Russian documentary film: extinct, or almost. Interview with Vitaly Mansky

In the late 80s Russians flocked to documentary films to find out about their ‘lost’ history. Now they’re becoming extinct. Putin’s regime doesn’t even use them for propaganda purposes. Mumin Shakirov interviews the celebrated documentary film maker Vitaly Mansky. Part one
Mumin Shakirov
6 September 2010

The documentary film maker Vitaly Mansky has been called an artist who is close to the Kremlin, a person who fights the regime, a successful businessman and a cunning provocateur who can make anyone talk. He is certainly a major director, someone capable of turning ordinary people into heroes, and their lives into works of art. His success lies in his dictum: “During filming the author should be freed from the constraints of morality and concentrate on the legal restrictions.”

Kinotavr is the main festival of Russian cinema, which is held annually in Sochi. Mansky was there not just as a spectator, but as a maitre whose opinion is sought by colleagues and journalists. He took part in the seminars, where money, as well as art of cinema was discussed.  Russian cinema cannot exist without state support.

“Write that down! The state has stopped financing documentary cinema. Completely!” This was how my interview with Vitaly Mansky began on the Sochi beach of the Zhemchuzhina hotel. He was not in the best of mood, having just learned that the Ministry of Culture had no plans for giving money to independent and documentary films in 2010.

Mansky 1

Vitaly Mansky doesn’t just make films; he makes things happen. He founded the Artdokfest festival of independent films, and established Russia’s main documentary prize, The Laurel.

Mansky himself broke the barrier between movies and documentaries long ago. “Virginity”, his last documentary was one of the most sensational premieres of the season, and was in competition at the Kinotavr festival two years ago. It was about provincial girls who hit the big time  in Moscow. Before that, Vitaly created a rumpus in 2003 with his scandalous “Anatomy of t.A.T.u.” about two underage girls, pop singers, supposedly lesbians. MTV showed their clips for a whole year, the girls’ concerts were a global sensation. Mansky doesn’t just make films; he makes things happen. He founded the Artdokfest festival of independent films, and established Russia’s main documentary prize, The Laurel.

“What about grants?” I asked, reminding him that before the crisis around 300 documentaries were released in Russia every year.

Vitaly Mansky:

That’s a complete myth. You can’t make a film for $30,000 in Russia, when sound and a good cameraman cost $1,000 per filming day, and flights in Russia are twice as expensive as they are in Europe. So directors film using mini-cameras. They edit on lap-tops,  record their own music and text. But that’s not cinema, it’s amateur art.

Mumin Shakirov:

But some interesting films are being made, and shown at your Artdokfest festival. Critics and viewers really like them.

Vitaly Mansky:

A small group of enthusiasts are prepared to scratch around for extra money (including their own) to top up their budget. They go off and film, then the Ministry of Culture takes the credit. In fact, it’s a massive achievement by the person who made the film, although it’s not clear what money they lived on and how they fed their families. Only five or six people, the big names, get to make real films with a proper budget in Russia: Sergei Loznitsa, Alexander Sokurov, Viktor Kosakovsky, Sergei Dvortsevoi, Alexander Rastorguev, Sergei Miroshnichenko, Pavel Kostomarov, and that’s it. Theirs are the films that are chosen for prestigious film festivals, they’re the ones who find distributors and reach the big screen, thanks to western investors.

If you look back, the history of Russian documentary films divides  roughly into three periods: Soviet, Perestroika and post-Soviet. What was Soviet documentary film making like? What we remember is the tip of the iceberg: Dziga Vertov and his Man with a Movie Camera. Mikhail Romm and Ordinary Fascism. And, probably, Roman Karmen with his Oscar-wining Defeat of the German troops near Moscow. And the war newsreels. These are the films which have risen above sea level, as it were. They were neither particularly Soviet nor anti-Soviet, but they flouted the established rules, which is why they’ve survived. The rest has sunk without trace, interesting only for it tells us about the period.

Mumin Shakirov:

They were the masters. But there were other talented people who told the story of Soviet man.  Gerts Frank from Latvia, for example. His masterpiece The Supreme Court, the psychological portrait of a killer, which aroused both hatred and sympathy. That won’t be forgotten.

Our mother is a hero

“Our mother is a hero”, a film about a hero of socialist labour whose family  paid high price for her achievements. Produced in 1979 the film of Nikolai Obukhovich remained banned until the Soviet regime was over.

Vitaly Mansky:

You’re right, but again, that’s an exception. I’ll give you another example. The director Nikolai Obukhovich made his first film in 1979:  it was about a hero of socialist labour, the weaver Yekaterina Golubeva. The authorities weren’t worried: another meaningless clichéd film about a hero of socialist labour, whose portraits adorned the streets of her native Ivanovo. In fact, Obukhovich pulled a fast one on them. His film shows a child deprived of maternal care, and a father who, because the mother has become such an important figure, takes over from the mother. She’d become this important person, but lost the most valuable thing for every woman – family feeling, love and motherhood etc. When the Soviet authorities saw the finished film, Our mother is a hero, they suddenly realized they’d been had: “What’s all this? We wanted fluff, and we got a film!”  It remained banned until the Soviet regime was over. Now it’s one of the classic models of Soviet documentary film.

Mumin Shakirov:

What about those directors who were considered uncontroversial craftsmen?

Vitaly Mansky:

Soviet fairytales about top workers, Communist Party congresses, collective farms and brigade leaders, pioneers and Komsomol members glossed over reality as much as they could. The paradox was that the most realistic form of art, the documentary, was set the task of mythologising reality.

Then came perestroika. We both studied at the Institute of Cinematography and witnessed the collapse of the Soviet empire. Russian documentary had its finest flowering: it reached the big screen. Millions went to the cinema. For in the late 80’s it was documentaries that told us the truth about ourselves, though sometimes only half truths, as we later learned.  Glasnost and perestroika were just beginning, and there were queues at kiosks for the magazine Ogonyok and the newspaper Moskovskie Novosti. People had been starved of truthful information and they learnt a lot of interesting things about the Stalinist repressions, the Khrushchev thaw, the Brezhnev stagnation etc. This will probably never happen again.

Mumin Shakirov:

The film Is it easy to be young? by Juris Podnieks from Riga was about the young, who no longer thought like the Party, the Komsomol or their parents.  Would you agree that this is the iconic documentary of the period?

Vitaly Mansky:

Yes, I do and I would name a few more: Rock by Alexei Uchitel, and Iya-kkha by Rashid Nugmanov. People suddenly discovered that there had been rock and underground culture in the Soviet Union. It was a shock, a time of absolute cinematographic catharsis.

Interest in documentaries began to die down in the early 1990s. Now, in the Putin era, the authorities no longer value it as an art form or a means of propaganda. This is odd, because it’s a resource they could have used to strengthen the regime. Take sport, for example – the authorities shamelessly take the credit for all international athletic victories. They could also have supported documentary filmmakers and claimed responsibility for their success, too.

Since the documentary has been taken out of public circulation, it no longer has an audience. For example, three years ago Alexander Rastorguev’s film Wild, Wild Beach won the prize at the  prestigious International Documentary Film festival in Amsterdam. And what happened? It got a passing mention on the Culture television channel, and there was a report from the ITAR-TASS news agency. That was it. No flowers at the airport for Rastorguev when he came home. 

Wild beach

Alexander Rastorguev’s film Wild, Wild Beach won the prize at the International Documentary Film festival in Amsterdam

If documentary films were widely shown and discussed, the state could harvest the fruits of their international success.  But that would be problematic too. The film Wild Beach is a unique document of everyday human madness. People get drunk, have sex, cover themselves with mud and torment the poor camel which tourists sit on to have their photo taken. It’s a sort of satire in the style of the great Russian writers Saltykov-Shchedrin or Gogol. For the state to support a Gogol, it  would have to be enlightened, confident and stable, which it isn’t. If the success of the Wild, Wild Beach at a major film festival had been widely trumpeted, the next step would have been to show it to Russian audiences. It’s not a film the authorities would regard as an asset.


„Wild Beach” is a sort of satire in the style of the great Russian writers Saltykov-Shchedrin or Gogol

Mumin Shakirov:

Since you’ve mentioned Rastorguev, tell us about the other directors on your list… Is there a common thread running through their films? Do they touch on the real problems of our life?

Vitaly Mansky:

No, what they do is elegantly avoid them. They are all completely different as artists. Sergei Miroshnichenko makes positive films. He tries to avoid controversial topics by delving into the personalities of his characters and making no generalizations. A good example is  Born in the USSR, which follows through two decades the lives of some very charming young people, who were born in the same country and then spread out all over the world.

Rozhdyennyie v SSSR

Born in the USSR” of Sergei Miroshnichenko follows through two decades the lives of some young people, who were born in the same country and then spread out all over the world.

Then there’s Viktor Kosakovsky. His films take the viewer away, on to another artistic plane. In his film Svyato, you can’t tell where the action is taking place, though it’s an ordinary Petersburg apartment, where the director’s two-year-old first meets his reflection in the mirror, plays with his toys in the room and suddenly realizes that he is not alone. It could be any country.

Rastorguev is the only director who touches on the real problems. One of his best films is Clean Thursday [also Holy Thursday in Russian ed]. He goes to Chechnya and films a bathhouse where the soldiers go; some wash, but at the same time the clothes and personal effects of dead soldiers are being burnt there. There are no war scenes in this film, but in its artistic power it surpasses any of the real horrors of war.

As for Alexander Sokurov, he is perhaps one of the most famous Russian directors. His film Russian Ark will surely be included in all the textbooks on the history of cinema. It’s one and a half hours long and was filmed in one take at the Hermitage Museum. His films actually are shown in cinemas. I have seen their success for myself in Berlin, Paris or Toronto. Sokurov’s secret is in the intonation and his quiet voice. His artistic view is so reduced down to his individual intonation that it’s quite difficult to get into it and a great effort is needed to follow his line of thought. He has his followers. But they’re older people. The younger generation is looking for money and its own style.

Part 2 of the interview with Vitaly Mansky can be read here

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