The Forum of National Cinematographies Played at Being a Film School

By Dar'ia Borisova (Moscow)

The XI Forum hardly resembled the preceding ten. It took place in November rather than in the spring (as was customary) and not in the center of Moscow but in Podmoskov'e, in the Gosfil'mofond complex in Belye Stolby. More importantly, it did not serve as a venue for the best films of the past year made in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), as well as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The XI Forum focused entirely on young filmmakers from post-Soviet countries and became, in essence, a film school.

Such a cardinal change in the format of the festival surprised many people. I must admit that—even within the Organizing Committee of the Confederation of the Filmmakers Unions—not everyone initially accepted or endorsed the prospect of abandoning our original concept or risking undertaking something new. I, however, was an instant supporter of the project of a film school and shall take this opportunity to lay out my motives in supporting the idea of conducting the XI Forum in the format we did and shall share my observations and impressions on how everything unfolded in practice.

In the first years of its existence, the Forum of National Cinematographies (originally the Forum of Filmmakers from the CIS, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) was the sole venue where all of the films made in the Newly Independent States (NIS)—the recent “brotherly” republics of the USSR—were collected and screened. During those early years there were so few films produced in those states that the Forum's Organizing Committee did not even have a Selection Committee as such; in effect, we happily accepted everything for screening, which created a unique opportunity to evaluate film production in those countries. From its beginning, the Forum instituted a tradition of also scheduling high-quality retrospectives and special programs?ranging from individual Soviet or national filmmakers (Boris Barnet, Iulii Raizman, Mikhail Kalatozov, Sharunas Bartas) to entire periods in the history of some national cinema (“20th Century: Epilogue,” “Perspective,” “25 Prize Winners of All-Union Film Festivals,” “Kazakh Cinema—Style and Sense in the Changes,” “Unknown Uzbek Cinema,” “Life is Short: 30 Years of Ukrainian 1960s Filmmakers,” “People and Roles: The Gender Format”). The organizers of these programs were leading film scholars: Neia Zorkaia, Elena Stishova, Andrei Plakhov. In this way, two factors—a maximally full panorama of new films and an exclusive, historical, contextual satellite program—made the Forum a unique venue for viewing films from post-Soviet space during its first years.

It is important to mention that during those years (approximately from 1997 to 2003) the Forum was in great demand by a wide range of viewers: the halls were packed during screenings of films from various national cinemas by the Moscow diaspora of that nation. And most importantly, films produced in the former “brotherly” republics were genuinely interesting to Russian filmmakers. The most represented generation at these events was still the one that had studied together in Moscow and had lived its entire life in the Soviet Union. I was present at Forums where the entire tone of discussions was set by a company of friends who were of the same age and had studied together; the Forum would gather the Kyrgyz Tolomush Okeev, the Azeri Rustam Ibragimbekov, the Georgian El'dar Shengelaia, the Estonian Kal'e Kiisk, the Latvian Gitis Lukshas, the Ukrainian Mikhail Belikov, the Armenian (yet, nonetheless, Ukrainian director!) Roman Balaian. They were happily joined by Muscovite filmmakers—Elem Klimov, Vadim Abdrashitov, Valerii Akhadov, Sergei Solov'ev, and many, many others. Especially important was the fact that Russian film critics and scholars actively participated in the activities of the Forum during those early years.

Changes occurred gradually and were the result of objective factors. In facilitating regular meetings of filmmakers from the CIS and the Baltic Republics, in screening their films for each other, as well as for film scholars and critics and members of selection committees for various international film festivals, the Forum fulfilled its main historical mission: it did not allow the filmmakers from the long-suffering regions during that long-suffering period to sink to the bottom, as Atlantis did. Slowly, the independent states—and with them, their national filmmakers—began to get back on their feet. More and more films began to be produced, just as nascent managers began to appear at the studios, people who had direct links to the industry that allowed them self-sufficient access to international funding agencies and festivals. Many new festivals appeared that had need of films from the CIS and the Baltic Republics: KinoShock: The Open Festival of Films from the CIS, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (in Anapa, Russia); Eurasia (in Almaty, Kazakhstan); Golden Apricot (in Yerevan, Armenia); East—West (in Baku, Azerbaijan); Falling Leaves (in Minsk, Belarus); Didor (in Dushanbe, Tajikistan); Kinostan (in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan). Films from post-Soviet countries are now regularly considered for selection by the Moscow International Film Festival, as well as the international film festivals in Rotterdam, Karlovy Vary, and many other European cities. It goes without saying that in allowing a film to be screened in competition at a major international film festival, a director cannot allow the film also to be screened in a panorama program like the Forum. Such are the rules of the game on the festival circuit. As a consequence, the number of new films that could be screened at the springtime Forum (keeping in mind that the festival season begins at the end of spring) became smaller each year. Inasmuch as the Forum is organized as a non-competition series of screenings, directors who had made it into the festival circuit became more interested in the pursuit of prizes—even consolation prizes at some fluffy festival—than in screening their films to an elite audience in a non-competition setting.

Times change. So do people. Not just directors! More than anything else, we, the organizers of the Forum, were shocked by the Moscow film scholars and critics. Over the past few years their interest in the films of their nearest neighbors has vanished entirely. While conducting the VII, VIII , IX, and X Forums of National Cinematographies—always in the center of Moscow amidst the most comfortable and accessible screening halls—we were virtually unable to lure the film press to any of the screenings or discussions. Over these years, the only Russian film scholars and critics who attended were Sergei Kudriavtsev, Aleksandr Shpagin, Andrei Shemiakin, Svetlana Khokhriakova—and on occasion Aleksandr Lipkov and Lev Anninskii. Their numerous Moscow colleagues refused to watch the newest films from the CIS and the Baltic Republics or to engage filmmakers from those countries in a dialog. All claimed to be terribly busy. Yet for some secret reason they would always turn out to have free time to watch these films at the KinoShock festival on the shores of the Black Sea or at the East—West festival in exotic Baku, located on the no less appealing Caspian Sea... Based on my observations over the past few years, I shall state quite bluntly that the boom of film festivals has corrupted Russian film journalists to the point that cinema itself has ceased to be sufficient cause for them to write their articles. A film screened “at home,” under the normal conditions of a working environment cannot compete with a film screened at a festival with its allure of a traveling “in-crowd.”

The sole committed audience for the Forum were the film scholars and Slavists from the USA and Europe, as well as specialists in culture from the CIS, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. For them, the Forum did not lose its uniqueness and pressing interest. Regrettably, with each passing year the Forum (which, on the average, invited a hundred representatives from the CIS and the Baltic Republics, paying for roundtrip airfare and accommodations in a central Moscow hotel) became more expensive while the financial situation of the Organizing Committee was not improving in the least (despite the fact that that the idea of “friendship of people” within the CIS is “supported” by the President of the Russian Federation, the funds allocated to our international Forum are more than modest). Having virtually exhausted the interest and support of the Moscow film community, we decided that the Forum had fulfilled its historical mission, and, although it had played in many respects a determining role in defining the current state of filmmaking in the post-Soviet nations, it had exhausted that potential.

At the same time, we had long become aware of the obvious inadequacy of professional training and knowledge of the history of cinema amongst the youngest filmmakers from the countries of our region. And so we arrived at the idea of a Forum-Film School. In order not to repeat myself, let me quote at length from the proposal for the XI Forum:

Professional training is one of the most serious problems in the sphere of filmmaking in the CIS (excluding Russia) and the Baltic Republics. Not a single former republic of the Soviet Union has been able to establish comprehensive educational institutions comparable to the State Institute for Filmmaking (VGIK) or the Advanced Courses for Scriptwriters and Directors (VKSR). As a rule, film departments exist within theater institutes, conservatories, or combined academies of the arts. It is clear that students at such film departments do not have the opportunity to immerse themselves fully in their future profession.

First, there is virtually no film archive as such in any of the post-Soviet states. This problem is always topmost in collegial conversations amongst filmmakers of the former Soviet Union: the absence of film classics from which future generations could learn. Occasional retrospectives and isolated television broadcasts of films is all that is available to youthful lovers of cinema and future professionals.

Second, the financial situation in the CIS and the Baltic Republics continues to remain pitiful. This does not allow students in film departments to have training in all stages of their future profession. They lack access to more or less state of the art technology, do not have the opportunity to film under various conditions, and, finally, do not have film stock.

Third, the course of instruction at many of these film departments frequently is very conservative (for example, in Central Asia), which does not enable young, talented individuals to discover their potential and to preserve their individuality in the process of education. In some places (for example, the Baltic Republics) they are experimenting with teaching the filmmaking professionals through a series of master-classes. But this cannot be considered a fully developed course of study.

Each year at the Forum of National Cinematographies we watch student films and debut films by young filmmakers from the CIS and the Baltic Republics. While they are talented and interesting, while they offer new points of view on both problems common to all people and on the concrete burdens and joys in their own countries, virtually all of them are marked by disappointing lapses in achieving technological mastery and in demonstrating competence in the concrete skills of the profession.

During the years of its existence, the Confederation of the Filmmakers Unions has considered its primary task to be the support of national film industries and the preservation of a unified cinematographic space on the territory of the CIS and the Baltic Republics. The most painful, crisis-ridden years of post-Soviet cinema have passed. The leading figures of the older and the middle generations (who received their education in Moscow during the Soviet period) are successfully working at the film studios in their respective countries and around the world, participating in competitions of numerous international film festivals. Today it is the youngest generation that requires assistance. They have grown up and become formed as individuals in the absence of a unified, powerful state. Very few of them have had the opportunity to study at VGIK or VKSR; the cost of study and housing in Moscow over the past several years has become prohibitively expensive.

As a consequence, at this historical moment, the Confederation of the Filmmakers Unions sees as its primary task the need to assist young, talented filmmakers in the CIS and the Baltic Republics. The first (experimental) project in this direction would be an International Film School.

This project does not aspire to the status of a full-fledged institute. Instead, its goal is to assist those individuals taking their first steps in the profession, to fill in the blanks in their education, to allow them to engage directly with leading figures—recognized throughout the world—in the profession, to listen to (and to watch!) an express-course on the history of cinema.

And so we took the risk. This past Forum was a “trial balloon,” a rehearsal for a film school. We hand-picked the participants; there was no standard competition and selection for admission. We were guided either by our personal acquaintance with talented debut filmmakers (some had screened their debut films at earlier Forums, others we had met at various festivals or during our travels), or by recommendations from our colleagues of many years—film scholars, film instructors, directors—who worked in the various countries. We established four groups of study this time around: directing feature films, the dramaturgy of feature films, producing and distributing films, and film criticism. So, four people came from virtually every one of the countries—some were in their final years of study, some had already made an independent film and had been able to screen it at one or two festivals, some had no formal training at all but were intent on making cinema their profession. In a word, the most varied student body. All understood Russian well, but spoke it with different abilities: for some Russian was a native language, for others a second language of communication, and for several it was extremely difficult to find the necessary words in Russian and to put them into a sentence. The participants ranged in age from twenty to forty years old; the average age was twenty five.

The program for each day of the Forum ran from morning until almost nighttime (which was perhaps overly much, since we did not take into account the age of our students, for whom the desire for contact and interaction is as great as the desire to learn). After breakfast the students separated into their respective groups to work with a leading figure in that field. Beginning scriptwriters attended Pavel Finn's class; directors studied with Iusup Razykov (for the first four days) and Valerii Akhadov (for the next three); critics studied with Irina Pavlova and then Lev Anninskii, who replaced her after a couple of days. Producers and distributors had the most enviable parade of teachers: Aleksandr Atanesian instructed them for three days, Igor' Kalenov and Rustam Ibragimbekov a day each, and Kirill Razlogov presented a separate lecture on the role of festivals in promoting films.

Then everyone would come together again in the screening hall to watch the films that debut directors had brought with them. After lunch there was a master-class for all of the participants. Each of the speakers was famous and chose his own topic: Valentin Chernykh “The Search for Plot in Contemporary Cinema,” Sergei Sel'ianov “How to Enter the Russian Distribution Market and Film Production,” Vadim Abdrashitov “The Common Space of Cinema: What is It?,” Lev Anninskii “The End of Soviet Cinema: What Comes Next?,” Iusup Razykov “The Specific Role of Dramaturgy in Creating a Low-Budget Film,” Rustam Ibragimbekov “Concept—Script—Film,” Raisa Fomina “Distributing CIS Films Abroad: Myths and Realities.” Each of the master-classes ended with the participants bombarding the speakers with an unending stream of questions.

After an hour break for dinner, everyone would gather in the main screening hall (the “screening barn”) of Gosfil'mofond's Festival complex to view a series of cinema classics that were screened on 35mm prints. This was the express-course on the history of Soviet multinational cinema. The program, “Our Classics,” was organized and conducted by film scholar Valerii Bosenko. Each evening three films were screened; including the screenings at the opening and closing of the Forum, twenty seven films were shown: Elem Klimov's The Groom (Zhenikh, 1962), Mikhail Kobakhidze's The Wedding (Svad'ba, 1964), Mikhail Bogin's The Two (Dvoe, 1965), Dinara Asanova's Rudol'fio (1969), Vladimir Shmidtgof's N+N+N (1924), Aleksei German's Trial on the Road (Proverka na dorogakh, 1971/1985), Andrei Tarkovskii's Mirror (Zerkalo, 1975), Kote Mikaberidze's My Grandmother (Moia babushka, 1929), Otar Ioseliani's Falling Leaves (Listopad, 1966), El'dar Shengelaia's Blue Mountains, or An Unbelievable Story (Golubye gory, ili Nepravdopodobnaia istoriia, 1984), Kira Muratova's Brief Encounters (Korotkie vstrechi, 1967/1987), Leonid Osyka's Stone Cross (Kamennyi krest, 1968), Vitautas Zhalakiavichius' Nobody Wanted to Die (Nikto ne khotel umirat', 1966), Victor Turov's I Come from Childhood (Ia rodom iz detstva, 1966), Vadim Derbenev's The Last Month of Autumn (Poslednii mesiats oseni, 1965), Genrikh Malian's Triangle (Treugol'nik, 1967), Rasim Odzhagov's The Interrogation (Dopros, 1979), Bolot Shamshiev's A Shot in the Karash Pass (Vystrel na perevale Karash, 1969), Tolomush Okeev's The Cruel One (Liutyi, 1973), Rashid Nugmanov's The Needle (Igla, 1988), El'er Ishmukhamedov's Lovers (Vliublennye, 1969), Ali Khamraev's The Seventh Bullet (Sed'maia pulia, 1972), Melis Ubukeev's White Mountains (Belye gory, 1964), Bulat Mansurov's The Competition (Sostiazanie, 1964), Khodzhakuli Narliev's Daughter-in-Law (Nevestka, 1972), Davlat Khudonazarov's The Sound of Water in Melting Snow (V talom snege zvon ruch'ia, 1982), and Kal'e Kiisk's They Were Eighteen (Im bylo vosemnadtsat', 1965). All this in the course of seven days!

Now that everything is behind us, we understand that we were lucky on the first try. First of all, we were fortunate in our choice of participants. With the exception of two or three individuals, the participants genuinely needed the sensitive, directed guidance of leading figures in the art of cinema, needed the opportunity to interact with the people who are influencing the energetic development (by comparison with their own countries) of the film industry today in Russia. In other words, our assumptions about what the participants needed were confirmed by reality. Second, we were fortunate in our choice of the leading figures of the art: none of them dropped the ball—and this despite the fact that they are extremely busy and that their honoraria for teaching at the Forum were purely symbolic.

For the first time in the past few years, the organizers were fully satisfied with the results of the Forum, for we know that we provided concrete benefits to specific individuals. Having received suggestions from Pavel Finn, a beginning scriptwriter will fix the script that he has been struggling with because of his lack of experience; in his next film, a director will not repeat the mistakes that were pointed out and criticized in his debut film by Iusup Razykov and Valerii Akhadov; and after viewing Mirror and Falling Leaves on a big screen, a young film critic finally understood what real cinema actually was. Isn't all this wonderful?

In addition to everything else, we are convinced that those 45 participants—from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Tajikistan, Moldova, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Estonia—now not only know about each others' existence (as colleagues-classmates across such a space!), but also have made personal acquaintanceships, are armed with contacts, which means they possess the opportunity to interact, share information, work up and fill out joint projects as co-productions, etc. Not for nothing did the participants at the end of the Forum request to launch an interactive film journal on the website of the Confederation of Unions of Filmmakers, where they could post their materials as a way of sharing their works and news with each other and the entire internet community. This journal is already online: it is called Evr@ziia.

Immediately after the Forum, we applied for continuing support of the International Film School as a self-standing entity to the newly created Intergovernmental Foundation for Humanitarian Cooperation of the Member States of the CIS (Mezhdugosudarstvennyi Fond gumanitarnogo sotrudnichestva gosudarstv-uchstnikov SNG), and to our great joy we received it. As of 2008 our project will take wing on its own, without the added weight of being considered a “transitional moment.” The study groups at the school will change from year to year; this coming year, for example, we want to establish three groups: for directors of feature films, for directors and scriptwriters of non-feature films, and for producers and critics from the youngest generations of their countries?the number of whom at the moment can be counted on the fingers of one hand and it is unlikely that many new ones will arrive within a year. Inevitably we shall learn from our mistakes—for example, we have understood that screening three films an evening is overly much, while opportunities for general discussions of films and projects by beginning filmmakers have to be increased.

The first issue of KinoForum for 2008 will be published shortly and will contain articles by Pavel Finn, Iusup Razykov, and Lev Anninskii, in which they describe their impressions of the Forum and their students. It is also possible to find a detailed report on the XI Forum through the link “11th Forum.” This link also contains information about each participant, the full schedule, and a photo gallery, as well as press reports on the Forum and the electronic version of the Forum's daily newspaper.

Translated by Vladimir Padunov

Dar'ia Borisova
Press Secretary, Forum of National Cinematographies, Moscow

Dar'ia Borisova © 2008

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Updated: 20 Mar 08