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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.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

DOKer II Day One and Two and Further Recommendations

A clip from the opening film Ruch and Norie.

The 2nd DOKer International Film Festival has got off to an excellent start with some excellent films. The opening film at the festival took place at one of Moscow's largest cinema's 'October' on the central Noviy Arbat street. That an independent festival of documentary cinema can open at Moscow's major cinema and call almost entirely fill its main screen (something that only the main Moscow International Film Festival is able to do) is a sign of genuine hope for the future of documentary in Russia indicating a real thirst for reality in a world that seems to be becoming ever more phantasmagorical.

Day One and Day Two saw some very powerful films being shown. The opening film was a hymn to cross-cultural communication in the guise of a story of friendship between a young Japanese anthropologist and an elderly Latvian grandmother from a small ethnic community and entitled Ruch and Norie. Very strong visually and able to transmit deep transmit human emotions in such a way that palpably moved the audience to this unforced story of a very unlikely friendship.

Day Two had some gems too. One was David Bernet's Democracy with an in-depth and behind the scenes look at the European parliament and the battles and pressure on a German Green politician by big business. Day Two was also the long-awaited Russian film by the Rastorguev film Norilsk: A First Person Account which I'll be reviewing soon.

   The New Zealand film The Ground We Won a cinema verite film by Cristopher Pryor and Miriam Smith on the bawdy world of a rugby team of New Zealander farmers. There were interesting shorts such as the film Guillo - a tale of freedom and loneliness.

Today has some excellent films too. Starting with a film about Trieste that sismograph of Europe. Perhaps the film that I'm most waiting for having lived in the city for two years. A tale of immigration unlike others in which the immigrants and the city of reflect each other as in a poem by Umberto Saba that great cantor of this atypical Italian city. The gaze of the city from a filmmaker from Marseilles, Jean Boiron Lajous, and his documentary subjects has also had some very positive reviews from the Italian press.

A clip from the film Terra di Nessuno on Trieste

The theme emigration is also touched on in the next film today entitled Sixty Spanish Cigarettes, a minimalist metaphor for Spain's bleak and growingly desperate socioeconomic in which emigration is one of the only ways out. This is the first time it will be shown outside of Mediterranean film festivals.

The third film in the main competition is Lenin Park, once again a Spanish-language film, this time from Cuba. A documentary by Carlos Mignon and Itziar Leemans. Taking its name from a Havana amusement park where the Kessel Brothers share their last memory. A film elegy on the death of a mother, on the difficulty of life without her and once again a film on emigration.

Today's films also include four shorts and three films from the Let IT Dok! competition. The only IT documentary competition in the world- an area that DOKer has marked out completely for itself.

Tomorrow's film from the Let IT Dok! competition Capital C is said to be one of the most awaited films of the festival. A crowdfunded film on the crowdfunding and shot in 24 countries, the film has already been making waves throughout the world.

 Two more films deal with an African subject matter (or rather Euro-African links). Both Warriors and Leaving Africa promise to be of interest:

 On Monday the Let IT Dok! competition has another very strong contender in the guise of a film narrated by Tilda Swinton explaining how the mania for new technology is as old as the hills:

A glowing four star review in the Guardian reveals details as to why this may be one of the films to look out for at this festival and a film that most determinedly references early Soviet cinema.

An Pakistani film shown at IDFA A Walnut Tree and an Iranian film Wedding shown at Leipzig also are likely to surprise and delight audiences.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

International Documentary Showcased in Moscow: Year 2 of the Doker International Film Festival.

The Second Edition of the DOKer International Documentary Film Festival will be opening in a couple of days time and will last from May 19th to May 24th. It has already established a reputation as the only genuinely international festival of documentary film in Russia. Unlike festivals such as Art Doc Fest it doesn't concentrate its gaze on Russian documentaries, or films with Russian subject matter or in the Russian language. And unlike Perm's Flahertiana festival it does not devote itself to a niche of purely observational documentaries. Instead it tries and succeeds in its goal of bringing high-class art documentaries from every continent to Moscow thus contributing to that much needed dialogue with the international documentary community. A brief look at the upcoming programme of the festival shows how the DOKer team have rapidly earned their reputation of being the main forum where international documentaries can be seen and discussed in Russia. This year at just its second edition, 1,700 films from 97 countries have been submitted. Many of the films have been specially invited to the DOKer festival after their world premieres at such prestigious world film festivals such as the Berlinale and Locarno and at the highly regarded documentary film festivals such as Canada's Hot Docs and Amsterdam's IDFA.

This year as well as the main competition programme showcasing some very fine feature length films from New Zealand to Peru and the shorts programme (hosting those new filmmakers who may well go on to become the next generation of leading documentary filmmakers), there is a new competition programme featuring a rather unique genre of documentaries that has, it seems, no other major festival platform in the world. This is the "Let IT Dok" programme of documentaries on Information Technology.

All selected films will have their Russian premiere at this festival. The festival itself sprung up as a result of an extraordinarily heroic experiment by a small team of documentary filmmakers who, since 2011, have been bringing documentary film to many towns and cities across Russia (and not just to its capital). The DOKer Project doesn't limit itself to films showings but also organizes discussions with the team behind the film, master classes, closed screenings before world premieres and often assists and supports the local theatrical releases of Russian films. On top of the festival screenings the team have organised over 350 screenings of documentary films to an audience of over 30,000. Sometimes these screenings have paved the way to participation in various important film festivals.

All this hard work has paid off with the formation of this festival, now in its second edition after an extremely successful first run.

Four Russian films will be introduced at the festival. In the main competition programme, Maria Murashova will present her Collectors of Sea Grass whose first screening took place at the Dvizhenie Film Festival in Omsk where it won the first prize in the Documentary Competition. There are two short films by Vladimir Golovnev (Two Childhoods) and Yulia Panasenko (Intro- the second film of a dilogy, the first of which won various important national film awards). In the "Let IT Dok" section, a well-known web documentary interactive project is taking part created by the large team of documentalists under the direction of Alexander Rastorguev and Alexei Pivovarov with their film project "Norilsk In the First Person"

Mike Lerner, a jury member who will be giving a Master Class at the Festival

The three juries who will judge the films are made up of some very fine professionals in their field. Mike Lerner, the British producer and director who was nominated for an Oscar for his film Hell and Back Again. Lerner is also the holder of six Sundance Festival awards and two Emmy's. His work has also touched Russian subject matters such as Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer. As has the work of Pirjo Honkasalo whose 2004 portrait of Chechnya in her film Three Rooms of Melancholia won many international film awards including three special awards at the Venice Film festival in 2004. It created a stunning portrait of the tragic affect of the Chechen conflict on children in Russia and Chechnya prompting the New York Times critic to call it "one of the saddest films ever made". There are jurists from Italy- Giovanni Robbiano, a scriptwriter, member of the European Film Academy, who works at Praguee's prestigious FAMU and Sara Fgaier, perhaps Italy's most outstanding film editor who has worked with Pietro Marcello on his extraordinary films as well as with Gianfranco Rosi- the documentary filmmaker who regularly receives main prizes at the most highly regarded film festivals in the world with his fascinating documentaries which leave the feature films far behind in the consideration of juries. As well as working on The Silence of Peleshian, Sara Fgaier has worked on the extraordinary film The Train to Moscow: A Journey to Utopia using found video footage about Italian Communists who travelled to the 1957 World Youth Festival in Moscow and who discovered a world not altogether matching their utopian imagination. Russian jury members include the film director Alyona Polunina whose glimpse of an extraordinary middle aged Moscovite Varya who set off on a voyage through Ukraine meeting what should have been her 'enemies' lit up the audience at least year's festival with an tempestuous discussion. The film was then to find itself in censorship problems with the Minister of Culture refusing it a license. One of Russia's most interesting critics (not just of film) and journalists Mikhail Rathaus will also serve in a jury as will Georgiy Molodtsov one of the real 'movers and shakers' in Russian documentary film and a curator of the superb documentary programme of the Moscow International Film Festival.

Sara Fgaier, one of Italy's best film editors who has worked with Gianfranco Rosi and Pietro Marcello.

The opening film of the festival to be shown on May 19th will be the Latvian film Ruch and Norie - an splendid film on cross-cultural communication which talks of the encounter of two exotic worlds: that of a young Japanese anthropologist and a grey-haired granny Ruch from a small ethnic community in Latvia. The director Inara Kolmane won many national awards for her film and has become a real star in Latvia cinema. The closing and awards ceremony will take place on the 24th May. These will both take place at the Cinema October on the Noviy Arbat.  

Sunday, 28 February 2016

The Untapped Significance of Russian Documentary Film.

A still from Elena Demidova's film about Gazprom workers Men's Choice. 

A few days ago there appeared on one of the most interesting English-language blogs on Russia (Sean's Russia Blog) an interview with the Russian documentary film-maker, Elena Demidova. An interview that I'd very much encourage people to read - whether they are curious about Russia or film critics. Apart from being one of the most interesting places to go for a real, concrete analysis of what is actually happening in Russia (I'd add two great more politically engaged blogs here: the Russian Reader and People and Nature), Sean Guillory's blog has now thrown a rare spotlight on one of those immense and almost entirely untapped sources which could provide people outside of Russia with a way to resist that poverty of imagination when it comes to 'picturing Russia'.

Indeed how many articles and analyses will the 'informed Russia watcher' have read about Gazprom without ever imagining for one moment what the life of a worker at one of its oil or gas fields is actually like. As Guillory argues in his introduction to the interview the viewing of a documentary film like Demidova's opens up our visions all too often narrowed by the turgid commentary of yet another newspaper article fitting into the same narrow field of vision which we are accustomed to. Instead a documentary film like Men's Choice gives us a new opportunity to imagine from an original perspective:

What I saw was something outsiders rarely hear about Russia—the lives of the thousands of people, mostly men, who travel extraordinary distances to Russia’s far north to work in the natural gas fields. These men work on rotations—a month of constant work on, and a month back home. This labor forces them to be separated from their families for long periods of time. Why do they do it? For money, quite simply. Working at Russia’s vast gas fields is far more lucrative than the work available in the small towns and villages many of these men hail from.
I found Men’s Choice fascinating for its human touch against the backdrop of hard labor and a harsh environment.
In fact many of Demidova's films allow us to peer through into life lived which has been denied us by so much 'Russia discourse'. Whether they concentrate on Lesha's tour of his burnt out village to highlight the forest fires in the summer of 2010 or the couple resisting eviction from their khruschevka flat (a typical 5-storey building built in the Khruschev era and symbolic of what is now seen as poor quality housing) in Sasha, Lena and the Iron Dragon, her films give that kind of insight into the texture of people's lived lives. Portraits that break against the hierarchy of classification and deny those 'fixed images' through which a view of Russia is imposed.

A still from Demidova's  Sasha, Lena and the Iron Dragon

It is the rare newspaper which will even print an article about the ongoing truckers strike in Russia denoting something of the hierarchy of concerns for editors when it comes to Russian news but how can we start to even imagine the life of a long distance trucker in real, concrete detail without having watched Sergei Kachkin's On the Way Home with its intimate portrait of a trucker and his wife as well as an extraordinary sequence of truckers and their radio communications with each other telling us more about life on a Russian road than any mere article could imagine to conjure up.  

The subject of Sergei Kachkin's On the Way Home a long-distance truck driver.

(Here one could equally launch into a passionate defence of other documentary forms when it comes to the truckers strike or other social acts of social resistance whether it be in the extraordinary photos posted in the live journal or in Victoria Lomasko's very fine documentary drawings of the truckers discussing and preparing their nationwide strike. How, too, can we imagine the real circumstances of the activity of independent trade unionists without having watched Svetlana Baskova's documentary One solution- resistance (upon which her film For Marx shown at the Berlinale was based)?
What are the hundreds of articles on Boris Nemtsov able to tell in comparison to the extraordinary film portrait by Zosya Rodkevich My Friend Boris Nemtsov shot when Nemtsov was still alive? Or those other documentaries such as Winter, Go Away  allowing us to see a collective portrait of Moscow in a time of political turbulence or those other political portrait films, for example Evegenia Montan'a Ibanez's portrait of the now imprisoned Left Front leader, Sergei Udaltsov, or the Term project by Pivoravov, Kostomarov and Rastorguev in many ways more interesting in its individual sequences than in the finished film. Followed up by their recent Realnost project and their previous experiments in devolving power to the film subjects by letting people shoot films about themselves, the ability to grasp 'Russian reality' politically and socially is within reach. It's just that the opportunity is all too rarely taken up.

A scene from the almanac film on Russia's protest movement of 2011/2 Winter, Go Away
It would be hard in this single post to list the whole gamut of documentaries in Russia and its near abroad worth watching. Yet I hope to start doing this in follow up posts on this and include some interviews with documentary film-makers both here and in other venues such as film journals like the Bright Light Film Journal where I published a general overview of some of the more established figures in the Russian documentary film world. I also hope to discuss the situation surrounding documentary film-making in Russia looking at documentary film festivals such as ArtDocFest and the new and exciting international documentary film festival in Moscow DOKer which developed out of a project to bring both Russian and world documentary to the Russian public (and not just to Moscow's but throughout the whole of the country). The institutional set up will also not be ignored, although it is pleasantly surprising how the desperately inane activities of Russia's Ministry of Culture in trying to dictate documentary norms have not been as successful as it hopes. 

The poster for the 2016 2nd DOKer Film festival to take place in the Spring

Indeed, the inanity and short-sightedness is not restricted just to Russia's Ministry of Culture. One's scepticism could and should extend to the inadequacy of documentary establishments outside Russia. I have written elsewhere about the 'splendid isolationism' of the British press and film critics when it comes to foreign language film. Maybe it is necessary to talk, too, about the myopia of some of those who have the ability to change things in the documentary scene itself outside of Russia. I recall a visit by Nick Fraser of BBC's Storyville to Russia's Moscow Business Square in 2014 to judge some promising new documentaries being pitched there. It seemed to me that Fraser failed to appreciate the particular world of Russian documentary. It was, for example, French television which had the sense to acknowledge the force, relevance and innovatory approach of Anna Moiseenko's documentary Abdul Ballade about a Tajik folk singer and migrant who composed ballads about his daily life in Moscow even though this and many other films of considerable interest were first pitched to the phlegmatic Fraser. Just one of the examples as to how myopia from those who could change things regarding the reception of Russian documentaries in Britain prevent them from doing so. 

Folksinger and migrant Abdumamad Bekmamadov, the protagonist of Anna Moiseenko's A Migrant's Life
In spite of all the myopia of many film commissioners in the UK and elsewhere, there are reasons for hope. These films will in any case be precious documents in years to come. This generation of documentary filmmakers will surely gradually become discovered and rediscovered in time. And the contacts between and the mutual influences of documentary filmmakers between Russian and elsewhere have already brought many fruits. A process of miscegenation is already happily underway. Films like Marco Raffaini's Italiani Veri (on the emergence of Italian light music in the Soviet Union) or the forthcoming Soviet Groove by the Franco-American ensemble of Louis Beaudemont and Alexei Gittelson enable us to look back at Soviet reality with completely unexpected eyes as does the film by the Austro-Russian duo Elena Tikhonova and Dominik Spriztendorfer Elektro Moskva, a fascinating essayistic documentary on the Soviet electronic age and its legacy as well as the larger than life figure of Leon Theremin. Russian documentarists, too, have given some fascinating portraits of foreign societies. Victor Kossakovsky and his students Spanish film ballet Demonstration is one of the most extraordinary films on popular unrest and strikes to have been made in recent years. 

A scene from Elektro Moskva

All this may go past the heads of Britain's semi-ignorant film establishment (though there are some fine exceptions among independent British film critics such as Neil Young and Michael Pattison very much open to the aesthetic lure and significance of the art documentary from this part of the world) but sooner or later future historians, as well as future film scholars, will be making their rediscoveries both of these films and of their priceless value as both documents of their time and as film documentaries in their own right.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Apparatus, a new online journal on Film, Media and Digital Culture in Central and Eastern Europe.

A new international research journal has just been launched which will be focused on film, media and digital culture and is focused on Central and Eastern Europe (that is much of the Post-Soviet space). The first issue of this bi-annual journal is now online, open to access for all- academics, interested journalists as well as film buffs interested in this area of the world. Unlike some other online titles it is truly looking for an international and multi-lingual audience. The articles can be in any of the languages spoken in Central and Eastern Europe as well as English (and indeed in the first issue articles are in four different languages: German, Ukrainian, Russian and English) and the website as a whole is trilingual: in German, Russian and English. Twelve authors were engaged in writing four peer reviewed articles, five reviews and an editorial and their geographical spread is also fairly wide: Austria, Croatia, Germany, Russia, Sweden, UK and the US just as the geographical spread of the subjects involved. There is a core editorial team of four including Natascha Drubek as Editor in Chief, Irina Schulzki as Review Sections Editor and Mario Slugan who is the Managing Editor. Among its Editorial Board are names very well-known to those interested in Soviet and Post-Soviet Cinema and a mark of true quality of thought including Naum Kleiman and Oleg Aronson as well as Vladimir Padunov from Pittsburg.

This is its official launch statement by the editorial team:

Dear colleagues and friends!

The editorial team of the international research journal APPARATUS is pleased to announce its launch and the release of its first issue.

APPARATUS is a peer-reviewed online journal focused on film, media and digital cultures in Central and Eastern Europe. The main aim of the editorial team is to keep abreast with the practice of the leading international research periodicals. Our basic editorial principles are:

OPEN ACCESS the journal is freely available online ensuring maximum accessibility and international dissemination of journal content

DOUBLE BLIND PEER REVIEW all articles undergo a double blind peer review process

The novelty of the journal consists in its MULTI-LINGUAL CONTENT
articles and reviews are published in different languages,
including those used in the regions the journal focuses on,

as well as in its MULTIMEDIA FORMAT the electronic publication allows contributors to insert not only figures and links,
but also audio- and video-files directly within texts.

APPARATUS is supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) and hosted by the Free University of Berlin. Long-term storage of published materials is ensured by the German National Library.

The initiator and chief-editor of the journal is Dr. Natascha Drubek. The international Editorial Board includes leading scholars, archivists, curators and artists in the field of media research of Central and Eastern Europe. Apparatus accepts both unsolicited and solicited submissions. The journal is published twice a year either as an open call issue or a special issue.

You can find out more about the content of the site in English, German or Russian, read the first issue and submit applications on:

The journal also has a page on Facebook which one can like and on which articles for the journal as well as other articles on relevant subject matter will be posted:

The articles published in the first issue include articles on Vertov's and Medvedkin's Film Trains and Agit Steamers of the 1920 and 30s. The next article is a much more theoretical article in Ukrainian on the difference between the use of the terms 'apparatus' and 'dispositif' (introduced by Jean-Louis Baudry in the 1970s) and how drawing a distinction between the two concepts may help us to analyse such a film like Parjanov 'The Shadow of Forgotten Ancestors' or Leonid Lukov's early post-war second part of 'A Great Life'. Other articles cover art rather than film as such with Inke Arns comparing Moscow's Collective Actions Group with Poland's Kwiekulik. Mark Lipovetsky then discusses how Pussy Riot laid bare both neo-traditionalist discourse but also the underlying hypocrisy of some of the liberal opposition. He locates the actual performances as a cultural return to and rebirth of the 'trickster trope' which was powerful in the Soviet period but declined in post-Soviet times. Then come the reviews of books (including one of Evgenii Margolit's vital 'The Living and the Dead: Notes on the History of Soviet Cinema 1920s-1960s as well as Philip Cavendish's fine book on 1920s Soviet cinematography).

A final review article is devoted to the Festival of Archive Film Belye Stolby by Georgii Borodin, the great animation specialist of the old Musei Kino team.

A great start to what promises to be a fine new venture in international research on a whole number of original topics in this growing field.