Total Pageviews

Friday, 13 April 2018

Exploring Captivity: Some films to look out for at this year's DOKer Festival

DOKer is taking place in April this year and the opening film will be shown this evening (April 13th). A festival which sees a refocus back on films from closer to home- instead of the one or two films being from Russia or Russian-themed this year there are several as well as other films from its near abroad or at least from Central and Eadtern Europe. This though hasn't meant that the type and quality of film has been decisively different. Indeed as regards quality one can safely say that the festival is going from strength to strength. Here's an initial list of films that I'd recommend that viewers should definitely not miss.

One of the most accomplished films visually and its ability to enthrall the viewer with an impressive narrative drive is Emmauel Gras's Makala. Gras manages to link together many seemingly disparate threads- the almost total lack of dialogue, the superb painterly frames and an attention to the physiognomic grandeur of the protagonist whose Sisyphean tale of backbreaking labour for little return provides both the mythological and social backdrop to this stunning film. There is little surprise that the film went to Cannes and has already received enormous attention and acclaim from film critics. The church scene at the end of the film is a powerful adjunct, almost offering a visual depiction of sociological processes- the isolation of the protagonist and the extraordinary spatial dynamics of this scene give us more than a hint as to the social and metaphysical mythology of the film. This slow-burning but gripping tale of a modern-tale Job mesemerizes the viewer in a way that only the best cinema can do.

The film Makala in many ways prefigures two of the dominant themes of the festivals: one minor and another more major theme which runs through most of the festival films. The minor theme- that of the journey- is most explicitly explored in The Fifth Sun, a film by Cristiana Pecci and Matteo Maggi. At least explicitly because towards the end of the film its explicit theme is overturned in a masterful way by the protagonist. This seemingly straightforward exploration of wanderlust then becomes thrown into absolute chaos by its protagionist. But what could destroy the film only makes it stronger by then becoming a film that questions its own purpose and, more important, raises a reflexive question about the role of the filmmakers. Involuntarily, it seems, the filmmakers are forced to ask themsleves whether or nor they are the real hostage takers?

The filmmaker of A Woman Captured, Bernadett Tuza-Ritter wants to give another answer to this question and, indeed in the cirscumstances of the film, it would seem hard to excuse any other behaviour. Learning that her documentary protagonist is, in fact, literally a slave to her 'employer', an invisible, but unpleasantly audible, middle class tyrant who forces 'Marish' into back-breaking work and finding every possible schema to extort money from her (even the documentary filmmaker must pay this contemporary matriarchal slave merchant for the ability to film her servant). Tuza-Ritter decides that recording this situation is not enough and helps the protagonist set in train the conditions for liberation. Thus giving the filmmaker a role directly opposed to that which seems to be present in The Fifth Sun. It has often been one of the central concerns of Russian filmmakers, most accepting their role as non-interveners and some, like Dvortsevoy, because of this constraint abandoning documentary film. Tuza-Ritter's intervention seems hard to argue with and does make for memorable cinema.

Another portrait of captivity and is that of Till Schauder's When God Sleeps which is, in many ways, a conventional portrait of a hostage of the 'Salman Rushdie of Rap', Shahin Najafi. The filmmaker here observes and it is the protagonists willpower and refusal of submission that finds the way of liberation by refusing to fully submit to the web of fear that Iranian authorities want to weave around him and his group. The filmmaker adds all the context one would expect but one is intrigued by a number of the strands going through the film. One os the singer's relationship with a daughter of one of Iran's conservative elite and another is the singer's engagement with the refugee issue. So it soon becomes clear that the film doesn't play solely to a discourse of the 'danger of Islam' but to a much wider one of the danger of an all encompassing captivity.

DOKer's opening film tonight (April 13th), Over the Limit, is one which has impressed many documentary festivals and should undoubtedly have a wide resonance beyond the festival circuit. The Polish filmmaker, Marta Prus, having been a member of a rhythm gymnastics sports club certainly managed to lend this film a great force in revealing the dynamics of the almost unbearable relationship between Russian gymnast, Rita Mamun and her trainers who explicitly see in her not a human being but simply an athlete. The behaviour of the 'bad cop', Irina Viner-Usmanova, is revealed as a systematic pattern of humiliation. Given Viner-Usmanova's place in Russian society (married to one of the country's richest oligarchs) this could be seen as a powerful indictment of more than just the narrow sphere of rhythm gymnastics. However, like many of the other protaginists in the documentary films there is a coda once again stating that, here too, the protagonist finally released herself from the grip of her captors. The physical backdrop of the film may be unchanging although the beauty of the gymnasts flights in air is very well-captured, but the film as a whole is held together by the claustrophobic psychological dymanics of trainer-gymnast relationship and the powerful drama that this releases.

Jackal Stories once again proves that Argentinian docmentary has so much to offer its Russian colleagues. In many ways it seems to offer some polar opposite or at least this is the impression gained from those Argentinian films shown in Russian documentary festivals. The hynoptic Chechen Family by Martin Sola' pointed the way to a totally original way of filming Chechnya and almost literally froze the Russian audience when it was shown a few years ago. Now Martin Farina's experimental film can also be expected to astound the Russian audience with its way of building on a family archive footage in a way that is so much more anarchic than Russian filmmakers have hitherto managed to do. If Mansky's Private Chronicles is accompanied by Mansky's customary commentary, Farina's films cnsists in a magnificent series of experiments in genres and styles, eluding the controlling authorial voice. By backgrounding what a Russian documentarist may foreground and undermining the cinematic borders that haven't been called into question so much on Russian documentary makes this perhaps the most experimental work of the festival and hopefully will prick the curiosity of Russian filmmakers searching for a way out of dominant and domineering constraints. Latin American film had hitherto been well-represented at DOKer Festivals- this time it is the only film from that area of the world. Most definitively a film not to be missed.

Anastasia Miroshnichenko's film Debut continues with the theme of captivity and escape in an almost literal way given that it is set in a Belarussian female penal colony. The inmates are preparing to put on a play at the local theatre. This allows the filmmaker to delve into the individual biographies of the women. Through their work on the rehearsals and through their reactions to the play we learn more than we would otherwise in a more straightforward 'social documentary' precisely because their part in the play is also their chance to reveal their own personal dramas. Miroshnichenko also captures brilliantly and visually routine everyday prison life at the colony. She masterfully avoids the pitfalls of a cinema of pure denunciation as well as those of a feel good movie.

Other films to watch out for are Balint Revesz's Granny Project, an integenerational exploration of memory and the process of it being recounted between generations. Between revelation and reticence the viewer explores the gaps both between and among generations. Here too the protagonists are captives of, in that Joycean phrase, 'of a nightmare from which (we) are trying to awake'. The captive of this film is the young pre-adolescent Alicia who is caught in a web of institutional logic after abandonment by her mother. The Dutch director, Maasja Ooms, would be best known to the Russian film conoisseur as the cinematographer of what is probably the best cinematographic portrait of a literary figure of recent years, namely Aliona von der Horst's exploration of the life and surroundings of Urals poet, Boris Rhyzy. It is said that Chinese documentary film is one of the world's best unkept secrets and Wang Yang's film Weaving certainly gives some hope that this may be the case. Not a film for those seeking spectacle, this intricate film centres on the demolition of a town and a factory associated with the early years of Mao's rule, this film follows two families and the effect of this demolition. It captures both the intimate struggles and the quarrels over inheritance and the strained family relations in general as well as the gradual story of the demolition of homes and factory. The web being weaved here is that of the inexorable logic of property development and Chinese capitalism. Alas, here there is no flight from captivity other than the banishment decreed by the inhumane and incessant logic of property development itself.

Monday, 9 April 2018

Russian Documentaries at Pushkin House.

Victoria Lomasko and her graphic documentary drawings.

In early May Pushkin House (the major Russian cultural centre in London) will be showing two Russian documentaries in what will hopefully be a rolling programme of documentary films shown there (and hopefully in a host of other centres both in and outside of London). The first two films to be shown in early May are included as part of the excellent exhibition of Victoria Lomasko's graphic documentary reportage which describes a whole host of rarely reported (or in some cases completely unreported) stories of contemporary Russia. The Lomasko exhibition is therefore one of the rare opportunities to start to grasp a real Russia from which one can slowly piece together an entirely different picture of today's Russia. Far from the headlines of spy scandals and geopolitical intrigue, Lomasko foregrounds the voices of those roundly ignored by all. And indeed the first two documentaries to be shown at Pushkin House reflect some of these subject matter and stories which Lomasko worked on.

Poster for Anna Moiseenko's 'Songs of Abdul'

On Wednesday May 2nd Anna Moiseenko's film Songs of Abdul will be shown. Moiseenko, a student of Russia's most indefitagible pedagogue of documentary cinema formation and an impressive filmmaker in her own right (Marina Razbezhkina), has suceeded in this fascinating portrait of Abdulmamad Bekmamadov in a number of extraordinary ways of portraying the protagonist which illuminates the very social fabric of contemporary Russia. Often Russian documentaries concentrate on individual protagonists within their social sphere or in some cases they branch out towards collective portraits (some particulary fine examples focusing on collective subject matter was Daria Khlestkina's The Last Limousine and some of Alina Rudnitskaya's documentaries also manage to go beyond this whether through her emphasis on both social institutions [the abortion clinic, the civil registry office] and the work collective [Catastrophe] or both [Blood]). Moiseenko, however, while moving from a collective tale (in her first major work she depicts life in a commune trying to restore a Soviet like utopianism in her feature-length debut SPARTA: The Territory of Happiness) to this more individual portrait of Abdul, a migrant from the Pamir Mountains, she manages to portray the interweaving realities that Abdul negotiates and so, more thoroughly reveal social realities. For Abdul's life holds within it widely differing social realities. A migrant dependent on low-skilled jobs for survival (and subject to many of the harsh realities of that Central Asian migrants face in Moscow) he is also a bard and much of the film consists of the songs that emerge and that relate his everyday tribulations. Abdul's life therefore is not so much narrated by the filmmaker but self-narrated through his songs. It is worth noting that it was very much thanks to one of the most extraordinary figures of contemporary Russian theatre, Mikhail Ugarov, (who sadly has recently passed away) that such a film eventually got made. For without Ugarov and Gremina's wonderful teatr.doc which opened up Russian drama to real contemporary stories and people, Moiseenko may never have got to meet the extraordinary protagonist of the film whose show was put on there. For those who do get to see Anna Moiseenko's film at Pushkin House there are many splendid moments in the film. One of my favourite scenes is Abdul at the Golden Mask award ceremonies, to me it is a wonderful depiction of contemporary Russian society replete with an undertone of Gogolesque comedy. The film itself has become something of a catalyst for further events. Last summer a massively attended festival of Pamir culture was organised along with a showing of the film. Something that may be repeated soon with the organisers extending this to include other Central Asian cultures.

The protagonist of Moiseenko's 'Songs of Abdul' (Abdulmamad Bekmamadov)

The other film which Pushkin House is showing in early May is Konstantin Selin's Chronicles of a Revolution That Didn't Happen.  Konstantin Selin's is another piece of Russian reality that has rarely been reported either by the international or the mainstream media. Selin's film on the long-distance truckers strike in Russia rarely made it to the international media (or even to the Russian mainstream media). [It was only thanks to admirable sites such as opendemocracy ru and the Russian Reader that the story did get out at all]. Yet it was an extraordinarily story. One brilliantly captured by Victoria Lomasko's graphic drawings and also by this film. A film which recounts the long strike that Russian truckers participated in and their growing political consciousness gained through their self-organisation and their experience of repression once their first timid moves of protest were rebuffed and the reality of the state corporate system of corruption was made clear to them in no uncertain terms. Selin's film follows the protagonists and reveals more about the present state of Russia than one could possibly gean from the media. The emergence and struggles of independent trade unions in post-Soviet Russian is not an entirely new subject for contemporary Russia cinema (Svetlana Baskova made an admirable feature film For Marx which went to the Berlin Film Festival and was based on her earlier documentary on independent trade unions) but it is certainly a real rarity to be able to watch such a film in the UK.

Chronicles of a Revvolution That Didn't Happen.