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16th International European Documentary Film Symposium
Is the New Documentary. That New?

In The Search Of THE Lost Sense
Liliana Malkova
Dr. of art criticism
Film Theorist
RUSSIA

In general, when we, critics, are talking about renewal of the documentary film, we are considering it as an aesthetic phenomenon. Coupled with it, the problems of cinematographic form and specific film language are emphasized, and we always rejoice the appearance of a new talent or even of an entire generation of talents as it occurred in the 60 – ties. This is certainly righteous, and the claim of Abraham Kletskin to get rid from the documentary mainstream and focus on artistically significant works is founded on a tradition established by us, the film critics ourselves.

The paradox of present situation on the Russian screen consists in that just in the mainstream, in its structure, its content such changes occurred which cause me to draw back the criteria of assessment properly artistic

The paradox of present situation on the Russian screen lies in the fact that exactly in the mainstream, in its structure, its content such changes occurred, which force me to move aside the criteria of evaluation of the strictly artistic side of documentation and to question anew about the sense and purpose of this form of cinema as a whole in its entirety, about its diversified amount of airing.

Nevertheless it is not persons that matter, notwithstanding how talented they are. Or, let’ s say, it is not only persons that matter. And documentation is not merely an art. During the entire XX century the audiovisual documentation has found a solid position on the screen as a new method of comprehending life on the basis and by means of its observation with minimal author’ s interference with the reality before the camera. Ideally - without author’s interference at all.  This was another method of thinking and assimilating the ambient world by a man. In my opinion, in XXI century this method will become the principal having subdued and transformed the word, the oral as well as written.

         During the Russian history, the documentation was renewed radically only twice. Radically – means that the way of thinking has changed its path indicating the mainstream film where to flow to, and thereby affecting the track of developing social concepts and public opinion on the whole. every time The change of direction was linked with renovation of all structures of the documentary mainstream and renewal of its system of communication. For the first time this occurred around the middle of the 20-ties with the appearance of the group “Kinoki”, who aimed. quoting Vertov, to "implant ideas of Leninism in the labour and thought of the working class itself". Hence - new forms, elaboration of the alphabet and grammar of the film language that simply did not exist in the first quarter of cinema age. Chronicles developed in cinematographic thinking based on cinefacts. This cinematographic thinking implemented in the mass consciousness values, alien to them, directly contradicting those of orthodox church and traditional culture connected with it, so contributing to the strengthening of the power of the Communist Party in the country. This was the new truth, Cinema-truth by Dziga Vertov.

         An outburst of cinematographic thought on a similar scale the documentary film has experienced only at the end of 80-ties. In 1982 we by collective effort of eight republican studios created monumental series 'The truth of great nation" - 11 full-length films ,  where leading documentary film makers of Russia and Ukraine, Central Asia, Baltics and Caucasus  , asserted everything positive that in the XX century has given the uniting of different nationalities in one single "soviet nation". After 5 years this truth was smashed by an entire flow of longer or shorter but strictly documentary films reflecting the tragic personal fate of a particular person in the soviet history. Throughout the three following years a complete social section of the society was presented on the screen, and communist dogmata did not withstand this trial by life "as it is". But in 1991 after the breakdown of the USSR, the ban of Communist party and especially after the shooting in Moscow of its own parliament in 1993, this excitement apparently was exhausted.

         An odd period in the history of documentary film set in. After the “Criminal Revolution” by Stanislav Govoruhin, and this film was released more than ten years ago, I do not remember a film where the author had tried to comprehend what all in all is going on. Govorukhin was reproved for every of his documentaries. Indeed, " Impossible to live so ", and "The Russia We Lost", and "The Criminal Revolution" are pretty subjective. But nobody stood up next to him and took a risk to say: "THIS IS what I am thinking about what’s happening in our country” – in order to substantiate his opinion by cinematographic facts of life.    

Documentary cinema can't but reflect the current life – the more so significant is the change of reflection parameters: absence of general social, economic and political coordinates in the motion of the author’s thought on the screen. In other words a political idea turns into a thing in itself, materialised in speaking heads, isolated in the corridors of power and projected on the TV screen with high degree conventionality. Firstly, one can count on fingers the places, where this idea is expressed: Cabinets and halls of Kremlin, where the President receives, plus government house, plus State Duma (parliament). Secondly, the action taking place there is totally arranged yet additionally in fifty percent of cases limited by the regulations of protocolar filming. Thirdly, studio TV broadcasts with the unity of place and the time of action in my opinion are always a show irrespective is it a news presenter or a round-table discussion of political scientists and politicians, or a talk-show like, for example, “To The Barrier.”  In any event conventionality of the audiovisual model of life is based on a total, suppressed verbalism. Word produces itself, evolves in a thought within itself, probably, brings satisfaction to the presenter and the viewer while aired - and vanishes in the air. Political jabber exhausted the content of documentaries, entitled to claim for being a political analysis. All this bore no relation to our real life for the whole period of the 90-ties. Life went on it’s own, political thinking - on it’s own protected motion, and poverty, extreme conventionality of its visual substantiation in documentaries turned into the mark of the epoch.

           It would be possible to blame television with its specific broadcasting formats and evident engagement if it had not had any alternative. Paradoxically enough just the documentary film had those alternative possibilities, especially in the 90-ties as never before in it’s history.  Certainly, this was the time of the system crisis, the collapse of distribution structures,  transition to new media. But this also was a time of irretrievable public funding and the absence of any thematic planning from above. Goskino (the State Committee of Cinematogrphy) turning into department of the Ministry of Culture, and within it - under the tutelage of the Federal Agency of Cinematography, later – of Culture and Cinematography was not concerned with it. There was nobody to be concerned – the bureaucracy was curtailed. Any legal person could submit application for a film and any filmmaker could become such a person by paying $300 to a law firm. The applications were selected by an Expert council consisting of directors, producers, film critics and scientists recommended by the Filmmaker’s Union. The rotation of the personnel, the absolute minority of the ministry representatives created conditions for impartial assessment. The Ministry had no right to disapprove a film chosen by competition or force to make corrections in it.

         The more indicative is the range of interests of documentary filmmakers displayed in a programme of documentary film flow compiled like this.

         We have nobody to blame about the absence of social criticism , political or economic analysis of the contemporary life  but ourselves, except our own professional guild of documentary filmmakers. We are not interested in that topic. On the boundary of the new century among us one started to speak about the absence social documentary on conferences and plenary sessions of the Union etc. But the problem is that applications to make a social film still did not appear. Members of expert jury, notwithstanding how different were their tastes, gave the green light to the socially orientated applications however the number of films released was insignificant. Most frequently they were portrayals of intellectuals forced by circumstances to change profession, about children and schoolteachers-devotées, about invalids ... But they never were about the economic reasons of the migration processes, not only in geographic, but also in social and national terms - not about the human dimension of the pursued policy. There is no analysis, the mind does not cope with the surrounding reality.

The Difference between the life and its documentary representation never was so big as in these 10-15 years. Factories do not simply stop - it is visible how as in these years before our eyes their buildings collapse, how brick by bric huge dairy farms in villages are dismantled. Rural streets are not lit across all Russia. One sees it nearby having driven off for some 200 km from Moscow - but not on the documentary screen. And there is no documentary filmmaker who would be interested why it happens. The reality itself appeals for cinematographic analysis  - but there is nobody to analyze. Unlike the Finnish colleagues who have presented here the film « Northern star » (dir. Erko Liitenen) where there is both the economic analysis and a socially-psychological cut, and destiny of concrete people that will considerably change by closing the factory.

One factory in the far away Finland suffers from loss of traditional orders from the USSR, and the film director spends about two years to grasp the situation. In our country the whole productive and economic circuit in the industry collapsed, the factories-giants came to standstill, but what happened to those hundreds of people, of hundreds thousand, if not in millions, we do not know, nobody from the documentary filmmakers of Russia did not did not transmit their reflection about it on the screen.

In order to create an occasion to include a short item in the program of TV news, miners had to go on hunger strike because for the time of many months the have not received their salaries, or 10 thousand workers of pulp-and-paper combine to barricade from the new owners of the enterprise. An occasion big enough, but I do not remember, that a real life plot was traced documentary, i.e. in news of the following days we would see the results of similar actions. Even the notion "workers" has not only lost the tinge of its former positive stereotype, but, going out of use, was included in sarcastic speech turns. "  "Disputed” social and economic items appear on TV extremely seldom; their rare inclusions begin approximately about 2000, connected with the time of «Putin» designations and manifests more likely a certain turn of a general political course from above, rather than free will and interest of TV reporters. We are concerned with ourselves, we defended the freedom of speech, without considering how free is our mind. And it is, as proves the screen, limited by the interests of our rather restricted community, conditionally speaking, by the interests of the intelligentsia of our capital.

The "big" screen documentary filmmakers slightly differ from the TV men regarding the mental orientation. Ideological crisis in the beginning of 90-ties, the crash of the communistic idea took the shape of a wider ideological crisis which I connect with the general disappointment in the "left" idea that moved our society even since the 19 century. But also this idea as later engendered by it ideology, was based upon feeling - feeling of understanding "another" people, maybe, absolutely distinct from you in culture, education, formation. Sympathy to « humiliated and offended » - moral standard of a decent person, this lath was the common starting foot-hold for such different writers as Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gorky. But no matter how different were their ideas, the notion of truth they defended, included this one criterion - a life of masses. Tolstoy, a giant of global scale, an eighty-year-old man, having learned, that workers of the Kursk railway work for 36 hours on end, has not believed and gone to verify by himself.  He also appeared in print in a publicistic genre so insignificant in comparison with his own reputation. It was the vital position "pushing" people risking to think independently to document their time. It might be worth to re-read today the last volumes of the full collected works of Tolstoy.

This is the source of "film-truth" by Vertov, and from his serve the  powerful sream of world documentary filmmaking,  from the " Grierson school " to "direct" cinema – the style, the form are secondary in relation to the emotional source. Our last decade speaks about demolition of this tradition, shift in a vital position in documentary filmmaking.

Today - as always – what is well and good in documentary cinema that it is interesting to the author of the film. 

Last fifteen years documentary filmmakers most of all were preoccupied with problems of literature and art, with culture at large. In different years this subjects took up 40-60 % of general production volume - the present boom of «kulturfilm» - without any order from above, unlike the end 20-ties when  this unforgettable term appeared. In the beginning 90-ties though it appeared strange, but, in general, it was quite understandable clear: after 70 years of agitation and propaganda it was enough, and one had a longing for romance, the quality is controversial.

In the past years documentary filmmakers have more than once ploughed through the cultural field of Russia  - the XX century has appeared especially benign in kulturfilm. Hardly there will be a writer, philosopher, artist, musician or poet, worth to be told about, who has not been portrayed in a film. Often several  films. Perhaps, 2-3 within a year.  Appropriate or not, I do not undertake to assess. In my opinion, it is obvious that the quantity has passed into quality, and today we experience an unprecedented in our documentary film history flourishing of the kulturfilm.

This is a very good cinema. In this field it has become somehow indecent not to carry out independent researches in archives, here lives the spirit of research and the directors try to find a film-form adequate to the philosophy of their protagonists, and they are all people of extremely high flight of thought … It seems as though they force the filmmakers to catch up with them, and the special TV channel "Culture" broadcasts almost automatically all this of cultural film-production. Take notice that the question is about the level of mainstream – this is the most important parameter. Other, adjacent parameter in this thematic section is that the margin between a current TV program and film is practically erased. The way in which information is stored, the source of financing - are secondary in relation to the high quality standards that should be met, {height of the hurdle set by the quality that should be cleared}. Eugenie Potievsky is a master. He develops his own film-projects as well as some others for the channel " Culture ". His film "Rosary" about Ahmatova and Modigliani with its refined laconism of the film-form surpasses the bestowed trilogy about poets of the Silver age by Andrey Osipov. Galina Dolmatovskaya shoots exclusively on film, and her  « Ivan Mozzhuhin - The Child Of A Carnival » attracts audiences more than one year running. Taste, knowledge familiarity with of nuances of artist’s lives, of movie world has enabled the author to create high quality portrait of E.Furtseva, by clearing the image of the legendary minister of culture from layers of gossips and rumors. In the same Institute of motion picture arts was made an excellent film « The Country Danelia » director Strahov whom I, to my shame, did not know before this film was broadcasted. And it is possible to multiply the names and film titles, there are quite a lot to choose from. The here present Vitaly Troyanovsky, my colleague, historian of cinema, could bring one of the programs directed by him. Each of them – from a series "Islands" made for the channel " Culture " – is a high quality documentary film about cinema which can embellish not only the present symposium.

Our Ukrainian colleague has filled an omission in the Russian selection with the remarkable film about Sergey Paradzhanov. Focus your attention on how meticulously this picture represents Paradzhanov’s world in an original, unlike anything, graphic design. However the model of the film in itself is a traditional one, based on a voice-over commentary  - the whole point is what kind of text, the level of the author's idea …

In my opinion not only in the Russian documentary field the “kulturfilm” is blossoming – a similar situation has developed all over the space of the former USSR.  However it does not resolve our fundamental issue. Because “kulturfilm” does not exhaust and by its nature cannot exhaust the sense, purpose and mission of the documentary cinema in the modern world.

“Kulturfilm” maintains the status of the “high” art on the screen, first of all that of television. A special channel sustains the reputation of the culture on TV as a whole, on this very TV, which recklessly lets down the cultural standards of all other main channels that continue to pump a documentary stuff consisting of gossips and performances « about the Greats ». We try to save face, withdraw in our selves, in our cultural isolation, we dialogue with dead guardians of eternal values - we draw from them the purport of life.

Not the worst possible decision. Only this is not our little merit. Manifestly, that the best pictures are not only about the culture and geniuses but also about the sense of our history, of human life. However this sense is drawn from  the experience of other's – the documentary only shakes up the cream, accumulated in the milk of centuries-old national culture. Its own hoard of the present social practice is quite insignificant.

A new separate source additionally nourishing the documentary cinematography is the religion to which many directors have found their own way. The orthodox cinema exists as a distinctive current originating from the excellent film "Temple" by V.Dyakov (1987), and offers its own sense and interpretation of the reality. The current is non-uniform and deserves a special examination. Basically it is useless and incorrect to argue with author's interpretation of life if this interpretation is based on the orthodox canon. It is quite natural that this current has created its own special festival “Golden Knight” whose international status confirms the spreading of orthodox concepts on a supranational level. But why from year to year more and more films belonging to the orthodox trend are so reminding the made to measure ideological balderdash produced by CSDF (Central Studio of Documentary Films) in stagnant times – using the same simplistic worked-trough by years model of the agitation and propaganda film in which the pathos of the communist future so easily has changed into approaching resurrection from the dead of all believers in Christ?  The propaganda of the way of life – once the "Soviet" one, now "orthodox" - is based on an amazing sluggishness of thinking where like in previous times the ideology has been strongly hinged on a blind faith, and now the faith is downgraded to blind ideology that hardly could be called “orthodox.”

The dogmatics restricting the documentary stream before and now  does not impede the elicitation of original cinematographic truth from reality. – integrity of the author's quest remains an indispensable condition to succeed. Impossible to mix up the films of Boris Krinitsyn with those made by others, whether he addresses a historical reality of the WW I or depicts a landscape of Russian North in terms of line from Bible in the film «And my cross I carry carefully». The picture of V.Matveyeva about head bishop Antoni Surozhsky - is one of top achievements of the modern Russian cinematography - simply because his personality was not commensurate with the spiritual scale of this man, our contemporary, revealed in the documentary film. The phenomenon of truthfulness in the documentary most of all amazes when one sees the real person "alive" - legends surrounding the leader of Great Britain’s Orthodoxy, grow dim, lose their significance through direct though illusive contact.

          Today documentary filmmakers try to penetrate the Spirit through human soul, they are seeking there the notorious unifying idea, and, probably, this is the best we have today in our cinema. J.Shiller’s films - the never-ending saga about the Russian living there, beyond the Ural Mountains, far from Moskovia. About a person who actually does not think at all neither of his national nor religious identity but enjoys his everlasting way of life complying with the principle « one can’t be banished further than Siberia” , exciting envy to the audience. Are there many of us thinking about the arrangement of the world, about, where God is and what He is, about when the sky opens... for twenty years Schiller has shown great variety of such people astounding by their frankness, supreme simplicity and kindness …

          At international meetings with professionals, especially from TV, one often hears: « You, Russians are totally absorbed with your spirituality. What precisely does it mean when being driven to poverty you are not capable even to go on a protest march!»  In particular, Schiller's films on Input caused such comments. Truly? Not absolutely. Strangely enough, but it is exactly the documentary sequence that denies the view about the submissive passivity of our people. In 90-ties people went out in streets and blocked movement, went on strikes, declared hunger-strikes in reply to reductions of jobs, nonpayment of salaries - quite "European" or to put it more correctly - the accepted forms of social protest. But nobody could see it, because was depicted in newsreels, in most outdated, obsolete form of the film-annals and newsreels intended for archives. It was filmed in the spirit of Soviet rhetoric more likely owing to the inertia of thinking, from force of habit of the news reporter’s job in province. Sooner or later those takes will be demanded. But not when they were shot, and not now, ten years later - in some distant future prospect of historical reconsideration, of backdate restoration of the truth. For now the film-idea gives in to the documentary take.

This is one more proof of the crisis of the left idea in general. Today it is beyond the powers of the personalities to overcome social dissociation. Schiller is an exception; he has that unique heart to heart gift – a human rather than professional quality scarcely found in humans at all. Communicating from heart to heart he casts aside everything that is superficial and shallow in a person, - so an alien becomes for him a friend. Ingenuousness of a character is not a disadvantage to him; moreover this is an indispensable condition of such non-rational contact. As a whole the documentary cinema cannot break the barriers of growing social disparities and without this the truth about life on the screen remains truncated.

         Trying to find the purport of life is easier to start from oneself , from one’s own people. In V.Eysner's film « About those who smoke, drink and curse» is represented the human dimension of social policy –as a "measuring unit" is given a portray of Halina, an almost blind, living on the verge of death documentary filmmaker. The abundant documentary material filmed during the last thirty years, picturesque character, high reliability of estimations and generalizations. « Our Native Land », another film from the Russian selection in our symposium, gives, maybe, the profound cut of the post Soviet destiny of people dispersed over different countries and cities, stratified on different steps of the social hierarchy and who have one thing in common – they were born in the USSR. It turned out to be a model of life, its problems, thoughts and feelings of a whole people. Certainly, this large social painting by its scale and concept is comparable may be only with « Born in the USSR » and surpassing S.Miroshnichenko's work (and this was a BBC project) by almost all parameters. I am not sure, that the advantages of Manskiy’s film are in some way linked with his manifest of the « Real cinema » proclaimed just before  - three months ago at the Moscow film festival I simply could not view to the end the first version of this film. The integrality of a work depends of the story told in a documentary film even if it lacks the script – the shading of composition is always important, the gradual increment of sense during the editing should end with a sensation of completeness. Without it the veracity of a film does not become an aesthetic phenomenon – the versions of the film « Our Native Land » only confirm this far from being new thesis.

          However  different are the creative profiles of Eisner and Mansky nevertheless their films set an example of the quest for social semantics in the documentary. One has to notice, however, that and they get out the meanings from their « a near circle »: the director’s fellows or former schoolmates - who is closer? Thus the faithfulness of the characters, high reliability of the document’s emotional repletion is created. As a socially oriented cinema – this experiment is not "clean" enough, though rather indicative for present comprehension of the union which now has been reduced to the scale of  the community of schoolmates or professionals. 

          Regarding the quantitative issues of the Russian documentary cinema they, on the contrary, are growing: 256 films were produced in 2005, 400 is the forecast for 2006.

                                                      L.Malkova, Dr. of art criticism

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