KinoKultura: Issue 48 (2015)

ArtDocFest 2014: Politics, Rural Hardships and Youth

By Anastasia Kostina (Yale U)

artdocArtDocFest 2014, Russia’s biggest festival of independent documentary, this time raised a lot of controversy even before its start. The festival, which previously enjoyed state financial support, was denied government sponsorship this year. Although the official reasons behind the refusal were not publicly announced, the comments made by Russia’s Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinskii pointed to the fact that it was ArtDocFest president Vitalii Manskii’s oppositional views that led to the denial. In an attempt to compensate the funding gap, festival organizers turned to their regular sponsors as well as crowd-funding, which is becoming an increasingly popular means for sponsoring independent documentary projects and festivals. The combination of the two provided enough funds for the festival to take place, and to do so successfully.

ArtDocFest 2014 kicked off on December 9 and within one week managed to show over a hundred documentary films made in Russia and abroad. The official competition comprised 21 documentaries in Russian language, which is one of the primary requirements for entering the competition, made by Russian and foreign film-makers. Apart from the competition, the festival included its traditional set of programs, such as “Sreda” (Environment)—approximately 30 films demonstrating relevant tendencies in the present-day documentary world, plus a special “Sreda Debut” subdivision featuring 22 more films by debutants. “Iashchik” (Box) showcased notable TV documentary projects; “From A to A” presented award-winning Russian documentaries, including the winner of ArtDocFest-2013, Blood (Krov’) by Alina Rudnitskaia, a black-and-white observational documentary about a small mobile blood station; “ArtDocFest winners 2013” was a small program featuring three documentary films—all of them coincidentally by graduates of Marina Razbezhkina’s School of Documentary: Come on, Scumbags! (Esche chutok, mrazi!, 2013) by Madina Mustafina, Morphology (Morfologiia, 2013) by Inna Lesina and The Last Limousine (Poslednii limuzin, 2013), the documentary debut of Daria Khlestkina, who tragically passed away in January 2015 after a long battle with cancer.

The special program of the festival this time was dedicated to Ukraine, with quite an explicit title: “Ukraine is not Russia” (Ukraina ne Rossiia) marking one of the major political concerns of the past year. The program included 13 films about Ukraine, ranging from Dziga Vertov’s Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass (Entuziazm: Simfonia Donbassa, 1930) to Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan (2014), a recent feature-length documentary about the peaceful protests in Kiev, which turned violent. The festival also featured a retrospective of Petr Mostovoi, presenting ten of his films made between 1966 and 2005 and a special documentary master class by the film maker. This is not to mention all the smaller programs and special screenings.

In 2014 the festival changed its venue, moving from old-fashioned, Soviet style Khudozhestvennyi (Arts) Cinema to the smaller but more modern and comfortable Gorizont cinema. Since Gorizont only has three screens, some screenings, discussions, pitching sessions and workshops took place at the nearby Fitil’ cinema club.

Premieres of the competition films took place in the largest of the Gorizont cinema halls and, regardless of the time of the day (although mostly shown in the evening) pulled in large crowds. Each premiere was followed by a Q&A session with the filmmakers, conducted by the festival president Vitalii Manskii or the program director Viktoriia Belopolskaia. The films were often paired according to a general topic, and one could easily trace the three main themes of the ArtDocFest 2014 competition: politics featuring Euromaidan. Rough Cut (Evromaidan. Chernovoi montazh, 2014); DNR. The Curious Tale of Handmade Country (DNR. Udivitel’naia istoriia o samodelnoi strane, 2014); KievMoscow(Kiev—Moskva, 2014); Oleg Klimov. Letters to Self (Oleg Klimov. Pis’ma sebe, 2014); PMR (2014); rural and regional Russia featuring Guests (Gosti, 2014), Zviszhi (2014); On the Edge (Na kraiu, 2014); Invisible City(Nevidimyi gorod, 2014); Go There: Don’t Know Where, Find That–Don’t Know What (Podi tuda–ne znaiu kuda, Naidi to– ne znaiu chto, 2014); Farm (Ferma, 2014) and the life of Russian youth featuring Long. Black. Cloud Descends. (Dlinnoe. Chernoe. Oblako opuskaetsia, 2014); Olya’s Love (Olina liubov’, 2014); Dolce Vita (Sladkaia zhizn’, 2014); Wedding Pas De Deux (Svadebnoe pa de de, 2014) and Something Better to Come (Chelovek zhivet dlia luchshego, 2014).

The Ukrainian Trace

The situation around government funding once again reinforced festival’s reputation as a provider of an alternative vision on Russian social and political settings, the vision that effectively challenges the official mass media narrative in the country. This time ArtDocFest felt more political than ever, with the events in Ukraine being the most visible trend in its multiple programs. The theme opened with Euromaidan, Rough Cut—a collective work of ten filmmakers who took to the streets of Kiev during the Maidan protests. Ten short documentary episodes create a kaleidoscopic view of the events. Each episode has its title, a particular focus and point of view. Some of them tend to be rather observational, while others engage with the participants asking questions from behind the camera and taking interviews. The project’s particular value is in its use of different perspectives. In the episode “All Things Ablaze” the filmmakers contrast shots from the side of the protesters with the shots from the side of the riot police. As the stand-off erupts into fighting, the filmmakers proceed with their contrasting approach, juxtaposing images of protesters beating police with the images of police beating protesters. The speed, angles and close proximity to the events create the illusion of a presence at the scene, which makes the documentary exceptionally engaging. The episodes are arranged in the way that the violence escalates, reaching a climax when several protesters are killed. The last episode ends with the scene of a mass funeral. One of the most powerful images, later seen in a number of other films about the Ukrainian events, consist of coffins floating above the crowd as people pass them across the Maidan square.

euromaidanThe premiere of Euromaidan, Rough Cut was followed by Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan, which—despite the late time of its screening—attracted a huge audience. Those who stayed to watch the film were fully rewarded. Loznitsa, who is famous for his long takes and long shots taken from a static camera position, was true to himself, composing his film of long establishing shots of protesting crowds. Shown one after another, Maidan’s non-interventional broad perspective and Euromaidan’s multi-observer journalistic approach complimented each other, providing a rare opportunity to see the exact same historical events told from two absolutely different perspectives.

Another documentary project inspired by the events in Ukraine is Reality on Maidan (Real’nost’ na Maidane, 2014), put together by a group of young filmmakers headed by Aleksandr Rastorguev. The film, composed of a series of episodes shot in the streets of Kiev, bears the trademarks of Rastorguev’s previous collective documentary projects: a journalistic approach, multiple perspectives, intimate proximity to the subjects. The filmmaker, who together with Pavel Kostomarov and Aleksei Pivovarov launched the documentary projects The Term (Srok, 2014, filmed during 2012–13) and then Realnost (Real’nost’, 2013–), announced that Reality on Maidan is the first in a series of four films which their group is planning to make about the events in Ukraine. The plan is to move closer to the people and their personal stories with each film.

Reality on Maidan was not included in the competition or any other program, because—according to Manskii—it was a late submission and therefore shown at a special screening, which was scheduled so that viewers could go and see another film by Rastorguev’s team, KievMoscow, immediately after, thus creating another Ukrainian film marathon. As promised in KievMoscow Rastorguev’s progenies, many of whom are graduates of Marina Razbezhkina’s school (Elena Khoreva, Katerina Gornostai, Zosia Rodkevich), moved one step closer to their subjects showing several documentary essays about the life of the common people. The episodes were paired in accordance with characters’ professional occupation. For example, the episode about the waitress Katia from Kiev was cross-cut with the story of a young migrant from Kazakhstan working as a waiter in Moscow; another episode featured a young Kievan who earns his living by dressing up as a bear and taking pictures with tourists in the streets, and an older Moscow resident who also dresses as a bear for gypsy and Russian folk performances.

Another film about the Ukrainian theme was DNR. The Curious Tale of Handmade Country, a documentary investigation of the inner political processes of the Donetsk’s People’s Republic undertaken by the British journalist Antony Batts. Batts tried to get as close to the revolutionary leaders as he could, and they surprisingly let him do so. Following the three main characters: Lenin—a special force fighter; Vladimir—a speaker for the revolutionary government, and Roma—a self-appointed law enforcement official, Batts is able to observe all kinds of revolutionary activities from the storming of prosecutor’s office to private sessions of the new government. In the traditions of TV investigative journalism the film is accompanied by Batts’ explanatory voice-overs. The documentary was awarded a Special Diploma by the jury.

Two films not directly related to the Ukrainian events but nevertheless falling into the general political logic of ArtDocFest 2014 were PMR (2014), an Estonian documentary about life in the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic twenty years after its secession, and Oleg Klimov. Letters to Self,a story of the war photographer Oleg Klimov who revisits war zones he once worked in. The film marks Russia’s major war conflicts in the 90s: Chechnya, Abkhazia, and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Rural Hardships

Life in rural and regional Russia is always a prolific theme to explore for independent documentary filmmakers. The competition program was no exception, featuring several films about the challenges of rural life. Two documentaries in this realm were presented by Razbezhkina’s graduates; however, that was their only common factor as the two could not have been more different. Andrei Shabaev’s Farm  tells the story of a middle-aged businesswoman who sold her property and business in the city to acquire a farm some 200 kilometers from Moscow. The film picks up when Svetlana has owned the farm for several years already, and shows her endless problems with migrant workers, conflicts with neighbors and arguments with business partners. As Razbezhkina’s graduate, Shabaev diligently tries to stick to a purely observational approach, but occasionally slips in direct interviews with Svetlana in order to open up her story. Organized chronologically, the film shows how each season poses its own problems for the farm owner and how Svetlana works hard in an attempt to resolve them. However, eventually the iron woman reaches her limits, and the closing title tells us that she is selling her farm.

zviszhiOl’ga Privolnova’s Zviszhi (2014), named after the village where the film was shot, presents a totally different aspect of Russian rural life: no hardworking enthusiasts, no attempts to raise the rural economy. Zviszhi is a small village situated near Nikola-Lenivets, the site of a fashionable festival of landscape objects. According to Privolnova it was some filming job at Nikola-Lenivets that brought her to the region. However, after a brief visit to the village of Zviszhi she changed her mind and started to make a film about the villagers. Zviszhi kicks off with a series of comic sketches in front of a grocery store, a traditional place for social interaction in most Russian villages. It later shifts towards more personal stories, one of them being Natasha’s story, a sixty-year-old “dolly” as she calls herself, who lives with Valerka, a heavily drinking murder convict. Unlike many, however, Privolnova is able to see beyond vodka and domestic violence. These two eternal companions of Russian rural life are definitely present but not dominant. What is important for Privolnova are relationships between people and their personal stories, and she very much succeeds in telling them.

On the Edge by Anna Shishova shows the village of Ponazyrevo which is adjacent to ‘the zone’—a prison facility. According to Shishova her task was to show how village and prison coexist. She does this through the story of a recently released criminal, Miron: an old man, who is unemployed, has no place to go to and, as it turns out later, has cancer. After being discovered freezing to death in an abandoned car, Miron is taken under the wing of the local Christian community. The priest and his congregation provide Miron with food, shelter and medical assistance. Curiously enough Shishova chose Petr Tchaikovsky’s “Sentimental Waltz” as a recurring soundtrack for the film: it plays several times when she repeatedly shows winter sceneries of Ponazyrevo. Picturesque and peaceful winter views contrast with the life in the village and some scenes from the prison life. Shishova’s efforts were recognized by the jury with a Special Jury Prize.  

Life of Russian Youth

something better to come The present realities of Russian youth were another visible trend in the competition. The strongest work in this category was Hanna Polak’s Something Better to Come, which was awarded the Grand Prix. The documentary had been filmed for over 12 years, following the girl Iuliia, who lives at the largest garbage dump on the outskirts of Moscow. Coming back to the dump for many years, Polak filmed Iuliia, her mother and their friends a bit at a time. This prolonged documentary quest resulted in a profound and complex film, providing an in-depth account of the life of outcasts and raising multiple social issues. Best known for her Oscar-nominated The Children of Leningradskii (2005), a short documentary about homeless children at Leningradsky railway station in Moscow, Polak (who is also a social activist) spends a lot of time showing the life of children at the dump. Iuliia and her peers engage in all kinds of activities typical for their age. They play games, sing songs gathering around the fire, experiment with their looks, try smoking and drinking, and dream about their future. They easily let Polak into their world and hardly ever notice the camera. This and Polak’s distinguished camera work, present us with a very close and intimate look into the realities of social outcast existence.

dolce vitaTaisiia Reshetnikova showed the opposite end of the social spectrum: the heroine of her Dolce Vita is Masha, a glamorous party girl from Odessa, who came to take over Moscow. We meet Masha as she struggles to make a living and keep up with her once lavish lifestyle after a wealthy lover left her. We follow her to night clubs and social events as well as to Odessa where she retreats after her Moscow failures. Quite by chance Masha starts a video blog where she teaches young women how to make their way to Moscow and hang on there. Her controversial, if not scandalous, video entries (some of which are included in the film), soon became popular and she has even been offered a TV-show host job.

olyas loveAnother of Razbezhkina’s graduate presenting his work at ArtDocFest was Denis Zaitsev with his short and sweet documentary essay Wedding Pas De Deux. Some saw the film as a documentary response to Kiss Them All (Gorko! 2013), the tremendously popular Russian comedy: not as grotesque and spectacular, Zaitsev’s Wedding Pas De Deux is nevertheless rather humorous and ironic. It follows a young couple, Katia and Denis, through the last few days before their wedding. Whether it is a rehearsal family dinner or an argument over the prenuptials, the film tends towards a striking openness and sincerity, because Katia and Denis are obviously too busy to care about the camera filming them.

Adding to the youth theme, as well as to political agenda of the festival, was Kirill Sakharnov’s Olia’s Love, which attracted a lot of LGBT supporters to the festival. The film was initially planned to be about a lesbian couple on a mission to have a child but eventually turned into the story of Olia’s romance and subsequent break up with her girlfriend Galia. Two major lines unfold in parallel to one another: Olia’s personal story and the LGBT struggle in Moscow.

Anastasia Kostina
Yale U

Grand-Prix: Something Better to Come, dir.Hanna Polak
Best Feature Length Documentary: Grumant. The Communism Island (Grumant. Ostrov Kommunizma, 2014), dir. Ivan Tverdovskii
Special Jury Prize: On the Edge, dir. Anna Shishova
Special Jury Diploma: DNR. The Curious Tale of Handmade Country, dir. Antony Batts


Anastasia Kostina © 2015

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