Notes from the Reel World: The Board President's Column, June 1996
By Lisa Leeman
The following is the first in a series of dispatches on the state of the documentary from lDA members around the world. News from Russia is reported by Leonid Gurevich, vice president of the Association for Joint Cine-Initiatives (formerly the American-Soviet Kino-initiative). He has written more than 70 documentaries, authored more than 200 articles on film and television, and teaches at Moscow's School of Advanced Screenwriting and Directing.
The current state of affairs in Russian documentary film leaves one to hope for the better. The transition to a market economy turned out to be more difficult for documentaries, which in the past were practically 100 percent government financed. In the old days, the financial losses of documentaries were covered by the profits from the feature film distribution. Today Russian film production and distribution are having difficulties making ends meet.
Up until the mid-1980s, documentary films were shown before feature films in theaters. In addition, theaters specializing in documentary films used to exist in every Soviet Republic capital. but now they have been eliminated. The collapse of the Soviet Union has also influenced the general state of documentary filmmaking: camaraderie and creative ties between filmmakers from different republics have been severed.
As a result, the number of films released has been severely cut, but it has not been entirely disastrous. Russia produces about 150 films (mostly 35mm) yearly within the framework of the Committee for Cinema of the Russian Federation (ROSKOMKinO). A considerable percentage of the overall number of released documentary films (20 to 30) are produced by television, where video technology (Beta-SP) prevails. Moreover, in addition to the state documentary studios (there are 19 of them), there are about 20 small independent studios that produce 10 to 15 documentaries a year.
ROSKOMKINO still finances documentaries. A special jury consisting of qualified masters of the cinema chooses the most marketable and provides them with resources. Regardless of the facts that financing often does not cover all the expenses and payments are often delayed, this kind of financial support is very important. (It must be mentioned that the choice of projects for financing is in no way affected by censorship, nor is censorship a factor when films receive permits for their eventual release.)
Clients and sponsors representing private capital, stock companies, banks, and other organizations are another source of financing. They invest in documentaries for various reasons. Sponsor support is still weak, because the country doesn't have any legal incentives to entice charity contributions as a tax deduction.
Television networks rarely subsidize documentary productions (only sometimes, as a partner of ROSKOMKINO). Both state-run and private channels sometimes buy documentaries that were produced outside television. In addition, fees for a single run of a docu men tary are very low. Even the fees for exclusive rights to a documentary hardly ever exceed 20 to 30 percent of its costs. Besides paying low rates for documentary films, the main television channels drastically cut airtime allotted for documentaries and do not offer primetime ai ring. A pleasant exception is a noncommercial organization, In ternews, that distributes documentaries to more than 100 independent private television stations in different towns throughout Russia.
Today, there are high hopes for a plan of a state television company that finances, produces, and airs weekly half-hour documentary films selected through competition. This project is scheduled for autumn 1996.
Other reliable methods of financing are co-productions with foreign countries or distribution agreements with foreign television stations. However, the number of these agreements is low. Lately, there are examples of successful cooperation with the BBC and sometimes with private companies and organizations from other countries.
Yet, regardless of all the difficulties, documentary filmmaking in the country has kept its essence. A yearly festival of non feature films, Rossiya, which takes place in Yekaterinburg, gathers as a rule about 200 short and full-length films for its competition. This popular festival attracts thousands of spectators and scores of participants and is covered by the press. Another international film festival, A Message to Humanity, takes place yearly in St. Petersburg, and its main component is the documentary film competition. The film competition Saint An ne, for film students of Russia as well as the CIS, should be emphasized, since it is through this venue that many young talents in documentary filmmaking are discovered and get support.
Documentary fIlmmaking continues to be taught at a high professional level at different film schools in Russia and the CIS, at the Film Institute in Moscow, and through the Higher Screenwriters and Film Directors Courses.
The problems of domestic documentary filmmaking are widely discussed in regular and special publications and in film magazines. A Special Documentary Commission at the Cinema Union of Russia coordinates and organizes discussions, screenings, and festivals for documentaries. There are also committees in charge of theoretical issues and documentary film history, as well as a film club, Vertov. The yearly Nika Awards (the Russian Oscar) and a young talent award, Green Apple, both have documentary categories.
Documentaries and popular science films have a strong following. The immediate tasks are to widen the audience and raise the ratings by skillful marketing and advertising of documentary films on television. The prevailing tendency of Russian documentary filmmaking today is the lack of interest in immediate social and news topics. The best films are dedicated to the eternal themes of relationships, human nature, fate, and spirituality. That there are some talented filmmakers working in documentary is revealed by the numerous awards received by Russians at the prestigious international festivals in Lyon, Oberhausen, Leipzig, Krakow, Tampere, Paris, San Francisco, and other cities.
Translated by Lienna Silver and Anatoli Ilyasbov