Judgment Day: Recreation and Stylization (On Ethics in Documentary Filmmaking and Other Matters)

By Aleksandr Deriabin (Moscow)

Here’s life: calamities, catastrophes, and terrorist acts. Dead, wounded, maimed, and… eye-witnesses. And an almost immutable law: afterwards eye-witnesses always say: “I saw it”; but they never say: “I lived through it” or “I saw them live through it.” Is this just stereotypical behavior, psychological self-defense from shock or affect? Or is it the cynical realization that, after all, this didn’t touch me (it couldn’t have touched me)? Or is it involuntary greediness to possess a rare spectacle, a greediness that dulls sensations? Or is it a way of feeling superior to one’s listeners, to remain aloof from them? Or is it something completely different?

Here’s a documentary film: calamities, catastrophes, wars, terrorist acts. Cameramen, images, spectators… Cameramen love to talk about what they’ve seen and were able to shoot, and what they weren’t and why. It is as if they are justifying themselves and the sluggishness of their Kino-Eye, but they easily admit that they saw much more than the viewer can see. And viewers are left with the sense that something else was there and want to see more.

Here’s television and video: calamities, catastrophes, wars, terrorist acts. Cameramen, images, spectators… Every cameraman tries to be first at the scene and to broadcast before anyone else. Viewers don’t so much say “I saw it,” as they are habitually interested in “Did you see it?” Cameramen shoot almost everything. And then the footage is shown on television many times over. And viewers, sated with the knowledge that they’ve seen everything, lose all interest in the topic. Is this also according to some laws? After all, every viewer seems to try to assemble some sought-after “meaning” from the “pieces” before any other viewer, so that afterwards… he can experience some sort of communal participation. And to remain aloof from those who remain in that tragic life… Or is something completely different happening here?

The difference between eye-witnesses and television viewers is clear. The former preserve their personal, unique feeling from what they have seen; the latter consume mass-produced, impersonal reports from the scene. We live in an age of “couch-bound eye-witnesses.” We can no longer resist the expansion of moving images. But is the fact that the “man with a movie-camera” has fully attained the status of a demiurge and that the Kino-Eye has fully demonstrated its “superiority” to the human eye, the result of some natural process or a disease that requires immediate treatment?

Archaists and Innovators

In the past, Vertov dreamt of the time when the Kino-Eye (more precisely, the Radio-Eye—that is, the prototype of today’s television) would allow viewers immediately to see anything happening in the most distant corners of the world. Moreover, not simply the phenomena and processes as such, but to see already a Communist deciphering of the world, one that would enable the viewers-workers of the world to unite. In other words, for Vertov Kino-Eye was a means; the goal was Kino-Truth. In this way, Vertov’s program back then contained—with all of the class-driven straightforwardness of the epoch—a great goal and the means for attaining it. Within such a scheme, documentary filmmakers were assigned the role of executor, a warrior, who was allowed much, if not everything, because of his great goal. As a consequence, in the 1920s, Vertov (who, I repeat, was a child of his epoch) rarely thought about questions of ethics in documentary filmmaking: the end result in his eyes justified any sacrifices and victims. [1]

Later, with the arrival of sound cinema, Vertov made his programmatic goal the representation of living man on the screen. And it would seem that at this moment the problem of ethics should have occupied primacy of place. But once again this did not occur. Why? The point is that Vertov did not simply write about man; he wrote about Man. This can be formulated even more precisely: he wrote about the new Man building a radiant future. And when someone undertakes writing a saint’s life or an ode, or painting an icon, there is no discussion of ethics because the rules of the game are strictly imposed from the very beginning by the genre itself.

Clearly this does not mean that Vertov (or his contemporary documentary filmmakers) completely ignored issues of ethics and morality. This merely shows that, in Soviet documentary filmmaking during the Vertov epoch (the 1920s, 1930s, and even the beginning of the 1940s), ethics existed at an arcane, almost primeval stage of development. On the one hand, the goal (in the name of the collective!) frequently justified the means. [2] On the other, there were vast areas of reality that either were forbidden to documentary filmmakers or were passed over “in silence” due to strictly defined relationships. Everyone understood this situation and no one needed to reflect upon it, especially since it might be seen as seditious. Yet precisely during this archaic period, the sprouts of a new relationship to the representation of reality appeared, which come into full bloom much later, in the 1960s and even the 1990s.

First, in 1935-1936 Vertov wrote several variations of a script, Girls of Two Worlds, which was unusually large for those times. Within this grandiose schema, special attention was accorded to the condition of women under capitalism and within pre-Soviet society. The script began bravely, provocatively:

You have undressed.
because of worry and fatigue,
you have approached the bed.
You have almost fallen onto the pillow.
You have turned off the light.
And immediately
     the room is filled with sounds,
           splashes of the moon
                 and strange birds…

And then, the Turkmen-mother sang her daughter a lullaby, in which she unambiguously alludes to the fact that the girl was molested by an evil old man when she was nine-years old. Vertov was trying to demonstrate how the capitalist world prods women onto the road to prostitution. And this was to be a documentary film!

A few questions arise: how was Vertov planning to film the first shots? How was he planning to translate into Russian the words of the lullaby? How was he going to show the fall of a girl under capitalism? Was he going to use actors? Or was he planning to penetrate deeply with his camera into a Parisian bordello? Naturally, my questions are for the most part rhetorical since Vertov’s concept was not (and could not have been) filmed after all; on its ruins, Vertov shot Lullaby (Kolybel'naia, 1937). [3] Even today, however, such an attempt to go beyond the bounds of the forbidden seems striking, especially since it was only in the 1990s that the television serial Shocking Asia appeared, in which it was shown how a girl from a Manila ghetto becomes a prostitute.

Second, the Civil War began in Spain in 1936. The Soviet government sent two cameramen to the frontlines: Boris Makaseev and Roman Karmen. It is not worth speculating about the other, delicate assignments they were given apart from glorifying the heroic struggle of the Spanish people, but some things in their actual work deserve very careful attention. First of all, the footage they shot is strikingly different from the footage shot by Spanish cameramen. The Spaniards shot naively and straightforwardly, almost like amateurs, like their predecessors would have done thirty years earlier. By comparison, Karmen and Makaseev frequently shot with extreme refinement and great detail, making full use of the accomplishments of great Soviet filmmaking.

Take, for example, the episode about the bombing of Madrid. The first shots of Cibeles Square in the center of the city are given in detail: the paws and mugs of the marble lion sculptures. Then the voice-over refers to the raid by the fascist air force: bombers in the air, bombs fall on the square, people flee. Once again there are details: corpses, noses shot off of the lions, shrapnel pierced paws… And then, “in response to the atrocities of the fascist air force” (I do not remember whether this is an intertitle or part of the voice-over, so I am quoting from memory), the turrets pivot and “the revolutionary battleship” fires a salvo. Such refinement is even more remarkable because both cameramen demonstrated it during the time of the actual filming. But even more discouraging is the footage itself, [4] where there is the following shot: a dead girl gripping a doll with her lifeless fingers. There are approximately ten takes of this shot, all filmed in medium shot. Just imagine the cameraman-bastard who for something like half an hour circles around the dead girl in order to shoot her better (?!!!)…

From older documentary filmmakers and from the Spanish woman-interpreter who was there during the war, I know that only Roman Karmen filmed the corpses. And I am finally beginning to understand what his goal was. Certainly he wanted to shock viewers with the sensationalism, to “show” the face of fascism. But Karmen was, first and foremost, the first genius of self-publicity in Soviet cinema, never missing an opportunity to point out that only he was able to shoot this or that. He very carefully used the entire trip to Spain to attain the reputation of being Reporter № 1. And having attained it, he acquired the possibility of stepping over the boundaries of the permissible much more frequently than any other Soviet cameraman. Even now, the story circulates amongst documentary filmmakers about how, during the Great Patriotic War, Karmen entered Volokolamsk, which had just been freed of fascists. The first thing the Soviet soldiers did was to remove the bodies from the scaffolds of those who had been hanged. Seeing this “disgraceful conduct,” Karmen allegedly ordered that all of the bodies be re-hanged so that they could be filmed. [5]

Later, after the war, Karmen became the monopolistic possessor of unprecedented administrative resources, allowing him to organize pompous spectacles (The Tale of Caspian Oil Workers, 1953), to herd for several days—just to get a few good shots—thousands of French prisoners of war (Vietnam, 1954), but most importantly, to travel to all of the hot spots of the world in order to film what other Soviet documentary filmmakers could neither see nor shoot. [6] In this respect, Karmen more closely resembles Leni Riefenshtal than the unfortunate Vertov, who was accused from all sides during the first years of perestroika of being an “accomplice of the regime” and the embodiment of a totalitarian filmmaker. And these same perestroika “debunkers” appear no less perspicacious than Soviet propaganda, which constantly stigmatized double-dealing Western reporters without noticing that one of them was working and broadcasting literally right next to them—in view of everyone!

At first glance it would appear that Vertov and Karmen are exceptions that confirm the general rule. In fact, the script of one director and the Spanish experiences of the other demarcate the three most significant tendencies in documentary filmmaking: 1) the impulse to go beyond taboos and entrenched stereotypes; 2) the partial transition to the territory of feature film; 3) the aestheticizing of the tragic, which does not lend itself (or practically does not lend itself) to human understanding. But, if Vertov was pathologically disinterested (see, for example, his diary entry from 1937: “I don’t work for money. It is important to understand this.”) and sought self-fulfillment in the name of a beautiful idea, then Karmen was, first and foremost, a pragmatic-opportunist and much more of a western-style producer than a capable film director. Only one thing linked these two men of such disparate talents: both Vertov and Karmen wanted to film and screen spectacles that made an impact on a large scale and that had never before been seen.

Third, the enormous airplane Maksim Gor'kii, the pride of Soviet aviation, crashed on 18 May 1935. The cameramen V. Pullin and V. Riazhskii were declared to be the cause of the catastrophe: allegedly, the pilot of the escorting plane obeyed the requests of the cameramen and carried out a forbidden maneuver, which led to the tragedy. Subsequently, it seems, the pilots were declared to be the guilty parties inasmuch as Pullin, who survived the crash, continued to work in cinema until his death. The Soviet press wrote quite a lot about this notorious and in many ways symbolic catastrophe; an entire film was made about the incident. But—attention, please!—footage of the actual crash (shot, naturally, completely by coincidence) was not included in this short film and for many years remained locked away in a special archive. More than that: for many decades later it was not only forbidden to film catastrophes on Soviet soil, but even to write or speak about them.

Finally, and fourth, during those same “Bermuda years,” the aesthetics of television broadcasting began to take shape within the film industry (at least within the Soviet film industry). The defining features of this new aesthetics became (a) an inclination towards small-form pronouncements, (b) dynamism, (c) targeting consumers rather than viewers (including those invested with power).[7] I assume that western documentary filmmakers found themselves in the same situation. Of course, foreign cameramen—unlike their Soviet counterparts—were free to film and show corpses, accidents, and catastrophes, but even the sharpest reporters were restrained by the cumbersome technology and… Christian morality.

The limits of the permissible in documentary filmmaking (both in the Soviet Union and abroad) were expanded only by the Second World War. This occurred in two stages.

Hundreds of Soviet cameraman not only shot chronicles of great battles and disasters, but they actually engaged in combat, risking being killed at any moment. Dry statistics prove that one out of every four frontline cameramen was killed… And because of this, the film chroniclers filmed screaming and wounded people, filmed burning corpses—they filmed to document boundless grief and cruelties that had never before been witnessed in history. At the same time, there remained an invisible boundary—established by swoons, disgust, horror, moral principles, censorship and self-censorship—that they did not permit themselves to cross (adaptations and re-creations are a separate subject and I am not concerned with them here). As a result, people were able to see the grief of others and as they watched the screen, they sympathized, crying and making fists in righteous anger.

But things were like this only during the war and for a brief time afterwards. After a few decades, the footage shot by frontline cameramen became habitualized; it no longer elicited such strong and “righteous” feelings. So then the photographs and film footage taken by the fascists in the concentration camps were taken out of storage. This shock therapy also quickly became commonplace, but it also gradually sent out its poisonous roots. Simultaneously with this (or as a consequence of that shock therapy), Gualtiero Jacopetti appeared in the West, one of the founders of so-called “shockumentary” cinema. His full-length films (many scholars are still reluctant to refer to them as documentary films), stuffed with shocking details, corpses, and murders, had unprecedented success.

By the time Jacopetti, denounced with equal force by progressive and reactionary societies, disappeared without a trace somewhere in the jungles of Indochina in the mid-1970s, few western documentary filmmakers entertained any doubts: if one person can do this, then so can another, and death on-screen is just another commodity, a highly profitable one. In addition, at this same time television broadcasting had arrived with full force, capable of efficiently dishing up commodities like the coverage of the 1972 Munich Olympics. Television viewers-consumers could see the house seized by the terrorists, in which the Israeli sportsmen were billeted, could hear the gunshots, and could see the indifferent vacationers who were stretched out on their chaises-lounges just a couple dozen yards away… What’s to be said? The reporters were no more immoral than the people lying on the chaises-lounges or the people watching the television broadcast. But even if their broadcasts had been filled with moralistic maxims on the theme of “How could they?!” their recourse of these maxims would have been completely transparent. If the eye-witnesses—who found themselves in the middle of that hell—could so easily turn away from the “regrettable hindrance” to their own vacations, what is there to be said about the viewers-consumers? I would call this event the “Second Munich Conspiracy” (I apologize for the cheap pun), at which everyone—I repeat, everyone—pretended that nothing had happened: the Olympics were not halted, television broadcasters achieved unprecedented ratings, and consumers were treated to a unique “commodity”… In this way (or, almost in this way) the tragedy became an object of commodity-money relations.

Fortunately, Soviet documentary filmmakers were still to be fettered for a long time by the Soviet system, but after perestroika they quickly made up for their “loss.” Now they habitually shoot and screen almost everything—how people go to the toilet, how they make love, and how they kill each other. As a consequence, the moral aspect of the work of documentary filmmakers is discussed today in virtually half of the conversations about documentary filmmaking. But, perhaps, not only for this reason.

New Times

The license taken by today’s documentary filmmakers is evident in practically everything they do, not just in the most odious films, but also in those quiet, small-scale films, and in the art-house opuses, and in the publicistic works, and even in the television broadcasts that masquerade as films. So in order to evaluate just how deeply this license has penetrated into documentary filmmaking, it is best to work with examples of films that are seemingly not garish (or do not aspire to generate a global scandal). In order to prove my point, I shall examine four recent films made by well-known directors and one film made by a documentary filmmaker who has achieved success at festivals. I shall simply analyze them as films—whether successful or not. And then I shall attempt to reveal in them the presence of what motivated me to write this article.

In the Dark (dir. Sergei Dvortsevoi, 2004, 35mm). Any time a director (especially a famous one) appears in the frames of his own film, there is sincere interest on the part of film scholars (and not just them). Probably this is the reason that Dvortsevoi’s first appearance on screen created a real sensation and led to the view that In the Dark marked a new stage in the creative work of this famous documentary filmmaker. I shall not conceal the fact, however, that I was immediately suspicious of this apologia for a standard device used by directors, and the film confirmed my doubts. In my view, critics were unable to explain the reasons behind the director’s appearance on screen and, as a consequence, entirely failed to understand the film. Let me defend my point of view.

The main character in the film is nominally the pensioner Ivan Nikolaevich Skorobogatov, a blind and lonely man whose life consists of weaving string-bags (avos'ki), which he then spends a long time giving away to anyone he meets on the streets. He gives them away. For free. And all the while, his restless white cat—though she assuages his loneliness—constantly impedes the old man’s work: she scatters his papers, tangles the balls of string… Days, weeks, and months pass. And Ivan Nikolaevich keeps weaving and weaving his antediluvian string-bags, not counting on any gratitude or even any help from anyone. And when no one wants to accept his string-bags, he weeps bitterly, both in the presence of the filmmakers and—more remarkably—when alone. By the end of the film, the abyss of his loneliness becomes so palpable, so head-spinningly clear that even the cat begins to sob—just like a human being—in sympathy for the old man. Such a plot would be sufficient for a high-quality but trivial morality tale about an unfortunate hero and healthy scoundrels-viewers. Yet the director’s plans stretch much wider, and they become clear only and exclusively because of his presence on screen.

Dvortsevoi appears on screen only once: he literally bursts into the frame in order to help Ivan Nikolaevich gather the papers scattered by the cat. This natural impulse is accompanied by an irritable squabble between the director and cameraman, and by the old man’s confused exclamations. Seemingly, this is how things should have been: Ivan Nikolaevich needs to be helped no matter what. And he receives that help (on screen) only once; otherwise the appearances of the director would have become importunate. Subsequently on screen there are only occasional flashes of Dvortsevoi’s shoes or his shadow, and on the soundtrack we can occasionally hear his voice instructing the hero that it is time to begin speaking. Is this not a somewhat atypical way for a director to exist in the frame?

Actually, that is true only at first glance. In fact, however, the director’s behavior is fully thought out, almost a conceptual device, especially when one takes into account the accusations Dvortsevoi had to endure after the release of his film Day of Bread (1998). Back then, almost every other critic (and documentary filmmaker) was disturbed that the director had filmed—instead of helped—a group of elderly women pensioners pushing a railroad car filled with bread along tracks that had frozen over. In answering these criticisms, Dvortsevoi at times would shout out that he had helped them, darn it, he had helped them, but how is that relevant and why show it on screen? Although six years have passed, the director’s resentment about the unjust accusations seems not to have lessened. So he made a response-film, a slap-in-the-face film to his abusive critics. Here, look, I’m helping my hero. More than that! I give him instructions (that is, I manipulate him) out in the open. And even more than that, I honestly—unlike my colleagues—apologize for my “immoral” profession in the closing credits (“Special thanks to the hero of the film, Ivan Nikolaevich Skorobogatov”). I hide absolutely no-oo-othing from you!

The polemical touchstone—the sore-spot—around which the film was made is most evident in the episode when Ivan Nikolaevich is crying. The camera focuses on him for a long time in a medium shot, then “looks out” onto the street, as if calling for sympathy from the World. In vain. The windows-eyes of the neighboring house are empty and indifferent. So this episode, potentially filled with tragedy, is instantly reduced to a crass and immodest symbol because at this precise moment the film ceases to be the tale of an old man’s loneliness and becomes a hysterical complaint by a misunderstood artist directed to the surrounding world. It becomes clear that this lonely old man, wishing to bring goodness to people is the alter ego of the director himself. Just as Ivan Nikolaevich gives people his string-bag presents, so Dvortsevoi, wishing only to bring goodness to the world, makes a present of his films to the viewer. But he (they) are misunderstood, not valued, abused with indifference: your string-bags (films) are out of fashion, you should undertake something more modern, more marketable... Yet he (they) doesn’t (don’t) know how to do anything else!... Please, People, try to understand and love me (us) as I (we) am (are)!

Sergei Dvortsevoi is without a doubt a talented director, with a good eye, who knows how to wait and how to “attract” interesting shots. But he is overly rational. I am almost convinced that in his latest film he is undermined not only but his growing fascination with symbols, but—no matter how paradoxical this sounds—by his inability to control his own emotions. Unfortunately, such a result is depressingly inevitable. In the Dark, after all, did not originate solely from the polemics surrounding Day of Bread, but also from the most unsuccessful episode in Routes (1999-2000), the main characters of which are a father and his two adolescent sons, wandering circus performers. Approximately in the middle of the film, the director shows in great detail how they eat, how the father carefully rinses out the metal plate with tea and allows first one son and then the other to finish the remains of the meal. The scene is extremely touching (in its conception), but it is totally ruined by the tactless—I would even say, aggressive—foreshortening: the cameraman is literally looming over the characters, no further than a yard and a half away. Even worse is the following episode with an eagle that the circus performers find along the way. They try to feed it canned meat, but the proud bird refuses it. And suddenly two puppies throw themselves at this delicacy: they growl, whine, snap (all these sounds are unpleasantly forced), shove each other, and, naturally, quickly empty the contents of the can. These two unsuccessful episodes comprise an indecent symbol, which prefigures the poetics of In the Dark.

Heaven (dir. Vladimir Moss, 2004, video):

One rosy morning, when everyone was still asleep, a young director drove onto Sbornaia Square, got out of his car, laid down on his stomach in the roadway, and, holding his camera, carefully, as if fearful of scaring one of the birds, began to crawl towards a large, outdoor cigarette urn (urna dlia okurkov). He placed his camera at the base of the urn and shot it so that it would appear on screen as a giant guard tower. After this, Extreme-Views (Krainikh-Vzgliadov) knocked on the door of an apartment and, having awakened the residents who were scared half to death, he made his way to a balcony on the second floor. From there he once again shot the same urn, correctly assuming that on film it would take the form of a forty-two centimeter canon. Then, after resting a bit, Extreme-Views got back into his car and began to shoot the urn as he was moving. He impetuously drove straight towards it, caught it unawares, and kept turning the handle of the camera, which was inclined at a forty five degree angle.

<…> After filming a discarded cigarette butt head-on, which made it appear like a ship’s smokestack, expelling smoke and flames, Extreme-Views turned his attention to living nature. He once again laid down on the sidewalk, but this time onto his back, and commanded Drevlianin to march back-and-forth over him. This enabled him to take some beautiful shots of the soles of Drevlianin’s shoes. He made every nail in the sole resemble the bottom of a bottle. Subsequently, this footage, which was part of the film The Unbiased Lens, was referred to as “The Tread of Millions.”

—Il'ia Il'f and Evgenii Petrov, Sobranie sochinenii, vol. 2 (Moscow: GIKhL, 1961): 540-541

Eighty years after it was written, this malicious caricature of Dziga Vertov can be seen as a fully adequate portrait of this contemporary art-house director, especially if one considers that once upon a time Vladimir Moseikin became Vladimir Moss, just as David Kaufman was transformed into Dziga Vertov. On the cover of the commercially released video-cassette (as if inscribed on a sacred tablet) appear the words: “Cut off from the world by the walls of a natural temple, everyone here is happy—all together and each on his own—in the only possible heaven on earth” (the director’s commentary) and “Each person is a temple / In each of us is God” (a quotation from Joseph Brodsky). And the film itself—with its oversaturated colors, refined compositional exercises, wide-angle, and hyper-realistic soundtrack—also somewhat resembles a sacred tablet. What is not clear, however, is: what is the relevance of these lunatics, living in some god-forsaken, out-of-the-way place?

Here they are—sitting on a porch. Here they are—doing something or hauling something, occasionally exchanging some phrases that are more or less meaningful. Here’s one of them fishing (the episode is edited together from several takes). Here’s another one of them relieving himself in a wooden outhouse (shot from below with a wide-angle lens; the sound technician records the sound of every drop). Here they are—washing themselves in a communal bath. Here they are—watching television, mockingly cackling at some guy in a commercial who is lying on some banana island and blissfully proclaiming “I think I know what happiness is.” Here they are—playing with shadows from the sunlight. And here they are—in the final apotheosis—floating on a raft in the clouds of a dye-bath (computer-generated special effects).

The images in Heaven recall in part Vitalii Manskii’s Grace (1996), Claude Nuridsany’s and Marie Pérrenou’s Microcosmos (1996), Aleksei German’s Khrustalev, My Car! (1998), the impassive refinement of Peter Greenaway’s films, and even seem to be a full-color response to the black-and-white films of Sergei Loznitsa… In a word, an art-house film, which in itself is not bad. But… the director’s relationship to nature inexorably forces its way through the visual-sound exercises. I would not be in the least surprised to learn that he moved around the unfortunate residents of heaven as if they were pieces of furniture just to achieve an effective composition. I’m even willing to bet that he personally installed the green lamp on the premises (which, by the way, is also glimpsed somewhere in an early Wim Wenders film). In representing “his” characters as if they were animals, the director naturally shocks the viewing public to a certain extent, but his manneristic refinements very quickly become boring. Nature takes its revenge, pushing his pseudo-art into a pseudo-hell; one does not get to know the soul by painting carcasses.

For some reason, it is especially directors lacking faith in their own abilities who like to film physically (or psychologically) disabled people, while at the same time demonstratively pretending to be garishly original, “other.” Does this not happen because they consider an “ordinary,” “plain” person to be a totally glum object and assume that someone’s imperfections (as a ready-made “attraction”) will compensate for their own inability to communicate, to engage in a conversation of equals? Does this not happen because in their assiduous pursuit of superficial effects these directors totally lose their connection to reality, including to the realities of art itself?

But even Vertov… Vertov himself… he too filmed inside an asylum!

Yes, he did. But not with a rosy dawn. And the mad-woman in his Kino-Eye (1924) screamed with more than a little thought behind it: “I demand that you stop the pogroms!”

Miracles and Secrets (dir. Olesia Fokina, 2004, video). Probably every critic has seen numerous films about people with an “interesting” (a variant: “difficult”) destiny. Usually the directors of these films are eager to describe what they were unable to shoot and to explain how a flesh-and-blood person is much more interesting than his double on screen. After these types of explanations, a reasonable question invariably arises: what was the director’s intention? In order to speak so eloquently at press conferences? Or in order to ensure that his output remains uninterrupted? Or in order for something else, which can’t be described without expletives? I suspect that the overwhelming majority of directors of such films would not be able to answer this naïve question for the simple reason that there was no intention whatsoever. And the absence of this intention inevitably leads to the choice of the most wretched (frequently even inadequate) expressive means, paralleling the indeterminate directorial position. And here, everything is up for grabs: if the character says something interesting, there will be at least one effective fragment in the film; if he doesn’t, quantity will remain, not wanting to turn into quality.

There is more than enough quantity in Miracles and Secrets—52 minutes worth. In this time, the director manages to relate that 16-year old Il'ia Popenov, suffering from a cerebral stroke, receives a first prize in a literary competition for a story he has been writing since he was 6. On top of that, Il'ia is doomed and is aware of it: “My mission cannot be fulfilled… This question should not be addressed to me but to God.” Does the director have the right to intervene for such a long period of time (I am referring to actual time of filming) into Il'ia’s intolerable life for the sake of such “revelations”? And if she does, then why and to what extent?

The real problem is that the director, Olesia Fokina, never pauses to think about this. Otherwise she would not have been able, almost playfully, to create from an adolescent’s tragedy something that is even more unsanitary than present-day television broadcasts in Russia. This hour-long film succeeds in squeezing out the pity, with which once upon a time cripples traveling on the Moscow metro would mournfully intone: “Go-oo-d p-ee-ople, he-e-e-lp with a pe-e-nnny, asmuchasyoucan!”—without punctuation marks, without spaces between the words at the end of their appeal, and—just before they would move from one car to the next—with the inevitable exclamation mark. Already in the introductory credits, the viewer learns that the film is based on motifs of Il'ia’s story, “Miracles and Secrets” (parts of which are then read “expressively” in the voice-over). The viewer is shown Il'ia in every possible situation: at his computer, strolling, at home with his mother, on his homestead, etc. There is a constant refrain in the film of shots of seagulls flying and extreme close-ups of Il'ia’s eyes. And so that the healthy verminous-viewer becomes fully conscious of his guilt and the heartlessness of the Russian government, saccharine-sweet music pours out endlessly on the soundtrack.

Not content with what she has achieved, the director fearlessly steps over the divide between good and evil. In one episode, Il'ia is shot together with his mother, Elena Sergeevna, and the director asks her off-screen: “Does he always smile?” The mother sighs and answers: “Everything is possible.” The director immediately clarifies: “Does he cry?” It is as if she is talking about a pet! Things just get worse. Il'ia sits in his wheelchair on the Popenov’s plot of land, trying to pull out a carrot. The director inquires (again off-screen): “What is the youngest that you can remember yourself?” Il'ia: “Four. Approximately.” The director continues sadistically: “What do you remember? Mama? Papa? Grandma? Toys?” But in the preceding episode Elena Sergeevna in tears explained how her husband had abandoned the family five years ago! Was it really impossible to switch the order of these scenes or simply to cut out this disgraceful episode? Evidently not, since the director simply does not understand this and is so confident in the infallibility of her personal “mission” that she continues the torture: “Il'iusha, does the soul of a person die after death?” Even Il'ia’s neighbor—who lisps in a sickly sweet way to Il'ia, clearly playing to the camera—turns pale in the face of such a cannibalistic “spirituality.”

Unfortunately, Miracles and Secrets is a type of festival mainstream film that spreads like an infection. Pretending to engage in a unique “intervention” (and, at the same time, in a missionary act), Fokina is actually engaged in self-promotion on the basis of another person’s pain. What a pity that films like this are not punished with a life-long disqualification from filmmaking.

Maundy Thursday (dir. Aleksandr Rastorguev, 2003, 35mm). There is nothing to argue about: the film is a failure. Yet, its best episode―soldiers washing themselves in some forsaken train bath-car―is worth several successes. There are few places where people are as defenseless as in a bath or in a dentist’s chair. As if keeping this in mind, the camera slowly―I would even say, delicately―wanders across the bodies and faces of real, young people, who have names, surnames, and biographies. The viewer wants to turn away―not from shame, but from pity for these as yet undeveloped draftees. They wash themselves carefully and for a long time, almost to their underskins, scraping off the dirt they had picked up in Chechnya. It seems as if they are willing to spend their entire term of service in this bathhouse purgatory. Soapy foam bubbles on the floor, heavy steam rises lazily, you can hear hushed whispers… And you begin to feel like a participant of a very intimate sacred purification ceremony. Precisely at this moment the camera arrests its “gaze”: one soldier is shaving another. Then another freeze-frame: a third soldier washes his privates with a special gentleness. And you suddenly feel a piercing pain at this moment. They should be giving birth to children, not sacrificing their lives to an insatiable―like Moloch―government. The metaphor of “cannon fodder,” which comes to mind during this episode, suddenly loses its allegorical function and becomes a concrete, visible, and almost palpable image that is impossible to forget.

Peaceful Life (dir. Antuan Kattin and Pavel Kostomarov, 2004, video). Not aspiring to any artistry in particular, this film shows in a condensed and merciless way what war is all about without showing any combat footage on screen. …An eternal Russian village, completely unchanged since the times of Nikolai Gogol'. A rundown cowshed, in which emaciated cows wander up to their udders in manure. Here, in this Nizhegorodskoi outback, Sultan and his son, Apti, try to save themselves from the Chechen war. Sultan’s wife has been killed, their house destroyed. So the old man decides to travel to the place where he once earned money doing seasonal work. Of course, he and his son will work day and night; of course, they will clean out the cowshed. But they will not find anything resembling good fortune or even simple human peace. Unable to endure the antagonistic attitude of the residents of the village (especially the swinish Tolik), the unending decrepitude and alcoholism, Sultan returns to Chechnya, while Apti remains: where can he run without a past, a present, or a future? In this timelessness, he dreams of death―the only thing that can bring him his desired emancipation. He does not merely dream of it; he literally seeks it out—even attempts suicide.

The visible world in this film—its characters, the cowshed, the filth, the dilapidated discotheque, the moonshine—literally wails about stolen, broken lives. The film is suffocating in its despair and total neglect, in the impossibility of living in this and after this. The film’s major image-symbol is Sultan and Apti cleaning out the befouled cowshed. The earth and the manure rustle, the Soviet-era shovel thuds when it hits the floor, and the cowshed appears boundless, like some hellish punishment or like a black hole. Time in this ignoble existence seems to have stopped and every swing of the shovel consumes strength, health, and life itself.

It is distressing and intolerable to watch all of this; it is sickening to watch how drunken Tolik picks a fight with Apti; and when Apti, also drunk, attempts to commit suicide, it is genuinely horrifying. Yet not once did I have any doubts about why and how all of this is filmed. Everything is crystal clear: if Maundy Thursday is about how bad things are for Russians in Chechnya, then Peaceful Life is about how bad things are for Chechens in Russia. The conclusion is elementary: Russians should live in Russia and Chechens in Chechnya.

Whither Are We Going?

And so, these are five very different films with five different approaches to representing life. If everything is “added and divided,” it is possible to find some common traits:

No doubt these “common traits” may appear in some ways to be accidental and schematic, especially since other films by these same directors can be understood in a completely different way. And yet, it is well known that there are more similarities amongst contemporaries than there are differences. So having put my faith in the obvious, let me now turn to the details.

First: auteur filmmakers violate taboos much more frequently than mainstream filmmakers. And, especially in the last few years, they less frequently ask themselves why they are doing it. But in order adequately to convey the sufferings of another—of a documentary being—it is insufficient merely to play with motion, lighting, camera angles, and editing. It is essential for the filmmaker during the actual shooting of the film to demonstrate that he has the right to film his character; that he lives and suffers together with him; that he understands him as a human being. Otherwise there is no point in picking up the camera; no brazen artwork and no spilled tears are worth ruining film stock.

Second: the issue of using devices of “stage production” in documentary filmmaking appears to be purely scholastic. What is there to speak about considering that dramatization arose at the very beginning of filmmaking and even such an ardent opponent of feature films as Dziga Vertov did not abhor it. At the same time, today’s documentary filmmakers make standard use of the devices of feature films, either out of laziness or because they are unable to find a straightforward documentary resolution to an episode or out of a desire to produce a “spectacle.” Or even, perhaps, in order to shoot a necessary episode as quickly as possible. What does this lead to? For the most part to a decision to amputate an arm that could be healed in, say, half a year.

Third (which springs from the internal connection of the first two): nothing good can come out of an indifference to the outside world, to a person. This indifference is always evident and any attempt to justify it by claimed some special goal is simply a lie. I shall not repeat what it is that I disliked in In the Dark, Heaven, and Miracles and Secrets. I shall merely add right now that the most glaring embodiment of this indifference is Il'ia Khrzhanovskii’s 2005 hybrid film—half-feature film and half-documentary—4.[8]

Fourth: More and more frequently I ask myself: what is a film? The term has become so blurred that it is often used to described television broadcasts or the increasing number of television shows and reports. It does not matter whether this is the result of a lack of discrimination, of intellectual fatigue, of the attempt to pass off the desired for the real, or a naïve aspiration to be seen as a documentary filmmaker rather than a television broadcaster. What differentiates a film from a “non-film”? In my view, any “non-film,” regardless of how conscientiously it is made, fulfills only one function: it provides information. That is, it is purely a product of the mass media and is never a highly organized representation of the world. Occasionally an elementary attempt to make sense of some social problem and/or specific publicistic notes or conclusions are added to the informational function. But there is nothing in any “non-film” that cannot be conveyed via a standard television newscast, newspaper article, or on the internet.

In the final instance, the problem of “films” and “non-films” is linked to the fact that right now two different approaches to filmmaking exist (still exist!): the first is tied to cinema, the other to video. It is probably unnecessary to convince anyone that cinema as we have known it is living its last days. This has nothing to do with film stock; cinema is ceasing to exist foremost as an art form, as a means of expression, as a language. Three years ago, after watching most of the Russian documentary films made in 2002, I called attention to the fact that even the best films shot on celluloid ceded primacy to the best films shot on video. The films shot on celluloid appeared sluggish and uninteresting, while those shot on video grabbed the viewer from the opening minutes, and some of these films—like Rastorguev’s Mommies (2002)—were as good as popular feature films in their spectacle. Back then, I thought this was very important, but now I consider that the films of that year marked a kind of Rubicon, a breaking point. Today’s documentary video films far surpass those on celluloid. It appears that this is a natural process. There is no need to hang onto good old celluloid as if it is some kind of panacea. Sure, it lasts longer. Sure, it is aesthetically more appealing. Sure, projecting celluloid and projecting video are two entirely different things. Yet the very structures of thinking amongst contemporary filmmakers is inevitably changing, adjusting itself to a new aesthetics and new tendencies, even if the filmmakers themselves do not take stock of these changes.

Sergei Dvortsevoi’s In the Dark provides a very telling example. He worked with celluloid and evidently shot quite a bit of material. At the same time, he used a hand-held camera and filmed in very long shots (as always), and as a result was not able to wait long enough for the shots that he really needed. While everything seems to be in order—there are wonderful confessional shots, juicy sketches caught “on the fly”—there is also a constant feeling of “insufficiency,” a lack of expressivity in the physical world. Several of the shots were simply “swallowed up” by the restless camera, others were simply not filmed. Even the virtuoso soundtrack cannot save the film: within the touchingly flat frames of the film, it is just as distilled and staged as the room of the main, blind character, in which in the middle of the day (!) the table lamp and the overhead light are turned on. The director’s attempts to aestheticize and to fill “living life” with symbols, castrates and sterilizes it. And when, for example, the torn sock or the unwashed windows disappear, the director is at risk of being left with nothing but the bare mechanics of his brain. This puts him in a dilemma: either to shoot a feature film or… to make way for the “gritty,” “disheveled” aesthetics of video, which preserves the breath of reality.

The difficulties of surmounting cinema aesthetics can be felt in Maundy Thursday. Aleksandr Rastorguev’s total self-confidence, so clearly visible in The Mountain (2000) and Mommies, comes straight from the video-camera. Celluloid did not allow him to preserve in Maundy Thursday that “length of breath,” that visual power, so noticeable in his best video films. Maundy Thursday is choppy, uneven, at times even crude (except for the episode described above).

Pavel Kostomarov, who until recently shot Sergei Loznitsa’s glossy films, works much more forcefully with a video-camera. In many respects, Kostomarov’s aesthetics (and ethics!) resemble Rastorguev’s: “I would call our films ‘trench-films.’ We have to get up close to events and to people, so that the dirt and spittle splatter on the lens. Aleksandr Rastorguev works in the same way. I very much like his truthful, intimate films—Mommies and Maundy Thursday. I hope that it is possible to see the pores of life in our films, to smell its odors.” [9]

These three directors represent two types of present-day documentary filmmaking. Sergei Dvortsevoi could achieve his artistic goals much better with the use of video, but he stubbornly clings to celluloid. Aleksandr Rastorguev and Pavel Kostomarov have surmounted the aesthetics of cinema and have bravely marched forth into the new aesthetics of video. They not only have marched forth; they have also remained independent artistic filmmakers. (Let me remark parenthetically that perhaps only Iurii Shiller and Valerii Solomin belong to the third type of documentary filmmaker: those who understand film language and shoot artistic celluloid documentaries—that is, “in the old way.” Naturally, the fourth type consists of those who shoot “like everyone else”: without thought, without understanding either film language or the language of video—for example, television cameramen in particular).

So what is “the language of video”? Does such a language really exist? And what are the specifics of video itself? In order to come to an understanding, I have to make another historical digression.

It is not difficult to notice that in their development, photography and cinema have repeatedly passed through the same stages. Once photo-sensitive plates were replaced by rolls of film, photographers were able to shoot the same subject more quickly and with greater variability. At the same time, however, the quality of the photographs became worse and the ability of each photograph to generalize about the world was weakened. In addition, prints from photo-sensitive plates were seen (and continue to be seen) as something infinitely more aesthetic than prints from rolls of film.

Approximately the same thing has happened in the transition from celluloid to video. By comparison with a video-film (or especially a television broadcast), a film shot on celluloid is considered a purer product, aesthetically executed. The high cost of shooting in celluloid and the impossibility of shooting anything for more than ten minutes in one take forced filmmakers to approach with much more care those moments that they intended to record. In this sense, video “corrupts”: you can shoot for an entire hour and the cost is infinitely cheaper.

As in the case of photo-sensitive plates versus rolls of film, so in the case of celluloid versus video, the technological and aesthetic aspects should not obscure another factor that is no less (perhaps even more) important. Artists who work with (or worked with) photo-sensitive plates or celluloid seek out and try to record images that contain a high degree of generalization about the world, while artists who work with rolls of film or with video are no longer engaged in generalizing about reality, but in generalizing about the material that is shot. This is the fundamental difference between the poetics, aesthetics, and language of celluloid and video.

It follow that the filmmaker (I use this term because of the absence of a new, more suitable one) shooting a video-film will inevitably move away from the general to the particular. And, as in all forms of art, only the most talented will be able to present the particular as the general. On top of that, the technological parameters of video (the absence of scope in the image, the low and crude quality of color, in part the impossibility of capturing the depth of blackness) will begin strictly to restrict the aesthetic characteristics of the world on screen: cold, dirt, comfortlessness, imperfection, unsettledness, loneliness, and boredom.

And that is how the world appears in the two best Russian video-films of the last few years, in Mommies and Peaceful Life. I don’t know whether this is good or bad, or what the future holds, but it is indisputable that the process of filmmaking is moving in this direction.

Fifth: All five films are aimed at a specific audience. This, too, is a feature of the new times. In the Dark and Heaven are indisputably festival films, occupying the art-house niche. Miracles and Secrets is also a festival product, but of a completely different order (see above). Peaceful Life and Maundy Thursday are aimed at the widest (comparatively) audience: at the aesthete and the ordinary citizen. They will also pass well at festivals and will draw an even larger audience on television. But it is unlikely that they will be screened on Russian television in the foreseeable future… This is how good directors differ from bad ones: they never complain that they have been denied access to the airwaves.


Good directors… Documentary filmmaking… Film language… The aesthetics of video… Perhaps all of these are simply phantoms? Perhaps only Hollywood and television are real? Yes and no.

Documentary films (or, more precisely, non-feature films) naturally still exist. Yet the “powerful influence” of Hollywood and television―the impact that they have on viewers―is infinitely greater. In trying to compete with them for an audience, documentary films inevitably cross over into their domain, expend their own sovereignty, and turn their face to the consumer. Hollywood and television have an impact on viewers through documentary films as well. Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) and Andrei Nekrasov’s Disbelief (2004) provide ample evidence for this point. Both films concern the most heinous acts of terrorism in the new century. Both have been made by directors with (minimally successful) experience working in feature films. Both strive to assert global parallels. And both are internally flawed, if not deceitful.

Moore creates a spectacle. He takes the bull by the horns in the very prologue of the film, which he edits at such a pace that doubts creep in: maybe all of these presidents, senators, judges, and less prominent characters are simply actors and not the genuine article? Even the “framework” of the film—politicians having make-up applied before going “on stage”—is taken from Stephen Frears’ feature film Dangerous Liaisons (1988). The viewer is suspended in these doubts for almost an hour, until the episode with the American troops being shipped to Iraq and the “bad cowboy” Bush puts everything in its place. Obviously these are actors! Moore depicts the beginning of the “peace-keeping mission” as a Western. He thinks he is being sarcastic, but in fact he is simply sick. The sterile atmosphere of feature filmmakers has replaced for him (and, I fear, for many of his compatriots) the real world, which is not unambiguous. This is reinforced by the scene with the “improper” policeman who, in Moore’s opinion, should have acted not as he did as a detective in some (it doesn’t matter which) feature film.

Moore yells; Moore religiously repeats one and the same thing; Moore marches to the White House; Moore says to a woman who has lost her son in Iraq: “America is a great country” (and the woman agrees). But Moore also shows a soldier who has returned from Iraq and is disillusioned with the war, saying with a sense of his own dignity that Republicans are bad and so he will vote for the Democrats in the next election. Dear Lord! The entire political system has to be changed, but the film conceptualizes the problem only in consumerist categories of “inclusion” and “exclusion.” Moore is just like that soldier—he had no success with his Pinocchio (his feature films), so he seeks success with an egg beater (his scandalous exposé). Is it really possible to take this neurotic fat man seriously? But he is just a mongrel when compared to Andrei Nekrasov.

Nekrasov’s Disbelief is not simply a militant film intended to provoke a scandal; it is a “documentary composition in 12 parts.” The film opens with a woman’s voice-over claiming that she doesn’t want revenge; she only wants the guilty parties to confess. It quickly becomes clear that she is talking about the explosions on Kashirka in 1999 and that the voice belongs to Tat'iana Morozova, a former compatriot and now an American citizen. Then Tat'iana recalls how on 9 September 1999 her sister called and told her about the explosions and that their mother had been killed. Opening her eyes wide from time to time, she recalls this dispassionately and—heaven help us!—insincerely. The parents whose sons were killed in Iraq spoke exactly in the same way in Moore’s film. What I mean to say is that the heroine speaks photogenically; even the lighting is arranged with extreme care. Then her sister Alena speaks. Again, studio lighting; again, expressive insincerity. Disturbing music in the background.

After this aesthetic introduction, the director asks us to believe that Tat'iana decides to go to Russia to find out the truth about the explosions. Naturally, the heroines faithfully visit people, travel to the village of their birth, start up spontaneous conversations on the street, visit innocent Chechens who have suffered, force their way into the Duma, find an honest (no quotation marks!) attorney, Trepashkin. But truth cannot be found in Russia and the director consistently avoids any direct answers (after all, he is not some Moore). He has another goal: he artfully casts doubt on all official explanations of what happened. For example: a graph showing Putin’s popularity ratings is intercut with cannon salvoes, corpses, and weeping Chechens. Another example: events of “El'tsin’s regime” are for the most part illustrated on screen with television clips showing the “old” logo of NTV and later we are told that the government reorganized NTV specifically because of its coverage of the terrorist acts. A final example: at the ceremony for the publication of his book Darkness at Dawn, American journalist David Satter declares that perhaps the apartment buildings on Kashirka were not blown up by Chechens after all. The director immediately cuts to Alena’s face in close-up (up till then she has only been shown in medium shots). And although her face expresses absolutely nothing, there can no longer be any doubts about the director’s competence: he knows about the Kuleshov effect.

So the viewer is subtly and unobtrusively charmed for 52 minutes (there is also a director’s cut version of the film that lasts two hours and has an epilogue). No teeth-gnashing facts, no striking metaphors. What need is there for them? David Satter, the independent journalist, takes the stage and explains everything: a criminal regime, operation “Successor.” [10] And Alena and Tat'iana immediately recognize the truth, just as if they have been listening to comrade Shatov in Fridrikh Ermler’s film A Great Citizen (1937, 1939).

I could list a mass of other examples showing how the director manipulates his characters, how he cheats with his material, how he zombifies the undemanding viewer. But I won’t. It’s disgusting. I shall simply recall one other episode, about which not even admirers of the film write, as far as I know, and about which the director himself has alluded only once—and that in passing. Alena and Tat'iana are standing in a field. Next to them are television cameramen and it seems someone else. Any second the Moscow authorities are about to blow up what remains of the building. Alena speaks directly into the camera (a professionally handled wide-angle shot), saying that one stage of their life has ended and another is about to begin; that her and her sister’s childhood remain “there” (the camera rotates to show the remnants of the house in the distance). Like condemned prisoners, the sisters turn away from the camera. At that moment there is a loud explosion and the house crumbles. The sisters shudder and turn around again, but the cameraman instantly slips between them with a zoom lens, capturing the falling pieces of the building as if they are hanging in the air. He mimics the shaking of the camera (for what possible reason if he is shooting with a steadicam?) and quickly changes the focus to shoot the two weeping sisters, who are photogenically hugging each other, circles them at arm’s distance, and films them for another thirty seconds. At this moment the viewer wants to hit the cameraman and the director on the head with sledge-hammer and then to scream so loudly that their ear-drums rupture: “WHAT IS ALL THIS?!!! WHAT!!! IS!!! ALL!!! THIS!!!”

In one of his interviews Nekrasov asserts that these shots were given to him by one of Svetlana’s friends (she also lost loved ones in the explosion). It would be interesting to know something about these friends, who so masterfully shoot with a steadicam, which, by the way, is as expensive a toy as a professional video-camera. Let’s assume these friends exist (existed) and they really did give her the film. Still, I shall never be able to believe that such an episode, so meticulously shot and inserted almost with a precise time-code, could have been shot by a friend. Nor that a friend would allow this to be shown to everyone. No. Only an arrant knave could have shot this, knowing fully well why he needed it. It would be interesting to know why anyone other than the cameraman was standing next to Tat'iana and Alena. It seems as if the sisters were driven to the location like guinea-pigs. And, finally, these crass shots do not become any less crass just because they have been inserted into a “documentary composition.”

So, honestly, what kind of “objectivity” can Disbelief, this “documentary composition,” pretend to in principle? Perhaps the director simply aspired to become a “martyr of conscience”? He is misguided: his conscience will never trouble him.


As we can see, both Hollywood and television are beating out documentary filmmaking. Together, they pose an even more dangerous threat. But even this dragon has its own St. George―Konstantin L. Ernst, the Main Man on Channel One. Not long ago, he bought the rights and scheduled an evening broadcast of Godfrey Reggio’s documentary trilogy (no need to say that the ratings went through the roof) and then he got seriously involved in broadcasting documentary films. He declared in an interview entitled “There Will be More Documentaries on One”:

One of the main problems we encountered when we started to work seriously with documentary films is a deficit of news footage… The documentary film archives are rather meager and the materials have been gone over ten times.

It is impossible, for example, to find new footage about war. More importantly, the black-and-white film, be-spotted by flies, elicits nothing but irritation from viewers. So we decided to go the way of reconstruction―that is, to recreate events and to stylize them as news footage. At first we were constantly quarreling because our recreations resembled a play in a provincial theater. This broadcast season, however, I have caught myself several times mistaking recreated events for genuine news footage (and I am a very captious viewer with a bad temper). I don’t want to brag, but I am personally satisfied with the results we have achieved in three years. [11]

No one has yet doubted Ernst’s omnipotence. But simply to assert that it is “impossible… to find new footage about war”? How is one to understand this? Either Mister Ernst has personally examined all of the hundreds of meters of film that are stored in the “meager” archive in Krasnogorsk or he is unhappy that the frontline cameramen―those miserable scoundrels―shot so little and in such an “uninteresting” way. And what means did he use to establish that viewers are “irritated” by the film “be-spotted by flies”? And what do we gain when we “recreate events and… stylize them as news footage”? And what does “to recreate events and to stylize them as news footage” mean?

Let me try to figure it out. “To recreate events and to stylize them as news footage” must be when, in the name of truth, an actor made up to look like ambassador Mirbach is killed or when an actor made up to look like Fassbinder passes away from an overdose of cocaine. No other meaning is possible in the Russian language for the combination of words “to recreate events and to stylize them as news footage.” But what if Ernst meant that from now on he would squeeze out with his glossy feature films the very spirit of documentary filmmaking? Yet the interview is called “There Will be More Documentaries on One,” after all. At the same time, feature films can only be “stylized” after something. After what? Can he really mean that very same sacramental footage “be-spotted by flies”?

This seems to be some kind of closed circle. But I feel that in the battle between Good and Evil, a lot of cash will be spent.

For What?

So what is left?
Documentary filmmaking, as the most fragile form of cinema, is dying and being destroyed.
Documentary filmmakers and other cameramen easily cross the boundary between good and evil.
Shooting in the world’s hot spots and in areas of national disasters is well paid.
Some cameramen are convinced that the money they are paid is payment for saving the world.
Viewers have become accustomed to real horrors and deaths.
As if in competition with the professionals, viewers strive to shoot everything unusual.
Regret about not having been able to shoot certain things seems to be an inborn quality in present-day man.
The images already amassed―both stills and moving images―are advancing on us like the toys on the girl Zhenia in Valentin Kataev’s story “Rainbow Flower” (“Tsvetik-semitsvetik”).
The desire to shoot everything and everywhere is utopian and terrifying. It is a direct challenge to the Creator, for only He can see everything and everywhere.
Documentary filmmakers are compiling a chronicle of human events and sins, an alternative Book of Being and Destiny.
This chronicle is being used more and more frequently to carry out guilty verdicts, both historical and of individual fates.
In this sense, portable video (or the newer technologies that will replace it) is becoming an instrument of Judgment Day.
Ethics in documentary filmmaking exists when the filmmaker asks not of another, but first of all and only of himself. A camera, after all, is a mediated means of questioning the self, somewhat akin to looking in a mirror.
What is in the mirror?
Physical reality?
Or shadows of forgotten ancestors?
What is on the documentary screen?
Is it only 24 frames a second?
Or is it “mene, mene, tekel, upharsin”? [12]

In Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997), Leeloo, an alien being, totally complete-in-herself, quickly “swallows” a visual history of humanity and becomes totally confused about the need to save this planet, this cruel civilization. Then, at the last second, she comes to “understand”―naturally, because of her love for Bruce Willis.

As for me, I don’t understand and don’t want to understand.

Translated by Vladimir Padunov

Aleksandr Deriabin
Film Historian, Moscow


1] Especially telling is an incident that occurred during the filming of The Eleventh Year (Odinnatsatyi, 1928) and was subsequently described by Vertov: “At a reconstructed cement factory in Novorossiisk. On a platform suspended above the sea—two men. The director and the camerman. Both with cameras. Both are shooting. The platform moves speedily. In search of a better angle for shooting, the director climbs over the railing of the platform. A second later, he is hit on the head by an iron girder. The cameraman turns around and sees his blood-covered comrade, unconscious, clutching his Sept camera in his hands as he lies half-dangling above the sea. He cranks the camera, shoots such an interesting and rare moment, and only then goes to help him. This, too, is the school of ‘Kino-Eye.’” “From ‘Kino-Eye’ to ‘Radio-Eye’ (A Kinoks Abecedarian),” RGALI f. 2091, op. 2, d.171.

2] We only need to recall, for example, the photographic and cinematographic records of the disinterment of the remains of various saints, undertaken at V.I. Lenin’s initiative. Or to remind people of the idea Lenin approved (but about which everyone now has forgotten): to send cameramen into the Povolzh'e region during the famine so that they could film what was happening. The resulting documentary film was shown abroad. What the foreigners saw shocked them so badly that the Polvolzh'e immediately received foreign aid.

3] Several of the variants for this screenplay were named “The Woman” and “About the Woman.” For more detailed information about Lullaby, see A. S. Deriabin, “Dziga Vertov’s Lullaby: Conception—Incarnation—Fate on the Screen,” Kinovedcheskie zapiski 51 (2001): 30-65; Dziga Vertov, From his Legacy, volume 1: Dramatic Experiments, compiled, with an introduction and commentary by A. S. Deriabin, Moscow: Eisenstein Center, 2004.

4] There were more than 200 reels of film shot and only an insignificant part of this material was included in the special issues of Events in Spain released between 1936 and 1937 or in the films that were put together later.

5] For a different interpretation of this incident, see, for example, Valerii Khomenko, “A Classic without any Retouching, or ‘A Pariah’ about Karmen,” Kinovedcheskie zapiski 55 (2001), 86-87.

6] See, for example, Khomenko 85-86.

7] For a more detailed discussion of the emergence of this new aesthetics, see my article “The ‘Small Form’ Film as Precursor to Television. Theses for Contemplation.” In Sovetskaia vlast' i media. Ed. Hans Günther and Sabina Hänsgen. St. Petersburg: Akademicheskii proekt, 2005. 387-395.

8] Perhaps the most accurate description of the gist of the film (and, at the same time, of the indifference about which I am writing) can be found in Natal'ia Sirivlia’s review: “…the aggressive use of the old village women’s texture co-exists with a total blindness to the structure of their real world, their daily lives, their daily activities, to traditional connections between life and death, to work and food, to love and reproduction. For the director, the old women are no different from the dolls covered with ‘chewed-up bread’—it is as if their inner world has been deliberately chewed-up, transformed into something viscous, while their external actions have been totally subordinated to the needs of the author-puppet master.” Novyi mir 1 (2005): 185 (emphasis in the original).

9] Pavel Kostomarov, “Takaia strannaia mirnaia zhizn'.” Interview with Evgeniia Leonova. Ekran i stsena 42 (2004): 6.

10] Despite the film, it seems to me that Satter really is a good journalist. He is also the only character who comes alive in Disbelief. Perhaps this is because he was shot in one take.

11] Konstantin Ernst, “There Will be More Documentaries on One” (prepared by Sergei Grachev). Argumenty i fakty 49 (8 December 2004): 51

12] This mysterious Aramaic riddle, written by a hand on the wall of Belshazzar’s feast, means “It has been counted and counted, weighed and divided.” The standard interpretation, by Daniel, suggests that Belshazzar’s deeds had been weighed and found wanted and that his kingdom would therefore be dismantled.

Aleksandr Deriabin© 2006

Updated: 05 Jul 06