RECORDS of DOCUMENTARY FILM SYMPOSIUM
held on May 3 - 9, 1997 in Jurmala, Latvia
European Documentary Film Symposiums Riga, 1999
DOCUMENTARY FILM. THE AGE GONE. AN AGE TO COME?
Abram Kletzkin
Feature Documentary Cinema.
Everyday life and Being


I should like to start our discussion by saying what is the epoch gone by and what is the meaning of the transition to something else. The most important thing, it seems to me, is that somewhere at the end of the 50-ies – the beginning of the 60-ies documentary film makers discovered anew, for themselves and the world, the ability of documentary cinema to create artistic structures, to become an art.
From this viewpoint a most telling example is the movie we started this symposium with, the one by Pavel Kogan "Look at the Face". What do we see in it, in fact?
We see people looking at the madonna, and the madonna looking at the people. Not only at those in front of her, I think, but also at the viewers. This is quite a different level of discussion of what is going on: this is not information, not a reportage about people visiting an art gallery; irrespective of whether the authors of the movie thought about it while making the movie; it is, in essence, a contemplation on the mission of art, on its ability to link everyday life and being. When Nieztsche said: the God is dead, the main thing for him, it seems to me, was that under the pressure of emerging material opportunities the feeling that man and his biography are part of history, that everyday life in its integrity requires an ascension to being, was lost, i.e. the correlation of what makes a man a human being changed – his everyday and spiritual worlds went apart and are no longer interrelated.
Art, though, is always a link between everyday life and being. Art always reveals the turning-point, the dimension which endows with meaning everyday events, thus making the whole world semiotic, for in art all our everyday actions acquire a certain deeper sense, acquire new existential meanings. And we too, perceiving art, identifying ourselves with the events on the screen, in a book etc., see ourselves as part of the world and in the wholeness of our humanity. Or else we do not, and then we remain in everyday life, live on this level and practically do not perceive ourselves as people.
I am sure that the end of that epoch, and we are indeed witnessing its drawing to the end, is not, should not be the end of the discovery of the artistic opportunities of documentary cinema. The problem, I believe, is not whether it will or can exist in the future. This achievement must not and should not be rejected.
What is the problem then? As I see it, a change of the languages of art is taking place, it is not the goals of art, but its language that changes. The language of art of the recent 30-40 years has exhausted its resources not aesthetically, but rather socially, on the level of everyday life rather than on the level of being. It no longer helps understand what is going on because the people raised in the new epoch grew up when art was no longer understood as a link between everyday life and being. They grew up in the atmosphere where art is perceived as entertainment, as a way of passing away leisure time, and they simply do not know how to perceive what is called sublime art, cannot identify with it. It is much easier for them to identify with a soap-opera, with a clip etc.
In this situation, when the value of art as art is sort of lost, we should look for new opportunities to create such a language of art which would restore for the modern man the unity of everyday life and being.
I should like to remind you that the word "being" in the meaning I am using here was, in fact, for the first time defined in the Bible. The Scriptures, as we remember, begin with the Book of Genesis.*
* In the Russian version of the Bible the title of The Book of Genesis reads "The Book of Being" (translator’s note).
Leaving aside the religious aspect of the matter, I should like to say that the events happening on the level of everyday life always relate somehow to the level of being, too. It is this level that art reveals in everyday life. And in this sense any artist is a Creator, for he also elevates everyday life to the level of being.
It seems to me that Yanina Lapinskaite’s film "Venus with a cat" that we saw here provides a very interesting opportunity for this discussion. It is a double transformation of everyday life into being. First an artist uses a model in order to create a work of art. Then the same kind of transformation is realised in the film itself, when such routine, absolutely down-to earth life becomes an object of study for art and rises again to the level of being. And we start thinking of these women not on the level of their everyday life, but consider what happens in the world, with the world and with people in it. In this sense Yanina’s film can be related directly to "Look at the Face", where everyday life transforms into being with such astonishing clearness. But how different they are! Different primarily in the language they use.
I think that the language Yanina found for her movie is a very modern one. Not in the sense of highly unusual, but in the sense that it is consonant to the modern perception of information. Not of art, just of information. When it is presented from such a sharp angle, when it approaches so closely the line "permissible-impermissible". One step further and the borderline will be trespassed. But if you manage to remain within, it is possible to say something important, to make almost any person think and watch closely the events on the screen.
It is one of the ways, I think, to make people not just watch, but share the feeling, and probably art only can do that. For, in my view, the main reason why art is needed is that it has the ability to transmit to people the emotional experience of humanity which can be perceived only by living through it and sharing the feeling.
Even elementary emotions cannot be transmitted rationally. Something not lived through is not perceived. Man would be limited to his narrow personal experience if he, humanity at large, did not have art which cumulates the whole of the long-standing emotional experience of mankind, and we, sympathising with the characters, identifying with them, perceive this huge volume of experience.
The way Yanina presents this emotional experience in her film is, I believe, clear and understandable to modern people in the sense of shared feeling, not just sympathy.
Generally speaking, it seems to me that instead of fighting bitterly mass culture, commercial cinema, Hollywood etc. we should try to reappraise and transform their experience. One should pay particular attention, I think, to what Milos Forman is doing, he is probably the only European in recent decades who managed to become part of American cinema, while preserving his artistic identity. He achieved this, employing the traditional forms of American commercial cinema, but filling them with completely different contents, i.e. saturating them with many layers and polysemy. In this sense the classic example of the movie "One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest" is very important. Some perceive it just as a funny story about cranks, others as a psychological duel, still others as an existential drama… Everyone perceives the movie on his/her own level, everyone finds something of interest in this movie, something attractive.
This might seem to be a false decision: if everyone sees his/her own film, they are stuck on their level of perception. But I remember Y.M. Lotman standing on this very stage in 1989 and saying that art is a self-educating semiotic system, that when perceiving a work of art, when sharing the feeling, we also start acquiring its language, being unaware of it, we widen the scope of our perception. When we manage to make them share the feeling, the audience develops the experience of perceiving the kind of art which they formerly had no idea of, in general the recipient’s ability to perceive more broadly both life and art develops.
Considering what was of utmost interest to me in the programme of the films shown here these days, I have to say these are the works offering a series of models aiming at a dialogue with the modern viewer who is inexperienced and in principle unwilling to ponder on art.
One of these models is offered by Edmundas Zubavichus in "The End of the World in Rap Style". Someone said here that it was too primitive, but there are things which probably should be discussed very bluntly in order to share the feeling with the audience. Sometimes in order to make a person think one has to stagger them. At any rate, this is one of stylistic options, apart from others, of course. There seem to be many movies based on out of the way situations, showing odd people and odd collisions. In this way the viewers’ curiosity is aroused, the habit for sensation as such is used. Sensational is the fate of Virginia in Lapinskaite’s film, the fates of the characters of "A Flight to Mars" by Solomin. Thus curiosity is aroused at first, but I think this is told not on the level of information and sensation, but on a much higher and more humane level.
From this viewpoint it is of great interest to consider the movie discussed most often here: "The Wolf" by Budashevskaya. Both a soap-opera and not. But just because both definitions are true, this movie, whatever our opinion on it, whatever we like or dislike in it, enlarges the scope of a documentary’s dialogue with the audience. And this is an important asset. The very fact that we, a well-versed audience, sat through it for two hours, as Roshal aptly noted, is a telling one, whatever we thought about it, whether we lashed or praised it, rejoiced in it or were distressed, we lived it through.
One of the most important movies in the context of our discussion is "Leshka’s Meadow", for it reveals very clearly how closely a documentary can approach a human being. Indeed, in the recent 30-40 years we attempted to approach it as close as possible, not overstepping the moral limit which, presumably, should not be overstepped. But fortunately for documentary cinema, in the recent decade life in post-socialist countries has become strikingly more open. Some time ago I reviewed the materials we had left out from the movie "Is It Easy to Be Young" 10 years ago, for we had considered the revelations of the girls too intimate, we thought they would not be able to live with these revelations later. Today they seem to be nothing out of the way. I am not sure whether this is for the better, whether this kind of openness is necessary for society, but the very fact that this is possible today provides new opportunities for documentary cinema to approach a human being even closer, to get a deeper understanding of what is happening to it and within it. Possibly, we are not using them to the full as yet and it is not always that we know how to do it. But "Leshka’s Meadow" is one of those movies which show that in principle one can draw very closely without overstepping ethical taboos, which helps people understand themselves. In this case, strange as it may seem, the camera, I am sure, works as a kind of catalyst for the characters’ self-consciousness, it also helps them, not only the viewers, to understand themselves. This might be called a kind of film therapy.
We should also consider the fact that cruelty brought out in the recent decade became a serious challenge for documentary cinema and for art at large. In this sense the two seemingly different movies about Bosnia are unanimous in asserting the necessity and importance of the human dimension. In spite of all it turns out that above all cruelty, all animosity, all blood spilt there is also the human level which is the most important one, even though it is achieved, unfortunately, via unbelievable suffering, losses, blood and death. And if our films help to understand how this happens, we help humankind and man to understand himself and the roots of his tragedies. One can hardly say that we have already learnt to cope with the reflection of cruelty on the screen, but the experience accumulated is really promising.
To conclude, I should like to emphasize once again that we should solve the problem of the change of language in our art by joint effort, that we face the necessity to solve the age-old, eternal problem of art by means of a new language, realizing that language, in the long run, is determined by life, while our task is to find the artistic equivalent.
It might seem that the matters I discussed are too lofty ones, but the point is that it is only lofty matters that provide the criterion for measuring our deeds, whether we realise this or not.

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