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Sunday, 28 February 2016

The Untapped Significance of Russian Documentary Film.

A still from Elena Demidova's film about Gazprom workers Men's Choice. 

A few days ago there appeared on one of the most interesting English-language blogs on Russia (Sean's Russia Blog) an interview with the Russian documentary film-maker, Elena Demidova. An interview that I'd very much encourage people to read - whether they are curious about Russia or film critics. Apart from being one of the most interesting places to go for a real, concrete analysis of what is actually happening in Russia (I'd add two great more politically engaged blogs here: the Russian Reader and People and Nature), Sean Guillory's blog has now thrown a rare spotlight on one of those immense and almost entirely untapped sources which could provide people outside of Russia with a way to resist that poverty of imagination when it comes to 'picturing Russia'.

Indeed how many articles and analyses will the 'informed Russia watcher' have read about Gazprom without ever imagining for one moment what the life of a worker at one of its oil or gas fields is actually like. As Guillory argues in his introduction to the interview the viewing of a documentary film like Demidova's opens up our visions all too often narrowed by the turgid commentary of yet another newspaper article fitting into the same narrow field of vision which we are accustomed to. Instead a documentary film like Men's Choice gives us a new opportunity to imagine from an original perspective:

What I saw was something outsiders rarely hear about Russia—the lives of the thousands of people, mostly men, who travel extraordinary distances to Russia’s far north to work in the natural gas fields. These men work on rotations—a month of constant work on, and a month back home. This labor forces them to be separated from their families for long periods of time. Why do they do it? For money, quite simply. Working at Russia’s vast gas fields is far more lucrative than the work available in the small towns and villages many of these men hail from.
I found Men’s Choice fascinating for its human touch against the backdrop of hard labor and a harsh environment.
In fact many of Demidova's films allow us to peer through into life lived which has been denied us by so much 'Russia discourse'. Whether they concentrate on Lesha's tour of his burnt out village to highlight the forest fires in the summer of 2010 or the couple resisting eviction from their khruschevka flat (a typical 5-storey building built in the Khruschev era and symbolic of what is now seen as poor quality housing) in Sasha, Lena and the Iron Dragon, her films give that kind of insight into the texture of people's lived lives. Portraits that break against the hierarchy of classification and deny those 'fixed images' through which a view of Russia is imposed.

A still from Demidova's  Sasha, Lena and the Iron Dragon

It is the rare newspaper which will even print an article about the ongoing truckers strike in Russia denoting something of the hierarchy of concerns for editors when it comes to Russian news but how can we start to even imagine the life of a long distance trucker in real, concrete detail without having watched Sergei Kachkin's On the Way Home with its intimate portrait of a trucker and his wife as well as an extraordinary sequence of truckers and their radio communications with each other telling us more about life on a Russian road than any mere article could imagine to conjure up.  

The subject of Sergei Kachkin's On the Way Home a long-distance truck driver.

(Here one could equally launch into a passionate defence of other documentary forms when it comes to the truckers strike or other social acts of social resistance whether it be in the extraordinary photos posted in the live journal or in Victoria Lomasko's very fine documentary drawings of the truckers discussing and preparing their nationwide strike. How, too, can we imagine the real circumstances of the activity of independent trade unionists without having watched Svetlana Baskova's documentary One solution- resistance (upon which her film For Marx shown at the Berlinale was based)?
What are the hundreds of articles on Boris Nemtsov able to tell in comparison to the extraordinary film portrait by Zosya Rodkevich My Friend Boris Nemtsov shot when Nemtsov was still alive? Or those other documentaries such as Winter, Go Away  allowing us to see a collective portrait of Moscow in a time of political turbulence or those other political portrait films, for example Evegenia Montan'a Ibanez's portrait of the now imprisoned Left Front leader, Sergei Udaltsov, or the Term project by Pivoravov, Kostomarov and Rastorguev in many ways more interesting in its individual sequences than in the finished film. Followed up by their recent Realnost project and their previous experiments in devolving power to the film subjects by letting people shoot films about themselves, the ability to grasp 'Russian reality' politically and socially is within reach. It's just that the opportunity is all too rarely taken up.

A scene from the almanac film on Russia's protest movement of 2011/2 Winter, Go Away
It would be hard in this single post to list the whole gamut of documentaries in Russia and its near abroad worth watching. Yet I hope to start doing this in follow up posts on this and include some interviews with documentary film-makers both here and in other venues such as film journals like the Bright Light Film Journal where I published a general overview of some of the more established figures in the Russian documentary film world. I also hope to discuss the situation surrounding documentary film-making in Russia looking at documentary film festivals such as ArtDocFest and the new and exciting international documentary film festival in Moscow DOKer which developed out of a project to bring both Russian and world documentary to the Russian public (and not just to Moscow's but throughout the whole of the country). The institutional set up will also not be ignored, although it is pleasantly surprising how the desperately inane activities of Russia's Ministry of Culture in trying to dictate documentary norms have not been as successful as it hopes. 

The poster for the 2016 2nd DOKer Film festival to take place in the Spring

Indeed, the inanity and short-sightedness is not restricted just to Russia's Ministry of Culture. One's scepticism could and should extend to the inadequacy of documentary establishments outside Russia. I have written elsewhere about the 'splendid isolationism' of the British press and film critics when it comes to foreign language film. Maybe it is necessary to talk, too, about the myopia of some of those who have the ability to change things in the documentary scene itself outside of Russia. I recall a visit by Nick Fraser of BBC's Storyville to Russia's Moscow Business Square in 2014 to judge some promising new documentaries being pitched there. It seemed to me that Fraser failed to appreciate the particular world of Russian documentary. It was, for example, French television which had the sense to acknowledge the force, relevance and innovatory approach of Anna Moiseenko's documentary Abdul Ballade about a Tajik folk singer and migrant who composed ballads about his daily life in Moscow even though this and many other films of considerable interest were first pitched to the phlegmatic Fraser. Just one of the examples as to how myopia from those who could change things regarding the reception of Russian documentaries in Britain prevent them from doing so. 

Folksinger and migrant Abdumamad Bekmamadov, the protagonist of Anna Moiseenko's A Migrant's Life
In spite of all the myopia of many film commissioners in the UK and elsewhere, there are reasons for hope. These films will in any case be precious documents in years to come. This generation of documentary filmmakers will surely gradually become discovered and rediscovered in time. And the contacts between and the mutual influences of documentary filmmakers between Russian and elsewhere have already brought many fruits. A process of miscegenation is already happily underway. Films like Marco Raffaini's Italiani Veri (on the emergence of Italian light music in the Soviet Union) or the forthcoming Soviet Groove by the Franco-American ensemble of Louis Beaudemont and Alexei Gittelson enable us to look back at Soviet reality with completely unexpected eyes as does the film by the Austro-Russian duo Elena Tikhonova and Dominik Spriztendorfer Elektro Moskva, a fascinating essayistic documentary on the Soviet electronic age and its legacy as well as the larger than life figure of Leon Theremin. Russian documentarists, too, have given some fascinating portraits of foreign societies. Victor Kossakovsky and his students Spanish film ballet Demonstration is one of the most extraordinary films on popular unrest and strikes to have been made in recent years. 

A scene from Elektro Moskva

All this may go past the heads of Britain's semi-ignorant film establishment (though there are some fine exceptions among independent British film critics such as Neil Young and Michael Pattison very much open to the aesthetic lure and significance of the art documentary from this part of the world) but sooner or later future historians, as well as future film scholars, will be making their rediscoveries both of these films and of their priceless value as both documents of their time and as film documentaries in their own right.