Total Pageviews

Saturday, 28 December 2013

On Pussy Riot and two censored films.

Writing in my last post about the absence of the two Pussy Riot films at Art Doc fest, I wrote:

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). 

This evening the planned premiere at the Gogol Centre in Moscow of Michael Lerner's and Maxim Pozdorvkin's film Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer has been openly blocked by Sergei Kapkov (who heads culture in Moscow and was seen as a bit of a liberal). In a letter printed on Kirill Serebrennikov's (who has been in conflict with the Culture bureaucrats before over the funding of his Tchaikovsky film) Facebook page, Kapkov writes that he was surprised to learn that the film had been announced along with the participation of the former Pussy Riot detainees. He stated that a government funded organization should not associate itself with people who have such an ambivalent reputation in society and whose activity is based on provoking society. He then went on to say that while he had no right to interfere in the repertoire of the centre this showing was not part of the agreed repertoire and so he demanded that this event be pulled. Finally he added a few words about the fact that their common purpose was one of mending the world and not that of "shocking the public with scandalous stories which have no relation to culture". Serebrennikov's facebook comment, filled with expletives - which should make it unprintable in the media under new anti-swearing laws- set out the situation as he sees it. A clear act of censorship and pointing his finger at those in the film world who have agreed to the 'Ethical Charter' (a kind of Hays Code) to be implemented in cinema. The comment began, as quoted in an article for Buzzfeed:

Until recently, in all interviews, I would declare like a mantra: ‘There’s no censorship at the theater, there’s no censorship at the theater.’ That’s it, fuck, there’s censorship at the theater! Cynical, pointless and stupid,” 

He concluded with what appeared to be a resounding fuck you to the government and those people in the film world who have been supporting greater restrictions in film and those in society who favour a tightening of the screws:

Now any freedom, any desire to find meaning, any desire to speak up disintegrates into hopeless gloom and darkness, which fills all the air around us and rules us. It seemed to us that somewhere — at the theater, in fashionable cafes, at home, with friends — there was still some free air…That’s it! Fuck! There’s no air!”
“It’s unfortunate we had to cancel this event. It’s really vile and gross to me. I never thought, to use the words of the classics, that I’d ‘fall into this shit.’ I call on all people, for whom still lives an understanding of honor and freedom, dignity and the right of an artist to create and speak freely, to unite and resist this darkness. With words, with art, in any way that helps.”
“And I hope that when all this shameful shit ends we, remembering it all, will laugh at ourselves and write the truth about this petty little time. Experienced people tell me that because of our cowardice and laziness, this shit will never end.”

It seems that the Russian culture wars that Natalia Antonova hoped would end are unlikely to go away. Even though, it is very true that in Russia liberals tend to let off a lot of steam, huff and haw, but show little backbone about really resisting the blows of the conservative onslaught.

Regarding the story since the release of Pussy Riot, delusion has set in among some of their former supporters upon hearing of Nadezhda's Tolokonnikova's apparent support for the formerly jailed oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkosvky, who was released almost at the same time as the Pussy Riot duo. There have always been critical voices even among artists of a seemingly similar political background to the Pussy Riot collective. The artist Avdei Ter-Oganian has had a more critical view of their action (even though he himself left Russia following the reaction to his anti-clerical art). Today another artist, Anatoly Osmolovsky, has written an Open Letter to the Pussy Riot duo that while not critical of them, has "put them on their guard" about the mistakes that he thinks they are making. A detailed letter of five points arguing where they have gone wrong (from the fact of being unaware that the mass media spotlight is as much a jail as a real, physical jail; the mistake of attempting to abjure the action itself, even of refusing the Pussy Riot brand (simply because other greedy capitalists will take it from them); he also warns them of taking up 'human rights activity' rather than continuing in the artistic sphere. He links this to the experience of 1968 in Western Europe where it was counter-cultural forces which won the day for re-founding Western European democracy. Believing that they need a more anarchic strategy and that Russia is standing on the threshold of a 'carnivalistic transition', in short, a Russian 1968 is on its way, according to Osmolovsky who worked with his wife, Svetlana Baskova on the film For Marx. In this sense, Osmolovsky believes that Pussy Riot should play a more integral role in this coming carnivalistic revolution (rather than setting up another NGO). 

So, Pussy Riot is already at the centre of another scandal and more arguments about its direction and use. It is still early to discover what the fallout (if any) of this more open attempt at censorship will be. Facebook and twitter are, alas, no indication of what will go on out of these spheres. Moreover as far as cinema is concerned, the silence about the other film Pussy versus Putin which has a much more inside look at the Pussy Riot actions as they took place is a shame for in a way its insights into the phenomenon of Pussy Riot is, in some ways, of more historical importance. What the story of Pussy Riot will look like in a number of years time is also, of course, an uncertainty given the tendency at least during the press conference of Tolokonnikova to half-abandon previous positions and even to try to take on a more explicit political role. Nonetheless, things are moving once again in uncertain directions.


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.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Art Doc Fest 2013: the first days.

Well over a hundred films are being shown at this year's Art Doc Fest and the last for some time to be held in Moscow's Khudozhestvenni cinema (which after the festival will be closed for rebuilding). Art Doc Fest prides itself on getting even the politically controversial documentaries to the screen and this year it is Putin's Games which promises to be its flagship controversial film of the year) as well as Alina Rudnitskaya's socially sharp film Blood  (in which Rudnitskaya once again looks at a social institution - this time blood banks- with a critical eye) which will serve to bolster its reputation of it being one of the freer 'mainstream' festivals on Russian soil. However, neither of the two films on Pussy Riot (the Lerner and Pozdorovkin film which has just been shortlisted for an Oscar award and the film by the collective Gogol's Wives, Pussy versus Putin which won the IDFA Competition for Best Mid-Length Documentary) are getting a showing at the festival. I'll review these films in a separate post for their absence is significant (Lerner and Pozdorovkin's film had been expected at Art Doc Fest) even though one's reading of this absence can't be put down to a straight issue of censorship.

That which is on offer at Art Doc Fest is hard to categorise even though a number of themes have already crystallized. Of competition films shown so far revolt and revolution are on the agenda but not in the way one normally expects them. Here Kossakovsky (with 32 documentary students of  the IDEU Pompeu-Fabra University in Barcelona) have attempted a portrait of revolt as ballet in their film DEMONStration whereas Alyona Polunina in her film Nepal Forever has added clear farcical elements to her portrait of two St Petersburg revolutionaries on a trip to Nepal to conciliate between revolutionaries. (Her previous film also shown here The revolution that wasn't gave a more rather tragic portrait of Limonov's National Bolsheviks). Whereas Polunina's new film generated a lot of laughs among the audience last night it seemed to lack the gravitas of her earlier film.  Anna Moiseenko's S.P.A.R.T.A. Territory of Happiness, a portrait of a commune trying to rebuild local communism in the Post-Soviet space (and shown first at last year's festival but reshown again this year) gives a much more balanced view of utopian dreams and realities.

Marina Razhbezkina has made a return to directing after concentrating on her pedagogical career at her School of Documentary Films and Theatre with a new film Optical Axis which attempts to look at contemporary reality through a comparison with the photographs of Maxim Dmitriev taken a century ago. It is a gentle social portrait which includes an extraordinary moment of filming the process of a man carving out a wooden spoon in real time. Filmed in natural light, the film offers little sharp social commentary but regards its protagonists generally with a certain warmth.

Sergei Loznitsa's return to documentary with Letter after his two feature films is another look at the rural, peasant countryside. Shot through a pre-World War Two, the halo-like figures in the blurred film give appearances of almost ghost-like beauty. An extraordinary twenty minutes which makes much else watched on the same day seem far too conventional even when they recount exceptional stories of hardship.

Another competition film  Darya Verditskaite's The last one's ... beyond the river (За рекой... последние) also looks at rural Russia through an optic of a dying world. Not as radical as Loznitsa's poetic arthouse, the films feels overdone and doesn't quite know when to end. But as a debut film it still suggests that the director will have much to say in the future.

It was a great pleasure to watch Kossakovsky's early film The Belovs (Беловы) -a film that gets better at every viewing. A retrospective of festival director Vitaly Mansky has also been without doubt another important part of the festival (if one could have only drawn oneself away from the main location of the festival). Every now and again one stumbles into films that one didn't even suspect were on show such as the portrait of one of Russia's greatest untold secrets, Shavkat Abdusalamov: art director of Tarkovsky and Klimov, artist, author , actor, director in his own right and friend of Antonioni, Tonino Guerra and Yuri Norstein. The film portrait The Eternal Wanderer (Вечный Странник) may not, in itself have been innovative in technique, but it was a joy that someone has made a portrait of this unackowledged but great artist. A shame, though, that only three people came to view this film during its single showing at the festival.

Coming days promise much more including many of the long awaited competition films.