Festival Watch: Petersburg International Film Festival
Despite hard times in the former Soviet Union, St. Petersburg in spring and summer is getting to be film festival city. This year, Russia's shimmering old capital hosted a week of Bulgarian, and Polish films; films of the European Union; an American Film Festival; and the 2nd Festival of Festivals (prize-winning feature films from everywhere). Scheduled for late September was, irreverently, a Funeral of the Cinema Festival—just how serious its sponsors were and who intended to show up with what I never did find out. The publicity flyer listed the following as qualifying: "dead film"; "death agony film"; "coma[tose] film"; "predead film"; and "not a film at all." This was perhaps how the absurdist avant-garde of Petersburg chose to mark 100 years of cinema, a theme much in evidence around the city, and especially at the Fifth International Message to Man Film Festival, held June 16 to 21.
The endurance and continuing vitality of Message to Man in the teeth of post-Soviet distress is an achievement of which its organizers ought to be proud. Originally a purely documentary event, organized in 1989 by leading Soviet documentarists and state film organization's , Message to Man has undergone several changes since its inception, some of them inevitably linked to the convulsions that came with the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. The festival is now a yearly rather than a biannual event, never mind the financial woes that plague the entire post-Soviet film scene. Or perhaps because of those woes: festival organizers told me they felt it was essential to keep visibility and momentum going for Message to Man, as everyone scrambles for money and public attention, both of which were once safely assured by the Soviet state. The money shortage threatening the very existence of the festival in 1993 and 1994 was overcome this year thanks in great measure to the energetic fundraising efforts of its general director, Mischa Litvyakov, who even managed to enlist several state customs agencies among the many new commercial sponsors.
Another change appeared in 1994: Message to Man would continue with documentary film at its core, but short fiction and animation were invited into competition. Since Russian documentaries and those from other parts of the former Soviet Union always constituted the major component of the festival and since their production was way down after 1991, other categories had to be introduced to give the festival some heft. In the eyes of many, this necessity has turned out to be a virtue. As 1995 jury member Ronald Holloway observed, Message to Man is now unique in its variety among major international festivals. Perhaps, he also noted, the festival is even assisting a short-fiction film revival. For Viktor Semeniuk, head of the Festival Film Selection Commission and an illustrious documentarist himself, variety is a blessing, on creative grounds. For one thing, much of short fiction film, and even some
animation, has a documentary feel or intent. More importantly, he added, bringing fiction and documentary into the same venue helps break down the barriers between the two genres, stimulates cross fertilization, and prompts you're thinking of film as film, unencumbered by prejudged pigeonholing. Indeed, many of this year's documentary entries used fiction-film devices- simulations, most notably-in their narrative strategies. One thinks of last year's Golden Centaur winner, Barbara Politsch's astonishing The 28th Instance of June 1914, 10:50 a.m., about the New York conceptual artists McDermott and McGough, as an example of barrier-breaking invention. It won the top award for fiction, but could just as well have qualified as documentary.
Necessity has also compelled Message to Man organizers to keep shuffling the deck, to devise interesting new programs annually in and outside the main competition. This year there was a Debut Films category-we might be introduced to future Fellinis and Ioselianis here, Litvyakov told the audience at opening ceremonies. Chosen as best documentary in this section was the work of a Russian director, Sergei Dvortsevoy, Happiness, a spare, narration-free series of tableaux from the daily life of a rural family in Kazakhstan. Another special program this year commemorates the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II with two films. IDA Executive Director Betsy McLane brought a print of Charles Guggenheim's D-Day Remembered, a work, she noted in her introduction, that paid a personal debt to Guggenheim's fallen and wounded comrades of the Normandy landings. This was paired with And Nothing Else, by the master Petersburg director of fiction and documentary, Aleksandr Sokurov. The two films provided a study in very contrasting documentary styles. Guggenheim's is a superbly crafted straightforward account, told with narration, archival footage and photos, and, to its credit, what I call talking nonheads—the heads talk off camera, and the flow of dramatic imagery is unimpeded. Sokurov's is less an account than an offbeat evocation, through a range of technical devices and strange juxtapositions of footage and sound, of the Soviet experience of what is called over there "The Great Patriotic War." (Try, for example, to picture some houses torched by flame throwers, accompanied by a beautiful tenor aria from Bizet's Pearl Fishers.) World War II is also in the background of Sergey Bukovsky’s modest To Berlin, shown in competition. It records a trip by two Soviet war veterans to contemporary Berlin. ("To Berlin!" was the cry of the Red Army as it moved westward in 1945.) The two have mixed feelings. "I wonder where that Georgian is who raised our flag on the Reichstag?" muses one of them.
The 100th anniversary of film was the design motif of the colorful official festival posters and postcards and a theme in official addresses, but there were programmatic reflections as well, sometimes accidentally. It so happened that the festival's grand prize, the Golden Centaur, was awarded to the remarkable Mother Dao, the Turtlelike by the Netherlands documentarist Vincent Monnikendam. (The title is derived from an indigenous creation myth.) The film is a brilliantly edited compilation from Dutch archives of material shot in Indonesia when it was the Dutch East Indies, over the period 1912-1933. There are stunning images here, a tribute to the early artisans of celluloid who hauled their equipment into mines, forests, and villages and gave us a precious record of the encounter between East and West. The film works as anthropology, as an unadorned portrait of imperialism, and above all as a homage to the art and craft of documentary film in the 20th century. (Monnikendam generously converted his $5,000 prize to a fund to support the work of young Indonesian and Russian filmmakers.)
The 20th century as it unfolded in different parts of the world was well documented. Kostadin Bonev’s Letter to the Nether World, a Silver Centaur winner in the short documentary category, is an artful assembly of old photographs and film, sweetened with a retelling of a Bulgarian fable, about the fates of villagers seeking to make it in the wider world, from Persia to Hollywood, told through their letters home. One hundred years of German history and contemporary controversy is summarized in Stephan Sachs's unusual And Saw, What Should Be Done... Intrigued by the connection between history and its representation, in this case the world's largest equestrian statue, a monument to Kaiser Wilhelm I in Koblenz destroyed by an American gunner in 1945, Sachs chronicles in fascinating detail the recasting of the memorial and the debates about its reemplacement. Many Germans tried, unsuccessfully, to stop what they saw as an unwelcome nod to Prussian militarism.
Modern Germany figured in two other documentaries. The Swedish Betrayal by Frederik von Kruzenshtern is an engrossing informative portrait of the quintessential con man Sasha Anderson, who informed on his fellow dissidents for the Stasi, the notorious East German security police. Long-Lost and Lay Me Down by Jan Raise, an American filmmaker living in Berlin, takes a whimsical look at the meaning of German history and reunification through the eyes and songs of the Berlin street bard and comic Bruno S.
The work of American documentarists, always a major attraction in St. Petersburg, was once again coordinated for the festival by Anne Borin of New York, with assistance by Marie Nesthus of the Donnell Media Center at the New York Public Library. Thanks to their devoted labors, Petersburg audiences have seen over 130 U.S. films since 1989. Only three American documentaries were chosen for competition by the festival commission this year, but one of them was a prize winner in the full-length category, Jonathan Schell's Picasso Would Have Made a Glorious Waiter. Schell has some glorious cinematic fun with the mammoth and elaborately choreographed food arrangements provided by a New York company called Glorious Food, which caters the parties of the cultural elite at such places as the Metropolitan and Guggenheim museums. And, of course, the company's waiters and dishwashers include many of New York's creative artists, who have to make a living. The second U.S. entry was Jean Bach's A Great Day in Harlem, her endearing tribute to American jazz via a "deconstruction" of a famous collective photograph of many of its greatest talents. The third was Michael Apted's powerful telling of the contemporary democracy movement in China, mainly through the eyes and voices of its student leaders, Moving the Mountain. The film is a model of the expertly constructed modern news documentary, with dramatic flashback simulations illuminating the students' stories. The Shoes Weren't Made for Walking is another take on 20th century Chinese themes as Chinese Canadian director Paul Lee traces the evolution of four generations of women in his family, from the epoch of bound feet to that of running shoes.
The festival has always been a fine opportunity to look in on the state of documentary filmmaking in Russia and the other non-Russian nations that comprised the Soviet Union. This year, however, the non-Russian former Soviet republics were not represented at all, if we don't count Ruben Gevorkyantz's moving tribute to the great Paradzhanov, Paradzhanov: The Last Collage, which won a special 100 Years of Filmmaking Jury Prize. Gevoryantz’s is an Armenian director living in France, and his film is French produced. Judging by the competition films, the Russian documentary is, to put a hopeful spin on it, in a state of transition, for which funding problems bear only a share of the responsibility. The once-forbidden themes common to the glasnost era of filmmaking have lost their novelty and shock value, while no strong new styles or stylists are leaving an imprint . Ethnography-tinged films (like Happiness) seem to be in fashion, as are those focusing on individuals, often the lonelier and more aggrieved, the better. Examples of the latter are Vladislav Tarik's Armagedon, about an artist-pensioner who describes (at great length) his painful past as prisoner of the Nazis and Soviets; Pavel Pechyonkin's The Story of Turin, A Painter and Victim, about a provincial radiologist who paints in his spare time and is the victim of a brutal physical assault; and Parking Lot, by Sergei Vinokurov, an unconventional chronicle using sepia and silence, with intertitles, about a new Petersburg entrepreneur victimized by exorbitant money lending rates. In the end, he is determined to carry on rather than return to his old job as a parking-lot attendant.
Evident here is a new kind of hero, the protagonist for the new Russian capitalism. Another kind of hero, on behalf of newly resurgent Russian religion... and capitalism, is portrayed in Zlatoust from Poteryaevka by Liubov Kuznetsova. Zlatoust is (a very talkative) head of a provincial religious unity dedicated to the trinity of God, Family, and Private Property.
Old heroes are ironically treated in two other Russian films, Igor Alimpiev's The Physiology of Russian Life and Vitaly Mansky’s Etudes on Love, Part III. (Mansky, like several other Russian documentarists, now uses European production and distribution facilities, German in his case.) Physiology folds the biography of the great scientist Ivan Pavlov into the sad history of Soviet Russia, with its mass political reflexes. In one wonderful sequence Alimpiev alternates footage of a dog automatically responding to a stimulus and an audience repeatedly applauding Stalin on cue. Mansky's Etudes studies with a cold eye the fates of some members of the old Soviet elite, neighbors in a privileged apartment block, as they confront the unfamiliar and, for them, uncomfortable new Russia.
Louis Menashe teaches Russian history and film at Polytechnic University, New York, and is an editorial associate of Cineaste magazine.