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The VII Petersburg "Message to Man" Film Festival

By Louis Menashe

Tortured though the Russian economy may be, the show must go on.

Perhaps Mischa Litvyakov and his colleagues at the Petersburg International Film Festival could give the Yeltsin government lessons in financial brinksmanship and survival. Litvyakov, a founder and continuing director of the Festival, "Message to Man ," confessed to an opening evening audience at Petersburg's "Dom Kino" (House of Film) last July that until half an hour before his introductory remarks he wasn't sure the Festival would make it. Perhaps Litvyakov exaggerated a bit for dramatic effect, but it sounded plausible, given the condition of the Russian financial and other markets, and especially the paucity of capital available to the film world in this post-Soviet, chroni­cally difficult transitional period. Once again, however, organizers of the VIII Festival managed to put together enough funding from private and state sources to run a multi-faceted event showcasing over 300 films from 60 countries. There is some substance to famed director Nikita Mikhalkov's otherwise rather grandiloquent communication to the Festival—he wrote of sustaining "the glorious traditions of Russian documentary filmmaking... in the midst of total commercialization, and as our ideals, given to us by God and our ancestors, are being consigned to oblivion"—when he hailed the Petersburgers for overcoming recent difficulties "with dignity."

Associating the Festival with documentary film is natural, since it began that way in 1989. Over the years the format has expanded to include short fiction and animation, but the documentary, in one section or another, is always a strong presence. For many in attendance, it remains the core reason for the Festival. This year there were competitive international divisions for both full-length and short documentaries, and a first-time national competition for documentary films of Russia. Additional sidebars for documentaries featured a retro­spective of some short films by Festival Director Litvyakov (to honor his 60th birthday), and a collection of "Film Chronicles of Russia" from the venerable St. Petersburg Documentary Film Studio. These "Chronicles" are part of a government-supported project initiated in 1994 that aims to record aspects of contemporary Russian life in self­ contained "mini-films" shot in black and white, none longer than 10 minutes. They stand alone, but they also comprise wonderful collective raw material for diverse themes—the fate of Soviet-era communal apartments and their inhabitants; celebrating New Year's eve; how pensioners try to stay in shape; protest rallies; deaths in Siberian mines. Another section, the "Documentary Films of Russia," offered an additional rich tableau of Russian life, past and present. These are films realized by their makers despite the harsh new economic conditions, and this alone merits praise. And what with the pathetic state of Russian film theaters and theatrical distribution, a festival such as the Petersburg event becomes essential for keeping in touch with what the Russians are doing in documentary production. On the whole, the Russians these days favor personal themes and a lyric style touched with melancholy, in traditional formats—solid work with little of the experimental. Good examples are the films of two young documentarists who are becoming familiar to Western audiences, Sergei Dvortsevoy and Yiktor Kosakovsky . Three years ago Dvortsevoy trained his camera on a nomadic family in Kazakhstan for his internationally acclaimed Happiness. This year his subject was a group of aged inhabitants of an abandoned settlement not far from St. Petersburg whose survival in part depends on a weekly delivery of bread. "Delivery" is an overstatement—it really means leaving a box-car full of bread on a railroad siding two kilometers away from the village. In two remarkable real-time sequences—no narration, with just natural sound—Bread Day shows a team of old men and women putting their shoulders to the wagon, pushing it along the track to the village, inch by inch. Later they do it again for the unloaded wagon in the other direction. Between those two efforts, Dvortsevoy glimpses the disconsolate and often squabbling villagers as they survive the weather, scarcity, and each other. Bread Day, which won the Festival's top honor, its "Golden Centaur," is an emblematic film testament to the unending patience and endurance of the Russian people.

Kosakovsky pictured another kind of endurance in his Pavel and Lyalya, a portrait of the two respected documentary filmmakers Pavel Kogan and his wife Ludmila ("Lyalya") Stanukinas in the terrible time of Pavel's debilitating illness and Lyalya's devoted and loving care. Kosakovsky followed the couple to Israel where they sought medical assistance (the film is subtitled expressively, A Jerusalem Romance), and filmed them, in his familiar straightforward vérité style using natural light, in a range of painful moments—Lyalya combs the mute Pavel's hair, she takes him shopping in his wheelchair, she massages his feet. Through it all, Lyalya keeps her chin up, save for a brief breakdown on camera from which she quickly recovers.

Coincidentally, also shown at the Festival in the International Competition section was Moment of Impact by the American documentarist of Russian emigre parents, Julia Loktev, who chronicles her mother's care of her paralyzed father after a traumatic car accident. Loktev's film is rather more self-indulgently complex than Kosakovsky's, but both evoke similar emotions not only of pity for the ailing men, but pity and admiration for the amazing women who nurse them. Kosakovsky's Pavel and Lyalya won prizes in two different categories—as a best short film in the section, "Documentary Films of Russia," and for the best short documen­tary in the "International Competition." In introducing his film, Kosakovsky stressed that he ordinarily eschews making short films because he feels documentaries should always command attention as feature-length productions. (Pavel and Lyalya will be part of a larger work, he explained.) An interesting, but debatable point; length as such doesn't determine quality or significance. Indeed, all too often we complain that films are marred by running too long. It so happens Pavel and Lyalya is a short and good documentary.

The strong Russian woman turns up in another way, in another setting, in Carl Biorsmark's Checking Out. Biorsmark is a Swedish writer and photographer living in Riga, Latvia, where independence from the Soviet Union brought an anti-Russian backlash, and left its ethnic Russians financially and psychologically disoriented. In Checking Out, the ethnic Russian "Maria" is played by the ethnic Russian Lidiya, and their real and fictional efforts at coping are stitched together in this fascinating crossover film that looks and feels like a documentary, but with enough fictional devices (e.g., a scripted fantasy sequence) to place it in the "Fiction" category at the Festival. I would have placed it in the documentary section, particularly since another genre—challenging work appeared there, Bjorn Runge's The Volcano Man from Sweden—a "fake docu­mentary" purportedly about making a film about a contemporary Swedish writer. It is a whacky, dada-esque ensemble of sight gags and put-ons spoofing the documentary bio-pic—and, perhaps in additional self-parody, it runs too long.

In recent years the Petersburg Festival has de-emphasized the politically engaged documentary, an inevitable reaction against the political canons of Soviet times, and the obsessive political cinema of exposure during the glasnost period. A favored genre now is ethnographic film, with its colorful panoramas of little­ known peoples and habitats. Post-Soviet Mongolia is the subject of a Special Jury Prize-winner, Fate of Dogs, a Belgian­ Mongolian co-production by Peter Brosens and Dorkhandyn Turmunkh. Ancient myths and poetry anchor this often intriguing investigation of contemporary life in the dusty, wind-swept plains around Ulan Bator. And some beautiful underwater and above­ ground photography is the highlight of William Long's elegaic portrait of an old Eskimo hunter in Greenland, Vision Man.

But the Petersburg programmers, headed by veteran docu­mentarist Viktor Semeniuk, are not dogmatically indifferent to political cinema; they know a good film when they see one, especially when, as Petersburg Governor V.A . Yakovlev put it, it reflects "the troubled life of the world at the end of the 20th Century." Hubert Sauper's Kisangani Diary is one such superb and horrifying document of our times, amply deserving its Special Jury Prize (adding to the many awards the film has received internationally). In 10 arrestingly shot and edited episodes, Sauper wades into and bears witness to the relentless misery of 80,000 Hutu refugees who fled from Rwanda to eastern Zaire (now Congo) in 1997. With little water, shelter or medicine, many refugees are walking skeletons; abandoned children appear as whimpering, wounded creatures. Sauper adds the chilling information that many of the people we see in the film were later victims of a mass slaughter at the hands of Congolese-Rwandan troops, an atrocity that the U.N. and Western leaders have essentially shrugged off. Kisangani Diary is the work of a courageous filmmaker who has given us an investigative documentary at its incisive best.

Investigation of a different sort characterizes another of the Festival's politically tinged films, Jay Rosenblatt's Human Remains, a quiet, sly look at some of our century's biggest tyrants. Over archival footage, some of it rarely seen, Hitler, Mussolini , Stalin, Franco, and Mao speak in the first person about themselves. The result is a self­ revealing portrait gallery of utter banality.

The tyranny of the Mafia, and one woman's determination to break its ritualistic "code of silence" operating within her own family, knowing it could cost her life (it did), underlies the dramatic narrative of Marco Amenta's A Girl Against the Mafia. The documentary recounts a true, sad Sicilian tale of a decade ago, and though conventional in form (with video news clips and too many interviews), it is often riveting. The best attended sessions of the Festival were its "Debut" films section, perhaps because they were scheduled evenings. All three Festival categories were represented, but, disappointingly, and for reasons that were unclear, only two of the 80 plus screen­ings were documentaries. (According to one of the Festival 's organizers, there were few documentary submissions in this category.) For the record, they were—decent efforts both—Adele Schmidt's Juana's Journey, a touching portrait of an unwed Mexican mother who oscillates between calling for her daughter and returning to her life on the streets; and Maikus Kanter's Mutoid Waste Company, a rollicking look at an Austrian anarchist group whose performances feature their refuse and scrap-metal sculptures and installations.

The Petersburg Festival is a colorful event in a strikingly colorful city (especially during its fabled "White Nights"), and deserves recognition as a major international venue for documentary cinema. It has survived in desperately difficult circumstances, and has even matured along the way. According to Anne Borin, now Director of The New York Expo of Short Film and Video, and a coordinator of North American entries for the Festival since its inception, its organizers are soliciting films more autonomously and with greater self-confidence than in the early years. Like many of the subjects shown in films at their Festival, they too are gritty survivors.


LOUIS MENASHE teaches Russian History and Film at Polytechnic University, New York, and is an Editorial Associate at Cineaste magazine.