“Just as Peleshian’s friend put it to Daney some time ago, one could still say that there are indeed some people in the documentary sphere in Russian (and post-Soviet) documentary who are really working – it is just that they are, on the whole, almost as marginalised as they were in Soviet times – without hope for distribution and acknowledgment and, worse, without even the hope for the kind of state funding that was available in Soviet times.”
The world of contemporary Russian documentary cinema (or let’s say documentary film of the post-Soviet space) is still not one that has captured global attention. In the list of the top 25 nonfiction films of 2013 polled in Sight and Sound,1 only one film from Russia was mentioned (and this was a film from the previous year catching a moment in Russian political history that now feels rather distant – the very ephemeral resurgence of political protest in the winter and spring of 2012). Moreover, if Dziga Vertov (along with Robert Flaherty) is seen as one of the duo at the origins of documentary engendering all possible paths for the future development of the form, then there seem to be few genuine heirs of Vertov in recent decades. Yet it took some time, decades even, for Jean-Luc Godard and Serge Daney to discover Artavazd Peleshian,2 and even his name is still not that widely known even in the post-Soviet space or outside.3 Yet, just as Peleshian put it to Daney some time ago, one could still say there are indeed some people in the documentary sphere in Russian (and post-Soviet) documentary who are really working – it is just that they are, on the whole, almost as marginalised as they were in Soviet times – without hope for distribution and acknowledgment and, worse, without even the hope for the kind of state funding that was available in Soviet times.
A superficial look at Russian documentary would accept Mansky’s suggestion that there are only three periods in Russian documentary filmmaking: Soviet, perestroika, and post-Soviet.4 However, documentary in the Soviet period was not just Vertov, Karmen and Romm’s masterpiece Ordinary Fascism. The more one discovers about this period, the more one uncovers very fine documentary filmmakers yet to be given their due.5 As well as those who have eventually been given their due like Herz Frank (from the Riga School of Documentary), filmmakers from the Leningrad such as Pavel Kogan have still yet to be fully written into the story.
Herz Frank’s 10 Minutes Older
Highlighting the perestroika era as a separate period (as well as one when documentary film was in demand both at home and abroad) would be to emphasize a time when documentary film was used as a tool to open up what had hitherto been closed (whether relating to historical repressions or to look honestly at social problems). This, some in Russia argue, has too heavily influenced people’s perceptions of the image of Russia and of what kind of documentary film foreign viewers are more ready to receive. So the perception is that even today a film like Juri Rechinsky’s Sickfuckpeople (admittedly filmed in Odessa in the Ukraine) plays more easily to Western perceptions of “Russia” and its near abroad than a film with a more socially “normal milieu” (if only one could know what this was). But it seems a fair point that the association of Russia with black realism or chernuka has been a dominant one.6 Yet for Russians this genre was much more common (even though not exclusive to the perestroika period).7
Arguably, then, a certain image of Russia has stuck more permanently in the mind of the westerner than in the self-perception of the Russian. Perestroika-era documentaries associated with this trend could be said to include films as diverse as Stanislav Govorukhin’s Tak Zhit” Nel’zya (This Is No Way to Live, 1990) and Herz Frank’s Vysshiy Sud (Final Verdict, 1987).8 Govorukhin’s foray into documentary was only a temporary one. Another documentary of his, Rossiya, kotorayu my poteryiali (The Russia We Lost, 1992), was to replace Stalinist self-deception with a nostalgic self-deception about pre-Revolutionary Russia and serve as a new landmark film from which foundational post-Soviet myths would spring. The popular success of the film belied its unbelievably propagandistic tone. A long lament about the ruinous destruction that Bolshevism laid visited on the country, it used all the overwrought expressive propaganda tools of the very worst of Soviet cinema. In many ways its regression was cinematic, too: rarely was there a more static film than this, with the dynamism of montage long forgotten.
Scene from Govorukhin’s The Russia We Lost
Yet in the past two decades a new generation of filmmakers have been making documentaries of a different kind and sometimes (however rarely) have been experimenting formally in surprisingly new ways. That these filmmakers have yet to gain recognition beyond small circles of documentary aficionados at film festivals is unfortunate for two reasons: firstly, Russian reality is all too often misinterpreted, and some of the hundreds of documentary films could satisfy a different manner of imagining Russia and Russians; and secondly, a number of documentary filmmakers are producing films of formal and aesthetic interest. Russian documentary (or documentary film in the post-Soviet space) boasts a number of filmmakers willing to continue to experiment in terms of both form and content.
If Govorukhin’s path (gaining few plaudits beyond the early 1990s and now thankfully forgotten) was to lead to the sterile and hectoring documentaries for Russian state television that have led nowhere artistically, Herz Frank’s humanism arguably inspired a director whose first film was the first significant breakthrough in post-Soviet documentary (even though it remained unrecognized by international film festivals until a decade later). That film was Victor Kossakovsky’s Belovi (The Belovs, 1994). A portrait of the lives of a brother and sister living in rural Russia it was extraordinary in many ways. As Robert Greene has argued,9 this is not an exploration of the quirky or the eccentric but a fantastic study of the ordinary while gripping us. Whether it is the philosophical rants of the brother or the sister listening, weeping, to a recording of their previous conversation and her dance of pain, or the extraordinary scene of a dog tormenting a hedgehog, Kossakovsky elevates the banal into something epic. Moreover, Kossakovsky’s work in the film with sound and silence makes it formally exciting. Greene is clearly right in stating that “This film needs to be seen, celebrated, canonized.”
Indeed, many more of Kossakovsky’s films share an extraordinary vision of the miracle of the ordinary over the merely eccentric. His observation of the goings-on from his own window in his film Tishe! (Hush, 2002), in many ways an answer to his critics who accused him of intervening unethically in the lives of his subjects, demonstrates that even an “immobile flaneur” can find life (both unstructured and unconstrained) everywhere. Even forcing extreme limitations on his choice of subject matter and on the mobility of his camera he manages to deal another highly successful hand. His formal experiments with limitation (an exploration of his own two-year-old child’s “discovery” of the mirror in Svyato (Svyato, 2005) after having ensured that for the first two years of his life, his son had not seen a single mirror) or indeed his examination of an entirely unrelated group of people born on the same day in Sreda 19.07.1961 (Wednesday 19.07.1967, 1997) suggest how chance and experimentation have interplayed in his work. His group portrait in the latter film was matched by Vitaly Mansky’s portrayal of former schoolmates in his film Nasha Rodina (Our Country, 2004) as well as Sergei Miroshninenko’s Russian version of Michael Apted’s 7 Up series.
Kossakovsky’s Tishe! complete
That Kossakovsky has moved away from Russia in his latest films !Vivan las antipodes! (2012)10 and Demonstration (2013)11 is Russia’s loss. The adjectives that best describe his films are sensual and poetic with at times a formidable skill in counterpointing visual and sonic scores as he demonstrated in his latest film. His path is not the path of Mansky’s exploration of glamour in the oblique and multifarious ways that Mansky manages, nor is it the attempt to bore into the very depths of social reality that Rastorguev and Kostomarov attempt nor the visually exciting exploration of the rural and the pre-industrial that Loznitsa attempts. There is little doubt, though, that Kossakovsky was the director to have brought transferred the excellence of the Leningrad school of documentary and their directors like Pavel Kogan in the 1960s and 1970s and the lessons of Herz Frank over to the Post-Soviet period constituing an early bridge in which the humanist trace of late Soviet documentary was not sunk without trace.
Kossakovsky is one of a number of documentary filmmakers to have established their own rules of filmmaking in manifestos over the past decade or so.12 One of the other filmmakers to write his own manifesto was Vitaly Mansky, which he entitled “Real Cinema.”13 It drew a strongly critical response from many other members of the Russian documentary film community, with Herz Frank calling it “addled and out of date,” suggesting that he himself had already responded to the questions provoked by Mansky’s manifesto three decades earlier. Having said this, there is little doubt that Mansky is a central figure in the world of contemporary Russian documentary. Not only do his films travel from international festival to international festival, but he also directs Russia’s most successful and (probably) most important documentary film festival in Russia itself: the Art Doc Fest.14 On top of all this, Mansky is also one of Russia’s most prolific filmmakers.
One could say that there are a number of themes running through Mansky’s work: one, a central one in the first decade of the twenty-first century, was a study of glamour in Russian society – whether through his exploration of the pop duo t.A.T.u (2003), or through his exploration of virginity in the eponymous film Devstvennost’ (Virginity) (2008) (with a section of the film a portrait of Russia’s answer to the television show Big Brother – Dom 2) or through his examination of a temporary, makeshift holiday camp on the Black Sea shore (which depicts Russian leisure through Gogolesque eyes in Brodvey, Chernoe More (Broadway, Black Sea, 2002). He has also documented leaders from Gorbachev to Putin and from Yeltsin to the Dalai Lama, while a third strand in his filmmaking is an exploration of what seem to be the dying days of Soviet-style socialism. His use of Soviet home movie footage in his film Chastniye Khroniki. Monolog (Private Chronicles. A Monologue, 1999) to portray the private life of the Soviet citizen can be linked to his attempt to explore Cuban society in Patria o Muerte (Motherland or Death, 2011)15 as well as a recent foray into North Korea (his forthcoming project at this writing, July 2014). A comparative film of the Eastern and Western ends of the Gazprom pipeline has enabled him to explore differences between contemporary Russian and European models of affluence and poverty, as did his look at the destinies of his various classmates in his previous film Nasha Rodina (Our Homeland, 2005).
Excerpt from Mansky’s Motherland, or Death
In many ways, then, Mansky’s films are studies of locations and communities, glamour and leaders, but not necessarily behaving according to a direct documentary formula. Form is less important than content for Mansky as he attempts to capture the spirit of a time and place. Having a greater contemporary relevance for the modern viewer (they are more likely to end up in the repertoires of Russian movie houses than any other contemporary Russian documentary filmmaker), it is uncertain whether he leaves behind him enough aesthetic novelty for them to inspire interest among film purists.
The world of Russian documentary has seen a number of practitioners abandoning documentary for the world of feature films. For example, a now established mainstream feature filmmaker, Aleksey Uchitel began life as a director of documentary films and made what was one of the most interesting documentary films of the perestroika era on the 1980s Soviet rock music scene entitled Rok (Rock, 1987).
Another documentary filmmaker much more established in his field, Sergei Dvortsevoy,16 abandoned documentary film after believing that there was an inherent “amorality” in the genre. As he remarked in an interview for the Russian film review Séance: “The deeper you enter another person’s life, the more complex a film you want to shoot, the more contradictions you find in the protagonist and his reality. That is the rule: the more difficult things are for the protagonist of your film, the better it is for you. The worse it is for him or her, the better for the film … you should be ready that you are going to use people for cinema.”17 Dvortsevoy’s observational films are still extraordinary to watch and went some way into informing his feature film Tulpan18 including a ten-minute continuous take of a sheep giving birth mixing his documentary techniques within the feature film. An observational filmmaker, Dvortsevoy – at times working alongside one of Russia’s best D.o.P.’s, Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev – produced some of the most stunning portraits of the “rituals of survival” in the harsh landscape of 1990s turbo-capitalist Russia and Kazakhstan.
Excerpt from Dvortsevoy’s Tulpan
If Dvortsevoy has abandoned documentary due to moral considerations, Sergei Loznitsa (admittedly a post-Soviet rather than a Russian filmmaker who has worked mainly in Belorussia and the Ukraine) has a much more dialectical relationship to documentary cinema. In a way, Loznitsa also exhibits a form of observationsalism (almost an extreme form of it), but he attaches much less importance to the individual in his documentaries than either Dvortsevoj or other documentary filmmakers. His attention is to space and time stood still – whether in his compilation of archived (and previously censored) footage to retell the story of the Leningrad Blockade in Blokada (The Siege) or, in his various studies of the rural space and places entirely abandoned by modernity. In fact, the great majority of his documentary films are shot in abandoned rural spaces or in isolated examples of interaction between modernity and pre-modernity as in his film Polustanok (Whistlestop) shot in a waiting room of a rarely served railway station or in a recent short shot from the considerable distance of a psychiatric institute housed in a wooden house in the depths of rural Russia, Pismo (Letter).
Loznitsa’s portraits, while melancholic, are not odes to a romantic past or laments for the purity of pre-industrialism, and in this he does the viewer the service of extracting from reality a vision that is truthful while forging a poetic portrait of collective rather than individual life. Loznitsa’s distanced and static camera has led to accusations of a certain “coldness” in his relation to his subjects, yet it seems to be more than compensated for aesthetically. Loznitsa is not a social documentarist, unlike others discussed below, and has clarified his position thus: “I am against any deep intervention in reality. I am in favour of observing it. When a director starts actively trying to work on reality he obtains something completely other than that which reality could have offered him.”19
Loznitsa’s Polustanok (Whistlestop)
However, neither can Loznitsa be accused of exploiting his subjects given the greater anonymity with which he films them (his distant camera and the refusal of any psychological portraits or individualisation of his protagonists) and because of his insistence on portraying social spaces rather than individuals. Interestingly, as a filmmaker who weaves in and out of documentary film (his feature films have been more interludes than signals of his abandonment of the documentary form), he establishes stronger borders between documentary and feature films in his own practice than others, for example Dvortsevoj, have done. There is very little narrative in Loznitsa the documentary filmmaker, whereas his feature films do not experiment formally in the same way his documentaries do. In fact, his second feature, V Tumane (In the Fog, 2012), is very much a film-dialogue with the Soviet-era war films of Larisa Shepitko and Alexei German. His almost total exclusion of dialogue or narrative in his documentaries means that the visual aspect and natural sounds contribute far more than is usual in most documentaries. Interestingly enough, Loznitsa has often worked with the same D.o.P., Pavel Kostomarov as documentarists of an entirely different disposition.
One of Kostomarov’s most significant cinematic partnerships is with the director Aleksander Rastorguev, who represents in some ways an opposing wing in Russian documentary to that of Loznitsa. It was probably Rastorguev’s Natural Cinema Manifesto calling for a new documentary cinema that has caused the greatest stir in recent years.20 Rastorguev is one of the film directors to have most actively promoted a social and even political role for contemporary Russian documentary film.
In a number of Rastorguev’s films such as Dikiy, Dikiy Plyazh. Zhar Nezhnykh (Wild, Wild Beach, 2005) shot at the same stretch of the Black Sea and often with the same characters as Vitaly Mansky’s previous film, a much more radical picture of the imbalances of social life was revealed (along with a penetrating portrait of how this fed into political realities). In fact, Rastorguev has attempted to display the many human, familial, social and even political mechanisms common to contemporary Russia, not shying away from controversial subjects, including Chechnya in his film Chistiy Chetverg (Maundy Thursday, 2003), where he filmed soldiers on leave about to return to combat in Chechnya, on the eve of what was to be their death in a helicopter crash. Filming them washing themselves as though it were a ritual cleansing before death, Rastorguev constructs this almost as film premonition. In terms of his later films such as Wild, Wild Beach, he has been described as a contemporary Russian Boccaccio or Saltikov Shchedrin for revealing contemporary Russian mores in ways that few filmmakers had previously done.
Excerpt from Rastorguev’s Wild, Wild Beach
Pavel Kostomarov also worked directorially on a number of documentaries of his own alongside the Swiss filmmaker Antoine Cattin in films like Transformator (Transformer) and Mat’ (Mother). Kostomarov and Rastorguev have joined up to launch a number of film projects in recent years (linked to their intent of going “beyond the documentary”) in which the protagonists of their films are those who film, while they reduce their own role to that of editors. In an interview Rastorguev has compared their task as syntactically rearranging the syllables and individual words found in primitive videos on YouTube into a more structured system:
The point is in twisting and rearranging the various elements of the traditional methods of expression for the Internet, the existence of a modern person who documents himself with a phone, a home video, a webcam. Skype, whatever, all these things, into a more complex form but existing within the method of the language. And all the “words” uttered through these methods are present within the film. However, they are composed according to the syntax of cinematic expression, that is, a kind of syntax laid over the chatter and the din of YouTube.21
Opinion is divided as to whether films like their Ya Tebia Liubliu (I Love You) and Ya tebia Ne Liubliu (I Don’t Love You) really do delegate any control to the subjects of the film. Arguably the editing process could once again relegate them to “marionette roles” and eventually return even more strongly back to a powerful authorial editor.22 Nonetheless, the experiment can also arguably bring in new forces and eventually professionalise new film cadres as editors develop ways of creating new cinematic forms reconstituting film as such.
The next figure of note in Russian documentary is not so much an auteur but rather a facilitator of a whole new school of documentary filmmaking. The output of Marina Razbezhkina is minimal in terms of films that she has personally shot (and a number of them were, in any case, feature films), but in terms of those who have gone through her workshop (or masterskaya) her influence in Russian documentary is enormous. Many of her former students have been awarded major documentary awards in Russia (and even abroad). It is rather hard to pinpoint a specific style of those coming through the Razbezhkina School. She insists that all she teaches her students are their independence and to rescue and reveal drama from everyday life. Her pedagogic emphasis is almost diametrically opposed to the established VGIK school, emphasising that her students are to work with reality alone with far more frugal and basic means than the elite school suggests. Moreover, each student of Razbezhkina must learn all tricks of the documentary trade with the goal to become one-man (or more commonly one-woman) outfits.
Trailer for Winter, Go Away
Filmmakers from the Razbezhkina School certainly have had some successes – the almanac film on the anti-Putin demonstrations in 2012 Zima Ukhodi (Winter, Go Away) traveled throughout the globe and picked up many awards. Many of the individual filmmakers then went to make highly original films – these included those of Anna Moisenko about a collective farm that tried to resurrect the Soviet Union in a single collective farm and entitled S.P.A.R.T.A. – Terrirotya Shastya (Sparta – Zone of Happiness), or the much colder and distant films of Madina Mustafina shot with what one critic has called an “invisible camera”23 but no less extraordinary for that (her most recent film defied the recent anti-gay laws by filming the life of a transgender 18-year-old in Kazakhstan.24
Other former students of Razbezhkina have moved into feature films. A notable example is Valeria Gai-Germanika, whose work has earned undoubted success as well as some notoriety in her coming-of-age in films. She has left critics divided, with some accusing her of a forced search for scandal, though a much more influential group of critics treat her work more seriously. In any case, year after year, films made by Razbezhkina’s students (as well as the few that she herself manages to make) are awarded major prizes at film festivals, occasionally winning international attention.
It would be impossible to neglect two names whose films in the documentary form have been so central to their work. One is the Alexander Sokurov (arguably one of Russia’s greatest filmmakers), whose experiments in documentary films often are then transferred to his feature films. Sokurov has been seen as Tarkovsky’s only real heir, even though he has become far more prolific than his mentor. However, like the mockumentarist Alexei Fedorchenko, Sokurov can hardly be teamed with the professional documentarists. Their experiments with form and stylistics and attempts to find new art forms mean that their work would need to be discussed separately.
A large community of documentary filmmakers who belong to no school or trend but who have carved out names for themselves and illuminated areas of Russian reality with considerable skill also deserves more critical attention abroad. These include Alina Rodnitskaya’s unique look at government institutions (whether of the births, registrations, and marriage bureau or abortion clinics or the blood donor centres) and Elena Demidova’s highly individual search to capture the lives of those fallen by the wayside – the Lenas and Sashas unable or unwilling to escape the arms of the iron dragon demolishing their condemned khruschyovka25 or the Lyoshas, whose village was destroyed in the summer fires but who remain in their post-catastrophe locale. Demidova directs with a fresh look at the most human but most marginal of protagonists – hers is not a pietistic gaze; rather, she manages to extract a kind of warm humour from her subjects’ dramatic circumstances.
A scene from Rodnitskaya’s Blood
Other individual documentarians who deserve a further article of their own include Andrey Gryazev, Daria Khlestkina, Ivan Tverdovsky (whose eponymous son is also an accomplished filmmaker though not a pure documentarian), Sergei Kachkin, Dina Barinova, Nikita Tikhonov-Rau, Tatiana Daniliyants, Rodion Ismailov, Valery Balayan, Evgenia Montana Ibanez, Anna Kolchina, Tatiana Soboleva, and those occasional extraordinary directors whose work emerges almost unannounced such as Elena Tikhonova and Dominik Spritzendorfer (the very fine Elektro Moskva) or Liubov Arkus (Anton’s Right Here).26 These filmmakers suggest that there is an unacknowledged but fascinating story in Russian and post-Soviet documentary yet to be fully explored.
- http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/comment/unfiction/best-2013-cinematic-nonfiction [↩]
- http://sergedaney.blogspot.ru/2012/07/in-search-of-arthur-pelechian.html [↩]
- Evgeny Golubenko (the husband, scriptwriter, and art director of Kira Muratova) told me of his failed attempt to get Pietro Marcello’s excellent film on Peleshian (The Silence of Peleshian) shown at the Odessa Film Club. The film club director there had no clue as to who Peleshian was. [↩]
- http://www.opendemocracy.net/mumin-shakirov/russian-documentary-film-extinct-or-almost-interview-with-vitaly-mansky-0 [↩]
- An attempt at a slightly more comprehensive look at Soviet documentary can be found here. [↩]
- http://calvertjournal.com/comment/show/57/chernukha-little-vera-cargo-200 http://www.pitt.edu/~slavic/sisc/SISC1/graham.pdf [↩]
- Some of Aleksei Balabanov’s feature films especially his Gruz 200 (Cargo 200) could be said to continue in this vein. [↩]
- Ironically Govorukhin later became a cheerleader for Putin and a damner of anyone who chooses to portray the bleak side of Russia, denouncing, for example, Vasily Sigarev’s darkly bleak film Zhit’ (Living). [↩]
- http://nonfics.com/shots-canon-belovs-victor-kossakovsky-1994/ [↩]
- http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/comment/unfiction/your-world-inside-out-vivan-las-antipodas [↩]
- http://www.indiewire.com/article/how-ballet-casts-political-protests-in-a-fresh-light-in-mesmerizing-doc-demonstration [↩]
- Kossakovsky’s 10 rules for documentary filmmaking can be found in English here. [↩]
- http://manski.ru/link7.html [↩]
- http://giuvivrussianfilm.blogspot.ru/2013/12/art-doc-fest-2013-look-at-films-awarded.html [↩]
- http://www.kinokultura.com/2012/35r-patria-jr.shtml [↩]
- http://hcl.harvard.edu/hfa/films/2006fall/dvortsevoy.html [↩]
- http://seance.ru/n/31/sjuzhet31/myishelovka/ [↩]
- http://www.theguardian.com/film/2009/nov/05/segei-dvortsevoy-pawel-pawlikowski [↩]
- Cited in http://giuvivrussianfilm.blogspot.ru/2013/05/loznitsas-documentaries.html [↩]
- Originally published in 2008 for Séance magazine (http://seance.ru/n/35-36/portret-rastorguev/naturalnoe-kino/), it has been translated into English by Anna Neiman and can be found here. [↩]
- Rastorguev quoted in an interview with Anna Neiman published in March 2013 here. [↩]
- This was the view of Andrew Chapman at least in his first review of the earlier film of the duo, http://www.kinokultura.com/2011/34r-liubliutebia.shtml, whereas he later accepted that the two films do not prey on or manipulate the subjects like reality television, and one can even appreciate as this experiment goes on the way the amateur cameramen actually develop and take on their craft. http://www.kinokultura.com/2013/39r-neliubliu.shtml. This seems to be even more the case in their most recent project Realnost (or Reality), which has been almost forced to take on a more political role providing some space outside of the government-controlled public media to tell mini-stories without a clearly politically partisan focus but set in those very locations where society and the state come into conflict. [↩]
- http://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/masha-karp/believing-in-tears-snapshot-of-new-russian-documentary-cinema [↩]
- http://themoscownews.com/arts/20131205/192091423/Young-Kazakh-and-transgender-new-doc-follows-LGBT-teen.html [↩]
- the five-story apartment blocks built in the Khrushchev era and symbolising for many Russians’ shoddy house-building [↩]
- http://calvertjournal.com/comment/show/833/antons-right-here-documentary [↩]