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Wednesday, 25 June 2014

New Russian Documentaries in the Pipeline.

One of the many events of Moscow Business Square this year during its Day of Documentary Films was the presentation of a number of Russian documentary projects which are in various stages of production. The world of Russian documentary is, in many ways, a very specific one and unjustly neglected one and the projects presented before a jury which included Nick Fraser were films with differing aesthetics and approaches but which all managed to offer insights into Russian reality.

Vlad Ketkovich, one of the most active Russian documentary film producers who is behind two of the most documentary film projects presented at this year's Moscow Business Square.
The entry judged by the jury to be the most successful project was Dmitry Vasyukov's Happy People: Altai. It is part of a documentary cycle devoted to filming different communities of people living in harsh nature but in a harmonious way. The film team has launched a very successful crowd funding scheme and given the fact that a previous film in this cycle was made with the help Werner Herzog, this alone could draw the curiosity of an informed film buff. Here is a clip from one of his previous films in the cycle:

Tatiana Soboleva- the director of Siberia's Floating Hospital- a film which explores a community on the Russian periphery, its way of life and how it interacts with the few outsiders (a group of doctors) with whom it comes into contact.
Another film that explores distant regions in Russia in Tatiana Soboleva's Heralds from the Floating World (Siberia's Floating Hospital). In the Spring as ice melts a group of twenty -mainly female- doctors board a ship to visit outlying villages and treat patients in this zone. The doctors are often the only connection that these villagers have with the outside world and so the film is much more than just an exploration of healthcare in remote areas. It explores the relationships within the medical collective as well as their relationships with their patients. It had been granted funding by Channel 4 and is produced by the Ethnographic Research Foundation and Vlad Ketkovich (one of the most active Russian documentary film producers). A clip of the film can be found on Vimeo.

Ketkovich is also the producer of Elena Demidova's Men's Choice. An exploration of men who work for Gazprom in the isolated northern outposts of the Yamal Peninsular in Russia and forced to leave their wives and families for long periods of the year in order to earn enough to maintain these families. Demidova has been active in documentary film-making for a number of years and one can ascertain a special style in her accounts of people's lives. She has a special ability in teasing out the special Russian touches of universal stories. Whether it is the story of Lesha who returns to his village destroyed by the flames of summer fires and whose retelling of his life and thoughts is one of the most extraordinary cinematic portraits or Sasha, Lena and the Iron Dragon two elderly people refusing to leave their khruschyovka apartment (five storey buildings first built during the Khruschev period but now seen as poor quality) marked for demolition. In their struggle to resist a transfer to another part of Moscow and the inexorable destruction of their home by the "iron dragon" (the bulldozer and, by extension, bureaucracy) we see all the humour and absurdity which becomes attached and sticks to their dramatic tale. Life, in Demidova's films, often acquires the essential  that Bela Balazs discovered in Boris Barnet whereby explosions of laughter arise in the most dramatic of tales.

Films which have a strongly social and even political theme abound and yet the ways in which they are tackled are very different. The moral purpose behind the film of Olga Arlauskas and Nikita Tikhonov-Rau's film Children of the State on the effects of the notorious Dima-Yakovlev Law makes it appear as a strong expose' of the political games which adult politicians play and their tragic effects on the lives of children and prospective adopting parents. A clip is available here. Irina Vasilieva's project Twice Born, Twice Dead looks at the story of a prisoner previously sentenced to a death sentence but saved by Yeltsin's moratorium and how the life sentence appears nothing less in reality but an ongoing execution. It also looks at the stories of two other people connected to the prisoners story including that of Jimmy Boyle. Another film Spirit in Motion looks at Russian paraolympians and is directed by Sofia Gevelyer, Yulia Byvsheva and Sofia Kucher and produced by the director of Russia's version of Michael Apted's 7-up series, Sergey Miroshnichenko.

Anna Moiseenko, a former student of Marina Razbezhkina,who is proving to be one of the most innovative young documentary film-makers in Russia today. 
Two films have as their subject matter migration or relations between Russians and other ethnic or national group. One is Nikita Sutyrin's beautifuly shot film Adaptation on the experience of nomadic Nenets children in a Russian school questioning what adaptation means in this context. A trailer is available here. Anna Moiseenko's film tries an innovative way of describing A Migrants' Life by having a migrant- Abdumamad Bekmamadov- compose ballads about his life in Moscow. A singer in a former Soviet folk band, his life in Moscow in the fifteen years has since become a much harsher one constrained to low paid jobs to feed his family. He has worked in a show regarding his life and that of migrants and this show won a prestigious theatre prize, the Golden Mask. Interestingly, the producer told the audience at the presentation of the film even his award at the Bolshoy Theatre didn't prevent members of the 'cultured and middle class' audience from making rather racist remarks on seeing a gastarbeiter in their midst proving that this theme is an important one. Moreover, tackling it in such an innovative way, Anna Moiseenko surely has found the right formula giving the voice and the story to the film's protagonist. Moiseenko, a student at the Razbezhkina school, worked on the awarded Winter, Go Away documentary and made a fine portrait of a commune in her S.P.A.R.T.A. The Territory of Happiness (which can be seen here).

The artist and migrant Abdumamad Bekmamadov who, through a series of ballads, retells the tale of a contemporary migrant in Moscow in Anna Moiseenko's forthcoming film 
Finally Sergei Kachkin's Perm 36: A Territory of Freedom is for Russian documentary watchers a long-awaited film. Coming after his debut On the Way Home, which found a way of recounting the routine and even mundane life of a couple in a subtly new way and with a very fine aesthetic, Perm 36 will give us a unique insight into the world of the functioning of the only gulag museum in modern Russia, the stories of three former detainees at the camp as well as the Pilorama event held annually but now in danger of being abandoned, along with the museum. A trailer is available on Vimeo here. Sergei Kachkin's previous film has been shown on television both inside and outside of Russia and the release of his new film certainly looks like it will prove to be a major event in Russian documentary.

Pilorama, the annual event which will be one of the subjects of Sergei Kachkin's long-awaited film Perm 36: A Territory of Freedom. 

Monday, 23 June 2014

Film links between Russia and Latin America: Some projects.

While the Moscow International Film festival may not be so much of a talking shop as many other festivals (most of it taking place at the central multiplex Oktyabr cinema on the Arbat), the Moscow Business Square is a different matter. As I mentioned in my previous post the main focus this year was Latin America and it was an opportunity to explore what kind of topics and what kind of themes might unite the two. In many ways this may be a window of opportunity to link two parts of the world that may not be as distant as they seem. The number of possible projects were sizable and their variety also noticeable. Apart from the prospect of a historical thriller The Chosen produced by Monica Lozano (the producer of some of the most internationally recognised Mexican films including Amores Perros) on the assassination of Leon Trotsky there are a number of other projects linking Latin American and Russian themes (or of Latin Americans who wish to make Russian-based films).

Monica Lozano, producer of Amores perros who is hoping to produce a historical thriller on the assassination of Leon Trotsky.

Another significant project which though being a fairly low budget film is likely to generate interest is an art house science fiction by Andre Arancibia and produced by Felipe Aichele and which aims to be shot both in Chile and in Russia (in Karelia). Aichele worked in the art team of the first HBO production in Chile Profugos and Arancibia has studied in film schools both in his native Chile and in the Czech Republic. Their proposed film Incarnation set in the year 2067 aims to use the backdrop of the global extinction of bees as an exploration of the theme of the deepest insecurities of the human mind and emotions. Karelia has been chosen as the location where a scientist from Chile arrives to discover why bees in this part of the world have not become extinct (it is a fact, as the director told me, that Karelia is the only place in the world where the bee population is growing). The film aims to be aesthetically radical too with the visual narrative as important as the actual story (using techniques of dynamic montage, and creative use of visual components such as space, line, shape, colour, movement and rhythm to create tensions and releases through the story). They aim to recreate a Tarkovskian Stalker- like atmosphere. Linking Chile with Russia in the cinematic imaginary is not new and has been associated with some of the most interesting films of recent years. The great Russian documentary filmmaker Kossakovsky in his !Vivan las antipodas! explored this in his portraits of Baikal Lake and Chilean Patagonia as one of his antipodean pairs and Aleksei Fedorchenko in his mockumentary Первые на Луне (First on the Moon) has the Soviet cosmopilot who travels to the moon in 1938 land back in Chile where the Zelig-like character travels back via the Pacific, China and Mongolia to the Stalinist Soviet Union. The hope that Aichele and Arancibia will be able to produce something of equal power re-conceptualising the Latin American-Russian imaginary makes this one of the most fascinating projects presented here.

One of the projects that producer of the Chilean-Russian film project 'Incarnation', Felipe Aichele, has worked on.

A documentary project on the little known wife of one of the icons of the Brazilian Communist Party Luis Carlos Prestes could also make for a fascinating story. Maria Prestes who spent 10 years living in Moscow near where the present Macdonalds stands at Tverskaya Street. As a portrait of an little known woman who lived at the centre of the most extraordinary historical moments of two very different countries this film has a potential for opening up the many stories of Latin Americans who visited the Soviet Union. Much has been written about the Europeans and North Americans who came to the Soviet Union and their illusions and cruel awakenings.

Maria Prestes- subjected of a new proposed documentary to be shot in Brazil and Russia.

It is surely time that the story of Latin Americans experience of the Soviet experience also came to the fore. Christiano Sensi's (director) and Micelli Crestani's (producer) Oranya -another Brazilian film, this time a feature film - also explores the story of migration and refugees between Russian, Europe and Sao Paolo. Here migration is from Europe and Russia to Brazil and tells the story of a Russian pilot and a Brazilian accountant who help the refugees reach the south American country.

The shot of chess player Carlos Torre from Pudovkin's Chess Fever

Roberto Garza and Juan Obregon also have a project that appears promising. Another documentary which links the world of chess, the two continents and a character who briefly appears in the Pudovkin film Chess Fever. Carlos Torre was also said to be a prototype for Nabokov (who was also discovered in one shot of the Pudovkin film). and was to come to the Soviet Union at Lenin's behest to write a book on chess. His chess career cut short by mental illness this film promises to be one in a long list of recent films proving that chess is strangely becoming one of the most cinematographic of sports.

Moscow Business Square was also the occasion for a pitching of a crop of new Russian documentaries and the occasion for the presentation of other Russian-themes film projects including a potentially fascinating film on the unknown world of alternative Soviet music called Soviet Groove. On these projects I will write separately in my next posts.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Ongoing Account of 36th Moscow International Film Festival (1)

In these and following posts I'll try to give some ongoing impressions and reflections on the daily events of the Moscow Film Festival, giving some more detail to the first post and also I aim to talk about some of the other events of the Festival.  

One of the main other events of the Film Festival is the Moscow Business Square (which is in its sixth edition) Apart from the traditional focus of the CIS countries and Georgia this year its focus is on the film indusries of Latin America and the UK. As well as an attempt to construct film industry links and foster coproduction between the film industry it is an excellent chance to learn of new film projects in the pipeline. The Latin America section is by far the larger part of the programme and it appears (from the events on at this years Moscow Business Square as though there is a boom in Russian-related themes in that continent being proposed for co-production projects. I hope to be able to write in more detail on some of these projects later.

One of the most exciting news for Russian film buffs linked to this event is the news about a new projected Andrey Khrzhanovsky film based on both Gogol's as well as Shostakovich's Nose and to be entitled The Nose, or the Outside Conspiracy. It promises to follow in the footsteps of the polystylism of Khrzhanovsky's previous film mixing animation, documentary scenes, chronicle footage and acted scenes. Also the producer of the Mexican film Amores Perros is coming to Moscow personally to present a new film project on the murder of Leon Trostky. Other projects are a film on Rudolf Nureyev based on the years before he left Russia and a film project about Dovzhenko in Odessa (surely a fascinating prospect for film purists). Other films from post-Soviet countries are also in the line up. And Louis Beaudemont's film Soviet Groove exploring the Soviet music scene looks like it could be a possible successor to Electro Moskva in the rediscovery of aspects of Soviet life little known about elsewhere in the fog of the old cold war. The programme of talks and events can be found here.

What about the events and the atmosphere so far?

Well, the atmosphere is mixed. There are reports of some international filmmakers staying away from the festival because of the situation in Ukraine - although how many it is hard to say. But it is a fact that neither the Programme Director, Kirill Razlogov nor the overall director Nikita Mikhalkov have denied (the number of 700 reported in the article seems a rather wild exaggeration though). That not a single foreign journalist appeared at Mikhalkov's press conference only seemed to give Mikhalkov one more occasion for rallying the many conservative-minded journalists who flock to this festival and can be heard muttering their disapproval at any film which shows innovation and surprise.

However, there are still so many reasons for being here. Yesterday gave two indications of why a visit to the festival was not in vain. In the morning the one Ukrainian film in the main competition Brothers: A Final Confession by the young director Victoria Trofimenko had its press showing. A strong Ukrainian film which drew some comparisons to a Wajda film and Rogozhkin's Кукушка (The Cuckoo) as well as a hope that the heights of the great season of Ukrainian Poetic Cinema of the 1960s and 1970s are reachable once more. The film, based on a novel by the Scandinavian writer Torgny Lindgren , is a work that has taken five years to complete. And yet so many agreed at the Press conference that it seemed to be one of the most powerful commentaries on the present situation between Russian and Ukraine. Of course, a press conference of a Ukrainian film at Moscow is a complicated affair. Most of the questions fortunately were asked in an intelligent way. Though it didn't quite go all smoothly after one questioner asked 'Why do you all hate us Russians in Ukraine?'. Nonetheless, a sizeable congregation applauded the director's heartfelt reply and her refusal to be drawn in by such an ignorant question as well as Razlogov's reprimand to the questioner that we were here to talk about the film and not the present situation.

The evening presented festival goers with one of the most delightfully demential pleasures so far. Sergio Caballero's La Distancia. It seems to have all the madness of a Cine Fantom film laced with a strong dose of David Lynch. An absurdist, madcap tour de force. It was shown in the framework of the Russian Trace programme- the same one that gave us last year's El Efecto K- El Montador de Stalin / The K Effect- Stalin's Editor by Valenti Figueres. Spanish reimaginings of Russia are surely a worthy topic to write about. The Russian public at yesterday's film were divided between those bewildered (and seemed regularly to leave the hall) and those who could hardly repress their sense of hilarity at the film. In many ways it would have been a very worthy addition to the Cine Fantom programme which will begin later today with the Return od De Bile and the first half of a Evgeny Kondratiev retrospective.

A press showing of the excellent Timbuktu by Abderrahmane Sissako (one of the great contemporary film directors of Sub Saharan African) as part of Andrey Plakhov's Divine Euphoria programme was also an unmissable experience.

Today's events have barely got underway. A press conference here and there and the presentation of the Documentary competition which will be headed by one of Britain's most well-known  documentary filmmakers Sean McCallister. Tomorrow morning he will be giving a master class at the Centre of Documentary Cinema.

Of all the press coverage (and I'll try to summarise some of the main Russian film critics top recommendations) there is a historical piece in today's Kommersant newspaper which really should not be missed. It tells of Naum Kleiman's recollections of how Fellini's 8 1/2 ended up winning the main award at the 1963 Moscow Film Festival. A fascinating tale and which can be read here (in Russian).

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The 36th Moscow International Film Festival: A Look at some of the Films.

This year's Moscow International Film Festival (the 36th) - the largest, although not the most loved film festival in Russia. Not because of the lack of good quality films but more because it always seems much more of a prestige project rather than having a real reason or thread running through it. One invariably gets lost in its eclectic morass. So the wealth of individual films here is somewhat set back by an atmosphere of anonymity- there is little real festival spirit that one feels at some of the smaller festivals like Odessa or even at the Kinotavr festival dedicated to Russian cinema alone. Outside a couple of forums the anonymity of the Oktyabr movie theatre means sucks out much of the enjoyment at finding such a sudden embarrassment of riches available for ten days in late June. One film critic Alexey Yusev in spite of suggesting that it has the best competition programme for the past five years has announced that he will not participate in this year's festival detailing a litany of complaints about how it is a festival "with little real authority, (and a) cumbersome, ineffective, expensive event (which exists) purely for the purpose of earmarking the name of and highlighting the prestige of its director Nikita Mikhalkov".

In many ways it is a showcase of that which could be shown throughout the year in Moscow if only the few decently programmed cinemas such as the Khudozhestvenni weren't closing down to be ramped up into expensive multiplexes where art house films will most likely be excluded. Instead Moscovites have ten days in which to gorge on those kind of films which won't come their way for another year.

Some of the competition films certainly do seem as though they could be films worthy of an 'A' film festival (which was certainly not the case last year). Anton Corbijn's A Most Wanted Man; Marc Fitoussi's La Ritournelle starring Isabelle Hupert and Russia's own Valerija Gai Germanika with her film Да и Да (Yes and Yes) are three of the most awaited features (they are for example those chosen by Novaya Gazeta's critic Larisa Maliukova). Another Russian film by Vladimir Yagel' is also in the competition programme.

Valerija Gai Germanika

Of course the most  prestigious out of competition section is the 8 1/2 section where films by the Dardenne brothers (Deux Jours, Une Nuit), the acclaimed Malaysian-born Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang with two of his films being shown here: Stray Dogs and Journey to the West. If one can get into the inevitably packed Godard showing then his Adieu au Langage will be a sure bet. And Robert Le Page's and Pedro Pires's Triptych is surely likely to be another pretty sure bet.

The documentary section is nearly always best served by the Free Thought programme than the competition films but it would be wrong to miss a few of these films too. Jean-Stephane Bron's L'Experience Blocher should be of interest as should Web Junkie by Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam. Russia's only entry in the documentary competition is Svetlana Strelnikova's Кардиополитика (Cardiopolitika).

The Free Thought out of competition documentary section has Errol Morris's The Unknown Known; the 3D film project by six acclaimed filmmakers including Wim Wenders on the soul of buildings and entitled Cathedrals of Culture. A restored version of Robert Flaherty's Moana of the South Seas, Godfrey Reggio's Visitors and Michael Glawogger's Workingman's Death are all also must sees. As is the main Russian film in the section Vitaly Mansky's The Book. The opening film of the festival Red Army by Gabe Polsky is also a documentary film from this excellent programme.

The renowned Russian film critic Andrey Plakhov has his own curated programme and of course there is much to see here. Dietrich Brueggemann's Kreuzweg and films by Lech Majewski and Abderrahmane Sissako are likely to be worth watching but it is Alain Resnais's Aimer, Boire et Chanter (known in English as Life of Riley) which is surely one of the films of the festival. The very fine Russian film critic Boris Nelepo has reviewed it here.

The programme director of the film festival Kirill Razlogov has highly recommended the Beyond Fiction and Non Fiction section and probably the most awaited film there is Tony Gerber's and Maxim Pozdorovkin's The Notorious Mr Bout (Pozdorovkin was, of course, the co-director of Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer which neither got a showing at the Moscow Film Festival nor elsewhere owing to censorship).

There will be some interesting special showings- a mixture of old Soviet films and some Wenders and will apparently include the film on Chechen deportation that has been banned from general release. Chinese, Latin American and a retrospective of Ealing Studio films are further sections. An Ettore Scola film on Federico Fellini and a Russian Trace section only make the impossibility of choosing everything that one would like all the more tormenting.  

Further Russian sections (or films with links to Russia) will include the Russian Trace section (foreign films which have some connection to Russia, however tenuous). Last year it was the Spanish film The K Effect which was the highlight of that section for me. Spain has another film of the nine in this sectiont this year entitled La Distancia by Sergio Caballero. The annual Cine Fantom programme looks very promising with a large Evgeny Kondryatev retrospective which will surely merit a separate post. The Russian programme of the festival is also out and along with an Aleksander Sokurov retrospective should have much to see. However, it appears that the showing of Zvyagintsev's Leviathan is in some doubt. This surely was going to be one of the highlights and unmissable films of the festival for those who had missed it in Sochi.
The Cine Fantom publication- an organisation for two decades producing some fine alternative and underground cinema in Russia. 

A small selection of films loved by that giant of Gosfilmofond Vladimir Dimitriev (who passed away last year) is on show including some fine Soviet classics which it will be a real pleasure to watch if one finds the time in these ten days.

Vladimir Dmitriev


Thursday, 12 June 2014

On the Current Moment in Russian Film: On the edge of a nervous breakdown?

Oleg Sentsov who is at the centre of an international campaign to secure his rights and safety.

A return to Russia after an absence of two months gives one an ambivalent feeling when one looks at the state of Russian cinema. There are still many things which inspires one here. The crop of films showing at the recent Kinotavr Film Festival in Sochi has had a good press even from some of the more respected film critics such as Anton Dolin. Sochi has also shown that if Cannes is a very male dominated affair, Russian festivals are a different matter. Eight of the fourteen films selected for the main competition at Sochi were directed by women and at the main documentary film festival Art Doc Fest all of the four main prizes went to women directors. Gender wise the Russian film industry seems to be more progressive than its foreign counterparts. And yet many of the main news stories on Russian film gives one greater cause for concern. If some figures have done as much as they could to salvage links between the Russian and Ukrainian film worlds, other cultural figures took a much more belligerent attitude with explicit support for President Putin. Even underground figures in the Russian art world have been divided over the conflict. The conflict has brought up new issues and affected the Russian film world even more directly with the detention of filmmaker Oleg Sentsov for what many believe to be spurious terrorism charges. The recent call by European filmmakers calling for an investigation into his detention, more information on his whereabouts and either his release or to be charged with a recognisable offence has an impressive list of names many of whom are well-known and respected in the Russian film community. The question remains, though, whether the air of hysteria hanging over this conflict will move the Russian authorities in this case.

An air of general clampdown in the media and in the cultural world as a whole has been a rather constant prospect for years now but things have certainly seemed to heat up most recently. A new law banning profanities in the worlds of theatre, film and literature seems already to threaten the Cannes awarded new film by Andrey Zviagintsev, Leviathan with a ban unless it be mutilated with cuts. As in theatre some intend to fight and others somehow to acquiesce, while there is a section of the film community around people like Mikhalkov who have prepared the way for this absurd new law. Bans on films regarding old national conflicts also seems to be back in vogue (by refusing to give them a certificate). This has happened to a film entitled 'Ordered to Forget' about the deportation of Chechens in February 1944. Politics and especially the culturally ignorant politics of Russia's Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky, are intervening with abandon in cultural aspects. It is with some relief that some with the stature of Alexander Sokurov do publically speak out not just on their own immediate turf but even they have their words cut from the media.

The long-standing sore of the issue of the Cinema Museum and the fate of its director, Naum Kleiman has yet again come to the fore. Receiving notice of the termination of his contract at the end of this month it was reported by the website that he had been fired. This was then denied by the Ministry of Culture stating that it was a standard letter  but there seems little understanding of the long term future for Kleiman especially given the previous farce over the announcement of a new building for the Cinema Museum which then turned out to be yet another false hope. There certainly seems to be little hope that in the current set up of things that the Cinema Museum will be resurrected to its former glory. Instead, the Medinsky's and other cultural bureaucrats seem to be trying to make sure that this project (along with its legacy) be buried once and for all while the chance has arisen. However, as Naum Kleiman has mentioned in a superb article devoted to the question of government commissioned films the ability of the state directing the film world in the way it wants to has been tried before during the period of late Stalinism (he was argues convincingly that films like Battleship Potemkin were only made because there was a real social need for these films and that other film classics actually came more directly from society rather than the Soviet state). The kind of iron government control that Medinsky seems intent on imposing has always historically been a dismal failure and previously lead to the notorious film famine of the late 40s and early 1950s. There is little doubt that Medinsky will stand there along with Zhdanov as being a catchword for a Minister of Culture who do their utmost to create obstacles and attempt to destroy the healthiest forces in Russian culture.

Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky with Gerard Depardieu 

If the institutional and general political situation looks as bad as (or worse than) it ever was there is still no absolute certainty that this dire moment will last for long. As this years Kinotavr and many of the lesser known festivals do show the Russian film world doesn't lack talent. Russian cinema may well be on the verge of a nervous breakdown as Andrey Plakhov has argued today but there's still the hope that a new new wave and this time with a female voice may just be able to make itself heard.

Anna Melikian- one of the female film directors upon whom the hopes for a 'new new wave' in Russian cinema is pinned.  

In short Russian cinema seems to be swinging between a nightmarish despair over the institutional realities and the hopes represented in the superb quality of some recent releases which have proved strong enough to return to Russia the hopes of international awards at Cannes and which have marked out this years Kinotavr as one of the best. It seems still too early to completely write off the potential of an unexpected rebirth from the ashes of Russian film.