KINOTEATR.DOC: The First Three Years

By Alena Solntseva (Moscow)

KINOTEATR.DOC is Russia’s most informal film festival. The third festival will take place in February 2007—and to the present day not a single kopek of state funds has been invested in it. The festival has no official sponsors, no budget, no premises, and no staff.

KINOTEATR.DOC was created by two people: the producer and art director Mikhail Sinev, and his associate director Viktor Fedoseev. They have been assisted by many unpaid volunteers, including the only informal sponsor, business-woman Alla Khokhrina, whose money pays for the printing of booklets and for the purchase of prizes. The premises are allocated by a related organization, TEATR.DOC, an independent and non-state Moscow theater, founded by Mikhail Ugarov and Elena Gremina, who were the initiators of this film festival, whose noisy fate could not have been foreseen. They simply wanted to collect and screen documentary films principally to theater audiences; films that they considered good, but which were not being shown anywhere else. Only later did KINOTEATR.DOC acquire a concept and establish something like a programmatic position. Some films were recommended by friends and acquaintances, others were suggested by the Guild of Documentary Cinema of the Russian Union of Filmmakers; another group of films was submitted once the competition conditions had been posted on the internet. Films of interest were selected and the screenings were coordinated with their makers; thus the program was put together. Since some films dealt with army themes (more precisely anti-army attitudes), the festival opened on 23 February 2005, the Day of the Soviet Army. It has been so ever since, especially because this gives an extra non-working day for screenings and the festival is able to open a day earlier in order to add more films to its program.

The number of people at these first screenings was incredible: there were no empty seats and there was not even room to stand in the small hall of TEATR.DOC on Trekhprudnyi Boulevard. A large number of interested people had to stay outside, and those who managed to get in did not leave the stuffy basement for several hours: what they saw on the screen struck them as amazing.

A year later, in 2006, the situation was different. Again, there were numerous spectators, but there was no such furor as there had been in the first year. Apparently several fortunate circumstances had coincided in 2005. First, strangely enough, the very existence of a new kind of documentary film: without voice-over narrative, without music, without direct statements into the camera; instead, as in feature films, these documentaries had heroes acting, moving around, living, providing an opportunity to be observed, and, thus, allowing the spectator to be included in their life. This was a novelty. Spectators discovered a new genre, especially fascinating because it seemed to be an exact copy of reality. In these films, everything was as it is in reality, but at the same time these films contained action, not just a narrated story or commentary. And so the festival devised its slogan: “Festival of Real Cinema.” This deliberately ambiguous definition combined the desire to assert “Yes, this really is cinema!” with the designated theme—“cinema about reality”—and with the desire for reality itself because in these films the filmmakers for the most part stated their social views explicitly.

The first filmmakers to become the festival’s “own” were Pavel Kostomarov and Antoine Cattin with their films The Transformer (Transformator, 2003) and A Peaceful Life (Mirnaia zhizn', 2004). Aleksandr Rastorguev (Mommies [Mamochki, 2001] and Maundy Thursday [Chistyi chetverg, 2003]), Andrei Zaitsev (My House [Moi dom, 2000] and Gleb [2002]), and Igor' Voloshin (The Bitch [Suka, 2001]) should be added to this list. These films were shown out of competition because the competition at the first festival consisted mainly of unknown and new films. Among the winners of the first festival were both non-professional and amateur films; for example, The Hospital Attendant (Sanitar, 2004) by Iurii Lonkov, who was living in the US and shot an unexpected account of the life of his ward, an émigré pensioner who had lost his mind. Both the selection of films for the competition program and the choice of award-winners were based primarily on emotional impressions occasioned by the film and the material; authenticity and spontaneity were valued more than skill, and natural harshness and uncompromising attitudes easily overcame bad soundtracks and a lack of focus.

The real life of inhabitants of remote locations in Russia—captured with a digital camera—was amazing. Because the filmmakers observed people for an extended period of time, these people no longer noticed that they were being filmed; at other times the filmmakers would hide the camera or purposely “forget” to switch it off. A quite short film would be edited from several hours of recordings, where the cuts would reveal a plot that was as distinct as in feature films, but was much more convincing because it was born from life. These films were made in different years, but when they were all shown together it became obvious that some new, independent direction had emerged. And the true success of KINOTEATR.DOC lay in the timeliness of the presentation of this new direction.

The third component of the festival’s success was the universal fashion for documentary filmmaking that was the rage of the moment. In 2004, for the first time in three decades, the main prize of the Cannes International Film Festival went to Michael Moore’s documentary Fahrenheit 9/11; the following year the award went to The Child by the Dardenne Brothers, a feature film that deliberately neared itself to real life. Documentalism became the style that in many respects determined the development of cinema.

It is worth noting that in addition to documentary films, the KINOTEATR.DOC program also included short fiction films, but there were fewer of them, they were discussed less often, and they did not determine the context of the festival. There was one exception: Sergei Loban’s Dust (Pyl', 2005), a full-length feature film that was not included in the main program but shown as a special event. Shot with a digital camera, Dust—an absolutely micro-budget story with a documentary type of narration and with a fantastic plot—coincided completely with the festival’s style and provoked strong responses. This film, whose release and promotion was handled by KINOTEATR.DOC, was shown half-a-year later in the debut program “Perspectives” of the Moscow International Film Festival. Subsequently it was successfully shown in cinemas and at several large and small film-forums.

The second festival took place under quieter conditions. Over the year people had got used to the new documentary style, and screenings of similar films were no longer a novelty. In addition, while films made over two or three years were eligible for the first festival, for the second only very new films were accepted. And surprisingly, new films appeared. The filmmakers were young and the festival became their first public platform. Girls (Devochki, 2005) by Valeriia Gai Germanika, which has since visited Cannes (in the program “Russian Day”) and received a prize at Kinotavr, was first shown during the second KINOTEATR.DOC festival. The director Aleksandr Malinin, well known in small circles, showed his film Six Together with the Children (A s det'mi — shestero, 2005) precisely fitted the festival’s format.

The 2006 festival did not so much discover new trends as develop those found earlier. Filmmakers moved towards a greater affinity with their subjects: the striking, almost grotesque types from the lower social strata were replaced by relatives or friends. Accordingly, the intonation and the narration changed as well: instead of tragicomedy they revealed delicate psychological dramas, where nuances counted more than blunt social proclamations. In parallel to the competition program, the Meierkhol'd Center presented a program of foreign documentary films that had been offered by various countries’ cultural centers. While the number of films shown during the festival was perhaps too great, the quality was more even than during the first, even though there were fewer discoveries—of filmmakers and films. A support group was established, and at the same time opposition arose: many professionals had already formed an ideological and aesthetic attitude to the “kinodoc” movement. “Kinodoc” cinema was accused of having a predilection for demonstrating social ills and for exploiting defects and weaknesses—something that allegedly had become a fashionable and obligatory element in these films. Critics said that the heroes of these films could only be people who, due to various circumstances, cannot control their lives; that the filmmakers, for the sake of directness and spontaneity, infringe on ethics by peeping and spying on their heroes, at times committing forgeries, dramatizing situations as necessary, provoking the heroes to act in ways planned beforehand in the script...

“Russia,” the largest festival of documentary cinema held in Ekaterinburg in the autumn of 2005, was marked by a scandal: the festival president, Klim Lavrent'ev, resigned after speaking out against the award of the main prize to Kostomarov and Cattin’s A Peaceful Life. At the Petersburg festival of documentary cinema, “Message to Man” (2006), a round table was devoted specifically to this trend in documentary filmmaking, where the level of discussion rose close to the boiling point. At the same time, the films of KINOTEATR.DOC invited for screenings in provincial towns in Russia often disappointed audiences because they were shown a life that they experienced daily and of which—to put it mildly—they had seen enough.

It is still early to anticipate what the third festival holds in store. Several films, whose premieres are expected for the festival, are just being completed. The organizers of KINOTEATR.DOC now also act as producers: it is no longer just a festival, but more like a small producers’ center. Its programs are shown almost continuously at different venues in Moscow and, with enviable frequency, these programs are invited to other cities and countries. Films that have participated in the festivals have been released collectively on DVD, and several DVDs of individual filmmakers are available for sale.

But the main thing is that, having met and become acquainted with young directors who do not have the opportunity to raise money for their films, the director of KINOTEATR.DOC, Mikhail Sinev, has decided to become an intermediary in finding funding for the creation of new films and, thus, in assisting the emergence of new filmmakers. Andrei Zaitsev has already shot a feature film, The Poster (Plakat), based on the real story of a woman who stopped on a Moscow highway to remove an anti-Semitic poster that had been booby-trapped with explosives. Aleksandr Malinin is finishing his documentary film The Demon (Bes).

KINOTEATR.DOC currently has six films in different stages of production, one of which is a feature film directed by Sergei Loban. Mikhail Sinev also has plans to organize an animation festival (animation programs are already put together by Dina Goder and shown on a weekly basis by KINOTEATR.DOC in Moscow) and also to establish (together with director and teacher Marina Razbezhkina) a new film-school for training directors of documentary films.

Obviously, those filmmakers who are close allies of KINOTEATR.DOC are also making new films. One of the curators of the festival program, the director Boris Khlebnikov, has completed Free Floating (Svobodnoe plavanie, 2006), which was shown at several international festivals (including Venice) and received prizes (including the prize for direction at the Russian festival Kinotavr). Khlebnikov has also just completed a documentary film about Belarusian Gastarbeiters in Moscow, with Valeriia Gai Germanika as the director of photography. Pavel Kostomarov and Antoine Cattin have completed a new short film, commissioned by the Institute for Gender and Social Policy (Russia), about women in a Russian village, "There Are Women in Russian Villages..." ("Est' zhenshchiny v russkikh selen'iakh..." (Russia, 2006, 27 minutes).

The biggest problem for the future competition program will be the selection of films. The new style of documentary is no longer a novelty; it has affirmed its right to exist. The best films of this kind are eagerly (and without any scandal) accepted into competition programs at almost all national film venues. The most difficult time is about to begin: individual rather than collective competition. Now the quality of a film will be more important for the selection committees: artistic value should be determined not by the material or the approach, but by the degree of penetration into the essence of a phenomenon, by a new outlook on life, by the creations of one’s own world—in effect, by just those qualities for which great art has always distinguished itself.

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Film stills from the web site, photos from the 2005 festival by Vladimir Lupovskoi from the same source.

Alena Solntseva
Curator of kinoteatr.doc and editor of the culture section of Vremia Novostei, Moscow

Alena Solntseva© 2007

Updated: 07 Jan 07