Total Pageviews

Thursday, 22 January 2015

2morrow/Завтра- a rare oasis of hope for the independent Russian film world.

One of Russia's most interesting and original film festivals is being held this week at the Museum of Moscow and the Centre of Documentary Film. Like many of the more creative festivals in Russia it has been deprived of public funding relying instead on a crowdfunding campaign to survive. Founded by the late film director Ivan Dykhovichny in 2007, the festival has been run by his widow Olga Dykhovichnaya since his death in 2009. It is one of the rare chances to watch a wide range of art house films that are rarely shown in Russian cinemas anymore. If the larger festivals in Russia (such as the annual Moscow International Film Festival) attempt to reach an audience for what they call the 'art mainstream', this festival is much more daring in its programming presenting viewers with a chance of seeing more rarely noted films as well as films that have won major prizes in all the major international film festivals but which no longer get distribution in a Russian market steadily closing itself to everything but Hollywood and Russian national blockbusters and with a Russian cultural ministry intent on uprooting and destroying cultural originality in any and every way it can. In this context this film festival is a rare oasis of hope in an increasingly depressing moment for independent film in Russian subject to both political and economic strangulation.

Olga Dykhovichnaya, festival director of 2morrow/Завтра

While 2morrow/Завтра doesn't concentrate on Russian cinema - it does have the occasional programme which do present the festival goer with an opportunity to watch some Russian (or post-Soviet) films that they would not otherwise have the opportunity to see. The Offside programme showcases Russian regional cinema and this year a part of this programme includes films made by students of Alexander Sokurov at the Kabardino-Balkarsky State University.

It has, moreover, a number of other films that should be of interest to readers of this blog including a Latvian documentary film 'Escaping Riga' comparing the fates of two famous figures who 'escaped Riga': the philosopher Isaiah Berlin and the film-maker Sergei Eisenstein and who chose very different paths and ideals. I hope to give some account of this film by David Simanis for this blog.

One of the real highlights of this festival, though, is a programme which while not connected directly to the Post-Soviet space deserves a special mention. One of the most interesting film curators operating in Russia today, Kirill Adibekov, has managed to convince the Dutch Embassy to help out with bringing the films of two extraordinary Dutch filmmakers - Frans van der Staak and Johnan van der Keuken - to the festival. Adibekov was the curator of the excellent parallel retrospective of Artur Aristaskisyan and Pedro Costa- one of the highlights of the 2013 festival and continues to delight in this festival with another highly original and quite brilliant choice. For those able to read Russian here is an interview with Adibekov giving us an insight as to why this occasion to see films by these two Dutch film-makers is such a unique one.

Film curator Kirill Adibekov

(Some reviews of the films at this festival will appear here in coming days).

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Articles published elsewhere: (1) On Lyubov Arkus's Anton's Right Here

This article was originally published for the Calvert Journal on April 30, 2013
A film critic turned director may have been a common feature in the 1960s French New Wave but in contemporary Russia the case of Liubov Arkus is somewhat unique. One of Russia’s most established critics for the leading film journal Séance, Arkus has managed to create a new form of social documentary in Anton’s Right Here and by doing so she brings Dziga Vertov’s vision of the camera as an instrument of liberation one step closer to realization. Arkus explained that she made the film not thinking about it as a documentary and related to the protagonists not as documentary subjects but “as people who were close to me”. Arkus met Anton Kharitonov, a young autistic boy, after reading his text People- part of a compilation of writings by autistic children that she discovered when editing a copy of Séance. Anton and his family were to become close friends of the whole Séance collective. The film would arise more out of chance and necessity than design taking over four years to complete.

Arkus makes no attempt to whitewash the harsh reality for Anton and other autistic children in Russia in the film and her narration of Anton’s Dantesque trip through the hell of institutions all too ready to abandon the weak and vulnerable is as powerful an indictment as there could conceivably be.  In a scene where Anton’s choices become so bleak Arkus is constrained to abduct Anton from one institution thus precariously stepping beyond the boundaries which documentarists normally permit themselves.  Her film, though, is not dominated by this sense of bleakness and indignation and avoids pointing moralistic fingers at anyone in particular. The transformation of his father’s attitude towards Anton inspired by his viewing of footage from this film is a masterly scene in which the film reflects on the cameras powers to transform reality. Arkus also intervenes in the film with her personal tale of suffering abandonment as child of a victim of repression and transforming once again the relations between documentarist and subject once more steps into precarious territory. However, in this way Anton’s condition becomes shared and universalized bringing us back to that central and unresolved theme of 1960s cinema – the theme of communicability present in films of auteur filmmakers such as Antonioni, Herzog and the Soviet filmmaker Khutsiev.

This film, however, does not take the rather well-worn route of the old-style social documentary in which the director observes and retells the life of the protagonist in order simply to generate either indignation or pity. Indeed such a subject matter confronts the documentary film-maker with a highly significant ethical dilemma. Sergei Dvortsevoy, one of the great documentary film-makers of the early 1990s, would eventually move into feature films because, in his words, “the worse it is for the subject of the documentary, the better it is for the film maker”. Arkus, however, resolved this dilemma and directed a film confounding many of the accepted rules of documentary film making.
It was one of Russia’s most innovative documentary helmers, Alexander Rastorguev, who helped Arkus understand the necessity of playing by different rules. In 2008 Arkus published Rastorguev’s “Natural Cinema” manifesto in Séance. Here he claimed that documentary cinema had died and could only regain meaning when film became what he called “ontological action”, “reaching the core of suffering  transforming life”.  The ideas in Rastorguev’s manifesto “impressed me enormously” Arkus told me in an interview in early January. Two other people were instrumental in helping Arkus realize this vision of “natural cinema”:- one was the cameraman, Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev, and the other was Anton himself who, in the words of film scholar Yuri Tsivian, had almost become Arkus’s co-director (an opinion that Arkus shared).

Cameraman Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev

Arkus explained how it was Alisher who took on the role of the helmer at the start of the shooting process while she was “learning from him”, given that it was her first film. At the beginning she “didn’t even look into the viewfinder”, but by the final two shooting periods she was firmly in the director’s seat.  For Arkus, Alisher had the ability to portray “the very core of the human being rather than simply the human face or profile”- an ability which, Khamidkhodzhaev states, was influenced by the cinema of Sokurov and Pasolini.

Arkus explained the unique role of Anton in the film-making process: “it was very much his relationship to the world and to others- to his mother and me – and his strength which defined the film and powerfully drove the plot of the film forward. One should not forget either his very strong charisma as well as his (what Arkus calls) ‘cinegenia’”. His refusal to accept less than genuine love from those around him be they his father or the carers in the, albeit very liberal and westernised, Svetlana institution, surely manifest his extraordinary willpower.

The protagonists, Arkus explained “became documentary subjects only at the editing stage when after shooting an immense amount of material it was necessary to develop a clear plot for the film”. The most difficult stage of the film, for Arkus, was the editing process. Five hundred hours of material had been shot and although it was shot in an ‘observational’ style, it was edited like a novel (according to her “a novel written before the modernist period and in the post-modernist vein”). This divergence between the shooting process and the composition of the storyline comprised the greatest difficulty for her. “Numerous options were made before I came to the difficult decision to tell the story in the first person”.  In many ways, too, the camera had become Anton’s substitute for the pen with which he could write a new text about himself. The last scene where Anton is given the camera to shoot the final shot makes this explicit.

This film has something very rare and powerful to say by tying autism and cinema together as equally being wrapped up in a struggle to communicate the incommunicable. This film has transformed social documentary as a genre here with the aesthetic and the ethical working symbiotically, bringing into question clear distinctions between the observed and observer, the director and protagonist while the camera loses its cold distance becoming an instrument for profound reflection, communication and even liberation. Anton’s Right Here may not be a film that vaunts its formal experimentation in the way that some of the films of Kossakovsky (one of Russia’s most extraordinary documentarists) do but it does manage to display new territories of human nature hitherto only partially revealed. 

Reflections on 2014 in the world of film and Renaming the blog.

A still from Valentyn Vasyanovych's Crepuscule one of the films that captured the potential of a revival of film in the post-Soviet space.
When I first started this blog over five years ago I gave little real thought to the title of the blog but this year I have finally decided to change it. Back in 2009 my blog was nothing more than a jotting down of a personal diary of my film going as well as some things I had been reading on film (and the title was something I had thought up on the spur of the moment). Since so many of my favourite films and filmmakers discovered in Moscow can not in any way be described as Russian- to name but a few Sergei Parajanov, Otar Ioselliani, Kira Muratova, Aleksandr Dovzhenko - I thought it better to extend this blog explicitly to the whole of the former Soviet space (and even occasionally beyond). An oversight in 2009 is much less defensible in 2015. How to write, for example, about Ukrainian films in a blog on 'Russian film' without falling into justifiable accusations of a form of (post) colonial prejudice? One more consideration of this renaming is that I hope to extend the scope of this blog to include articles on other visual arts too (and also to literature, music and even philosophy).It's rather difficult to find an all-encompassing term but post-Soviet tries in as many ways as possible to encompass both history and the present.

2014 hasn't been a particularly active year for me in so far as film-going has been concerned. I only managed the Moscow and Odessa Film Festivals (and missed the Art Doc Fest and much else besides). Living in Russia in the winter and early spring and then in the summer gave me a sense of the atmosphere of this 'infernal year'. Travelling from Moscow to Odessa in July and spending ten days in that city also gave me a very brief chance to attempt to gauge the atmosphere in that city during the period both before and after the downing of the Malaysian airline.

There is no easy way of describing the changes in the Russian cinema world (it would be far more difficult to speak of other cinematic worlds in the post-Soviet space) in 2014.Some of the posts published here in 2014 have spoken of the stances of some of those in the film world with regard to the Ukraine. A mixture of solidarity with Ukrainian colleagues, followed by a pro-Putin stance from others, with even some support for the Russian state from some very unlikely quarters. But then even in Ukraine there was not any simple narrative. Odessa at the time of the film festival was still in the midst of patriotic fervour (with audiences standing to attention twice during scenes where Ukraine's hymn was heard in Sergei Loznitsa's Maidan) and yet the words that Kira Muratova spoke to Anton Dolin were far more measured with a restrained sadness at how things had gone.

Russia really does seem to be experiencing the howling winds of winter. Returning to Moscow last week I learned of the events surrounding a showing of a documentary film 'Stronger than arms'. Although there was an audience of only about fifteen at the premises of teatr.doc (and three or four of this audience reportedly turned out to be from the security services). After about a minute into the showing a whole ensemble of characters from different state and municipal 'services' would turn up including police, bomb disposal officers, fire and other emergency services, plain clothes security personnel, municipal officers and even personnel from the Ministry of Culture. The whole building was to be evacuated only after 45 minutes (it was even rumoured that security and Mincult officials were watching the film in the meantime while they had evicted the film goers to the streets 'cordially inviting' them for a trip to the police station. Organisers were summonsed and interrogated the next day at the Ministry of Culture and the audience after eviction found themselves harassed by a woman journalist from the state NTV channel who had turned up with all the officials asking them what they thought of the film that they were prevented from watching. A tragic farce of what happens when you watch the 'wrong kind of documentary' in Russia at the end of 2014. Here is a sample of that night's events that was captured on camera:

Of the events that I missed were this years Art Doc Fest which is another subject in its own right given that the Minister of Culture stated that this festival - widely seen as the best documentary film festival in the whole of Russia - would no longer be receiving any public funding given the anti-governmental statements of the its director, Vitaly Mansky. Another indication that the tightening of the screws in the Russian cultural sphere is going full speed ahead.

Perhaps the biggest scandal of the year is that which has happened around the Cinema Museum. One of Russia's and the world's most respected film scholars, Naum Kleiman, and his professional team were evicted by Kremlin loyalists in an attempt to finally destroy any remaining hopes of the resurrection of one of the most important institutions in Russian cinema today. Conservative nationalism in this sphere has done its utmost to sever all ties to the outside world in a way that reeks of late Stalinist autarky in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The story of the Scientific Research Institute of Cinematic Art led by Nikolai Izvolov has been less widely reported but is yet another indication that Medinsky and his cronies are launching a full onslaught on cinematic memory to eviscerate anything not fulfilling his ideological (conservative nationalism) goals. In terminology so beloved of these ideologues one feels at times to be confronting some form of cultural genocide (meted out by those very figures intent on proudly acclaiming themselves as defenders of Russian culture. All the Medinskyites seem to want to offer is a trash Hollywood-style version of national cinema with a taste of Russian revanchist ideology.

Of course 2014 has not been only this - the crop of films that have been released or seen at Russian and international film festivals have thankfully been impressive. Films by Zvyagintsev, Konchalovsky, Tverdovsky, Kott, Bychkova, Meshchaninova, Nikonova, and even Gai Germanika and Bykov deserve notice from the international film world. Yet is this the last of Russia's "relatively good years" in film as Andrey Plakhov argued in a recent newspaper article? Time will tell but it certainly feels a rather daring task to utter much optimism. Whether in other countries of the post-Soviet space this picture is a different one is hard to tell. From the little I have seen of Ukrainian cinema the picture is a mixed one but it certainly does have some very promising titles, especially in the guise of Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy's masterpiece The Tribe as well as Sergei Loznitsa's Maidan. Following in the wake of Kira Muratova's 2013 Eternal Homecoming these two and many more less talked about films such as the rural documentary Crespuscule by Valentyn Vasyanovych as well as Viktoria Trofimenko's Brothers: The Final Confession do suggest that Ukrainian film has some kind of hopeful future. One of the Ukrainian film-makers most to look out for- Maryna Vroda- seems to have been relatively silent for some time although she has come back this year with another short film entitled Snails shown at the Molodist Film festival in Kiev.

Coming back, however, to considerations of the present moment of relations between Ukraine and Russia and their respective film worlds there is no symbol more scandalous than the imprisonment of Ukrainian film-maker Oleg Sentsov in a Russian prison. Increasingly forgotten by the media he faces many years in jail. It is on this note I wish to end this article with the wistful conclusion that it is increasingly hard to 'enjoy' film in this part of the world while one of its more promising practitioners is languishing in prison facing what are clearly trumped up charges.

A longer article on reflections on recent events in Russian film will hopefully be published in another venue early in 2015.