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Thursday, 1 September 2016

Against Repression Nostalgia: An Interview with Sergei Kachkin on his film-making life and his new film 'Perm 36:Reflexion'

Sergei Kachkin at a DOKer film evening

Sergei Kachkin is a documentary filmmaker whose name, in spite of only one major full-length film to his name, deserves to be noted. While his first film, On the Way Home is an intimate, family portrait of a long-distance lorry driver and his wife- about “a journey, a relationship and a returning home” as it states on the IDFA site  ( As an article in Calvert Journal on this film further notes “great documentaries have the ability to evoke the extraordinary in the ordinary” ( and indeed this is the path that Kachkin seems to be pursuing. A disdain for any cheap drama and a willingness to work within the tradition of classical documentary, Kachkin nonetheless manages to illuminate the lives of those who rarely make it to the screen. In his new film he is about to stake out another new territory in his film on the labour camps in late Soviet period. However, instead of a simple historical detailing of the nature of these camps, Sergei Kachkin remains very firmly wedded in contemporary Russia. By detailing the destiny of one of these camps – Perm 36 – which was turned into a museum, he tries to depict or reflect the state of contemporary Russian society. Present and past comment on each other through the recollections of three former political prisoners (one a worker, and two from the intellighentsia – one an activist, the other a literary figure) as well as the situation surrounding the museum with its guides and directors slowly being replaced and being undermined from above and from below. An annual civic forum which regularly took place in adjacent grounds to the Museum is also filmed with a view to presenting a society at times supportive, at times hostile to the project of an honest appraisal of Russia’s complex history. Perm-36.Reflexion is a necessary film- a film that evokes a much- needed debate, a very contemporary debate on history, memory and the dangers of toying with what can only be called ‘repression nostalgia’. As the translator of the English subtitles I have watched the film (though, not in its final stage with the sound correction of Nelly Ivanova who, as Sergei mentioned to me, managed to breathe life into this film). It is expected to make the festival circuits in the next few months, so I decided to talk to Sergei about the film and how the film has found a not too welcoming environment from certain Russian film environments and festivals hesitant of upsetting their paymasters.

                               Sergei, please tell me something about your life and life as a film maker. How did you get into making documentaries, what were your inspirations (or inspirational figures) that made you choose film as a profession?

Sergei Kachkin with Godfrey Reggio
                            I watched a lot of films in my childhood. Both my school and the cinema were a five minute walk from my home. And quite often I would run home from school to leave my satchel and then go straight to the cinema. Sometimes it would be the case that I would watch the same film two or three times thanks to the fact that then tickets were very cheap. When I was nine years old, I was very much into photography as well by my older brother. My photographs taken as a young child and the negatives are still in the attic of the family home. I’m amazed at my mother’s patience which she showed to me and my brother- we used up an endless amount of photographic film, photographic paper,photographic developer and fixing solutions and when we hung the photos up to dry they were situated all over the house. 
                       In high school I had a side job as a projectionist at the school where I studied. I was the only one who was trusted with this work. I really loved threading the film through the projection camera, cutting and gluing it with acetone on that special bench.
                       To tell the truth I gave up photography after I left school and only returned to it when digital cameras appeared. But I never left cinema even when I was studying engineering at a polytechnic. In those years I would mainly watch Hollywood films – sometimes two or three films a day. And then one day my sister, Marina, gave me a book – the memoirs of Andrey Konchalovsky who had just returned back to Russia from Hollywood. I read it in a single reading and discovered new names which I hadn’t heard of before: Fellini, De Sica, Antonioni, Truffaut, Bresson, Bergman, Forman, Kurosawa and even Tarkovsky. Then I started to read their biographies or memoirs, the scripts or interviews of practically all of them and, of course, watched their films. At some point I understood that I, too, wished to make films. And so I began to think about studying in a film school as a director of feature films, but at about the same time I made a new discovery- that of documentary cinema. That happened thanks to a film club in which documentaries were shown. The following films were like a complete revelation for me: Koyaanisqatsi by Godfrey Reggio, The Belovs by Viktor Kossakovsky and The Lonely Voice of Man by Alexander Sokurov ( although this may not be a documentary as such it is one of those great films I saw at the film club) . Later I was to meet all three directors. Of course I watched many films at the ”Flahertiana” International Festival of Documentary Film which takes place in the city of Perm. But the decisive moment for me was my trip to a Hungarian Film Festival “Mediawave”, whose jury chairman that year was Jos Stelling. I flung myself into the world of film festivals and for some reason understood there that the only thing that I wished to do was to shoot films. And after just six months my dream came true: with my friend Lyosha Romanov I shot the first documentary film in my life “The River Flowing into the Sky”. After that I could think of nothing else and so at film school I studied to become a documentary filmmaker. 

Sergei Kackin with renowned director Alexander Sokurov

Moreover, as well as filming, I know that you have been very busy in many other film-related projects often meaning that sometimes your film-making takes a back seat. You have worked on a fabulous documentary project called DOKer with a number of other very fine documentary filmmakers such as Irina Shatalova and Nastia Tarasova and have all devoted a great amount of time working on bringing documentary to a wide audience (as was shown at this year’s DOKer film festival which managed to fill the largest screen in Moscow this year) and had also been working with Moscow Business Square until last year attempting to attract many people in the global film world to Russia. What kind of insights have these two experiences given you into the Russian film world?

How well-informed you are! I met Irina and Nastya five years ago when I came to live in Moscow. Their idea to show documentary cinema d’auteur in a film club entitled “The DOKer Project” was something I was very much in tune with. And so I offered them my help and for several years we have become close friends and colleagues. The film club in its five years of existence has turned into an International Festival of Documentary Cinema (DOKer). This year it has had its second edition. And we are so proud of the fact that it has such a strong competition programme! We watch all the films submitted to the festival and are very pleased with the fact that so many films are of such high quality. It’s such a shame that we are unable to include all the films we like in the programme of the festival…It is also very important that the competition showings of this year’s festival were shown at the October Film Theatre- this is the major Moscow film theatre and one could say the main film theatre in the whole country. This is where, for example, the annual Moscow Film festival takes place.

Apart from this in the course of five years I was actively involved in the holding of the International Co-Production Forum Moscow Business Square; I was responsible for the organisation and selection of film projects. MBS is a business platform assigned with the task of developing joint film production and it took place during the Moscow Film Festival. This was a colossal experience for me because the spectre of professional contacts significantly increased.

Sergei Kachkin hosting a discussion at the Moscow Business Square

3     Sergei, and now about your new film: What can you tell how the film came about? In spite of your move to Moscow a few years ago, the city of Perm still seems to remain at the centre of your film work. What first made you wish to shoot a film about Perm-36? Can you talk me through your conception of what you wanted to say and how this changed during the period of filming and then editing? (quite a considerable period of time I believe)

 I started my work on the film before I left Perm where my relatives still live. And then one’s place of residence rarely has a special significance in terms of where one is going to shoot. Indeed the contrary is often the case; most documentalists who live in Moscow shoot their films way beyond its limits. Therefore the fact that my story takes place in Perm which I know very well is very much to my advantage.

The wish to touch upon such a difficult subject matter arose gradually after several visits to the Perm-36 Museum and in my film I talk about this issue off-screen. The first time I stayed overnight there, I had a rather strange feeling which I hadn’t sensed before: a sense of hopelessness and a contact with a certain incommensurably negative energy. But this was in the period of my second or third visit to the museum which had previously been a prison camp.  Then these sensations became dulled… the human being is such a being that soon gets used to anything. However, I must at least confess that I never particularly wished to remain there for more than two or three days. Basically at some moment I suddenly clearly recognized that this former prison camp is situated at about 80 km from the city where I was born and grew up in. The thought that during my calm childhood at school people here were imprisoned simply for keeping forbidden literature during Soviet times had a very strong effect on me. I wanted to meet in person those former prisoners so as to understand what kind of people they were. I believe that a larger quantity of people will watch my film than those few who today visit Perm- 36. And sometimes visual facts have a stronger effect than a simple text. 

The watchtower at Perm-36

As far as the conception of the film is concerned, it has also undergone changes during the time I worked on it: it has been five years in the making. The working title of the film was “Perm-36: A territory of Freedom” because on the territory of the museum during the summer there took place an International Civic Form “Pilorama”. The main goal of which was to enlighten society. This is how its organizers (the founders and directors of the Museum) formulated their goals. But during the third year of filming there were some important changes regarding “Pilorama” and the Perm-36 Museum. I won’t say precisely which ones so as to preserve vital moments of the film’s plot. In any case after these changes I could no longer leave the previous title of the film unchanged and now the film is called “Perm-36: Reflexion".

The poster of the film Perm-36: Reflexion

It was fascinating to observe three such different documentary heroes whose experience of the labour camp and whose mentalities were very different, and indeed whose social origins were very different. It’s rather rare to read much about workers who struggled against the Soviet regime (and yet you admirably didn’t ignore this social category in your film). Also the attitudes of the two members of the intelligentsia also couldn’t be more different. A scientist turned dissident and human rights activist and a character completely unconcerned with politics who simply tried to build a life outside the Soviet system, that is, tried to ignore its presence in his life. I found these three portraits an extraordinary portrait of the camp prisoner.  Can you tell me more? 

Viktor Peskov, a former prisoner at Perm 36
Michael Meylac, a former prisoner at Perm 36

I originally intended to choose only one protagonist. Then my conception of the film changed, and I decided to include two more former dissidents. I expected all three of them to be representatives of the intelligentsia. But it turned out that one of them wasn’t able to take part in the filming due to health reasons. As a result the idea arose to find someone who was significantly different from the other two. I thought that this would add a certain dimension to the story and would underline how intolerant the system was to anyone who tried to stand out from the masses. Indeed as soon as a person stuck his head a little above what was permitted, the system immediately struck him over the head. I don’t know how successfully I’ve managed to realise my conception, how far the protagonists seem to contrast each other, but the fact that they are remarkably different is a fact (that can’t be denied)/certainly true! The story of each of their imprisonments are certainly unique and the reason for that were the completely different conditions they found themselves in.
Sergei Kovalev, former prisoner at Perm-36

As I mentioned in my introduction this is no film about the past but an attempt to talk about the past in the present. To see its reflection. To try and outline what one could call the trace of the past in contemporary Russian society.  And indeed the scenes of the Civic Forum are extraordinary in themselves. The scenes of people coming to the camp in NKVD uniforms saying that those who worked in the camp (and presumably carried out executions in the Stalinist times) have their right to be heard, and the right to have their stories told, too. Present-day Stalinists and this strange ‘patriotic’ movement named The Essence of Time (Sut Vremeni) and their troubling attempts to turn a forum for civic debates into something very different. Can you tell me something about your own reaction to this?   
Communist Party demonstrators with portrait of Stalin as centrepiece.

From my point of view that which happened at “Pilorama” was in its own way a mirror of contemporary society in Russia, that is, its reflection. After the fall of the USSR a large section of the population – and here I’m speaking not about its citizens but about its population- remained living in the past. For many freedom is like an empty sound and is understood as ‘do as you like’ and, probably, this is not necessary for those people who grieve for the loss of the USSR. For me freedom is responsibility for one’s own behaviour, the possibility of making one’s own decisions and, yes, in a very trivial sense crossing the border when I wish to do so.

The Museum Building with a banner for the 'Pilorama' Civic Forum

The people in the NKVD uniform, communists with a portrait of Stalin- these people are all links in a single chain. For them repression isn’t something monstrous in itself, for them the main thing is the country, that is, the state apparatus while a person as individual is nothing, he should serve the good of society. For me it is the state which should serve the citizen who lives within its bounds. This is a serious topic of conversation and its roots are deeply rooted in the history of the Russian state. But I’m afraid that with the kind of people mentioned above there’s little sense of talking about this because they justify Stalinist repression with the greatness of the country. For me greatness consists in people having a voice, and not the pitiable possibility of shouting from a crowd. The word Stalinism and Stalin himself, for a large part of the Russian population is not associated with something negative in Russian history, they don’t see this as a tragic period. From my point of view this is one of the most acute problems in our society, society is going round in circles instead of moving ahead and once and for all sorting out this most tragic of pasts. 

It is obviously very early days yet regarding festivals and the festival circuit. But you have mentioned that in Russia certain festivals where you have submitted your film are not showing this as a direct result of it being ‘politically inconvenient’. I remember when we first met (and you told me about this project- this was something like four years ago) you were very clear that this was ideally a film that was meant to start a conversation within Russia, an honest conversation about the relation of a society to its past. So the ideal audience was primarily a Russian one (though clearly it is a film that merits an international audience too). Tell me something about your hopes for the future of the film, what issues you hope it will bring up, what kind of conversation you think necessary in contemporary Russia and the kind of obstacles that the film is presently facing.  

I myself am promoting this film as I am also its producer. Of course, the subject matter of the film concerns first of all the Russian viewer, but Russia is a large country and that which takes place in Russia has a significant impact in the whole world. Therefore I think it is very important that my film should be seen by a large quantity of viewers, in other countries also. The problem also consists in the fact that in Russia there are few documentary film festivals. I would say that there are between three and five such festivals which have some authority amongst film professionals. And from those three-to-five festivals, two festivals so far have neglected to select my film. The director of the Perm Festival told me that he fears the consequences from the Perm Ministry of Culture (the festival is directly dependent on funding from this body). My film was also not selected at the festival in St Petersburg and I suspect this was for similar reasons: its organizers are playing safe, not wishing to show a film which might cause sharp divisions in society. In this sense we are back in Soviet realities and a person who is responsible for something simply doesn’t want to take risks. He thinks like the character in Chekhov's story 'The Man In A Case' “Oh I just hope it won't lead to anything". Let's hope that directors of the other festivals will show greater willpower. 

With festivals outside of Russia there is a reverse situation. It is probably the case that their organizers don’t consider the subject matter of my film as topical, that a viewer is not going to pay for a ticket for this film during the festival. At any rate that is what two festival representatives told me. But I, nonetheless, believe that a Programme Director of some festival (with some authority) who will show some solidarity in relation to the topicality of the film in the current period.  

At the present moment I am sending my film to festivals, and this is, indeed, hard work. Actually it is a very important matter where the premiere will take place. This will be decisive for the festival life of the film which, of course, I’m counting on.

Filming in Perm-36