Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

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

During perestroika Russians flocked to documentary films to find out about their ‘lost’ history. Then they lost interest, which suited the authorities. Now there is just a glimmer of hope that the situation is improving, says the celebrated documentary film maker Vitaly Mansky in conversation with Mumin Shakirov. Part two

Mumin Shakirov:

Many critics think Russian documentaries are hopeless - gloomy, if you will. Directors usually find their characters in the provinces, far away from Moscow, rather than in lively modern offices in the cities. And the Russian provinces are depressing.”

Mansky 3

Vitaly Mansky:

Depression is a deeply personal thing. People are individually maladjusted and mired in their own local problems, which is where the gloomy colours come from. But everything depends on talent: art can make depression recede into the background. Take, for example, the director Sergei Dvortsevoy. He can turn a small event into an epic. An obvious example is the film “Bread Day”, which is his crowning achievement. It tells the story of how bread is brought to an abandoned Russian village once a week by railway wagon. There are no roads, so old men and women push this wagon for several kilometres along rusty railway lines from the station to their village. It might be a story for a news report unmasking the local administration etc. But from this local story he creates the image of a country which earns its daily bread by backbreaking work. Essentially, a local problem becomes an epic. This is Dvortsevoy and a great film. But what makes the film great is not only the genius of Dvortsevoy, but the fact that Western producers invested serious money in it:  you don’t get far on Culture Ministry grants.”

Mumin Shakirov:

To what extent do films made with subsidies, I mean for kopecks, really reflect life in Russia?

Vitaly Mansky:

Unfortunately, they don’t.

Mumin Shakirov:

Is this because of censorship?

Vitaly Mansky:

Censorship today is not in the Kremlin, but in people’s heads, though consciousness is to a certain extent formed by the Kremlin, of course. A person watching a dissenters’ march in Moscow being dispersed doesn’t necessarily disagree with that. He is, as we used to say, sort of on the side of Soviet power and doesn’t really identify with dissenters. That’s one thing. The other thing is the lack of any real motive for civic action. No one would go and see a film on that subject. Take Belarus. The situation there is very different. It’s a paradox: the politics are clearly anti-democratic, but there’s an industry making anti-Lukashenka documentaries. These films are in demand and are sold illegally at markets. The director Yury Khashchevatsky is almost a national hero. They may break his arms and legs, but he understands what he’s doing it all for. Would anyone dare to make an anti-Putin film here?

Lukashenkja

In his film “An Average President” Belarusian director Yury Khashchevatsky shows how president Lukashenka was able to achieve power, how his personality changed and how he has used his position to create a totalitarian autocracy

Mumin Shakirov:

Incidentally, you made a film about Putin, and also about Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev. Putin is one of the most secretive politicians in the country. How did you decide what you could and couldn’t do, given that he is the head of state?

Vitaly Mansky:

That was in 2001. I thought that there were no restrictions, but when the issue of his family came up, it turned out that this was a complete taboo for Putin, though I saw him at home with his wife and daughters. I even tried to argue the toss and I think he was wrong. But does the ban on showing his children mean that the film “Putin. The Leap Year” is less realistic? No, it doesn’t, because I tried to make a realistic film in the circumstances I was offered, without pathos or toadying. Anyway, I didn’t feel that Putin was a secretive person and I don’t think that he shuts himself off.  It’s the people surrounding him that are secretive: their lives are full of personal complexes, fears, ambitions and interests, so there’s a great deal of uncertainty in their approaches to him. I saw a thing or two!!! Ministers and prime ministers, people we see on the screen with straight shoulders and firm voices, were suddenly cowed when they entered his office. They lowered their voices, their shoulders drooped and their whole way of walking expressed lack of confidence. It wasn’t Putin who cut them down to size, they just somehow got smaller.

Mumin Shakirov:

It was probably easier with Gorbachev and Yeltsin…

Vitaly Mansky:

Especially with Gorbachev. The longer a person is out of power, the more purified and liberated he is by real life. Especially as during the Yeltsin era he was not only without power, but in a kind of mini-isolation, so for him I was the first person from the media.

Mumin Shakirov:

What kind of films do directors make who only work with government subsidies?

“Bread Day” is Sergey Dvortsevoy’s crowning achievement. It tells the story of how bread is brought to an abandoned Russian village once a week by railway wagon

Vitaly Mansky:

Charming local stories, about a museum, where the curator is an old lady living in poverty and devoted to saving her exhibits. Or about some person who once did something and now wants to tell us about it. Everything is very superficial. But there are no films that relate to the real difficulties of our lives.

Mumin Shakirov:

What do you mean?

Vitaly Mansky:

For example, real politics. There isn’t a single film about elections. There was a real ‘successor’ operation, when Putin came to power, but there’s not one film about it.  I don’t mean films “for” or “against” – there weren’t any films at all. An excellent documentary comedy could have been made about the bitter struggle between the two Kremlin parties, “United Russia” and “Fair Russia”. This would have been great comedy, and people would have flocked to it. It would have been exported with equal success.

Mumin Shakirov:

Or for example about the pro-Kremlin movement ‘Nashi’!

Vitaly Mansky:

There is a Dutch film about ‘Nashi’, but the director was afraid to come to Russia. She thought she’d be killed. She wouldn’t even let us have a photograph for the Artdokfest catalogue. There was a Russian film about Nashi, a flattering one, but we included it in the festival. At least it’s topical.

Mumin Shakirov:

Why are there no directors in Russia like Michael Moore or Oliver Stone, people who make ‘relevant’ films and sometimes cause a sensation?

Vitaly Mansky:

Because it’s very difficult to achieve anything on one’s own. A trouble shared is a trouble halved. There are so many factors to overcome. Everything works against you. I know the sort of film that needs to be made to make the country shudder, but I won’t say. I can’t make it, and if I talk about it I will reveal too much of myself.

Mumin Shakirov:

Is the Chechen war reflected in documentary cinema?

Vitaly Mansky:

This topic has, of course, featured in Russian films. But in my opinion, the most interesting films have been made by foreign directors.

Mumin Shakirov:

You complain that it’s impossible to make a good film with kopecks from the state, but at the same time you have set up the Artdokfest festival where you show films, which are made on tiny budgets.”

Vitaly Mansky:

Of these 300 films which are released every year, 5-10% can be shown without embarrassment. There are also discoveries. Thanks to Artdokfest, audiences discovered the director Alyona Polunina. She is the outstanding director who made the film “The revolution that was not”. It impressed me above all because she ventured into the very aggressive and difficult space of Russian political opposition, the environment of Russian rebels and the writer Eduard Limonov’s National Bolsheviks. The film is worth seeing for just one of Limonov’s statements. He says to a young man who has got out of jail: “You didn’t go to jail for nothing, brother. Your time in jail meant a lot more than mine did, because they didn’t show me much on television, but they showed you a lot.” These are people who really do go to jail for the sake of ideas, and they aren’t democrats or liberals. Polunina made an artistic decision: she realized no one would see this film in Russia apart from a narrow circle of people. Imagine the energy you must have to bring this project to a conclusion.

 

Alyona Polunina’s film “The revolution that was not” is a story told from inside of the Russian radical opposition

Vitaly Mansky:

So you showed these films, and then what?

Mumin Shakirov:

We achieved the highly improbable. Our dedication has meant that Artdokfest films are in demand. They have started moving into another dimension: to the internet, to small clubs and other festivals, and now we are already holding talks with federal channels about expanding this dimension.

Mumin Shakirov:

How did you attract audiences to your Artdokfest festival?

Vitaly Mansky:

I can’t give an exact answer, but I’ll give an example of what we did. We had a film about the problems of abortion, and we tried to find people on the internet who were interested in this topic. So we invite them to come and watch the film. When they come, we try and make sure they don’t just leave the festival afterwards, but stay to watch another film, for example about life in a northern village. A chain of interests is developed, word spreads and discussions move to Livejournal blogs. Then people queue up at the Khudozhestvenny cinema in Moscow where the film forum is being held. Our job is to make sure that the films get a new life after the festival, rather than just fading away.

Mumin Shakirov:

What are your expectations? Will documentaries continue to stagger on, only kept alive by enthusiasts?

Vitaly Mansky:

I think that every cloud has a silver lining. In the sense that at present, some group in the Kremlin has dealt the Culture Ministry a severe blow. This will force it (or so I would like to believe) to become more active and realize that it needs to stop pretending to work and move on. What do I mean by this? Among other things, they should do what producers do: identify film projects, analyse them and do the sums, as well as giving proper consideration to appropriate budgets.

I have the feeling that changes are ahead, both at the top and the bottom. I think that people at the top have begun to take an interest in what is happening lower down. This is a positive development, because before they weren’t interested on principle. They were sure that everything had been ‘sorted’.  Now they see it hasn’t and that they are going to have to engage.

Part 1 of the interview with Vitaly Mansky can be read here

About the author

Mumin Shakirov is Moscow based, former Liberty Radio journalist. He is also a book writer and film director.

Read On

www.manski.ru – web site of Vitaly Mansky

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

Vertov book

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

More On

Mansky, Gorbachev, JP II

Pope John Paul II, Mikhail Gorbachev, Vitaly Mansky

Vitaly Mansky is a prominent Russian film director and producer. Born in 1963 in Lvov, Mansky entered the VGiK Cinema institute in Moscow in 1982. Over a career beginning in 1989, Mansky has directed more than 30 films, mostly documentaries. His films have participated in more than 400 international film festivals, and won more than 50 major awards. His work has been repeatedly screened on TV in Russia, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, Sweden and other countries. Mansky has co-produced more than 200 films. From 1999 to 2003, he headed the Documentary Program Production on Rossia-RTR TV channels. Mansky is also well known for his opposition to fellow director Nikita Mikhailkov, who as head of the official Filmmakers Union has become a tsar-type figure in Russian cinema. Mansky has recently undertaken to create his own, independent film makers association.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.