held on May 3 - 9, 1997 in Jurmala, Latvia
European Documentary Film Symposiums Riga, 1999
Lev Roshal
Look at the Face or Look at the Coat?

In order to answer the question raised about the beginning or the end of the epoch we have to consider the phenomenon of, whatever you might call it, general videolization or just visualization, having in mind not only the cinema, but also the video, the Internet etc.

All these are ousting the earlier classical arts from the mind of the consumer and from everyday usage. It is not my intention to sing funeral marches to the theatre or literature, - everything will stay to a certain extent, but nevertheless the bulk of time, leisure or not, is devoted to the video in one way or another. I mean not technology, but something often called screen culture, in most diverse forms.

All this had been foretold by Ray Bradbury in his ingenious book "Fahrenheit 451". And, as you will remember, the heroine only had to buy the last wall, then all the four walls would be televised. And firemen were burning books just because nobody needed them. But it turns out at the end of our century that there is no need for firemen, books are cast aside anyway, as well as many other things which used to be part and parcel of culture. What remains is the video.

This, I believe, is a menace, also connected with the answer to the question posed by Abram Kletzkin at the very beginning of this meeting - whether documentary cinema will remain as part of culture, whether culture as such will remain, where is culture heading for, where is documentary cinema heading for, the kind of documentaries connected with the figurative artistic reflection of reality, with its artistic interpretation etc. Not only with information which will surely remain and which draws us to the screen daily, since we live in the world of the document connected mainly with the video, TV etc. I think this is a highly dramatic question, the reason for this being not even extremism seen on the screen and generally existing in the world in various forms. I think, if we bear in mind the four TV walls, that the drama of our time, and of documentary cinema too, is fictionalization of mass consciousness.

What do I mean? Something that one of Oscar Wilde’s characters, miss Prism, described in one of his plays: "For the bad people everything turned out badly, for the good ones - well" , - this is fiction. It comes in a stream in various shapes off TV and cinema screens, especially in the stream of American movies enjoyed immensely by everybody, in soap operas etc. The mind is programmed to think that there is white and black, and black will never become white and will perish, while white will cover itself with glory, will be victorious.

What am I driving at? The point is not where documentary cinema is heading for, the artistic-figurative film which is trying, more or less successfully, to reveal through something visible the tears invisible to the world, is looking for different ways to understand via a visible picture the true essence of the soul.

Everything depends on where humanity will choose to go, what it will choose for itself in the future, whether it will not choose to remain in this pre-programmed world, so cozy and so respectable. Our TV shows widely advertisements of, pardon me, women’s pads, and each character tells us how dry and comfortable she is. So the talk is about whether humanity will choose to be comfortable and dry, or whether it will still aspire to something else.

I believe that when by the force of objective circumstances, not some personal motives, the whole of humanity’s artistic experience in its traditional forms is rejected, everything depends on whether humanity will wish that visual art, the documentary film in particular should undertake the mission to continue classical traditions in new notional, organisational and creative forms and to show this on the screen, or it will wish to stay in the limits where the majority exists today.

Incidentally, to remind you of Bradbury, when they try to open the character’s eyes, he asks: is the TV to blame for everything? He is told: it is not the TV that is the matter, but what it shows daily. The talk is about proportions. I do not mind soap-operas, in many cases I am all for them. Soap, as we all know, is a necessity. But yet…

It is not by chance that the title of my report is "Look at the Face or Look at the Coat?" For I think it very wise that the symposium started by this movie, an amazing one, in my view, revealing every time you watch it something new and unusual. Being brief, it is fundamental. You find there very exact remarks of guides, which have something to do with our work too. Hair stands on end when they explain what Mona Lisa is, but this has something to do with our cinema as well.

I shall tell you a story which most of you may not know. When the producer Pasha Kogan and the cameraman Pyotr Mostovoy had made this movie, it got wide acclaim both in the country and in the world. And it was so much liked by our cinematographic bosses of the Brezhnev era that they said: "We should like to ask you to make one more movie of the same kind." The two were somewhat surprised but also pleased, for it is not too often that you are asked to make a movie - the bosses ask you and provide the money. What about? They were told: shoot with the hidden camera in the Central museum of V.I. Lenin how visitors come up to his coat shot through during the attempt to assassinate him, the coat which his wife N.K. Krupskaya later mended, how people approach this coat with trepidation, in the same way as they approach Mona. And they called the movie among themselves "Look at the Coat".

The authors couldn’t think of a way to decline. They thought hard and finally suggested: we had better make a movie not about the people approaching the coat, but those going along the Red Square to the Mausoleum in reverence. When they started shooting it turned out that there was no reverence on people’s faces, they were just walking and discussing personal matters. Possibly, inside, when they looked at the mummy, some reverence did appear, but at that time it was not allowed to film inside. They didn’t know what to do, they filmed the queue with the rapide, and it floated along the Red Square, etc. This is the story.

I told you this because, figuratively speaking, the essence of our future work is: do we want to look at the face or at the coat. Will people wish to look into the face of their neighbour, of other people, to penetrate into the essence of their fate, or to enact something around the coat. By the way, there was a TV show about it, they speculated on whether it was Kaplan who had been shooting or someone else, etc. One can discuss this ad infinitum, but our symposium showed that the cinema has a lot of potential to reveal tears invisible to the world, in very diverse forms.

I can imagine on the TV screen documentary-fictional novels which would take on the function of literary fiction. One of our writers said once that 19-th century novels were the cinema of the former century. I should say that the cinema of the coming century is the novel. But, to repeat, everything depends on where humanity will choose to go, what it will want to be. And this is not the question to be solved easily, off the cuff.

We say: screen culture, emphasising the word "screen", while in fact the word "culture" should be emphasised, for there is screen culture, but much more often - lack of culture. What matters is that the screen should become real culture for civilised humanity, and I should like to round up here.

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