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DOCUMENTARIES ON THE BRINK OF MILLENNIUM
proceedings of the International Documentary Film Symposium held on September 11 - 16, 1999 in Riga, Latvia
The Documentary Film Is Dead.
Long Live the Documentary Film!
Prof. Sergey Muratov
Moscow
I formulated the theme of the Symposium for myself as the crisis of documentary cinema in the era of mass culture. However, by the end of yesterday's program I concluded that there is no crisis of documentary cinema in West, even though they live under the conditions of mass culture. I could put it otherwise: they should think they always have the crisis given that documentaries and mass culture are incompatible.
I very much liked the comparison about the primeval man who enjoyed the reflection of clouds in the lake and a monkey, which cast a stone into the water and destroyed this reflection. Mass culture is exactly this monkey throwing stones into the lake; and the task of documentary filmmakers is to retain the image of reality.
But as far as totalitarian state cinema is concerned, here we certainly deal with the crisis. In 1998 we had a conference on the state of affairs in Russian documentary cinema. In fact 2/5 of the conference was a kind of collective lamentation on the disappearing object of documentary cinema. In this sense the title of the conference seemed to me interesting - The prospects of development of documentary film - as if the crew of Titanic gathered to discuss the prospects of a voyage around the world. I have to say that the two main arguments or rather hopes were the following: it would be nice if the state continued subsidising documentaries, and secondly we have to make TV channels show us. Both these arguments demonstrated the absolute lack of understanding of the situation.
With the collapsing of the state cinematography the state TV collapsed as well. However, documentary filmmakers still keep waiting for the state to help them financially. As to documentary cinema on the TV, it is no longer there at all. It's gone. All organisations and institutions, which dealt with producing films, no longer do it. If the TV did not manage to maintain their own films, why should we expect that it will strive to maintain documentaries meant for the cinema?
This was the utopian nature of the first two days of the conference. Naturally, today we face the situation when we are not needed any longer. But now we have something we did not have before - mass culture. The TV became commercial.
We are surrounded by mass culture and we experience the feeling of disaster. Of course, some people started thinking that this is a global catastrophe. I think this is a romantic view. If we measure the state of our cinema not on the scale of the recent 15 years but taking into account the whole period, we shall see that Dziga Vertov worked under the same conditions. The commissioners sometimes did not accept him, he was hated by many people. If you read his diaries, you can see what he felt then.
Other famous directors also worked under the same conditions. Flaerty, for instance, made his Nanuk as an advertisement for an industrial company.
Yet the life-story of the Soviet cinema was somewhat different from the life-story of the cinema of the other world. We were the only country in the world where documentaries were fully subsidised by the state. On the one hand, it was indeed a curse for we were required to produce films with the particular ideology. At the same time it was also a praise, for using these finances many directors made films which became part of national culture. These films were not sent to International Festivals, sometimes they were not run at all. But cinematographers, people in the business knew them. They did exist.
While in the transitional period of Perestroyka the situation was almost absurd: the state kept financing documentaries but the films were already anti-state films. And the process actually started here in Riga with Podnieks' film Is It Easy to Be Young?
I see this outburst of the cinema of Perestroyka as the last flames of burning fire. And then - complete darkness. Here the question emerges: is it really complete darkness or is it the end of the night?
In 1998 at the annual festival of TV programs The Whole of Russia for the first time we had a prize for documentary. And from the TV only we had 45 films. There are no financial grounds for the films to be made but films are made still. It makes me think, that maybe works of art are always created in unfavourable conditions. For example, today Alexey German works in spite of everything. Maybe it is the fate of works of art: they have to emerge in opposition to mass culture. Still we face the problem: where do we find the money? What sort of films can be made on this money? How the films should be sold? Of course, these are not the questions of our Symposium. But they are all new questions for us. Such is the essence of the crisis: it is impossible to go back to the old system.
The third day of the above-mentioned conference was dedicated to the question of perspectives - what would happen next. The day started with Mansky's presentation of newsreels, which, in his view, make sense only on the state scale. Then one of our filmmakers said we need a service centre, another said we need a producer centre, we need Houses of Documentary cinema, Mr. Shemyakin said we need the Academy of Documentaries.
And my conclusion is the same as at the previous Symposium: I am still convinced that documentary as part of culture is the art of 22nd century. We did not achieve much in the course of these hundred years. Now we have to raise the spectator who would like to watch documentaries with the same zeal as today he watches soap operas. Today it sounds funny. But I am quite sure that sooner or later we shall get such a spectator.
Now I would like to comment upon the works shown at the Symposium. In my view, there are two main directions in developing of documentary film today. Both directions were presented here by the first two films of the program - New Times at Crossroad Street by Ivars Seleckis and Private Chronicles. Monologue by Vitaly Mansky.
A lot was said about the good points of Ivar's film. Yet I am quite sure that those who saw the film but had not seen the first volume, did not enjoy it to the full. The same could be said about Kuchuguri and Environs. Of course, the volume presented at the Symposium is very interesting as it is. But those who have seen the other episodes of the series perceive the characters as their neighbours whom they know well. It is quite different sort of feeling.
I mean the time when a single film was the only kind of documentary comes to an end. Now it turns out that a filmmaker is not obliged to put "the end" at the end of the picture meaning that this is really the end of the film. Yes, the film is over but the characters go on living. And I am really interested what will happen to them next. It is not the interest of a professional - it is just a human interest.
The previous period can be called the period of unfinished films. We enter the era of a new kind of approach to films. Ivar's New Times... is the evidence of it.
And the second direction is connected with Mansky’s Private Chronicles. As far as I understand the director's idea was the following: he announced on the TV that people could send him their private chronicles. As a result he gathered an enormous collection of materials shot by non-sound cameras. Maybe Mansky will explain it differently but it seems to me that his idea was - why not to try to supply the chronicles by a soundtrack, why not to try to personify it.
This is practically impossible to achieve and he did it in the artificial way by introducing another character - a narrator. The idea is wonderful, although the film is perceived differently by people. It is hard to think of another film, which might produce such heat in discussions. As to me, when I started watching the film I felt suddenly some kind of opposition to all this. At first I could not understand what sort of opposition it is. But suddenly I realised that if we switched off the sound we would see a nice chronicle featuring nice people, and not the victims of the regime at all. Then I understood that this film is one hundred per cent biased.
I spent quite a lot of time in a society, which implied or demanded a certain kind of bias, where information was substituted by propaganda. Surely, when Stalin died, it was a tragedy for most of people. Than it turned out that it was easier to take Stalin's body from Mausoleum than to eliminate him from the consciousness of the people. And the problem is not whether you are his advocate or his opponent. You can devote the whole of your life to anti-Stalinism. But it will be the same kind of Stalinism, the same kind of ideology.
As to Mansky's film, Anti-Stalinism is in the bones of the film's narrator. He is not born yet but he is already denouncing the regime. The whole of the film seems to confirm that he is right but this is not the way to deal with the material. If Vitaly had made this film some 15 years ago, even then it would not have been a great revelation, it would have been just a dissident's film, and the consequences for the filmmaker would have been very sad.
But in recent 10 years I have heard these denunciations almost every day. I mean, what kind of revelation is it? The film's narrator simply voices hackneyed stock phrases.
And still I have to say that the idea personifying a chronicle is very important one. Every person can write a novel - you don't have to own a publishing house for that. Very soon almost every person will be able to shoot a film by a portable camera. You can say, - yes, but we do not have a film studio, we are not professionals. But on film studios there are also amateurs. As to amateurs in general, not all writers have got degrees in literature.
Our Czech colleague said that video is becoming an everyday tool. We already have special video courses at schools. For example, a student of mine filmed her cousin who was in a mental hospital. It is a unique film. Nobody could make it, for the reason that the young man would not have talked to anyone but her. Thus video opens up a possibility of a very personal cinema - diary cinema.
We can conclude that documentary film is not something disappearing. It is developing. Arthur Clark some 30 or 40 years ago published a table where he predicted the coming inventions. The year 2040 was indicated there as the year when immortality is achieved. I read this and thought - what a pity for those who die in 2039. We are lamenting the death of documentary cinema, which is to some extent true when we speak about the Russian cinema, but in reality we are merely leaving behind one stage of documentary.
The documentary film is dead. Long live the documentary film!
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