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Friday, 16 December 2016

In Search of Lost Reality (3): Other Films from This Year's Art Doc Fest.

A frame from Sergei Loznitsa's Austerlitz, one of the most impressive films of the Art Doc Fest

It is quite rare to find a film festival where  nearly every film watched has something to recommend about it each deserving a single blog post about them. But it is precisely in Russian or Russian-language documentary film festivals that one discovers an extraordinary variety which is not, alas, matched in contemporary Russian-language narrative cinema events. Moreover, it is often the case that some of the most interesting names that have emerged in Russian-language feature films are directors who have also worked with documentary cinema in their careers (and often these directors criss-cross between the two) : this is especially true of two of the biggest names in the post-Soviet firmament- Alexander Sokurov and Sergei Loznitsa. Also among the most interesting of upcoming directors a director like Ivan I. Tverdovsky also has had a grounding in  the documentary field. With the increasingly poor selection of films at Russia's showcase festival Kinotavr (as well as the fact that documentaries are increasingly included in the dozen or so competition films shown there: this year two documentaries both already shown at least year's Art Doc Fest were included in the competition programme), it seems that the interest that there is in contemporary Russian cinema would do well to turn to the Russian or Russian-language documentary field rather than feature films in the foreseeable future.  

Here are some of the picks alongside Konstantin Selin's film that I discussed in a previous blog on this festival.
A scene from Anna Moiseenko's Songs of Abdul.

1) Anna Moiseenko's Songs of Abdul is not only one of the few Russian-language documentaries on migrants or migration in recent years (with the notable exception of Denis Shabaev's Not My Job) and so deserving of interest for choosing a subject matter that, for some reason, Russian documentary filmmakers rarely choose but is also innovative in a formal way. The narrative commentary formally absent in this film as it is in most films by the razbezhkintsy (former students of Marina Razbezhkina) is, nonetheless, replaced by the songs of the documentary protagonist, Abdumamadi Gulmamad. In many ways not only has Moiseenko found a documentary protagonist who manages to illuminate many (often conflicting) worlds (not simply the world of a migrant but also that of an artist, and moreover, an artist rooted in his own world who finds himself momentarily at the centre of the Moscow art world at a Golden Mask awards ceremony) but who also becomes, in many ways, the Narrating Subject of this film as much as the director through the commentary of the songs. Indeed in many ways the input by the documentary protagonist seems also to add to the humour of this film (the scene of the Golden Mask awards being a case in point). Indeed it manages to be one of the most humorous as well as being one of the most socially innovative films on show at Art Doc Fest. By the protagonist telling his Odyssean tale as migrant through his songs and so structuring the film directed by Anna Moiseenko and shot by her and Ekena Shalkina. Moiseenko and Shalkina illustrated both his homecoming after 10 years to his wife and family in a small village in the Pamir mountains and his life in Moscow along with the endless labour and housing issues that a migrant in Moscow faces as well as the looming threat of deportation that Abdul's fellow migrants faced.
The film director of Songs of Abdul, Anna Moiseenko

2) Elena Demidova's The Last Man is a continuation of her film Lyosha on the forest fires of 2010. Demidova gives us both a superb choice of documentary hero and a highly reflexive film on the relationship between the documentarian and their documentary protagonist as well as something of a mini encyclopaedia of Russian village life. Along with the footage from the earlier film in the first part of the documentary and the extraordinary monologue of the main protagonist, in the second part it details the growing dynamic between documentarian and documentary hero ending with a phone call from Lyosha's wife demanding an end to all contact with the film's protagonist. In this way Demidova reveals the dynamics of author and subject underlying (but usually hidden from) a documentary film and in so doing brilliantly unmasks the narrative stability of a documentary portrait by foregrounding the relationship between film director and protagonist. In spite of its length (two hours) the film nevertheless finds a way of keeping the audience hooked by its portraits not just of the protagonist but also of his neighbours. There is surely enough 'cinema' to keep the audience going.

The film director of Six Musicians as a backdrop to a city, Tatyana Danilyants

Tatyana Danilyants' Six Musicians as a backdrop to a city is a very different film to many of those shown at Art Doc Fest. Like many of Danilyants' films this is a city film. Not this time a film of Venice but one of Yerevan. A city film linked inextricably to its music and, in particular,to six musicians who the director felt represented a special bond to the city. Allowing them to choose the locations to be filmed, Danilyants encouraged the musicians to reveal to the viewer their city while she reveals the extraordinary vitality and versatility of the music of Yerevan. One can not help noting that Danilyants is the only documentary filmmaker in Russia making a 'city film' of any kind and this makes her films strangely unique and, in the context of Russian documentary, extremely innovative. Of course her films are not centred on Russian cities but of very particular cities on the periphery of the Slavic world but, all the same, this foregrounding of cities, this relating documentary heroes to their location and transforming the city into the ultimate protagonist of the film makes for a cinema that is almost untimely and radically opposed to much of Russian-language documentary. Indeed after watching a documentary by Danilyants one starts to wonder why the city as subject is so absent in other Russian-language films. In terms of the film itself the use of archive footage of the tragic late 80s and early 90s of Yerevan as well as one of the musicians (Lilit Pipoyan, the only female musician in the film and, for me, one of the most memorable protagonists) choice of a peripheral location of the city added authenticity to the film.
 A still from Tatyana Danilyants' film Six musicians as a backdrop to a city

The film director of Naked Life, Daria Khrenova
 Daria Khrenova's film Naked Life about the actionist artist Pyotr Pavlensky was one of two films directly about him in the festival. In fact it was Irene Langemann's Pavlensky- Man and Power which was to open the festival.While Langemann's film may have been, in the words of film critic Carmen Grey "a compact primer for those who have not followed ..the acts of one of Russia's most effective champions of dissent-through-spectacle" , Khrenova's film can be said to be much more of a primary document than Langemann's just as the film by Gogol's Wives on Pussy Riot was a primary document in comparison to the film by Lerner and Pozdorovkin: in retrospect very much a secondary document. There is a proviso that while Gogol's Wives began as underground activist filmmakers, Daria Khrenova had already a certain established reputation as a documentary filmmaker. Maybe the film that comes closest to Khrenova's was Andrey Gryazyev's film Tomorrow on two members of the Voina collective. Khrenova manages a similarly intimate portrait of the artist and his partner but also contrives to add some extra lyrical coverage that adds certain poetical touches such as the march of elderly Stalinists near Red Square along with a group of police officers watching Pavlensky's actions on a screen and commenting on them (often expressing ideas about the action that art critics would find difficult to formulate). Another key element in the film is the story of the state investigator who turned from Pavlensky's prosecutor to a staunch defender (transforming his own life in the process). All in all it deserves to be the Pavlensky film on international film circuits precisely because of the raw proximity that Khrenova achieves with the artist.

A still from Daria Khrenova's Naked Life in which police officers watch Pavlensky's art actions on a screen

There are a whole host of other films deserving of accounts. And there are films which will surely receive (and have already achieved) much international coverage. To be brief about Sergei Loznitsa's Austerlitz is a rather impossible task and in many ways it was the film that for me most stood out during the festival. Again the film Close Relations by Mansky on Ukraine also deserves a rather lengthy piece. Thankfully Carmen Gray in an article mentioned earlier has written about these films at some length for Senses of Cinema. Many films deserve to be written about at a later time. Alina Rudnitskaya's Catastrophe is a film rather unlike some of her previous odysseys through the institutions but developing them into a very poignant piece on one of the worst post-Soviet catastrophic incidents at a hydro-electric station. And then there are the films which time constraints meant sacrificing and desperately hoping for another chance to watch them.  

A frame from Alina Rudnitskaya's film Catastrophe on a disaster at a hydro-electric power station and its aftermath

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

In Search of Lost Reality (2) Film Programmes at Art Doc Fest

The broad variety of films at Art Doc Fest is one of its other highlights and it is worthwhile making some remarks on the different programmes. The competition programme this year has a variety of films about Ukraine (four in total), two on psychiatric institutions, one on the Russian road (entitled The Road)- a documentary which has won certain plaudits from those who have see this film by Dmitry Kalashnikov. An Israeli director, Vlady Antonevich, has made a documentary thriller on the Neo-nazi undeground in Russia responsible for a number of heinous murders of migrants. The lack of interest from the police in uncovering these murders opens up the question of some kind of collusion between police and Neo-Nazis. Of those films which are of particular interest were Sergei Loznitsa's Austerlitz  and Daria Khrenova's A Naked Life as well as Konstantin Selin's film Chronicles of a Revolution That Didn't Take Place written about in the previous post.

There were another eight programmes and a number of films shown as 'Special Showings' at the festival. The Sreda programme included some very significant films by directors who have already proven their worth and significance in the Russian documentary film world. Sergei Kachkin's Perm 36: Reflexion was premiered in Perm and had its Moscow premiere days before the start of Art Doc Fest. Each showing has attracted a large number of well-known spectators and high levels of intellectual debate about what could be called 'the moral question' in history. I've interviewed Sergei on his career and this latest film for this blog  and it is surely the case that this film deserves an international run. Alina Rudnitskaya's Catastrophe on the 2009 hydro-electric power station disaster and its aftermath is yet another indication that Rudnitskaya is one of the most interesting film directors in Russia today. Her documentary tours of government agencies in one form or another (from blood banks to abortion clinics) served her well for this look at one of the most tragic incidents in recent years in a power station. Rudnitskaya justifiably was awarded the Grand Prix Award three years ago at Art Doc Fest. Ivan Tverdovsky is another significant figure in the documentary sphere and has offered a film entitled Weather Forecast about an old vessel which serves weather stations in the Russian artic and which often is their only link with the outside world.

The Psy.Doc programme is another unique conception for a documentary film festivals. It consists in a film screening with an after-film discussion with a psychologist who will give their expert opinion of the film and the psychology involved in the film. An interesting idea with some very fascinating films. One of which was a portrait of one of the demonstrators on August 25th 1968 Natalia Gorbanevskaya who in spite of her willingness to be at the centre of the dissident movement and pay the price of repression often stated "I am no heroine, I am an ordinary person". This film has its Russian premiere at the festival.

The programme After the Union includes films created in former Soviet Republics while the War and Peace programme is dedicated to the situation in Ukraine. In these two programme Tatyana Danilyants Six Musicians in the Backdrop of a City and Vitaly Mansky Kin will be discussed in separate posts. A separate programme to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Art Doc Fest with winners from previous years and the A to Z programme of last year's laureates of Russian documentary festivals and awards allows one to rewatch those films that one may have missed over the past year.

In Search of Lost Reality (1): On the 10th Anniversary of Art Doc Fest and Konstantin Selin's new departure in Russian Documentary.

This year Art Doc Fest is celebrating its tenth anniversary and since December 1st this year's edition of the festival has been taking place at the Oktyabr Cinema in Moscow's central Novy Arbat street. (The festival now takes place also in St Petersburg and Ekaterinburg as well as Riga). Its expansion to other cities and countries marks something of a success, especially given the fact that after a frontal conflict with Russia's Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky, has left the festival without even the meagre government funding it once had. So while the festival has its own 'patriarch' in Vitaly Mansky, it can boast of a total independence from the government (as well as permitting itself to exhibit a certain antagonism). It has become festival which doesn't hesitate to announce its conflictual relationship to the cultural bureaucrats in charge and even vaunts its oppositional reputation. Nonetheless, at the same time the festival nevertheless ensures that the programme is a very broad one. This year was no exception.

First there are always the major films which expect to attract the larger crowds - in recent years they've included films about corruption in the Sochi Winter Olympics and Khodorkovsky. This year, too a film on, Khodorkovsky was once again in the programme and two about the murdered opposition politician, Boris Nemtsov (one of them was already shown at last year's festival). Another major film event was the opening film on the actionist artist Petr Pavlensky (once again two films on this artist have been shown at the festival- see a subsequent post for my view of the Russian film on Pavlensky by Daria Khrenova which surely deserves international recognition, even more so than the German film which opened the festival). Some of these directly political films always ensure Art Doc Fest's reputation for its determination to show films anathema to the authorities, as well as full cinema halls and heated political discussions.And yet not always do these films turn out to be the most radical films either in terms of their cinematic value or even their political stance. Gentelev's Putin's Games shown three years ago will probably not go down in film history whereas other films shown to smaller audiences have much more likelihood in doing so.

A shot from Chronicles of a Revolution That Didn't Take Place

In this sense arguably the most important film at this year's festival was a less conventional 'political' film precisely in the fact that it has shed light not on big politics (Putin, corruption, the martyrs of the liberal opposition) reported throughout the international media but about an extraordinary moment of popular resistance that went almost unreported in both the Russian and the international media. The story of long-distance truck drivers who managed, against the resistance of the authorities (with considerable police harassment and obstruction) and a news black out from all the main TV channels to win a strike and set up an authentically independent trade union in its aftermath will ensure Konstantin Selin's film Chronicle of a Revolution That Didn't Happen narrates Reality rather than fixing a political position. Selin's film is powerful in showing not so much a collective portrayal of struggle but the reformation (or rather transformation) of political consciousness in the process of a struggle. Following two protagonists but not extricating them from the collective moment, this film manages to merge the individual and collective story in a new way for Russian documentary. By balancing the individual and the collective stories and focusing on the transformation of consciousness of the film's protagonists, Konstantin Selin's Chronicle has achieved something relatively rare in Russian documentary and surely in this way his film will earn its place not just as an exploration of an unacknowledged story hidden from view (an example of Lost Reality restored) but also as an attempt to force through into a new cinematic territory merging the best of Russian documentary (its observational focus on the individual protagonist in his environment) with the addition of locating this in social and political reality and also picturing the protagonists dynamic transformation of consciousness as to this reality.  

The film director Konstantin Selin

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Pasolini in Russia: the re-emergence of one of Italy's greatest 20th Century poets and visionary filmmakers in the Russian cultural firmament

Angela Felice and Kirill Medvedev at the opening event of the Pasolini Days in St Petersburg's cinema Rodina

While the world celebrated the 40th anniversary of Pasolini's death last year there was barely no mention of this in Russia. This year, however, it seems that the figure of Pasolini is stalking the Russian consciousness with a whole series of culturally significant moments that may have been little reported but will surely prove to be landmarks when looking back. Landmarks because the links between Pier Paolo Pasolini and Russia have gone back a long way, although had recently become attenuated and landmarks because of the resonance of the figure and thought of Pasolini in contemporary Russia. Equally, Russia and Russian culture was of great importance for Pasolini. As Francesca Tuscano has shown in her work 'Russia in the poetry of Pier Paolo Pasolini',  Pasolini's work is replete with Russian influences and allusions(in other essays and a monograph on Pasolini in Russia she shows a reciprocal story), Russia was, indeed, the starting point for one of Pasolini's most important poems 'The Religion of My Time' after his first journey to Moscow in 1957. Pasolini's influence was equally significant in bringing to the attention of Italian scholars the Soviet Formalists from Shklovsky to Jacobson as well as Bakhtin. His posthumously published novel Petrolio is full of Russian allusions and references. Both Dostoyevsky and Shklovsky are cited often. Many Russians too have discovered that Pasolini (both the poet and the filmmaker and to a lesser extent his other roles) were central to their world.

One of Francesca Tuscano's works on the reciprocal influences of Pasolini and Russia
Of course there have been ebbs and flows in the interest that Russians have shown in the work of Pasolini. Pasolini may be the most 'Russian' of Italian figures but he is also one that encounters a certain resistance. From Soviet times Pasolini can be seen as just as 'uncomfortable' (scomodo) a figure in Russia as he was in Italy. Such that the Soviet press simply ignored his assassination (no contemporary press reports of this central event in modern Italian history were published in the Soviet press). His support for Sinyavsky and Daniel meant that from the late sixties he was very much a figure either ignored or attacked in the Soviet press. Perestroika 'rescued' him with a number of retrospectives (even though causing a certain scandal even then), though the ground had been prepared with a number of translations of poetry in the early eighties. A major publication of his written works also took place in 2000 with the publication of a book entitled Teorema which, however, was not centred on his eponymous film and novel but brought a large collection of material to the attention of the Russian reading public.
Kirill Medvedev, poet, publisher (Free Marxist Press) and the translator of Pasolini's Friulan poems

2016 has proved to be one of those years in which Pasolini has returned into the Russian cultural consciousness. Surely in hindsight one of the central moments of this recuperation of the legacy of Pasolini will prove to be the very first full translation into Russia of Pasolini's Friulan poems including both major cycles of his dialect poetry - La meglio gioventu as well as La Nuova Gioventu. Kirill Medvedev (a poet who has in the past worked on and published a number of translations by Pasolini) has rendered an immense service and overcome many truly colossal hurdles in rendering these essential poems for an understanding of the genesis and final years of the poet Pasolini. An historic moment given that Russian is the very first foreign language into which these poems have been fully translated (and so undoubtedly a landmark moment globally as well as in Russia itself). For it is in Pasolini's Friulan poems where we find the beginning and the end of Pasolini's poetry. The re-writings of the early poems undertaken in the early 70s encapsulate those two moments of the appearance of luminosity (born as one of Pasolini's own poems in Italian puts it through the experience of the Resistance) and the dying of the light in his visionary nightmare of the consumerist hell of a future fascism which Pasolini depicted in his last film Salo' or the 120 Days of Sodom. A hell which seems so very contemporary in these days of Trump, Brexit and the nativist right stretching from France through Austria to Hungary in line with a sadistic 'conservative revolution' all too visible in Russia itself. The emergence of a poet in Friulan (and in a version of Friulan hitherto considered nonliterary) in the early 1940s and the abjuration of this hope incarnated within his poetry in the early 1970s are embodied in a Russian text which demonstrates this dialectic to be of extreme contemporary relevance in Russia itself. The book includes a range of commentaries on this poetry from those of Angela Felice, the Director of the Casarsa Pasolini Centre (who came to introduce the book) to Michael Hardt (well-known for his collaborative works with Toni Negri). Moreover, the book includes an interesting experiment carried out by the leftist Ukrainian activist based in Odessa, Denis Pilash, who translates a number of Pasolini's poems into his native Rusyn language (a language as marginalized from the literary process in this part of the world as that of Friulan would have been in the early 1940s).
Kirill Medvedev's volume of translations of the full 1974 edition of Pasolini's Friulan poems La Nuova Gioventu, cover by Nikolai Oleynikov.
The book presentations last weekend were accompanied by a further event. The showing in St Petersburg and Moscow of a film which Pasolini associated himself with in the early 1970s. This film was December 12th. While Pasolini did not shoot the whole of the film but collaborated with the left extra-parliamentary group Lotta Continua in producing the film and indeed he filmed some significant moments of the film-indeed deeply lyrical moments of this very political film. The film showing (chosen by the film review Seance from a list of possible Pasolini films submitted to them by Kirill Medvedev) caused some consternation on the part of some of the Italian parties organising the weekend and in part led to the withdrawal of support from the Moscow wing of the Italian Institute of Culture for the Pasolini weekend (though the St Petersburg IIC did rightly support the initiative). While December 12th may remain an uncomfortable film for Italians to watch (reminding them of a decade full of real traumas but also hopes and clashes long since buried by the anemic abulia of the period from the 1980s to the reign of Berlusconi and beyond), it remains a historical document of supreme importance. Concentrating on the events surrounding the bombing of a Milanese bank (and attempting to reconstruct the truth of these events) and on the quasi revolutionary atmosphere in the country in the early 1970s, the film brings out uncomfortable memories to Italians who lived through the period. Yet the traumas of the Italian 1970s has already been the subject matter of a previous Italian Cultural Institute event from another angle (with its own explicit perspective on the decade). The film Sfiorando il Muro was given two separate showings in Moscow a few years back. A film which was both a deeply personal story (the director was the daughter of a neo-fascist activist shot dead by the Red Brigades in the early 70s) but not shying away from a political reading of the 1970s (in the city of Padua). Even if it did attempt to give voice to different participants, it firmly stamps its own depiction of the decade on the viewers mind.

The 12th December- shown at two cinemas in Moscow and St Petersburg- this weekend to accompany the publication of Pasolini's Friulan poems.
Yet the Pasolini contribution this year has not been limited to this. The arrival of David Grieco at the Moscow International Film Festival with his film La Macchinazione on the murder of Pasolini, a film responding to Abel Ferrara's film on the same subject but from a very different and more political angle was another significant moment. Its repeat showing at a more recent festival devoted to Italian cinema in Moscow has given people in Moscow a second chance to view this film.
Alexandra Petrova, author of a Russian novel on Rome where the spirit of Pier Paolo Pasolini is very much present.

The presence of Pasolini is also a significant one in a recently published novel, Appendix (Аппендикс) by Alexandra Petrova, a writer who has spent almost twenty years in Italy. The novel in Russian has received a lot of critical attention and was the occasion for an interesting discussion led by the poet Elena Fanailova for Radio Svoboda. The novel is now in the running for two prestigious literary prizes in Russia. Pasolini is present both implicitly and explicitly in the novel- for example in the form of direct citations (for example a chapter is introduced with translated lines from his poem Il canto Popolare) as well as toponomical links. The chapter 'Roman Monsters' which the citation heads discusses the Rebibbia of Pasolini and the Rebibbia of this novels protagonist. In fact the novels of Pasolini even where he is not cited are surely a literary antecedent of this novel (portraying a Rome not of the beau monde or dolce vita but of the periphery, just as Pasolini had done so provoking such scandal six decades ago). It is a novel of immigrants, trans, and marginalised radicals moving back and forth from Rome, to Saint Petersburg (or Leningrad), Brazil and Africa just as it heads back and forth in historical time - and often to those 1970s, that last season of political revolt highlighted in the film 12th December, a season with which one of the novel's protagonists is closely associated with.
The cover of Alexandra Petrova's novel Appendix

Pasolini's presence in Russian culture seems likely to grow stronger than ever. The Russian translation of a large section of Pasolini's Petrolio was published a year ago, as was the book by Emanuele Trevi (Qualcosa di Scritto) trying to dissect the unfinished work of Pasolini and to give (an admittedly none too flattering) portrait of Pasolini's close friend, Laura Betti, who would keep alive the memory of Pasolini in unorthodox ways. The Laura Betti who also had come to Moscow to present a Pasolini retrospective a number of years ago (a trip, alas, not mentioned in Trevi's book).

Emanuele Trevi speaking through the translator of his novel in Moscow at the presentation of his book in Moscow

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Against Repression Nostalgia: An Interview with Sergei Kachkin on his film-making life and his new film 'Perm 36:Reflexion'

Sergei Kachkin at a DOKer film evening

Sergei Kachkin is a documentary filmmaker whose name, in spite of only one major full-length film to his name, deserves to be noted. While his first film, On the Way Home is an intimate, family portrait of a long-distance lorry driver and his wife- about “a journey, a relationship and a returning home” as it states on the IDFA site  ( As an article in Calvert Journal on this film further notes “great documentaries have the ability to evoke the extraordinary in the ordinary” ( and indeed this is the path that Kachkin seems to be pursuing. A disdain for any cheap drama and a willingness to work within the tradition of classical documentary, Kachkin nonetheless manages to illuminate the lives of those who rarely make it to the screen. In his new film he is about to stake out another new territory in his film on the labour camps in late Soviet period. However, instead of a simple historical detailing of the nature of these camps, Sergei Kachkin remains very firmly wedded in contemporary Russia. By detailing the destiny of one of these camps – Perm 36 – which was turned into a museum, he tries to depict or reflect the state of contemporary Russian society. Present and past comment on each other through the recollections of three former political prisoners (one a worker, and two from the intellighentsia – one an activist, the other a literary figure) as well as the situation surrounding the museum with its guides and directors slowly being replaced and being undermined from above and from below. An annual civic forum which regularly took place in adjacent grounds to the Museum is also filmed with a view to presenting a society at times supportive, at times hostile to the project of an honest appraisal of Russia’s complex history. Perm-36.Reflexion is a necessary film- a film that evokes a much- needed debate, a very contemporary debate on history, memory and the dangers of toying with what can only be called ‘repression nostalgia’. As the translator of the English subtitles I have watched the film (though, not in its final stage with the sound correction of Nelly Ivanova who, as Sergei mentioned to me, managed to breathe life into this film). It is expected to make the festival circuits in the next few months, so I decided to talk to Sergei about the film and how the film has found a not too welcoming environment from certain Russian film environments and festivals hesitant of upsetting their paymasters.

                               Sergei, please tell me something about your life and life as a film maker. How did you get into making documentaries, what were your inspirations (or inspirational figures) that made you choose film as a profession?

Sergei Kachkin with Godfrey Reggio
                            I watched a lot of films in my childhood. Both my school and the cinema were a five minute walk from my home. And quite often I would run home from school to leave my satchel and then go straight to the cinema. Sometimes it would be the case that I would watch the same film two or three times thanks to the fact that then tickets were very cheap. When I was nine years old, I was very much into photography as well by my older brother. My photographs taken as a young child and the negatives are still in the attic of the family home. I’m amazed at my mother’s patience which she showed to me and my brother- we used up an endless amount of photographic film, photographic paper,photographic developer and fixing solutions and when we hung the photos up to dry they were situated all over the house. 
                       In high school I had a side job as a projectionist at the school where I studied. I was the only one who was trusted with this work. I really loved threading the film through the projection camera, cutting and gluing it with acetone on that special bench.
                       To tell the truth I gave up photography after I left school and only returned to it when digital cameras appeared. But I never left cinema even when I was studying engineering at a polytechnic. In those years I would mainly watch Hollywood films – sometimes two or three films a day. And then one day my sister, Marina, gave me a book – the memoirs of Andrey Konchalovsky who had just returned back to Russia from Hollywood. I read it in a single reading and discovered new names which I hadn’t heard of before: Fellini, De Sica, Antonioni, Truffaut, Bresson, Bergman, Forman, Kurosawa and even Tarkovsky. Then I started to read their biographies or memoirs, the scripts or interviews of practically all of them and, of course, watched their films. At some point I understood that I, too, wished to make films. And so I began to think about studying in a film school as a director of feature films, but at about the same time I made a new discovery- that of documentary cinema. That happened thanks to a film club in which documentaries were shown. The following films were like a complete revelation for me: Koyaanisqatsi by Godfrey Reggio, The Belovs by Viktor Kossakovsky and The Lonely Voice of Man by Alexander Sokurov ( although this may not be a documentary as such it is one of those great films I saw at the film club) . Later I was to meet all three directors. Of course I watched many films at the ”Flahertiana” International Festival of Documentary Film which takes place in the city of Perm. But the decisive moment for me was my trip to a Hungarian Film Festival “Mediawave”, whose jury chairman that year was Jos Stelling. I flung myself into the world of film festivals and for some reason understood there that the only thing that I wished to do was to shoot films. And after just six months my dream came true: with my friend Lyosha Romanov I shot the first documentary film in my life “The River Flowing into the Sky”. After that I could think of nothing else and so at film school I studied to become a documentary filmmaker. 

Sergei Kackin with renowned director Alexander Sokurov

Moreover, as well as filming, I know that you have been very busy in many other film-related projects often meaning that sometimes your film-making takes a back seat. You have worked on a fabulous documentary project called DOKer with a number of other very fine documentary filmmakers such as Irina Shatalova and Nastia Tarasova and have all devoted a great amount of time working on bringing documentary to a wide audience (as was shown at this year’s DOKer film festival which managed to fill the largest screen in Moscow this year) and had also been working with Moscow Business Square until last year attempting to attract many people in the global film world to Russia. What kind of insights have these two experiences given you into the Russian film world?

How well-informed you are! I met Irina and Nastya five years ago when I came to live in Moscow. Their idea to show documentary cinema d’auteur in a film club entitled “The DOKer Project” was something I was very much in tune with. And so I offered them my help and for several years we have become close friends and colleagues. The film club in its five years of existence has turned into an International Festival of Documentary Cinema (DOKer). This year it has had its second edition. And we are so proud of the fact that it has such a strong competition programme! We watch all the films submitted to the festival and are very pleased with the fact that so many films are of such high quality. It’s such a shame that we are unable to include all the films we like in the programme of the festival…It is also very important that the competition showings of this year’s festival were shown at the October Film Theatre- this is the major Moscow film theatre and one could say the main film theatre in the whole country. This is where, for example, the annual Moscow Film festival takes place.

Apart from this in the course of five years I was actively involved in the holding of the International Co-Production Forum Moscow Business Square; I was responsible for the organisation and selection of film projects. MBS is a business platform assigned with the task of developing joint film production and it took place during the Moscow Film Festival. This was a colossal experience for me because the spectre of professional contacts significantly increased.

Sergei Kachkin hosting a discussion at the Moscow Business Square

3     Sergei, and now about your new film: What can you tell how the film came about? In spite of your move to Moscow a few years ago, the city of Perm still seems to remain at the centre of your film work. What first made you wish to shoot a film about Perm-36? Can you talk me through your conception of what you wanted to say and how this changed during the period of filming and then editing? (quite a considerable period of time I believe)

 I started my work on the film before I left Perm where my relatives still live. And then one’s place of residence rarely has a special significance in terms of where one is going to shoot. Indeed the contrary is often the case; most documentalists who live in Moscow shoot their films way beyond its limits. Therefore the fact that my story takes place in Perm which I know very well is very much to my advantage.

The wish to touch upon such a difficult subject matter arose gradually after several visits to the Perm-36 Museum and in my film I talk about this issue off-screen. The first time I stayed overnight there, I had a rather strange feeling which I hadn’t sensed before: a sense of hopelessness and a contact with a certain incommensurably negative energy. But this was in the period of my second or third visit to the museum which had previously been a prison camp.  Then these sensations became dulled… the human being is such a being that soon gets used to anything. However, I must at least confess that I never particularly wished to remain there for more than two or three days. Basically at some moment I suddenly clearly recognized that this former prison camp is situated at about 80 km from the city where I was born and grew up in. The thought that during my calm childhood at school people here were imprisoned simply for keeping forbidden literature during Soviet times had a very strong effect on me. I wanted to meet in person those former prisoners so as to understand what kind of people they were. I believe that a larger quantity of people will watch my film than those few who today visit Perm- 36. And sometimes visual facts have a stronger effect than a simple text. 

The watchtower at Perm-36

As far as the conception of the film is concerned, it has also undergone changes during the time I worked on it: it has been five years in the making. The working title of the film was “Perm-36: A territory of Freedom” because on the territory of the museum during the summer there took place an International Civic Form “Pilorama”. The main goal of which was to enlighten society. This is how its organizers (the founders and directors of the Museum) formulated their goals. But during the third year of filming there were some important changes regarding “Pilorama” and the Perm-36 Museum. I won’t say precisely which ones so as to preserve vital moments of the film’s plot. In any case after these changes I could no longer leave the previous title of the film unchanged and now the film is called “Perm-36: Reflexion".

The poster of the film Perm-36: Reflexion

It was fascinating to observe three such different documentary heroes whose experience of the labour camp and whose mentalities were very different, and indeed whose social origins were very different. It’s rather rare to read much about workers who struggled against the Soviet regime (and yet you admirably didn’t ignore this social category in your film). Also the attitudes of the two members of the intelligentsia also couldn’t be more different. A scientist turned dissident and human rights activist and a character completely unconcerned with politics who simply tried to build a life outside the Soviet system, that is, tried to ignore its presence in his life. I found these three portraits an extraordinary portrait of the camp prisoner.  Can you tell me more? 

Viktor Peskov, a former prisoner at Perm 36
Michael Meylac, a former prisoner at Perm 36

I originally intended to choose only one protagonist. Then my conception of the film changed, and I decided to include two more former dissidents. I expected all three of them to be representatives of the intelligentsia. But it turned out that one of them wasn’t able to take part in the filming due to health reasons. As a result the idea arose to find someone who was significantly different from the other two. I thought that this would add a certain dimension to the story and would underline how intolerant the system was to anyone who tried to stand out from the masses. Indeed as soon as a person stuck his head a little above what was permitted, the system immediately struck him over the head. I don’t know how successfully I’ve managed to realise my conception, how far the protagonists seem to contrast each other, but the fact that they are remarkably different is a fact (that can’t be denied)/certainly true! The story of each of their imprisonments are certainly unique and the reason for that were the completely different conditions they found themselves in.
Sergei Kovalev, former prisoner at Perm-36

As I mentioned in my introduction this is no film about the past but an attempt to talk about the past in the present. To see its reflection. To try and outline what one could call the trace of the past in contemporary Russian society.  And indeed the scenes of the Civic Forum are extraordinary in themselves. The scenes of people coming to the camp in NKVD uniforms saying that those who worked in the camp (and presumably carried out executions in the Stalinist times) have their right to be heard, and the right to have their stories told, too. Present-day Stalinists and this strange ‘patriotic’ movement named The Essence of Time (Sut Vremeni) and their troubling attempts to turn a forum for civic debates into something very different. Can you tell me something about your own reaction to this?   
Communist Party demonstrators with portrait of Stalin as centrepiece.

From my point of view that which happened at “Pilorama” was in its own way a mirror of contemporary society in Russia, that is, its reflection. After the fall of the USSR a large section of the population – and here I’m speaking not about its citizens but about its population- remained living in the past. For many freedom is like an empty sound and is understood as ‘do as you like’ and, probably, this is not necessary for those people who grieve for the loss of the USSR. For me freedom is responsibility for one’s own behaviour, the possibility of making one’s own decisions and, yes, in a very trivial sense crossing the border when I wish to do so.

The Museum Building with a banner for the 'Pilorama' Civic Forum

The people in the NKVD uniform, communists with a portrait of Stalin- these people are all links in a single chain. For them repression isn’t something monstrous in itself, for them the main thing is the country, that is, the state apparatus while a person as individual is nothing, he should serve the good of society. For me it is the state which should serve the citizen who lives within its bounds. This is a serious topic of conversation and its roots are deeply rooted in the history of the Russian state. But I’m afraid that with the kind of people mentioned above there’s little sense of talking about this because they justify Stalinist repression with the greatness of the country. For me greatness consists in people having a voice, and not the pitiable possibility of shouting from a crowd. The word Stalinism and Stalin himself, for a large part of the Russian population is not associated with something negative in Russian history, they don’t see this as a tragic period. From my point of view this is one of the most acute problems in our society, society is going round in circles instead of moving ahead and once and for all sorting out this most tragic of pasts. 

It is obviously very early days yet regarding festivals and the festival circuit. But you have mentioned that in Russia certain festivals where you have submitted your film are not showing this as a direct result of it being ‘politically inconvenient’. I remember when we first met (and you told me about this project- this was something like four years ago) you were very clear that this was ideally a film that was meant to start a conversation within Russia, an honest conversation about the relation of a society to its past. So the ideal audience was primarily a Russian one (though clearly it is a film that merits an international audience too). Tell me something about your hopes for the future of the film, what issues you hope it will bring up, what kind of conversation you think necessary in contemporary Russia and the kind of obstacles that the film is presently facing.  

I myself am promoting this film as I am also its producer. Of course, the subject matter of the film concerns first of all the Russian viewer, but Russia is a large country and that which takes place in Russia has a significant impact in the whole world. Therefore I think it is very important that my film should be seen by a large quantity of viewers, in other countries also. The problem also consists in the fact that in Russia there are few documentary film festivals. I would say that there are between three and five such festivals which have some authority amongst film professionals. And from those three-to-five festivals, two festivals so far have neglected to select my film. The director of the Perm Festival told me that he fears the consequences from the Perm Ministry of Culture (the festival is directly dependent on funding from this body). My film was also not selected at the festival in St Petersburg and I suspect this was for similar reasons: its organizers are playing safe, not wishing to show a film which might cause sharp divisions in society. In this sense we are back in Soviet realities and a person who is responsible for something simply doesn’t want to take risks. He thinks like the character in Chekhov's story 'The Man In A Case' “Oh I just hope it won't lead to anything". Let's hope that directors of the other festivals will show greater willpower. 

With festivals outside of Russia there is a reverse situation. It is probably the case that their organizers don’t consider the subject matter of my film as topical, that a viewer is not going to pay for a ticket for this film during the festival. At any rate that is what two festival representatives told me. But I, nonetheless, believe that a Programme Director of some festival (with some authority) who will show some solidarity in relation to the topicality of the film in the current period.  

At the present moment I am sending my film to festivals, and this is, indeed, hard work. Actually it is a very important matter where the premiere will take place. This will be decisive for the festival life of the film which, of course, I’m counting on.

Filming in Perm-36

Friday, 3 June 2016

10 Reasons Why Moscow's DOKer Should Become a Major Venue On the Global Documentary Film Circuit.

Between May 19th and May 24th the DOKer International Documentary Film Festival took place at Moscow's central October cinema. It marked the festival's second edition. This festival (and its accompanying all-year round DOKer Project) must now be seem as the main venue for international documentary film in Russia. Complementing the Russian-centred (ArtDocFest) or the niche documentary festivals (Flahertiana), the fact that Russia has a fully-fledged and independent documentary film festival is one of the most positive moments for film in Russia in 2016. Here are ten reasons why it can become firstly a major feature in Russian festivals and secondly a significant film festival on the global documentary film circuit.

1)      This is a film festival genuinely independent in conception and realization. While festivals of this kind should be funded, DOKer received not a penny from government funds. It has arisen purely from the efforts of its own team entirely and has managed to establish what is surely about to become an important fixture on the international documentary scene. Having in two years established its own reputation as the major international documentary film festival in Russia, developing in what are rather abnormal and schizoid times, a significant ‘mainstream’ festival with the capability of attracting very high quality documentaries from every continent.

2)      It is a festival which has already attracted quite a significant public thirsty for discussion about documentaries and about the ‘real issues’ that they often provoke. For a new film festival (in its second edition) to fill what is probably the largest cinema screen in Moscow for its opening and closing ceremonies is extraordinary. For it to do so for a film festival of documentary film is unprecedented.
A full house for documentary film at one of Moscow's largest film auditoriums.

3)      The Q&A sessions for the public with filmmakers who attend the festival (and especially the screenings of the parallel DOKer Project) are not just` 10 minutes tacked on at the end but very often occasions for real dialogue. Filmmakers – both Russian and (during the festival) those coming from abroad - can expect an audience which is intelligent and searching. An audience comprising of people who are not passive consumers of films but who, after watching quality documentary film, can and do become active proselytizers of documentary cinema. (the groundwork done by the DOKer Project since 2011 has meant that this community has already been formed).

4)      The DOKer team does not suffer from any individual's attempt to mark it off as their festival. That is, DOKer is without the autocratic paternalism of Nikita Mikhalkov and 'his' Moscow International Film Festival nor does it embody the more liberal (but still rather patriarchal) protagonism of Vitaly Mansky and 'his' ArtDoKFest. It is a genuinely democratic festival in its ethos and organisation. It is also an apolitical festival in the better sense of the word for one that aims to be a mainstream festival (it doesn't censure 'controversial' films nor does it actively attempt to impose any protagonist-like position). It tries in very trying and complex circumstances to build up a 'normal' international festival. During the first DOKer festival last year it was willing to demonstrate its civic courage by publicly showing on its screens a message of solidarity for imprisoned filmmaker, Oleg Sentsov and also screened a film by Alyona Polunina attempting to deal with the Ukraine conflict from the viewpoint of its documentary heroine, a liberal 'intelligent' who decided to travel to Ukraine to meet the 'Maidaners'. The film screening of Varya proved to be its only public screening in Russia given that the Ministry of Culture subsequently decided to refuse it a licence and so effectively censor it. The screening at the festival led on to a very impassioned Q&A. proving that the festival was capable of becoming a forum for sharp issues brought on by its films.
DOKer's two main programme directors Irina Shatalova and Nastya Tarasova
5)      For those who recall the debates over the lack of recognition for women in the filmindustry sparked by Jane Campion’s remarks about the inherent sexism offestivals such as Cannes, DOKer is a project and a festival whose main directors women and permanent staff (in fact Russian documentary film is very much a sphere in which women predominate). DOKer just happens to be this way, that is, it is not a woman’s film festival but a festival in which gender equality is finally more of a reality than just a goal. Another reason why it sets itself apart from other festivals in Russia like those mentioned above.

6)      While the festival was run and organized by volunteers (given funding realities) this was a highly professional festival. To give just one example not usually mentioned when talking about film festivals the 36 films that required translation were done both voluntarily but also showed an exceptional level of professionalism. Like much in this festival although the work was truly Herculean there .
Other members of the DOKer team and volunteers.

7)      As the winner of the Grand Prix, Carlos Mignon, noted one of the main themes of the competition was that of inter-cultural communication and the festival itself was a fine example of this cross-cultural communication. In this way DOKer can be seen as a much more contemporary international festival than the main Moscow International Film Festival precisely because here one senses a real sense of the potential for a cross-fertilisation of ideas and styles that is not always so obvious in Moscow’s showcase festival. Obviously the scale of DOKer is much smaller but its spirit is already much more international.

Yuri Arabov, Russia's best-known scriptwriter at the opening of DOKer Festival 2016
8)      The reputation of DOKer among Russian documentary film festivals surely has potential of gaining predominance precisely because it pretends to showcase documentary as such and not just documentaries on Russian themes or in the Russian languages (such as Art Doc Fest does), nor just a specific type of documentary (such as the observational documentary as does Perm’s Flahertiana). These two are both excellent documentary film festivals and have a very significant role to play but DOKer in a mere two years has gained definite advantages over them for being the main documentary festival in Russia. All DOKer films are projected with both English and Russian subtitles (if they are not in those languages) and by so doing this alone it has meant that it has set its sights on being the only truly International festival of documentary film in Russia. Moreover, by avoiding the niche territory (nonetheless, it has also managed to captured one niche field by being the only festival in the world with a special programme devoted to IT documentaries) it also lays a claim to becoming a mainstream international festival of documentary film.
Mike Lerner, British film producer and jury member of DOKer

9)      DOKer has made a special effort in inviting excellent teams of jurors to judge its films in competition. If last year they managed to attract one of the greatest documentarists of our times Viktor Kossakovsky, this year they attracted a very wide range of globally renowned and highly-professional figures from all sectors of the film world (editors, producers, distributors, directors, screenwriters, critics as well as film programmers).  So this year juries comprised of people like Mike Lerner (a previous award- winner at the Moscow International Film Festival documentary competition), Sara Fgaier (probably Italy’s most promising film editor), Pirjo Honkasalo (an award winner of three awards at the Venice Film festival for her ‘The Three Rooms of Melancholia’) as well as industry and all-round figures or industry figures such as Giovanni Robbiano (a member of the European Film Academy) or Alexandra Derewienko and programmers like Dorota Lech (who programmes films for Toronto and Hot Docs). This plus some impressive figures from the Russian film world – Georgy Molodtsov (programmer at the Moscow IFF), Alyona Polunina ( a well-known documentary film-maker in Russia) and Mikhail Ratgauz (one of Russia’s most well-known independent journalist/ editors as well as film critic).
Carlos Mignon, winner of this year's Gran Prix award.

10)   And then there are, of course, the films. 1,700 submissions from 97 countries out of which 40 were selected. Films selected were practically all premieres  in Russia. These films certainly demonstrate that DOKer is already well-established on the international circuit of documentary film (they included many Russian premieres of films that has fared well at some of the most well-known documentary festivals – IDFA or Hot Docs etc. Many films were certainly world class documentaries and the festival certainly had a very varied repertoire. So very fine aesthetic experiments such as Mark John Ostrowski’s Sixty Spanish Cigarettes would appear alongside other films which concentrsted on its deep psychologically-driven story such as Carlos Mignon’s intensely-ambitious film about the encounters and disencounters within a family. Equally, in the IT competition the film which won the main award (Dreams Rewired) was one that would delight ardent cinephiles the world over. The fact that Alexander Rastorguev’s latest film on Norilsk was presented at DOKer is also an indication that Russia’s most original documentary filmmakers take this film festival seriously.  

DOKer in a very short space of time has proved that it is worthy of a place in the global documentary film circuit and has shown in only its second edition that it is able to organize a full-scale documentary festival which does attract large while numbers of filmgoers even while foregoing any state support. There certainly exists the skills and competence among the DOKer team to make this an ever-growing feature (adding further fixtures as the festival progresses- this year a Master Class with Mike Lerner was one of the side events) with the confidence that this can one day belong to the Class A of documentary festivals. Now, of course, there is the long road to climb for the kind of funding and national and international recognition that it has proven to deserve.