinema. It is, without a doubt, one of the major contributions in the field for years and, hopefully, will find a translator and a publisher in various languages. Margolit is a truly wonderful speaker on cinema as well as the curator of the Socialist Realist avant-garde retrospectives that ran during a number of Moscow Film festivals. Surely a book that will become an instant classic in its field. 

Naum Kleiman's pessimistic diagnosis on recent Russian cinema. That other great towering figure of scholarship, Naum Kleiman, gave an interview on recent Russian film. I summarized thus A very pessimistic diagnosis - he states that contemporary Russian cinema no longer exists as a phenomenon (just the odd film which may be good or bad). He attributes this to an inability of Russian filmmakers of taking on responsibility and commitment of portraying post-Soviet Russian society and its evils (nationalism, chauvinism etc) but also due the lack of any utopian future perspective in Russian society. Here is the link in Russian Naum Kleiman on contemporary Russian cinema.