The Russian documentary: an endangered breed

Artdocfest is a Russian documentary film festival, now in its fourth year. This year, due to falling production at home, a new category was introduced: Russian-language films made outside Russia. Lamenting the decline of documentary filmmaking in Russia, Olga Sherwood examines what it is about Russia that interests foreign directors.

Olga Sherwood
12 January 2011

The camera shows three boys. In front of them are two pyramids, one black and one white. A woman asks the children to say that they are both white, and then invites another five children to join in. Only one of the children trusts what he sees and gives the colour correctly, while the rest repeat what the woman tells them: they say that black is white.

Vodka factory

“Vodka Factory“, a Jerzy Śladkowski’s film  focuses on Tatiana and her daughter Valentina who live in the boring, provincial town of Zhigulyovsk 1000 kilometres south-east of Moscow. Valentina, 22, works in a vodka factory, while Tatiana, 50, is a bus conductor.

This psychological experiment in suggestibility — a clip from Felix Sobolev’s popular science film  “Myself and others” (Kievnauchfilm, 1971) was a paradigm for the Soviet intelligentsia. The film on the one hand represented the achievements of science in the USSR, while at the same time a great deal more could be read into it: how the mind of not just the individual, but of society as a whole, was prepared to bend to the prevailing opinion. Not unexpectedly, the intelligentsia tried to identify with the “little man” who didn’t go with the crowd. Every time they were subjected to new pressure, they consciously backed away.

“Myself and others” was no dissident flick, but an example of a true-to-life film being released in Soviet times. These films certainly existed, and often they would be in the popular science genre: documentary and feature films were likely be placed on the censor’s shelf, but it was difficult for Soviet officials to find fault with these seemingly objective science-based films.

Sobolev’s film makes an appearance in Andrei Zagdansky’s new work “My Father Yevgeny” (2010). Father Yevgeny is Yevgeny Petrovich Zagdansky (1919 – 1997), screenwriter and editor-in-chief at Kievnauchfilm documentary studio during its heyday (1961 to 1979). The son, Andrei, is a heavyweight in his own right, as one of the best documentary films makers in Ukraine and the USSR of the stagnation and perestroika period. Andrei emigrated to America in 1992 at the age of 36. The premiere of “My Father Yevgeny” took place in December at Moscow’s  Artdocfest film festival.

Looking back, one can see that the Soviet documentary school was a powerful one.

Olga Sherwood

The festival, now in its fourth year, awards “Laurel Branch” prizes to what it considers the best documentary and educational films of the year. It finds the focus of its work in a particularly sorry state, however. The discipline of documentary film discipline has almost completely lost its language and the way it used to communicate with its audience. Gone is a speech that was built on real-life — and therefore strong and convincing — images. The audience today no longer understands that old system of images, and no new system has emerged to take its place. 

Looking back, one can see that the Soviet documentary school was a powerful one. The Union boasted four independent and authoritative schools of documentary and popular science filmmaking. They were in Kiev, as already mentioned, Leningrad, Riga and Yekaterinburg. There were also a couple of notable centres in Lithuania and Kyrgyzia. Alongside the films discussed in this article, many conformist and collaborationist documentary films were also quite sophisticated in using the stylistic techniques of true documentary film art.

There can be little doubt that the Soviet collapse and modern technological revolution conspired to cause a crisis within cinema generally, but it is also true that it dealt a greater blow to documentaries than other genres. Experienced filmmakers grew old and died without passing on their knowledge to the younger generation. The extent of the ambitions of these documentary film makers were, it seems, reduced using extreme physical proximity to a character (a technique made possible by digital cameras), and the absence of moral inhibitions, to create the illusion of a “new truth”. While movies and animation made what efforts they could to adapt to the new market, documentary film was sidelined to the margins of culture. In its place came ideologized and fly-on-the-wall, made-for-TV junk.

Set against the cultured world, Russian TV seems to have a particular problem running documentary films. The reason for this is quite straightforward: Russians don’t really want to see the truth about themselves or the planet. People are sick of reality and simply want entertainment. And the Kremlin is content to leave the existing TV diet as it is. That means presenting the here and now through crime programmes and a very specific style of news reporting; and the past through rigidly pre-formatted pseudo-historical investigations and opinion-based journalism (an approach that does not substantially differ from the methodology of Soviet-era history textbooks). The nation’s thirst for knowledge is rather catered for by programmes about animals, travel and the Tsar’s family.

Andrei Zagdansky’s new work “My Father Yevgeny” (2010)

There are no commissions, from on high or lower down, so there are no authors. Excellent one-off films which win awards at international festivals are the exception and effectively change nothing. There have been innovations, in particular a new style branded “kino.doc” (to some degree presenting the “new truth” about which we were talking about earlier). Kino.doc enjoyed a cult following among the arthouse cinema audience, but it did not go down well with jealous filmmakers from the classic times gone by, who began to label it “one-eyed documentalism”. Though an angry description, it was an appropriate charge, and the style has swiftly palled. It did, however, manage to light up one star in its ranks, the director Valeria Gai-Germanika, who was propelled from short trousers to a series on the nationwide Channel One in super-quick time. But not even she was able to inspire our craven society to want to see more reality on the screen.

It is against a background of falling demand and the shrinking number of films produced that Vitaly Mansky, Russia’s most famous documentary film maker and the festival’s founding father, announced that foreign films made in Russian would be allowed to compete for the festival prizes.

Where do such films come from? On the one hand, there are still Russian-speaking documentary filmmakers (and their potential characters) in the countries of the former USSR. A second source of material comes from famous Soviet directors, now living in Europe and America over the last 20 years, who nevertheless make occasional films relating to Soviet and post-Soviet reality and/or Russian culture.

Thirdly, there are Russian directors who fail to find producers in their own country, but get support in Europe. Their works may not have the status of “national films”, but essentially this is what they are. An outstanding example in this category is Alyona Polunina’s “The revolution that was not”.  Set before the last presidential elections in 2007, the film follows the travails of opposition politicians, namely Eduard Limonov, Garry Kasparov and Mikhail Kasyanov. The film focuses on much more than this too – the eternal Russian “accursed questions” and “demons”, the philosophy, aesthetics and everyday life of the fight, the victory, defeat and revenge.

In fact, the only documentary film about current political life in Russia was an Estonian-Finnish co-production. It was not released in cinemas or shown on television, but received several festival prizes and awards in Russia, including the 2009 Laurel Branch in the category “Best Art Film” (together with “Countryside 35x45” by Yevgeny Solomin).

The fourth and final category of Russian-language films are those made by foreign directors and producers about Russia. Many of them have not been shown at Russian film festivals, and the number of these works is unknown even to film experts, but over the last 20 years – from the moment Russia became more open – probably numbers several hundred.

These 20 years can be divided into two periods. The first is the “New Russia”, Gorbymania and all the hopes connected with that. The second relates to the more paradoxical present: the Russia of capital flight and in relative decline (though we do have the world football championship, whether we want it or not).

Just like Africa, Russia attracts directors and producers who look to satisfy an interest in the exotic, whether that be everyday stories in an exotic location, the exotic circumstances of people’s lives, or the historical, cultural and humanistic features of the largest country in the world.

Olga Sherwood

In the first years of perestroika, documentaries for Russians and foreigners alike were all about opening up previously forbidden topics. The future beckoned, the archives were opened and wounds were laid bare. There was little serious planning, and a great deal of energy went into “bogeymen” and “ornament”. It was a time before Russian television had developed proper formats, programme cycles and slots, and so foreign commissions saved the life of many a Russian documentary filmmaker. Most notable was the Finnish national broadcaster’s “Eastern project”, which made approximately thirty films about Russia from the mid 80s on.

Commercial interests soon changed the nature of what had been an enthusiasts’ industry. New manifestations of censorship appeared at the same time: archives were closed and, most significantly, historical records are now only opened for cash. This meant that foreign documentary filmmakers mainly research the here and now. Honest stories of the blacker sides of Russian life, without any analysis, conclusions or high art, managed to convince the whole world that Russia is not a huge strong bear with an enigmatic soul and serious culture, but a country of total vulgarity. 

Vulgar means ordinary. Western documentary filmmakers (this includes not just Europeans and English-speaking people, but also the Japanese) are very interested in the whole of the ordinary world: they film everywhere. This curiosity, with financial backing, inspires true admiration and real envy among our documentary filmmakers. But another question is how many of our Russian filmmakers could satisfy European standards…

Just like Africa, Russia attracts directors and producers who look to satisfy an interest in the exotic, whether that be everyday stories in an exotic location, the exotic circumstances of people’s lives, or the historical, cultural and humanistic features of the largest country in the world. The ecological threat that the world clearly perceives from Russia is a separate cause for alarm. There is also a separate interest in topical matters. One of the things I gleaned from the Artdocfest festival was that the Japanese are planning to make a film to mark the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the USSR…


“Tankograd” , Boris Bertram’s film presents life in Chelyabinsk – the only radioactively contaminated place in the world where “nothing has changed”. 

Who knows, perhaps we will see this film at a future Artdocfest? For now, let us turn our attention to this year's programme. There were six foreign films featured among the twenty-one films in competition. In addition to “My Father Yevgeny”,  there was “Vodka Factory” by Jerzy Sladkowski (Sweden), “On Saturday my mother died in the kitchen…” by Maxim Vasyanovich (Ukraine), “The Pink Taxi” by Uli Gaulke (Germany), “Tankograd” by Boris Bertram (Denmark), and “The Circus” by David Rounsfell Cairns (UK). The festival showcased another three out-of-competition films: “Hughesovka” by Viola Stephan (Germany), “At the edge of Russia” by Michal Marczak (Poland), and “Miss Robinson” by Alyona Surzhikova (Estonia).

The German film “The Pink Taxi” was nominated for the “Laurel Branch” in the “Best film” category, but the award eventually went to Zagdansky. “My mother died…”, a Ukrainian picture, won a “Laurel Branch” for “Best debut”.

So what are the subjects that interest foreign authors about Russia today?

“Vodka Factory” would suggest it is the lives of women working at a vodka factory. Living in a forgotten town somewhere between Moscow and Chelyabinsk, in the Urals, these women take the viewer through the process of churning out a substance that ruins their husbands and then them themselves.  Some of them hope to earn enough money to study and to leave. One young woman wants to escape to the capital and become an actress, but she is completely devoid of talent. When she does run away, she abandons her child.

“Pink Taxi” shows another picture: the life of women in Moscow itself. Its three main characters work in a small taxi company, driving only women passengers.  They listen to their stories and tell their own.

“Tankograd” presents life in Chelyabinsk – the only radioactively contaminated place in the world where “nothing has changed”. The young characters of the film dance in an amateur troupe (the modern choreography eloquently — and figuratively — does terrible damage to their bodies), fall in love, get married, have children… and tell us all. The viewer learns the terrible truth about the 13 accidents that have occurred in this town since 1949, about chronic radiation sickness and other such things.

“At the Edge of Russia” looks at life of a small border outpost in the Russian Far North. The acceptance of this film in the documentary category turned out to be a mistake. The young author admitted that the heroes are not soldiers and the outpost is fake. His aim, it seems was merely to show real Russian men in the polar snow…

The merits of a documentary film should not, of course, only be judged by what it shows. The important thing is how it shows it. Such an assessment will, of course, always be subjective. I was personally impressed with Zagdansky’s work more than any other I saw at “Artdocfest”. It is, on the one hand, a “farewell to the USSR”, another movie in a special, unique genre, developed by former Soviet documentary filmmakers. But it also presents a perfect combination of the general, the external, the socio-political, and the deeply personal, showing the relations of the family and the attitudes of the son. It is, in a word, poetry.

The film is essentially a memoir; reminiscences about the far-from-golden twentieth century by a member of “the intelligentsia”, a vanishing class brought up on the Russian classics, their moral precepts, and on resistance to the Soviet ideology. The memoir is doubly valuable for the director’s attempt to understand the Russia of today. For a long time, many in “the wreckage of the empire” associated themselves with Russia (and perhaps continue to do so); Zagdansky’s father, for example, was very concerned about what he described as “our disgrace in Chechnya” (despite being Ukrainian).

Jerzy Śladkowski, director of the“Vodka Factory“ a Swede of Polish origin, expressed solidarity with and sympathy for Russian documentary film-makers: “We feed of you ... we make the films ourselves, and then we show them in our own countries….”

Even more valuable is the director’s experience in emigration. The entire world was open to Andrei Zagdansky and, while his father may have envied him, he never left. In the film, however, Andrei places himself and his relatives not in space, but in time: “Here I’m five… and here I’m 14…”. He lifts up the camera with a huge crane, trying to look from a distance at the motherland he has left behind: slowly, the details vanish from our field of vision, and what remains… what remains is, alas, huge ruins.

This film and others like can really help the world understand the lives, moods and feelings or a great number of Russians and Ukrainians. The question is whether the world really wants to learn. A lot of the subjects of the films are tough to look at and difficult to understand. In many respects, it’s easier to send one’s own director, who sometimes doesn’t even speak Russian, to a distant country to get footage that looks and feels “like at home”.

In spite of everything, many of the directors sent to the country end up falling in love with Russia,  returning there again and again. On such director, Jerzy Sladkowski, a Swede of Polish origin, expressed solidarity with and sympathy for Russian documentary film-makers: “We feed off you ... we make the films ourselves, and then we show them in our own countries….”

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