Believing in tears: a snapshot of new Russian documentary cinema

The Sixth London Russian Film Festival, which took place in London earlier this month, introduced 11 new feature films and 7 documentaries to the British public. Masha Karp went to watch the documentaries, hoping to see a true picture of Russia today.

Politics, go away!

‘Winter, go away!’ is a film about last winter’s protests in Moscow, made by a group of  young filmmakers, students of  the  well-known  documentary film director, Marina Razbezhkina. From the title, you expect it to be about the end of a political frost, and hopes for a new ‘thaw’: the tempestuous entry of the young onto the political scene. But as their kaleidoscope of creative street actions, performances and  happenings evolves — a young man walking on stilts, another young man writing ‘Putin’ with his head after dipping it into red paint , two young men  wearing  white masks on public transport  — you start thinking that perhaps the title refers more to the traditional folk ritual of burning the effigy of winter to greet the spring than to anything political. The film tries so hard to avoid getting involved in politics that it almost succeeds.

True, at events such as the ‘White Ring’, when people wearing white ribbons held hands along the Sadovaya Ring and passing cars also decorated with  ribbons honked in solidarity, there was an element of carnival and celebration, and the documentary succeeds in conveying that. But the sense of outrage at Putin’s announcement  of his imminent return as president, the actual trigger of the protests, is missing, as is disappointment with the fraud that was the  parliamentary elections in December.

'Winter go away' was sponsored by Novaya Gazeta, a fiercely independent and oppositionist newspaper, yet the film itself largely avoids politics. 

What adds to the impression of  a performance is that quite a few episodes in the film feel as if they had been staged, rather than spontaneously caught on camera. Conversations between two alcoholics  against the background of a red banner; a young man striding through the streets of Moscow, a book in  his hands, reading  Mandelstam poems aloud; a conversation between an activist and a foreigner who simply can’t make sense of why the activist has been arrested … Presumably these were meant to make the film more entertaining,  but eventually they undermine its documentary nature and therefore its credibility.

'[‘Go Away, Winter’] tries so hard to avoid getting involved in politics that it almost succeeds'  

The film was commissioned by the liberal Novaya Gazeta newspaper. According to one of the newspaper journalists, the young film-makers  were at first very apprehensive, fearing that the ‘opposition’ paper would put pressure on them. But it did not, and the students felt free to film whatever they found interesting. The result is an apolitical film about political events.

We do see the organisers of the rallies, but do not really hear their speeches or learn about their motives. Some are given more attention than others. There are several conversations about Alexey Navalny, where people express their misgivings about his nationalist or even anti-Semitic views, but no one speaks in his support and no attempt is made to ask Navalny himself about his views. Indeed, interviewing is something that the film-makers are obviously keen to avoid. Instead there are scraps of conversations, bits of interviews given to the media – an impressionistic approach rather than an analytical one. But  the film-makers’ impressions do also include the forces that confront the protesters. And it is here that the political reality of Russia suddenly comes to life.

OMON riot police — ‘cosmonauts’ as Russians sometimes call them owing to the similarity of the helmets — are seen throughout the film. They are filmed either simply standing shoulder to shoulder in long lines, immobile but intimidating, or, more often, beating, pushing, dragging  or carrying protesters to their vans.

'A man is giving an interview explaining his views on the presence of observers at polling stations. Suddenly, in mid-sentence, he is snatched, beaten up and dragged away. The same thing  is happening all around him.' 

After one rally the OMON surrounds a podium where opposition leaders are standing and starts pulling them down by grabbing  their legs. In a matter of seconds, with all the leaders taken away, two sturdy, well-wrapped up policemen jump on the empty podium and strut around it with a proprietorial air. In another episode a young girl is dragged away and her friends can’t find out where she is being taken. A man is giving an interview explaining his views on the presence of  observers at polling stations. Suddenly, in mid-sentence, he is snatched, beaten up and dragged away. The same thing  is happening all around him.

The brutality, the violence of their actions is beyond belief. Whatever the makers of ‘Go Away, Winter’ think about politics, they got this message across to a foreign audience simply by filming what was happening around them. Perhaps too, it might be an eye-opener for those British commentators, who tend to explain the limited number of protests in Russia by a convenient belief that ‘Putin is still the most popular politician there’.

Fighting for Anton: autism in Russia

Among the other documentaries shown in London, two definitely stand out above the rest - they are ‘Anton is Right Here’ (2012) by Lyubov Arkus  and ‘Milana’ (2011) by Madina Mustafina. Both are made by women; both are about children and moreover, children in exceptional circumstances; both concentrate on one particular child and through the fate of this child let us catch a glimpse of the country where they live .

The film critic Lyubov Arkus has been following Anton, a boy with autism, for four years. She started out with a purely journalistic interest in him but  soon realised that if she did not help him, nobody would. ‘I thought I had a project’, - she says in the off-screen commentary, - ‘and it turned out I had a boy’. Lyubov is not seen much in the film – in fact we hear her cameraman Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev shouting: ‘Lyuba, leave the shot!’, but she is a constant presence, her voiceover restrained and personal as she becomes part of the story she is telling.

'Autism is not a fully recognised diagnosis in Russia. There are no official programmes, no education for parents, no support. Children with autism are seen as a burden on the state and often a burden for their family.'

Anton first attracted Lyubov Arkus’s attention when she discovered a poignant essay written by him, which started ‘People can be kind, happy, sad, nice, good, grateful, big, small. They walk , run, jump, talk, look, listen….  and ended People will endure a bit more. People draw and write. They work in the forest. Chop, saw, and burn wood. People still say hello to each other, talk, jump, run. People are final. People fly.’ The essay, it transpires, was written seven years earlier, and  since then Anton has stopped writing and practically stopped talking. When Lyubov Arkus meets him, he prefers staying in bed and  avoids any contact with the outside world..

Autism is not a fully recognised diagnosis in Russia. There are no official programmes, no education for parents, no support. Like other children  who are different from their peers – with learning disabilities, say, or Down‘s syndrome – children with autism are  seen as a burden on the state and often a burden for their family. Some parents are courageously struggling on their own, but the number of options open to them is painfully limited.   

Arkus begins her search for ways to help Anton by contacting Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev, one of Russia’s best cameramen (he worked, for example, with Alexey German Jr on his film ‘A Paper Soldier’) and  together they take the boy  on a trip to Lake Onega. Although Anton at this point only shouts incomprehensibly and walks away from the camera as fast as he can,  they manage to coax him into writing  words on the wet sand, which seems to make him happy. Then they discover a school where children with learning difficulties are taught crafts. A serious young woman sitting under a portrait of Putin explains that they can’t accept Anton because he can’t concentrate on practical activity. Writing is not considered practical enough.

Anton

'Anton is Right Here’ follows the life of a talented autistic boy in a country that does not properly recognise autism. It  took director Lyubov Arkus 6 years to film. Trailer in Russian 

The only remaining alternative is a psychiatric-neurological institution, an internat, a place with only two nurses for dozens of residents and where everyone is medicated with drugs that keep them quiet, but destroy their bodies, which inevitably leads to early death. The camera does not linger in the internat for very long, but it is obvious that leaving Anton there  is out of the question.  Meanwhile the need to find a place for him becomes urgent as his mother is diagnosed with cancer – Anton’s parents are divorced and she has been bringing him up on her own.

'The only remaining alternative is a psychiatric-neurological institution, a place with only two nurses for dozens of residents and where everyone is medicated with drugs that keep them quiet, but destroy their bodies, which inevitably leads to early death.'

By a stroke of luck Lyubov Arkus manages to  place Anton in the Norwegian-run ‘Svetlana‘ community – a wooden house in a village where each boy has a room of his own,  where meals are quietly  eaten together at a big wooden table, where teenagers are busy chopping and carrying wood  or cutting vegetables. Anton makes a friend, David, a volunteer who looks after him and teaches him lots of useful skills. How much the boy changes there, how happy he looks, how willingly he does all the household chores, how tenderly he embraces David! The camera follows all these transformations and the incredulous audience is wondering: what’s going to happen now? Will the Norwegians be expelled from Russia as foreign agents? No, the disaster is not political – just David leaves the place and the loss is so great for Anton that he can’t cope with it. He starts misbehaving, running away from ‘Svetlana’ and, as the remaining volunteers can’t give him the love he needs, they want him out.

Anton then becomes Arkus’s sole responsibility. And not only Anton – his dying mother stays with her for the last year of her life. Remarkably, there is not a single moment in the film where its director can be suspected of boasting of her generosity – on the contrary, she mentions it only in passing, as something that happened almost beyond her will. In a  state that does not want to do anything for  its weakest and most vulnerable citizens, it is only human love that can save them. That is the conclusion that  Lyubov Arkus comes to in her film.  

By the end of the film Arkus’s love for Anton has accomplished something previously unthinkable –  Anton’s father and his second wife take Anton to live with them. ‘I am sure’, she says in her commentary, ‘that it was not only because we had collected money to help them buy a new house, but because  they saw Anton with new eyes after watching our footage of him’. And indeed we see Anton’s stepmother crying as she watches Anton filmed at different times of his life – at lake Onega, in ‘Svetlana’, at home where he looks at old family photographs and talks about them… Just look at these children, the film-maker seems to be saying to Russian society – look at each of them and you will see a human being who is as much in need of love as you are.

'In a state that does not want to do anything for  its weakest and most vulnerable citizens,  it is only human love that can save them -  that is the conclusion that Arkus comes to in her film.' 

The film ‘Anton is Right Here’ has  attracted some attention in Russia for both its artistic and social value. It now has its own web-site. In December Lyubov Arkus will found a new organisation for people with autism and she is also running a campaign to  increase the benefits to parents of autistic children from 8,000  roubles per month to 40,000 - the sum that internats  are getting per child now…

The invisible camera

‘Anton is Right Here’  is an example of the active interference of a camera in its hero’s life. In ‘Milana’ the camera may as well be invisible, for all the attention paid to it. The young film-maker Madina Mustafina (a student of Marina Razbezhkina and  one of the directors of ‘Go Away, Winter’) spent three weeks with a family of alcoholics who live rough in the woods near Karaganda, in Kazakhstan, filming  them and their  seven year old daughter Milana. Either her adult characters were too drunk to care or the director came to some arrangement with them, but in the film they don’t seem to mind her presence at all. They eat, drink, fight and talk - exclusively in obscenities: they are incapable of constructing a single sentence without them, even when talking to the child. This would not have been particularly interesting in itself, were it not for the pretty and tough little girl, who is the focus of the director’s attention.

Milana, as is common with children, fully accepts the life she lives, because this is the only life she knows. She enjoys running around, playing with the dogs and joining  in the simple entertainments of the grown–ups around her – giving milk to a hedgehog or varnishing the nails of a dog. However, her life has a much darker side to it. Her mother, although still quite young, is completely ruined by her alcoholism and  beats Milana whenever she can find a pretext for it. Then she herself becomes the victim of her husband ‘s violence  and the little girl, obviously used to these family rows, implores her father  not to damage her mother’s face, as ‘she has to go out later’. She follows the quarrel  between her parents and raises the alarm when her mother threatens to hang herself: Milana urges the other adults around to stop her and is the first to run after her.

Milana

Milana is the 7-year old eponymous heroine of Madina Mustafina's documentary film.. She is the victim of family violence, but is even more afraid of being taken away to an orphanage. 

This wild and violent life can’t help affecting the  girl – she re-enacts her mother’s cruelty by torturing a bird, subconsciously imitating the  intonation her mother uses when scolding her, and  she is about to set the dog on her victim when  her mother unexpectedly intervenes.

The ‘fly-on-the-wall’ approach obviously presented some problems for Mustafina.  She has admitted in an interview that she felt awful, filming Milana being beaten without interfering, but she thought she had to show things as they are. And her film certainly has a convincing credibility, not only thanks to her shooting method, but also to a clever and apparently seamless compilation of episodes in Milana’s life.

'Milana re-enacts her mother’s cruelty by torturing a bird, subconsciously imitating the intonation her mother uses when scolding her, and she is about to set the dog on her victim when her mother unexpectedly intervenes.' 

Milana’s parents had set only one condition for Mustafina before she started filming – not to bring the police, who could take the child away from them and put her in an orphanage. And yet towards the end of the film the  word ‘orphanage’  suddenly comes up as a distant threat. At some point surely the seven year old Milana will need to go to school… For anybody who has any idea of post-Soviet children’s homes there is absolutely no certainty that the freedom-loving child of the woods would be happier in the formal, indifferent and in some ways also cruel environment of an orphanage than with her completely worthless parents,  whom she loves dearly and who in their own way are definitely attached to her.   Mustafina does not try to solve this problem; she just hopes to make orphanages the subject of her next film.

Squaring the circle

After the desperate complexity of the problems dealt with by Lyubov Arkus and Madina Mustafina, the predicament faced by parents and children in Valery Shevchenko’s short documentary ‘Inside a Square Circle’ seems almost trivial. After a children’s New Year party in the Kremlin, about five thousand children aged between about 6 and 12 emerge from the building and anxious mums,  dads, grannies and other relatives, who have been waiting in the cold, need to spot their offspring in the crowd. There is again a heavy police presence, but this time it’s not ‘cosmonauts’  but friendly city police  who joke with  parents while explaining  the procedure through a loudspeaker. The families line up in a square formation behind barriers, and the 5000 children are led round and round in a circle in front of them while they shout out their child’s full name to draw his or her attention. ‘Don’t just shout ‘darling’ – a policeman recommends – ‘you don’t know how many of them will come to you’.

squaring_circle

‘Inside a square circle’, a film directed by Valery Shevchenko, shows almost five thousand children experiencing real human drama while leaving the Kremlin's annual New Year party. Trailer in Russian.

The jocular atmosphere rapidly gives way to fear, panic and hysteria, among both children and parents. ‘Mummy, find me!’ a small weeping boy is desperately shouting into his mobile. ‘Where are you?’ Parents tell children off for not understanding their directions; policemen bar the way for over-reacting parents who try to break through the  barrier. ‘I will never go to this party again!’ swears a child, tired of walking round and round and failing to see his mum…

Surely, unlike the  complex social issues of other films, this one is purely one of logistics –  the problem could have been easily solved by splitting the 5000 young party-goers  and their parents into  groups by some simple means such as colour-coding their tickets, or not letting them out all at once … But although the Kremlin New Year party takes place with clockwork regularity, nothing has yet been thought of to try and avoid all  the unnecessary worries, panic-attacks, quarrels… This obviously does not seem to be of importance.

The age-long indifference of official Russia to human pain of any kind  has found its expression in a wonderfully precise old saying: ‘Moscow does not believe in  tears’. These recent documentaries, following the age-long tradition of Russian literature, again and again challenge the wisdom of this approach.

About the author
Masha Karp is a London-based journalist with a special interest in Russian-Western cultural links. 
Read On

London Russia Film Festival 2012, website

Russian Documentary Filmmakers Become Victims of Their Own Success, by DONALD SMITH, Los Angeles Times, July 11, 1993

Sergei Dvortsevoy: the man who films goats, by Pawel Pawlikowski, Guardian, Nov. 5, 2009

Kinoglasnost: Soviet Cinema in our Time (Cambridge Russian Paperbacks), by Anna Lawton, Cambridge University Press, 1992, 304 pages

The Imperial Trace: Recent Russian Cinema, by Nancy Condee, Oxford Univerisity Press, USA, 2009, 360 pages

Dziga Vertov: Defining Documentary Film, by Jeremy Hicks, I. B. Tauris, London, 2007, 274 pages

Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov. By Dziga Vertov, University of California Press, 1985, 408 pages

Russian Film Symposium, University of Pittsburgh, web site

More On

The 6th Russian Film Festival in London. Films reviewed by Masha Karp:

'Winter go away' (2012), directed by Nadejda Leont’eva, Elena Khoreva, Denis Klebleev, Dmitry Kubasov, Askold Kurov, Anna Moieenko, Madina Mustafina, Zosia Rodkevich, Anton Seregin, Aleksei Zhiriakov

'Inside a square circle' (2011), directed by Valery Shevchenko,

‘Anton is Right Here’ (2011), directed by Lyubov Arkus

‘Milana’ (2011), directed by Madina Mustafina.