Issue 51 (2016)

ArtDocFest 2015: Sleepless in Russia

By Elena Markova (Moscow)

“Don’t sleep, you’ll freeze” [Ne spi, zamerznesh’]—this snappy slogan unambiguously and precisely determined the entire course of ArtDocFest 2015, Russia’s largest festival of independent documentaries, which opened on 8 December with a tremendous line-up of films, faithfully reflecting the current state of the country. Stripped of government funding already last year, the festival nevertheless brought together once again thousands of interested attendees, drawing full houses and leaving audiences chatting animatedly even late at night. ArtDocFest’s president Vitalii Manskii admitted that the festival has, from its beginning in 2007, been in opposition: first to the limitations of state television, then to the growing patriotism. “Can we really only here talk openly on topics we’re concerned about—Ukraine and Donbass, Chechnya and the Russian government, minorities and drug addiction, love, the search of an aim in life and happiness? It seems like it” (Migulina 2015). The second year in a row without subsidies from the Russian Ministry of Culture has only incited the festival organizers to bolder and more decisive actions.

chaikaThe official warning from the Ministry of Culture issued on the day when ArtDocFest kicked off referred to the lack of a distribution certificate for some films included in the program. A growing menace to ArtDocFest was averted by Vitalii Manskii, who commented: “Indeed, we do have some Russian-produced films without a distribution certificate, but it is not required, because the rights to those films have been sold to a Latvian company and therefore count as Latvian films before the law” (Anon. 2015). By all accounts, the government’s warning was related to the sensational and scandalous investigation film Chaika about the family business of the Prosecutor General of Russia, Iurii Chaika. The film was created by the Fund for the Fight against Corruption and its founder, Aleksei Naval’nyi. The government warned the festival organizers less than in a week following the announcement that the festival would include this film in its special online competition “ArtDocSet’” (ArtDocNet), without a public screening. The Russian Ministry of Culture refused to accept any kind of connection between the warning to ArtDocFest and the film’s content. ArtDocFest featured around 145 films in various categories, of which 21 were in the main competition. The festival includes Russian premieres of documentaries and foreign films made in the Russian language, as well as international works. As a prologue to the December event in Moscow and St Petersburg, ArtDocFest was successfully held for the second time in the autumn Latvia’s capital Riga. In Moscow, the screenings were held in the three modern halls of the Gorizont cinema, as in the previous year. 

do boluOut-of-competition films traditionally included several sections, such as “Sreda” (“Environment”); “Iashchik” (“Box”); “God literatury: v izgnanii” (“Year of Literature: In Exile”); “Imperiia. Raspad” (“The Collapse of the Empire”); “Ot A do A” (“From A to A”); “Psychologies.Doc”; and “Nashi” (“Ours”). “Sreda” has an important place in the festival and includes the greatest number of works (around 30 films), which generally and clearly reflect the main trends of contemporary documentary filmmaking. “Iashchik” demonstrates conspicuous documentaries, which have previously been shown on television. “From A to A” acquaints the audience with notable works of award-winning documentary filmmakers. “Psychologies.Doc” focused on the topic “Fathers and Sons” and was presented through ten films, all of them made in a controversial and complex “I-movie” genre that requires a certain amount of intimacy and openness of the author. As one of the information partners and contributors to this part of the program, the journal Psychologies (Russia) attracted interested people for the film’s discussions. Q&A sessions at the section included not only filmmakers but also psychologists. Three films of the prominent Polish director Marcin Koszałka screened in this program: Till it Hurts (Do bolu, 2008), Let’s Run Away from Her (Ucieknijmy od niej, 2010) and Such a Nice Boy I Gave Birth to (Takiego pieknego syna urodzilam, 1999) which closely scrutinize the difficult communication between fathers and sons. The heroes of Koszałka’s films are figments of his own conscience: they have materialized from his life, since the director himself suffered from a burdensome relationship with his mother. His first film, the much-acclaimed Such a Nice Boy… dealt with this theme and uncovered the origins of conflict situations. The personal style imbues his films with existentialist self-reflection, honesty and undisguised truth. The protagonist of Till it Hurts, a 53-years old psychotherapist, still lives with his mother who does not want to let him live his own life. Let’s Run Away from Her tells the story of a woman who documents on camera the last moments of people dying in hospitals; this way she tries to cope with the death of her own mother and father. This Polish family trilogy evoked a warm response from the Russian audience.

wenn es blendetThe films in the competition can be divided along the lines of several key topics. First, there is politics in Evgenii Mitta’s Act and Punishment (Vystuplenie i nakazanie, Russia); Chad Gracia’s The Russian Woodpecker (Russkii diatel, USA);Steve Hoover’s Crocodile Gennadiy (USA);Iuliia Kiseleva’s Self-nominee (Samovydvizhenka, Russia); Beata Bubenec’s The Chechen (Chechen, Ukraine). Second, the theme of relationships in Ol’ga Stolpovskaia’s Year of Literature (God literatury, Russia);Ivette Löcker’s When it Blinds, Open your Eyes (Wenn es blendet, öffne die Augen, Austria);Matvei Troshinkin’s May I Just Be (Mozhno ia prosto budu, Russia);Dmitrii Vakulin and Grigorii Gliants’ None of Your Business (Ne tvoe delo, Russia);Reuven Brodsky’s Seven Days in St Petersburg (Sem’ dnei v Peterburge, Israel); Elwira Niewira and Piotr Rosolowski’s Domino Effect (Effekt domino, Poland-Germany); and third, life in provincial Russia and former Soviet republics in Jerzy Sladkowski’s Don Juan (Poland); Anna Slavina’s Life is Good. Even Better (Zhizn’—khorosho. Eshche luchshe, Russia);Chingiz Narynov’s Metallic Bread (Metallicheskii khleb, Switzerland, Kyrgyzstan, France);Ivan Golovnev’s The Land of the Udege (Strana Udekhe, Russia); and Arbo Tammiksaar’s and Jaak Kilmi’s Christ Lives in Siberia (Kristus elab Siberis, Estonia).

Jam tomorrow, or this is a political life

self nomineeThe festival’s status, independent from the official government policy, only acts in ArtDocFest’s favor: it makes it possible to show everything that is well-timed, talented and ingenious. “When the 89.9 per cent of the country suffers from psychosis, it is important to maintain ArtDocFest as a space with common sense and objective criteria for distinguishing gifted movies. Paradoxically, only talented documentaries can easily and naturally be merged into this space”, claimed program director Viktoriia Belopolskaia in the Festival catalogue. Different points of view present a solid grasp and clear perception of real life. This is the first thought that comes to mind after watching Iuliia Kiseleva’s documentary Self-nominee. It tells the story of a 22-year old girl, Dar’ia Sorokina, who wants to become the deputy of the municipal assembly in one of the Moscow’s districts. Excessively active, self-confident and disposed towards the opposition, she believes that Putin will leave in two years’ time, and thus Russia is guaranteed a prosperous and promising future. When she finally wins the elections, she shockingly exclaims: “To become a deputy at 22 years! No, I’m not ready for that!” The director filmed Sorokina over a period of five years: we leave her at the oppositional meeting against the President and find her two years later in the pro-government youth camp “Seliger”. Like a ship without a rudder, she is tossed from one side to another, not even contemplating these changes too much. “She’s a pseudo-activist,” comments one of her friends in the film.

chechenAt this point, the protagonist of another documentary, The Chechen,directed by Beata Bubenec, represents the flip side of the coin. “The only thing I can do in my life is fight,” confesses Ruslan. The film’s director, a graduate of Marina Razbezhkina’s School of Documentary, met him on the Majdan in Kiev at the end of 2013. He fought for the Russians in Chechnya, and kept fighting for Russia on the Majdan. But after a fair amount to drink, he starts crying: “Glory to Ukraine!” Then, a moment later: “Glory to Russia!” and a final: “Allah Akbar!” A comical effect is reached here, but immediately a question arises: Is this all for real, or maybe Ruslan has been embroidering his stories? From his words it appears that he has been participating in a military conflict in Transnistria and Abkhazia; that his wife owns a fancy hotel and he has not seen her for ages; and that she waits for him in France. To believe or not, that’s a secondary issue. The only thing that matters is that Bubenec created not a film about Baron Munchausen, but recorded some incredible and unbelievable moments in life, which make you believe that real life sometimes is a way more unpredictable than cinema.

gennadiyThis issue is proven in the documentary Crocodile Gennadiy, directed by Steve Hoover and produced by Terrence Malick, which premiered at Tribeca Film Festival in New York and was shown at ArtDocFest in the competition. The film illustrates the events in Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when government institutions were destroyed and streets flooded with homeless youths addicted to drugs and alcohol. A charismatic and valiant pastor from Mariupol named Gennadiy Mokhnenko was unable to stand that situation and started to forcibly remove children from the streets and bring them to his Pilgrim Republic rehabilitation center. His “tough love” methods immediately turned him to an intrepid Robin Hood folk hero for some, while for others he became a lawless, turbulent hoodlum. The viewers follow Gennadiy over the course of the past 15 years, including archival video footage and television extracts, as well as fragments from interviews, and eventually faces a conundrum fraught with questions: Is it acceptable or not to bring up children in this way? Despite criticism, condemnation and even direct threats, Gennadiy is still at work now, successfully. There is no other way to show the horror of drug addiction than to show the children their friend, a 12-year old boy, suffering from a blood infection caused by drug injections. He groans loudly, his skin is inflated and his veins swollen: just in a moment he will be admitted to hospital. But all the children need that minute in order to understand the crux of the problem, just like the viewers, forced to watch it, too.

gennadiySkillfully used are additional materials in the crucial moments, some vignettes taken from the famous Soviet cartoon Cheburashka, where the fluffy eponymous protagonist befriends the crocodile Gena (Gennadii); these episodes offer a brief respite to the audience, whilst simultaneously reminding us that reality is much more cruel and grim. Solving problems in reality simply cannot be done in a juvenile manner.

Accompanied by the cosmic music of Atticus Ross, the film creates an overwhelming impression of something monolithic, metallic and post-apocalyptic, giving the movie even some mythological sounding. The director creates no smooth picture of an improbable hero, but intensely and sincerely draws the image of a Titan fighting for justice in a unique manner. The final part of the documentary was shot during the Russian invasion of Crimea, which adds even more gloom; and, despite the criticism, why does most of the audience still seek salvation in Gennadiy?

vystuplenieIn a similar search for liberation, Mitta’s Act and Punishment presented precise and full information on Pussy Riot’s actions with a huge amount of circumstantial details and incidental pieces. But this is not only a director’s report on the famous group, but a truly encyclopedic research with analogies from art history. The punk group is associated with the famous paintings of Vasilii Surikov’s “Boyar’s Wife Morozova” (1887) and “Morning of the Streltsy Execution” (1881), and with the images of the holy fools (iurodivye). The film follows the history of each participant of the group, starting from their activity in the art group “Voina” (“War”) and finishing with people’s protests to free Pussy Riot. “They are in jail, but they are still changing us;” “They transformed entire formations, both in the history of the Russian church and in Russian history.” Nobody feels indifferent: “We are all Pussy Riot!” yells the crowd, and with these words the film ends.

The two of us: relationships

year of literatureIt is courageous to show life and history as they are. It takes even more courage to show your own life and your own history to the public. The Year of Literature begins in the cozy suburban house of the famous Russian writer Aleksandr Snegirev and his wife Ol’ga Stol’povskaia. They make plans, work, repair the house, dig in the garden, and create their happy life together. However, the devastating news about the demolition of the house to make way for a new highway leaves no hope for a better life. “Perhaps we should get used to the fact that life is one huge obstacle. And here it is, one of those obstacles, when you need to survive and just keep moving on,” she says. This is a film about the beauty of fleeting moments, the confrontation with the world and the realization of your own creative purpose in life.

Another film from the competition program similar to The Year of Literature is None of Your Business. A couple travels through Georgia and they experience a profound lack of comprehension. They try to talk and listen to each other, but at the same time they don’t hear each other. The audience is located literally somewhere near the protagonists, and it seems that we are looking over their shoulder, onto the balcony of the hotel room from behind the curtain. Or we are just staring right into their eyes for a long time. Sometimes you lower your eyes and feel some awkwardness from such propinquity, so one has to find some line between the protagonists and the audience.

The pride of the provinces

Life is Good. Even Better is a 28-minute long film by Anna Slavina, a graduate of St Petersburg State University of Film and Television (GUKiT), touchingly telling the story of a Russian man who stayed in the republic of Kyrgyzstan after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Documentaries sometimes can be shocking and take you unawares. The director here becomes the protagonist’s shadow and the audience listens to his plain stories about life, work, his drug addiction and his new love. He reflects about the future, about life and death. “I would like to die somewhere in the woods, so that a leopard or a wolf could eat me and I would become the part of the food chain,”—these confessions are surprising and stupefying, but it is still interesting to listen to them. Like a bolt from the blue you read a single line at the end of the film: “left work and disappeared”. That is it, 30 seconds ago you were worrying about a man you had never seen, and now it’s over. There is emptiness and complete silence. As Vitalii Manskii said during the discussion after the film: “when we saw this ending, it was a revelation. We undoubtedly needed to include it to the program.”

life is goodAnother revelation for the audience was the documentary Don Juan by the Polish director Jerzy Sladkowski, who earlier participated in ArtDocFest with his film Vodka Factory (2011). Don Juan is an astounding movie, extremely painful and at the same time inspiring. In November it participated in the prestigious International Documentary Film Festival (IDFA) in Amsterdam and won the award for Best Feature-length Documentary. At ArtDocFest it screened on the last day and replaced the much talked-about movie Grozny Blues (the festival administration had to withdraw the picture from the program, because one of the protagonists, Taita Junusova, was kidnapped two hours after the trailer had been uploaded onto the Internet). Manskii appealed on air, speaking on the channel Dozhd’ and appealing to the Head of Chechnya for Junusova’s protection, otherwise the film would be shown to the public. She was released. Grozny Blues was immediately replaced with Don Juan.

Don Juan shows the city of Nizhnii Novgorod and a 22-year old Oleg, who lives there with his mother and grandmother. The mother considers him to be autistic, thus always tries to give him extra care and sends him for medical and psychological treatment. Oleg is shy and introvert, and does not make friends easily. A psychologist hysterically shouts at him and asks him to repeat: “I’m a man!” Finally his mother decides to send him to the student theater so he can socialize and make friends. In the end the whole story moves to a completely different level of joy and humanity. With a noticeable dose of satire, this drama works with laughter through tears. The film is not only about mental health care, but also about compassion and comprehension.

ArtDocFest has become one of those rare and free places where it is still possible to think, to watch and to listen happily and attentively, without any kind of timorous looks back over the shoulder. The closing ceremony was replete with gratitude, warmth and a feeling of unity. Naval’nyi, who won the prize in the ArtDocSet’ nomination, said from the stage that he wasn’t the true director of the film Chaika, but that the actual filmmaker referred not to say his name. Naval’nyi hoped that some time in Russia there would be a time when nobody would be afraid to say their names. One of the highlights of the program was the special screening of a film about Boris Nemtsov. Needless to say, it was impossible to get tickets.

The program “Nashi” included a film made by Tatiana Brandrup, titles Cinema: A Public Affair (Kino, obshchestvennoe delo, Germany). It was about the ups and downs of Moscow’s Museum of Cinema, and in particular the infamous act of the Ministry of Culture to relieve of his post the museum’s long-term director, the prominent Russian film scholar and historian Naum Kleiman. His name has become synonymous with cinema. The entire staff of the museum refused to work with the new director, and resigned, only to return to their jobs following Kleiman’s request. In an interview for the film, Kleiman said that he dreamed of a Museum of Cinema that could become a home— for cinematographers, critics and film fans, a place where people could hear honest answers to honest questions. ArtDocFest, in some way, has become such a home in the filed of documentary cinema, bringing together people who are passionately interested in what they are doing. Today’s documentary filmmaking in Russia has become an act of a civil courage. The festival organizers’ goals are noble and audacious, and at the same time straightforward: they want to show everybody a real Russian world. Without Russian ornament.

Works cited

Migulina, Katerina. 2015. “’ArtDokFest’: liudi stoiali v ocherediakh za defitsitom real’nosti.” 17 December. 

Anon. 2015. “Minkul’t prigrozil ‘Artdokfestu’ posledstviiami za fil’m o Chaike”. 8 December. Novaia gazeta

Grand Prix: Crocodile Gennadiy (director Steve Hoover, USA)
Best feature-length documentary: The Chechen (director Beata Bubenec, Ukraine)
Special Jury Prize: Salamanka (directors Ruslan Fedotov and Aleksandra Kulak, Russia)
Special Jury Diploma: Self-nominee (director Iuliia Kiseleva, Russia)
ArtDocSet’ winner: Chaika (director Aleksei Naval’nyi)

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Elena Markova © 2016

Updated: 02 Jan 16