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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