KinoKultura: Issue 55 (2017)

Marina Razbezhkina: Five Interdictions and the Zone of the Snake

By Jeremy Hicks

razbezhkinaMarina Razbezhkina is an energetically transformative documentary filmmaker, teacher and thinker. Yet it is her two features, Harvest Time (Vremia zhatvy, 2004) and The Hollow (Iar, 2007), that have generated the greatest international resonance. The focus of this article is Razbezhkina’s documentary filmmaking and reflections on documentary film, which were also the subject of a retrospective, the most significant held anywhere to date, at the 59th Leipzig International Festival for Documentary and Animated Film. The “Teaching Integrity. Homage Marina Razbezhkina” was curated by film scholar and programmer Barbara Wurm and comprised screenings of six of Razbezhkina’s own films, spanning more than 25 years of filmmaking, and three of her students’ films. The director also attended, discussing her work extensively in Q&A, and gave a two-hour master-class. This festival format facilitated what follows: a reappraisal of Razbezhkina’s filmmaking through the prism of her own reflections upon on the evolution of documentary cinema, film practice and pedagogy.

Razbezhkina’s Reflections on the Digital and the Evolution of Documentary Film

The evolution of documentary filmmaking has always been closely related to shifts in technology: “Documentary history sometimes reads like a patent-office log in terms of its generations of machinery…” (Rich 2006). The advent and ubiquity of small, unobtrusive, digital cameras, and the possibility of uninterrupted recording potentially change the relationship between the person behind the camera and the person in front of it, so that the filmmaker can become part of the film, closer to the subjects (Berry 2006).

razbezhkina end of roadSeizing the ramifications of this shift, Razbezhkina interrogates the consequences of the new technologies for documentary filmmaking, making this insight central to her pedagogic and artistic practice. A key term she frequently comes back to is that of the “zone of the snake:” poisonous snakes, claims Razbezhkina, will permit people to come only so close, after which they will attack. Similarly, there is a zone around a human being, which is dangerous, for both that person and another entering it, and its nature and size are specific to and define each individual. Analogue cameras, due to their size and the cost restrictions of using celluloid, were unable to overcome those personal boundaries. Now, however, the director of a documentary needs to try to take advantage of the opportunity offered by the digital, and try to understand the nature of this zone for the subject and how to enter it. Trying to get too close too quickly is counterproductive and will trigger the subject’s defense mechanisms. So as to come in, the filmmaker needs to build contact, show an interest, to begin to live the life of the protagonist along with them. This is not only a question of the physical distance of the apparatus, of centimeters, but rather a way of thinking about how to get beyond the idealized, performed version of themselves that people present to outsiders in general, and to a camera in particular.

The aspiration for a documentary cinema that can record and convey an unperformed version of the self is one that has driven many of its practitioners and theorists, from Dziga Vertov onwards, but Razbezhkina sees her approach as being informed and driven by an ignorance of rather than a deep immersion in the history and traditions of documentary film. Indeed, Razbezhkina makes a virtue of the fact that she only started making films at the age of 40, having herself never received a film education of any kind, after being twice rejected by the renowned VGIK film school, and having never worked in TV. Yet, after an early film, The End of the Road (Konets puti, 1991) was included in the program for the Amsterdam film festival and well received there, Razbezhkina became emboldened in her experiments in film form. She moved to Moscow and began to teach young people to make films in a new manner, starting her own film school in 2008, and codifying her insights in a pedagogical practice that may be seen as a guide to entering “the Zone of the Snake.”

Razbezhkina’s Pedagogical Practice: The Five Interdictions

Razbezhkina’s pedagogic practice was set up in opposition to that of the VGIK film school, the world’s oldest, where, she suggests, due to its inward-looking nature (students arrive at 20 and leave at 80) she perceived the teaching had not responded to the new cultural and aesthetic realities of the 21st century. In articulating her alternative vision of a pedagogical practice in keeping with the possibilities and requirements of the digital age, Razbezhkina refers to five rules or interdictions that she requires her students to follow while learning filmmaking: she does not see them as absolutes, merely as a way of developing a sound approach to filmmaking.

1. Use of Music
Razbezhkina bans non-diegetic music, i.e. music inserted into the soundtrack by the filmmaker. This is because it might become a set of “emotional crutches” that support the image, or even ultimately dominate the film. Partly this is a question of ensuring that the visual is paramount, but it is also motivated by a desire to orientate both the films and viewers of them towards the contemporary, to sensitize them to what Razbezhkina calls the “reality” or “rhythm” of the film itself and of the present day: something not helped by the music of, for example, Mozart, she contends, in part because such music brings its previous uses and associations with it, that interfere with what we see.

2. Talking Heads
Students are not allowed to film subjects speaking straight to camera. Razbezhkina argues that in such cases the interviewees will attempt to give the camera crew what they require (or what they think is required). The person talking to camera, regardless of their social status, understands what the filmmaker wants and will usually lie, possibly even unconsciously, to please them. Discarding this technique is part of a rethinking of the power relations between filmmaker and subject, since often the question itself implies a certain answer, and it is difficult for the subject to change its premise. Thus, the form of the talking head is not only a cliché in itself, but it also circumscribes and forecloses understanding, presuming knowledge in advance:  the interviewee becomes a kind of function, a means of delivering certain information.

Razbezhkina’s critique of this approach is informed by the practice of teatr.doc and the Russian verbatim theatre movement (Elena Gremina, Mikhail Ugarov), and her school is now entitled the Marina Razbezhkina and Mikhail Ugarov School of Documentary Cinema and Theatre. The influential teatr.doc scriptwriter, Aleksandr Rodionov, gets round the stereotypical accounts people often give, often by wrong-footing the protagonist with unexpected behavior and questions: it is also a kind of manipulation, but one that opens up the subject and produces more reality than the traditional interview approach.

3. Voice-over
Razbezhkina also regards the use of voice-over as manipulative, and is no less opposed to it. Possibly she spends less effort outlining her opposition to this approach because the manipulative, clichéd and problematic power relations inherent in the Voice-of-God form are self-evident, have been extensively critiqued already and clearly would not bring filmmaker and subject closer together.

4. The Zoom Lens
Razbezhkina’s students are banned from using the zoom lens, and are instead required to select a single focal length lens and then move closer or further away to change from close up to long shot. The idea here is to make the filmmaker’s relations with the subject explicit, and ensure that becoming unnoticed is a product of trust and open negotiation, hence the banning also of hidden camera, since people should know who is filming them.

5. The Tripod
Use of tripods is not permitted, because this prevents the camera (and person behind it) becoming unnoticed, instead making it the center of attention due to the lights, sound, and so forth that surround it. Instead, the use of the hand-held camera permits witnessing rather than directing and conducting: it becomes an extension of the body, like a spoon, effectively perceived as natural by both the filmmaker and subject, enabling the person behind the camera to better feel and understand the protagonist. To this end, one person films the film as cameraman–director–sound and light operator— one person does this from start to finish (Razbezhkina 2010; Masterclass at DOK Leipzig, Razbezhkina 2016).

Filmmaking Practice

razbezhkina dormitionHow is this theoretical and pedagogical practice realized in the actual films of Razbezhkina and her students? Razbezhkina openly admits that her own films do not follow the rules she set out, and the works selected for Leipzig amply illustrated this. The festival represented the start of Razbezhkina’s directorial career with the 1991 films, The End of the Road and Dormition (Uspenie). Aptly described in the festival program as “montage experiments,” these whimsical black-and-white films show few, if any, traces of the concerns described above, and this is to be expected, since they were made on 35mm film stock, the very scarcity and expense of which imposed its own aesthetic norms on documentary filmmakers, who essentially had to plan, anticipate or observe the entire film in advance of shooting it. These films share their observational qualities, rural setting and search for a visual metaphor summing up the historical conjuncture of the end of the Soviet period with works from the early 1990s by other documentarians, such as Sergei Dvortsevoi, Sergei Loznitsa, and Viktor Kossakovsky.

razbezhkina singingI Feel like Singing (Khochetsia pet’, 2000) is a montage of people singing in a provincial opera that is thematically linked to Life as it is (Prosto zhizn’, 2002), which introduces a character who is a collective farm worker with a passion for music. It is the latter film, however, that hints at the methodological innovations she refers to, exploiting the power albeit of video rather than a digital camera to produce an intimate if sometimes impressionistic portrait of Shura absent-mindedly singing as she goes about her duties on the farm.

razbezhkina holidaysThe film Holidays (Kanikuly, 2005) is an attempt to depict the lives of the Mansi people of the Urals showing a holiday spent at home with their parents by boarding school children removed by social services. While Razbezhkina deliberately avoided depicting the Mansi in their traditional costumes, attempting to delve deeper into their lives and minds proved almost impossible, since, for cultural reasons they did not express emotions. Likewise much of their world, their belief in spirits and boundaries, was invisible for the camera, and they did not perform rituals in front of outsiders. The conflict between the two worlds and generations was something that could not be presented dramatically, other than by showing the parents’ passivity and alcoholism, and the absolute mayhem going on around them as their children run riot. While the resulting film is still fascinating, Razbezhkina regarded it as a failure, and it certainly remains, for the most part, outside the Mansis’ “zone of the snake.”

razbezhkina another countryBy contrast, in a film from the same year, Another Country (Chuzhaia strana, 2005), Razbezhkina filmed an old acquaintance from her home town of Kazan, making the task of entering “the zone of the snake” much more straightforward. Diliara, the protagonist, is an immigrant in the Netherlands facing potential deportation after the break-up of her marriage to a Dutch national, and Razbezhkina asked if she could come and film her situation. Even though here Razbezhkina used two cameras rather than one, as she gets her students to, the film succeeds in giving us a compelling insight into the life of Diliara and her son, as they talk about their lives, and she discusses her boyfriend Jan’s suicide attempt.

Student films and politics

Unsurprisingly, Razbezhkina’s students’ films all follow her method and all strive to present an intense and intimate image of the life or lives of their featured protagonists. Each is focused, as are Razbezhkina’s own film, on the present day: she does not make or commission historical films (although Optical Axis (Opticheskaia os’, 2013), which was not part of the retrospective, comes close). However, these films differ in approach enormously, from Anna Moiseenko’s very wordy film about a commune: S.P.A.R.T.A. — The Territory of Happiness (Territoriia schast’ia, 2013) to Dina Barinova’s Shrove Sunday (Proshchenyi den’, 2013), a largely non-verbal observational study of the lives of three blind people, a pair of mentally handicapped brothers and their sister, who cares for them.

moiseenko spartaS.P.A.R.T.A. concerns politics, observing the main character’s idealism, commitment and ultimate disillusion. Razbezhkina proudly proclaims that her students’ film Winter, Go Away! (Zima, ukhodi!, Aleksei Zhiriakov, Denis Klebleev, Dmitrii Kubasov, Askol´d Kuov, Nadezhda Leont´eva, Anna Moiseenko, Madina Mustafina, Zosia Rodkevich, Anton Seregin, Elena Khoreva, 2012) was the first film to cover the Russian anti-Putin protest movement over the disputed 2011 and 2012 elections. She also refers to films made by her students on political events from Turkey, Ukraine and Syria. However, these films tend also to give us an insight into the lives of political protagonists without necessarily taking political sides. Razbezhkina is generally very careful not to make outspoken political comments, and this was even more noteworthy in the context of the Leipzig Film Festival, where the political dimension of documentary films is a primary point of reference.

While Razbezhkina and neither her own nor her students’ films are overtly political, in each case there is not only an aesthetic freshness, but a sense that we are being left to make up our own minds and draw our own conclusions, which may recall André Bazin’s classic account of realism as demanding the spectator ‘exercise at least a minimum of personal choice’ (Bazin 1967: 36). This commitment to the intellectual freedom of the spectator not to be manipulated, while anchored in an account of the needs and requirements of the changes in technology, is implicitly political. Moving on from the old ways fostered by VGIK may be seen as a moving on from the old Soviet mindset in terms that are not solely aesthetic, but have inherent consequences for politics.

Similarly, Razbezhkina’s rethinking not just of the established language of documentary film but also of the power relations in its production, her “zone of the snake” and five interdictions may be seen as having a political character, and this is probably related to her own gender. It might be argued that she brings a gendered gaze to the form, critiquing previous notions of both creativity and authority. In turn, this is connected to a perspective on filmmaking that has been followed by a substantial number of female students. While evidently not statistically representative of her students, all three films by Razbezhkina’s students that were shown at Leipzig had female directors. 

razbezhkina life as it isThis attitude to power and gender as part of art may in turn be connected to the fact that one of the first things students are told is that they need to get away from the striving to emulate the greats. They have to know the history of cinema, but are encouraged to develop their own path, which may be different, to develop a voice that is maybe quiet but audible and distinct. Along with this attitude to film history comes a rethinking of art and the cult of the artist. They are not allowed to refer the Artist with a capital “A”, someone who is always above the rest of humanity, a near God. Such an attitude to creativity, so dominant and widespread in Russia, Razbezhkina argues, will prevent the filmmaker from making a connection with their characters: protagonists will only open to someone who is on equal terms with them. The notion of the artist standing above the rest of humanity is old-fashioned and is at variance with contemporary culture, she contends.

However, in critiquing this conception of art and the artist (which has its roots in the Romantic era, and was seen as inherently Capitalist by the likes of Aleksei Gan and the constructivists in their attempts to think through what a de-mercantilized, socialist art might be), Razbezhkina accepts that there is a tension between the production of documentary films and their distribution and promotion. On the one hand, there is the documentary filmmaker’s need to be as unobtrusive as possible, “anonymous,” when filming, so as to get close to the subject and enable them to reveal their inner lives (she uses the analogy with an icon painter). On the other hand, in order to attract funding to make and distribute films, the filmmaker must cultivate a name and reputation as an exceptional figure, an artist. It is as if the successful filmmaker must be able to operate in both of these modes, which relate to filmmaking, to the creation of art, and the funding, distribution and circulation of it. Razbezhkina herself, however, seems to negotiate these tensions skillfully, creating and cultivating a reputation to which the Leipzig retrospective was testament, yet at the same time fostering an egalitarian and open spirit in which documentaries present and future can flourish.

Jeremy Hicks
Queen Mary University of London


Works Cited :
Bazin, André. 1967. What is Cinema? Translated by Hugh Gray. 2 vols. Vol. 1. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press.

Berry, Chris. 2006. "Wu Wenguang: An Introduction."  Cinema Journal 46 (1):133-136.

Razbezhkina, Marina. 2010. ""Documentalist — eto anonim" "  Seans.

Razbezhkina, Marina. 2016. Masterclass (59th Leipzig International Festival for Documentary and Animated Film), edited by Barbara Wurm.

Rich, B. Ruby. 2006. "In focus: documentary."  Cinema Journal 46 (1):108-115.

Jeremy Hicks © 2017

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Updated: 08 Jan 17