The Third Festival of Real Cinema: "Kinoteatr.doc" (Moscow, February 2007)

By Kristina Matvienko (Moscow)

The first festival Kinoteatr.doc took place in Moscow three years ago as the result of the private initiative of two young people, who had until then worked for one of the major Russian theater festivals, the Golden Mask. As strange as it may seem, newcomer-producers Mikhail Sinev and Viktor Fedoseev have achieved a huge success in record-breaking time. It is not so much that there are not enough documentary film festivals in Russia—there are several, the strongest being the long-established festival in Ekaterinburg. But Kinoteatr.doc differs significantly from these other festivals both in its ideology and format. The Kinotear.doc festival in February screens both feature films and documentaries, both shorts and full-length features. What matters is that they should be based on real events, either from the lives of the filmmakers or from that of the films' characters. Sinev and Fedoseev, as well as their permanent selection committee—critic Alena Solntseva and director Boris Khlebnikov—try to adhere to this principle. Perhaps it is precisely this consistency that enables their modest, but strong creation to arouse such interest for the third time in a row. In addition to this, Sinev's gift as a producer has to be given its due: he is able to find and promote precisely those characters and films that are instantly snapped up by big film festivals, from Sochi to Cannes.

The 2007 Kinoteatr.doc festival took place in an atmosphere of artistic searches in the reality that surrounds us. The slogan on the festival posters sounded quite aggressive: “Remember, you are an artist!” The program selected by Solntseva and Khlebnikov included journalistic sketches, travel notes and sketches, as well as feature films. Admittedly, the fictional nature of this latter group skillfully mimicked the format of the “document.” In this sense, the best film of the festival was probably Moscow , directed by Bakur Bakuradze and Dmitrii Mamulia, which received the jury prize “For Following the Classical Russian Tradition”; three months later the film was invited into the competition program of short films at Sochi's Kinotavr festival.

The directors of the film, who follow “the classical Russian tradition” more than others, are Georgians; their heroes are gastarbeiter (migrant workers) from post-Soviet Central Asia. The directors (who were also the scriptwriters, cameramen, and casting experts) display an extraordinary skill for close observation. First, they found a whole colony of migrants, living in a house that is either under reconstruction, or not yet completed, or doomed to be demolished. Second, they managed to script a plot within those circumstances that has an excellent dramatic structure; the viewer begins to wonder whether this documentary is a reality show or a story made up by the filmmakers and performed by actors.

A large family—a portly, tall grandmother who for days on end manages the household, her daughter-in-law, sons, and a small grandson—lives in quarters that are divided by screens into a kitchen area and a bedroom. All their hopes and sorrows are connected with one thing: the search for work. There is an episode where the grandmother and a prosperous fellow-countryman, speaking in their native tongue, agree that the fellow countryman will find work for her younger son after accepting a bribe. There is a scene of the construction site, where dark-faced workers knit wires for the steel reinforcements. The older son stares at the television, lying on a trestle bed, while his mother, exhausted from a day's work, leans against the wall—and across their faces flicker shadows from some invisible film. Their silence says everything: about work and about the future. The younger son gradually emerges as the central figure, a young man of fifteen, who is lucky at last when he gets to replace his sick neighbor on the construction site. He is fortunate: he works, eats with everyone at the table. He plucks up his courage to approach the boss and inquires whether they will soon be paid. And he goes for a ride around the city.

Moscow appears in front of our eyes through the eyes of this boy—a naive, receptive observer who will never be a part of this city—who looks at all the glamorous magnificence and vanity. He sits at the edge of a fountain and stares at a girl on a billboard, while his children his own age play next to him—only they are local guys, better dressed and skateboarding. The boy strolls until darkness falls, and then returns to his cozy home, where his grandmother feeds him a good meal. Suddenly he is catapulted out of this fine world by an unexpected force, although what is unusual about skinheads in the capital? The skinheads sit down next to him in a half-empty nighttime tram as he furtively examines a pretty fellow traveler. Impudently, they begin to catch his gaze. At any moment the boy will no longer be able to sustain their gaze and will look at them—it is clear that he is looking death in the eyes. The episode is cut off when something abruptly enters the frame: a fist or a knife.

Moscow is composed and filmed by two people who a particularly acute sense of reality; they make use of this sense without betraying it. This short film possesses a rhythm of its own; it has an original script and an inherent plasticity. In a word, this is an example of “real cinema” becoming cinematography.

This year's competition was both strong and consistent, but it set off a heated debate in LiveJournal and at the jury's deliberations (the jury included scriptwriter Dunia Smirnova; critics Zara Abdullaeva, Liubov' Arkus, and Elena Kovalskaia; playwrights Mikhail Ugarov and Elena Gremina; the editors-in-chief of the magazines Bol'shoi gorod —Aleksei Kazakov—and Esquire —Fillip Bakhtin). Viewers who came to the Teatr.doc and Akt-Zal screening venues, where the competition, non-competition, and international parts of the program were shown, were offered plenty of opportunities to discover worlds that are rarely shown on our screens. Professionals in the audience—critics, directors, scriptwriters—had ample opportunity to ponder a different question that is no less interesting: what portion of what was screened was simply reportage (even if based on interesting material) and what part could be attributed to filmmaking abilities.

The very format of the festival dictated, in a sense, a trend for certain subjects. Thus, for example, the ordinary life of urban and provincial marginal groups was featured prominently in the program and was treated throughout in a similar vein.

Iuliia Panasenko and Svetlana Strel'nikova's Idiot tells a story with an open ending about a guy whom his mother sent to a psychiatric clinic, banishing him from his Moscow home. Now he knocks about different offices in order to restore his status of person able to lead a normal life, and the filmmakers help him. The guy is a latent homosexual and semi-homeless, but a nice and cheerful person. He mingles with employees and transvestites, gets a job, and even rents a room in some old woman's apartment. This is yet another Moscow, seen from a completely different angle. Idiot received the prize from television channel 24 DOC and was also invited for screening at Kinotavr, which was a civic act in its own right.

Completely different marginal people—notorious alcoholics and elderly spouses—are featured in Georgii Ermolenko's film Sedoy. The film is set in the small, smoky kitchen of a skyscraper. At the table sit a woman with a face swollen from vodka, her reasonably sober friend, and a nervous husband. For some fifteen minutes they curse and threaten each other with violent death and deprivation of their residence permits. From the confused conversation, floating close-ups, and sharp camera movements focusing on the neighbor's muzzle, we understand that this is not simply a love-hate relationship between two inveterate drunkards, but the result of the tragic loss of their child in the distant past. In the end, they sing a duet and do not kill each other—which is as it should be. The film was awarded the jury prize “For an Unexpected Turn of Events.” It is curious why the heroes of such a film would allow the presence of the camera. Significantly, almost all of them are in an altered state of being, in which pathological frankness becomes the norm.

There are also people who openly talk about themselves in the form of a fascinating documentary play. Such stories are remarkable, even when the directing required is minimal. In the film Two Bicycles, Ekaterina Suvorova tells a story of hiking across Europe, narrated by the two participants, a lovely fair-haired young lady and her handsome boyfriend. The two heroes recount how, while living in Alma-Ata, they saved up a bit of money and set off abroad, practically on foot, past the border guards and dogs. Their adventures lead them to Germany, where we even see a video fragment showing both of them on a nighttime Berlin square, happy, but changed and matured. Only later, retroactively¸ do we learn that they had their first serious falling-out in Berlin and that from then on things did not go as planned. In Spain they split up altogether. Then both returned home: he was deported and the girl flew there on her own. At the very end, they are shown together with their small child, born after their adventure. While the film received no awards, the filmmaker can boast of several achievements: she found a true story and charming, interesting heroes.

The girl Liza from Pavel Fattakhutdinov's film of the same title is a similar heroine: after the death of her mother she looks after her sick grandparents, works in a bakery, earns a pittance, and maybe the only things she has in life are the gatherings with friends at the local crossroads. The owner of the saw-mill in Not so Simple (Ne tak-to prosto), directed by Vladislav Tarik, also belongs to the series of “curious heroes”: a healthy muzhik from a snow-covered village works for months with the men he employs on a saw-mill, and then relaxes at home with his wife and children. The writer Robert Belov in Sergei Lepikhin's film The Permian Robert Belov —a gray-haired writer who can hardly make out letters—has an interesting life, friends, a wife, and an old computer, at which he works with the help of a huge magnifying glass. Two thin boys suffering from cerebral palsy overcome their fear of jumping from a tower in Nikita and Nikita, directed by Mariia Tiuliaeva. These little heroes do not invite pity because of their disability. Finally, the ex-businessman from Ekaterinburg in Dmitrii Pishchulin and Dmitrii Ohotnikov's film Berezovskii Trip suffers from episodes of confusion, during which he behaves strangely towards his young wife and two children. At the end of the film we see the wife behind the sales counter in a shop and the hero with the two children on a playground. The demons have disappeared; the fog, trouble, and illness are in the past. The film received the prize from the film company Drugoe kino.

The fiercest disputes at the festival were provoked by Aleksandr Malinin's film, whose short Six, Counting the Children ( A s det'mi—shestero ) participated in last year's festival. Produced by Kinoteatr.doc, The Demon is a fragment from the life of a family living somewhere in the south of Russia—a family consisting of a former political prisoner, his wife, and children, a boy of 6 and a very little girl. Demon begins with the hero, tattooed from head to toe, arriving at a tuberculosis clinic, looking at the sign board, and spitting into the snow. A little later, he is seen sharpening a knife in a shed as a black dog lies tied-up at his feet. What he does to the dog is not shown, but the camera looks into the dog's eyes—even if cannot find an answer there to the question: “why kill me.” The answer is clear anyway: tuberculosis contracted in a prison zone is cured with dog's liver.

This is the episode that ignited a heated discussion: should this be shown or not? You look with caution at the Demon's subsequent actions: when he bathes his daughter and when he introduces his grown-up son to strong tea . The film is shot as if with a sharp razor blade in the form of an alert, subjective camera; it even contains an episode when the Demon's wife, sitting on the porch, shaves her legs. The film possesses its own sensitivity and sensuality to detail. It has its own rhythm, which the director (who is also the cameraman) perceives in life and which he transfers precisely with all its fluidity and unpredictability. The dramaturgy is powerful: the sharpest and most explosive moments are chosen intentionally. Whatever is said about life that people don't want to know—we are shown its face with all its grimaces. The organizers of the festival awarded Malinin a prize for “Impudence in Artistic Decisions.”

Kinoteatr.doc is one of the most interesting Russian festivals because it inspires—both in fans and professionals—a passion to seek out reality. Inasmuch as this reality is becoming more and more blurred and obscured, the cinema that focuses on it becomes a powerful monument to the present.

Translated by Birgit Beumers


Kristina Matvienko

Images courtesy of kinoteatr.doc

Kristina Matvienko© 2007

Updated: 29 Jun 07