held on May 3 - 9, 1997 in Jurmala, Latvia
European Documentary Film Symposiums Riga, 1999
Sergey Muratov
Documentary Cinema:
the End or the Beginning of the Epoch?

Our views started with the movie "Look at the Face", and Abram Kletzkin started his presentation with the discussion of this movie, too. This is why I shall not swerve from the tradition either. I have watched this movie here for the 30-th time, I guess, for I show it to my students in various educational establishments. I show them several dozens movies and then ask them to write three reviews about any three films, those which they were most impressed by. Quite often they write about the movie "Look at the Face".

This is linked to the question whether the language of cinema is changing. On the one hand, I agree with Abram: indeed, it is changing, on the other hand I do not agree that the language is changing because students do write about this movie. This gave rise to the idea to create an anthology of documentary cinema – " The Immortal Cinema". These movies are special in the sense that every time you watch them you discover something you did not notice before. Like when you bring home a piece of soil with turf, grass keeps growing on this piece, insects keep creeping, generally speaking, life is going on there. There are other films, though, which produce a strong impression at first, but you don’t feel like watching them for the second time, and if you do, the impression you get is much worse.

On hearing of the idea of "The Immortal Cinema" Lev Roshal remarked sadly that immortal cinema was created by mortal cinematographers. He is surely right, for we still have a far way to go to the epoch of immortal cinematographers, as well as to the epoch of immortal painters. Leonardo Da Vinci is no longer with us, but his "Madonna Litta" nevertheless remains. This is why I suggested the title "Immortal Cinema in the Epoch of Dying Cinematography". But Leonid Gurevitch was indignant, for the prospect of working in a morgue does not suit him at all. It was not my intention to offend Gurevitch, I simply meant that for a rank-and-file viewer the only chance to watch the movies shot by you during the courses of directors and script writers is to watch them on the TV screen, not in the conditions that we have the opportunity of watching them. One should therefore reckon with a certain loss in terms of quality, for the sake of the gain in the quantity of viewers.

Incidentally, I never demonstrate Arthur Peleshyan’s films on the small screen, realising that the loss would be enormous. But in our Dziga Vertov’s TV club directed by Roshal, Gurevitch and me on the 31-st channel, we recently had a re-run of "Look at the Face", realising that the loss in terms of quality would be inevitable, but 170 cities of the country would be able to watch it.
What I am driving at is that the new generation is coming, and undying films like the one of Robertas Verba "The Thoughts of Hundred-Year-Olds" that we watched here and, surely, Peleshyan’s films, should be watched by the young. Then, maybe, they will not forget the cinema language elaborated in the 60-ies. It was wonderful that we watched films here and could define them as immortal ones on the spot.
Generally speaking, it is interesting to define: this movie’s life will be one hundred years, that one’s – two years, while that other one’s had been over before the film was over. But while we can make the latter kind of statement, the mark of immortality is none of our business, this is only for our descendants to tell. Our workshop can therefore be viewed as a selection committee for the anthology "The Immortal Cinema", with the right of consultative vote.
This was the answer to the question about the purpose of our meeting here, but now I want to answer the question on the agenda: "Documentary cinema: the end or the beginning of an epoch?"
We touched upon this question time and again in the course of the twenty years of this workshop, and the title of one of my presentations was precisely the answer to this question: "Documentary Cinema: the Art of the 22-th Century". Not of the 21-st century, and even less so of the 20-th. Why so? It is worth while comparing documentary cinema to fiction cinema. It had the same period of development, but while fiction films rose from the Lumiere brothers and Melyes to Fellini, Bergman and dozens of others, while they are firmly entrenched in screen culture and in culture at large, the same is not true of documentary cinema. Indeed, many people beyond the range of cinematographers had heard of Dziga Vertov or Flaherti, but since those days there has been little progress, unfortunately. And this is very sad, for as far as the technical side of the matter is concerned, we are surely facing a change of epochs, we witnessed three screen revolutions in the course of one hundred years. The TV and the video have certainly provided an utterly new living space to master, new viewers and new aesthetics. Practically in the course of one hundred years screen culture has indeed been created. The cinema in this culture performs the role of conception, while the cinema, the TV and the video form precisely the triad which completes the shaping of the scope of screen culture, and within this scope demarcation is indeed possible now: information may be presented as information, analysis as analysis, art as art. In general, when discussing the art of the 21-st century I had in mind cinema as an art, the art of cinema, the art of documentary cinema.
Some cinematographers are at a loss now, they claim that we are losing our audience, that our films have lost their significance. Other cinematographers, the more optimistic ones, say that the audience is on the increase due to the video and TV and that we gain in terms of new aesthetic opportunities. This reminds one of the situation described by Meyerhold some time ago: some people facing the abyss want to throw themselves down out of fear, others think of the way to construct a bridge. I do not see today the builders of solid bridges. I am grieved by the fact that the theory of documentary cinema is still in embryo. How does a film differ from something that is not? This question was impossible in Lumieres’ time. "The Arrival of a Train" was held to be a film. Were it shot today , nobody would call it a film, this is a reportage from the scene of action lasting for 40 seconds. The situation has changed drastically, and we have to define how a film differs from what is not a film, and in general, what the fate of documentary cinema in the epoch of the TV and the video is. The question has had no answer so far, moreover, it has not yet been properly formulated.
Why did feature films become the most popular show in the 20-th century, TV serials including? And why doesn’t documentary cinema enjoy a even fraction of this popularity? This is another question. Why isn’t there in documentary cinema a system of directing of a non-fiction film and why do we still stumble over the simplest problems? This is not clear either. Nobody answers the question: where do we draw the moral line when interfering into the inner life of our characters? Or could it be that there are no bounds at all? No one seems to know anything about the methods of reconstructing events, and nobody seems to be particularly bent on looking into the matter.
We write quite a lot, those who actually shoot films in particular, on how documentary cinema is made, but less often we raise the question whether documentary cinema is indeed documentary. Even when we do, the question hangs in mid-air, it seems to be so superficial, although in fact it requires some serious analysis and some kind of an answer.
Not to mention the aesthetic aspect: to what extent can a documentalist be an artist, and whether can he be one at all, or is this just a figure of speech? Is the notion "image" applicable to characters in documentary films, and if they are indeed images, can they be correlated with their prototypes? All these are fundamental questions which require answers. But none have been offered. Similarly, there is no answer to the question about newsreels. What are they: an image of the time or a myth about the time? The trouble is not the lack of an answer, after all, the answer might be not there at all. The trouble is that these questions have not been formulated properly.
Since there is no general theory of documentalism, looking for a deep modern theory of documentalism may be compared to diving in the Riga bay at the distance of one hundred meters from the shore and trying to reach the sea bottom. This is why I am not even moderately optimistic. If we failed to answer the most fundamental questions in the course of one hundred years, I do not see the reason why we should all of a sudden succeed in the course of the coming one hundred. In the creative aspect, therefore, I do not see any end of the epoch in documentary cinema, moreover, I still do not see any epoch, despite all the search for it. But if we apply the question to Soviet cinema, there is no doubt about it: the end of the epoch has certainly come, the end of totalitarian cinema.
Not the state cinema, for we should not confuse totalitarian cinema with the state cinema of England, the USA or Canada, which is still associated with Grierson’s name. No, I have in mind totalitarian cinema, totalitarian and state cinema not only in terms of financing, but also in terms of self-assertion with the help of the cinema of a state system, the only correct one in the world. It was this cinema that was financed, it was pure propaganda, and it coloured everything in this cinema, with only one exception mentioned by Hans Schlegel, and I shall dwell on this too.
The NTV channel in Moscow runs newsreels in the mornings, the "Daily News" of the past years. Occasionally I tune in by chance and freeze in terror. For when I hear this iron voice of the speaker, when I see these horrible frames, I start fearing that in five minutes this will not be over, that it will go on: that if I switch over to another channel I shall see the same, to the third – still the same, what a nightmare. But we lived in this nightmare day after day. This is why "The Chronicle of Half-Century" , that grandiose monumental colossus produced by the 50-th anniversary of the Soviet regime, 50 TV documentaries, can be perceived today as a fossil only, as a mammoth, as some pterodactyl. And I am happy that it has become a fossil while we are still alive, not sometime in the future.
But we experienced not only the end of the state totalitarian cinema. We also witnessed the short span of anti-state, anti-totalitarian cinema which started with Podnieks’ film "Is It Easy to Be Young?" The movie which was an insurrection, a rebellion against ideological cinema which had a short but absolutely brilliant span of life, and the paradox was that this anti-state cinema was financed by that very state. The root of the paradox was in the fact that state censorship was no longer there, while commercial censorship was not there as yet. In the course of several years this kind of cinema exhausted its resources. Not only because they ran out of money, but because the permanent political mass-meeting in our country was finished. It was generated by that mass-meeting pathos, and it became obvious very soon that it was, pathos-wise, the same propagandist cinema, only with the inverse sign.
The breakthrough was another Latvian movie, "The Cross-Street". It seems to have been the landmark: that’s enough, we are out. The end of this short span is much more important than the beginning, for this was the end of ideological cinema at large. This is what the end of the century was all about: we did away with ideological cinema, and the period or epoch of liberated cinema set on. But most interestingly, and this was discussed by Hans Schlegel, in this new cinema we were no debutants at all. We are not in the last ranks of this cinema, and possibly in the first ranks, for totalitarian cinema gave birth to its antipode not only in the sense that anti-state cinema appeared, but also in the sense that since the 60-ies there has also been non-state cinema in our country. This non-ideological cinema had emerged long before it acquired a legal status, so to say. All the trends of the 60-ies, starting with Kirghizstan, Latvia, Leningrad, Sverdlovsk etc. were an outburst of the real documentary cinema which took over the traditions of sublime culture. It was a wonderful period. I told you last time that once critics had been asked to make a list of the best movies made during the Soviet regime and after it. Having made the list, I discovered that six out of ten were the movies of the 60-ies. I was somewhat surprised. On the one hand, there was propagandist cinema which had an audience, for the audience had no access to anything else; it had money, for it was financed by the party and the state, the only thing lacking in the state cinema was cinema as such, this was the cinema without a cinema. On the other hand, Arthur Peleshyan was working quietly, annoying the bosses by not meeting deadlines, it was not just films that he created, but documentary cinema as such, but he had no audience. Neither has he one now, only one of his films was run on the TV, and that was just once during the perestroika. All the rest had never been shown, neither are they shown today. This is the fate of the majority of these films, it was shadow cinema, resistance cinema, like the French Resistance. Cinematographers only have seen it, it was cinema for cinema’s sake, and today the situation is, unfortunately, the same. There is a programme on the Russian TV channel called "The New Cinema". It starts by newsreel frames of the 60-ies and the 50-ies showing how they used to make films, with horrible frames, then they show how this is done today. With no mention of the fact that there was some cinema of another kind at the time. I suspect that the young people who run this programme have no idea of this shadow cinema, they start as if from scratch, which is formidable.
This is no drama for the documentalists of the trend, for they have never had an audience. But a real drama for everybody is the advent of market economy. It turns out that we are in the same boat with western cinema, where there are almost no state subsidies either, as far as I know, but cinema nevertheless does exist. This is sad, this is dramatic, but not tragic. After all, Flaherty’s "Nanuk" was made for a company trading in furs, "The Lusian Story" was financed by an oil company, and Dziga Vertov’s "Go On, Soviet" and other films were commissioned by Mossovet and Gostorg. The result was a complete surprise for them, and this is the kind of situation we are facing now. My conclusion therefore is that documentary cinema is the art of the future, snubbed by its own present, it is the art of the 22-nd century, snubbed by the 20-th, and presumably it will be snubbed by the 21-st. I have no grounds to believe that there will be any changes.
My last remark will be on the world of difference between a successful film and a fundamental one. A successful film is good for ratings, a successful film means the applause of the audience, a successful film means that the authors have perfectly mastered a particular trend or a genre. The authors of a fundamental film may take some domain of life which nobody hit on before or a trend hitherto unknown. They may fail, or else they may not. But cinema does not progress from successful films to even more successful ones, it progresses from some fundamental films to other fundamental ones. It seems to me that the idea of our meetings in the course of twenty years was precisely the attempt to show here as many fundamental films, or at least those which contained some fundamental discoveries, as possible.

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