We know quite a lot about the problems of Russian fiction cinema, and yet our knowledge about national documentary filmmaking remains extremely limited, even though it is non-fiction films that fill this gap, this lack of description of time and space that we criticize commercial films for. The task of Message to Man is to introduce people to the best documentary films that glint here and there on various festival screenings, often remaining invisible for the audience.
This year, 12 films were selected for the national competition; six of them are going to have world premières here. Many of these works can be recognized as débuts; some of them are student films. Apart from different origin histories, the competition boasts a rich geography of filming locations and a number of common themes – that is what this little guide is about.
A close look at a person on-screen is enough for his or her loneliness to transpire. Through this feeling, so familiar to us in all stages of life, we can bond with a protagonist, even though he or she is distant, initially strange and unlike us.
In Angelina Morozova’s graduation short film Lonely Hearts we see Valentina and Vladimir, an elderly couple who met through a lonely-hearts advert in the newspaper. He turned out to be a homeless tractor driver with heaps of belongings. She turned out not to be ready to take him to her home. While Vladimir is hopping from one hostel to another, Valentina visits her ex-husband in a hospice and keeps on believing that “something is coming up for all of us.” She had four husbands, but she did not meet “the one.” Morozova captures the protagonists in a brief moment of their meeting and continues to follow the aftermath of their long parting: Vladimir’s wanderings, Valentina’s new personal ads in newspapers and their joint efforts to set up their personal life, albeit belatedly.
Galina Anisimova has a completely different kind of loneliness in Zaka Abdrakhmanova’s The Last Year (this is her second film after an extremely intimate film Zhanym about her own family). The filmmaker finds her protagonist on her deathbed (Anisimova died in December 2018) and this realization pervades the film. And it means that Anisimova is in a way playing her last role, trying on different masks and invoking experience, memories and status, becoming in turn authoritative or completely helpless, letting Abdrakhmanova come near only to physically distance from her.
Sometimes you cannot plan the plot in advance and then something else – a premonition, accident or chance observation – can become an impetus for making a film. The idea of The Fourth Question, a 15-minute-long film by Alexandra Matveeva (she studied camerawork at St Petersburg State University of Film and Television) came to her mind when she was at the Rudnik festival in the town of Sviyazhsk. Lev, a lonely old man, lives in a decaying house without either energy or intention to do anything about it. “This right there is my civilization: the TV,” he tells the camera. The TV shows that children burned alive in Khabarovsk. One day, this hopelessness is broken when an old acquaintance arrives. Although he is of the same age as Lev, he is genuinely interested in anything, even the smallest things, and soon Lev’s home is full of music, discussions about Kant’s three questions and adages about life.
Some films in the competition, unlike the previous ones, present a pair of characters, and this twoness itself becomes a method of understanding a person and their relations. One of them is Margarita Zakharova’s Moscow Is Like a Dream, a film that has previously won at the Beat festival. The filmmaker tells a story of Kabir and Nastya. He is a young Montenegrin, a simple guy who is good with his hands. She is a daughter of Moscow gallery owners, a boho socialite. Zakharova finds them when their relations hit a rough spot and follows her protagonists after the breakup, trying to glean something in the distance itself, in people losing each other.
In Robin Chicas, Denis Slepov (who previously worked on the projects Srok and Realnost) shows Vika and Karina, two young doctors, who went to work in Guatemala. To do this, they must build a clinic first, stablish contacts with the locals and, along the way, sort out their personal life. Vika and Karina seem to have enough energy to do everything, yet the camera captures the differences between them, the moments of uncertainty and doubt that these feisty buddies seem to lack at a fist glance.
Brothers, a short film by Stepan Rozhansky (a student of Marina Razbezhkina and Mikhail Ugarov’s School of Documentary Film and Theatre), tells a story of Pyotr and Pavel, twin brothers whose lives could not have been more different. Pavel does menial work in a supermarket. Pyotr moves in a wheelchair, but it is he who is trying to break away from the confines of everyday life, visiting cities, going to hip hop concerts, never shying from publicity. Rozhansky’s short film has time enough to depict their separate lives and get-togethers, switching between several registers of observation.
SPORT AS A CODE
A protagonist on-screen can not only express an attitude, but be an object of attention of others: in this case, camera (being another pair of eyes) helps compare your feelings with these opinions.
Tair Polad-zade’s and Philipp Zadorojny’s Where Did Your Bride Go? is about a group of girls from Vladikavkaz who love football. But as soon as they stop just choosing “husbands” from themselves (Barcelona is in the lead here with Messi, Pique and Suarez) and decide to go into the field themselves, this becomes a problem. “Football is not for women; you’d better put on an apron and learn to cook from your mothers…” The best response is to play against a male team to find out who is the best. Made with support of Nike and Stereotactic production studio, this dynamic and warm film by Polad-zade and Zadorojny contains an obvious message that is illustrated by scenes of life in North Ossetia, a region that is familiar and exotic at the same time.
Another taboo area for women is fighting. In Mommy, I Love You So Much Svetlana Pechenykh and Anna Rudikova tell us about Anna Azovskaya, a well-known person in MMA community. Five of her children, all sharing the same last name, Kichigin, take part in MMA fights; two of them are girls, and Anna herself coaches all five. What is behind this success story of Kichigin Team caps and team spirit? How can a mother let her children take up such a cruel sport? Switching between the roles of a loving mother and a coach, Azovskaya manages to keep this difficult, diverse and incomplete family afloat.
One of the tasks of documentary cinema is to illuminate a person and events that a hidden from us by distance and social and cultural division. How Big Is the Galaxy? is a full-length début of Ksenia Elyan (a student of Marina Razbezhkina and Mikhail Ugarov’s school, an documentary operator) about the Zharkov family, nomads living on the Taimyr Peninsula above the Arctic circle. They have a Russian name, but the Zharkovs are the Dolgans, a small indigenous people who have been forcefully deprived of its language and culture. Elyan shows this way of living that is affected by the intruding progress that does not offer much to these people. This demanding film, where deer are slaughtered in snowy planes, becomes a journey to a place where filmmakers rarely dare to venture, but that does not disappear only because we do not see it.
Much further to the south, in the Caucasus Mountains, the links to the world are literally fickle. The Track by Aleksei Evstigneev, a VGIK student, tells a story of the last narrow-gauge railway called Matrix that every day goes 70 kilometres in the mountains to Otdalenny township and then back, delivering mail and giving a lift to the locals. People try not to think what is going to happen next. But it is impossible not to think about it: the engine driver is considering to quit, while new driver has not been appointed and the route is difficult. We hear what the locals say about this: “The state tells us to shut up and keep our heads down.” And the film itself keeps silent and does not interrupt the monotonous creaking of the old train and other sparse local sounds.
Invisibility of another kind – not geographic one but because it seems too familiar, too mundane – shows us its unusual aspect. Dina Barinova’s Potato Eaters (this and her previous work, Shrove Sunday were screened at IDFA, a prestigious documentary festival) is like a Van Gough painting that came to life. But what will happen when this painting acquires language, sound and time? By depicting a ramshackle village world, in which the only straight line is poverty line, Barinova introduces us to a wonderful family that literally survives on potatoes but still keeps the qualities that much wealthier people seldom have.
And strangers in Kind Souls by Nikita Efimov, another Razbezhkina’s student, are living downright double lives. By day, whey are dwellers of a small and prospectless town Novorzhev near Pskov. By night, they live on the local theatre stage. Here, at the House of Culture, they are rehearsing a Spanish play with obligatory adultery, forgery and poisonings. Efimov compares these two modalities of existence: the drabness of provincial life and allure of theatre that helps people to go beyond their limited experience and turn into someone else for a while.
National competition screening schedule can be found here.