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The Documentary Salon: A Conversation with Marina Goldovskaya

By Timothy Lyons

Marina Goldovskaya wears a fur coat and holds a camera.

IDA Board member Marina Goldovskaya worked for more than twenty years for Central Russian Television. She has made 27 documentaries as director/cinematographer/writer and 50 documentary television programs as director/cinematographer, for Russian, Austrian, French and U.S. broadcast. Among her works are Solovky Power (Special Jury Prize, Amsterdam; 1989), A Taste of Freedom (Turner Broadcasting; 1990), The Shattered Mirror (Golden Gate, San Francisco; Gold Hugo, Chicago; 1993) and House on Arbat Street (Best Film, Prix Europa; 1994). She taught at Moscow's State University and the University of California—San Diego; since 1993, she has been Professor of Film and Television at the University of California—Los Angeles.

Tell me first about this notion of a "documentary salon."

Marina Goldovskaya: The purpose is to bring documentaries and documentarians together. Encourage some conversation, some feedback. On the whole, filmmakers are lone wolves, you know? Especially i n documentary, where a single person could be responsible for everything, the planning and the fundraising, the shooting and the editing, getting the work into distribution. It is so important to have exchange, ideas, to get feedback. As a filmmaker, I need that. My anonymous audience, as big as can be, has to reinforce that feeling I have, to share something of importance: we need to see the eyes of the people when we show them the film. I want to see if my film touched their souls. I want a salon series that offers that chance for feedback, to filmmakers and others, about a work under focus, to get people talking, excited about what is going on.

Those kinds of events are taking place elsewhere by groups such as AIVF. Why documentary, and why Los Angeles for a start?

In Los Angeles, people are very much oriented to the fiction film, and documentary is not the mainstream. The San Francisco Bay Area, New York City, Chicago perhaps, it 's not the same. There you can bump into documentaries, in theatres, at festivals, without going out of your way. In Los Angeles, it requires great effort. In the fall season, of course, you have features and shorts in theatres to qualify for Oscar® consideration, and with the IDA DOCtober, the climate is much improved. But that's only one month out of twelve. We need more, and regular sessions where new work gets shown and discussions take place. It 's vital.

This sounds a little like the Cine Club movement of the '20s, in Paris, where artists from all fields descended on film to explore the boundaries of the artform.

Of course. And that was the birth of the avant garde for film, wasn't it? The idea of discussion, interchange-at the beginning of a film, during, after—it's all part of my upbringing. You know, I've been making films for twenty-five years. In Russia, I graduated from the State film school, and immediately I started on Ph.D. one and Ph.D. two. We had the best teachers, the best filmmakers who were working. Every Friday, we had a new film, Russian or foreign, we were open: the public could not see these, but we could. And we had the most beautiful cinematheque, and we were exposed to all these filmmakers, from all over the world. I remember one week we had the whole week devoted to Italian filmmaking. It began at 7 o'clock in the morning, sometimes 6, and we would watch all these films, and meet all these people, and it was an experience that I've remembered for the rest of my life, it was so exciting and so stimulating. We were exposed to the best.

Of course, today, it is sometimes difficult to know what is the best: sometimes I see a film and I love it, but I don't know whether it will last. That 's something a salon can help with, to see new work, and through discussion, to put it into perspective.

One of the things the magazine tries to do is an occasional article on the heritage of documentary.

Well, of course, that is central. It's education. We have to try to educate people about how to watch documentaries, to enjoy them as much as they do fiction films. Of course, the pioneers learned this. Grierson, he used the word "documentary" in 1926 to describe Flaherty's Moana and we've been arguing about the word ever since. It definitely is not the best term to define the genre. Cavalcanti once said, "I hate the word documentary. I think it smells of dust and boredom." I agree: I personally prefer "nonfiction."

When I started teaching, I thought how can I stir this interest in documentaries from students? So, at UCLA my first lecture, I ask "Does anyone know what documentary is?" Everybody raises their hands right away. And I tell them that my goal is to bring them to hesitate before they answer, because they will not know what documentary is: it is such a rich genre, such a variety of expressions, that it is difficult to say easily what documentary is. So, my goal is to show them what documentary can be. And for every class, I show them one film from the history of documentary, and then right away, another film, from today. And I search for that link, between the two films, to show them how rich and beautiful is the world of documentary. Something like Man of Aran, the film will stay with them, forever, the way it influenced me, stayed with me, made me as a human being. Show them how great a range is there for documentary. It can be an art film, a social issue exploration, about life and death, it can be anything, a reflection on human society. My thinking is that this is something that must be taught, can be taught. If we could have a documentary channel, on cable, to show documentaries with introductions by people who understand and love documentary, and introduce the people who made the film and explain why this film was made and what was meant to be said and how it should be watched, I think there would be a much bigger audience for documentary.

I'm thinking today that there is probably a larger audience for documentary than we think. I mean, the numbers of viewers who are devoted to the Discovery channels and A&E's History channel, to National Geographic, Cinemax Reel Life, PBS... we're talking very significant numbers here, and these are not people who are making documentaries.

There was a time when people identified the documentary with learning, school lessons, something to make you better, like bitter medicine, castor oil, terrible to taste but good for you. May­ be some still think this: the documentary is information, education, nothing more. We need to show them films that not only educate and enlighten, but offer something more, something for their souls.

People are getting dissuaded from contemporary television and fiction films, from all the blood and the gore, the explosions, the sex. They want something else. And I think that's why those cable channels are finding a new audience. But we need more. I mean, documentary can become the art of the 21st century. The idea of a salon is to bring us closer together, as close as possible, to interact, to share, to network with each other, not just filmmakers but anyone seriously interested in furthering the art form.

Sounds like, to paraphrase Clemenceau, documentary is too important to leave to the filmmakers.

...Well, look: what we know about the rest of the world is so impoverished. We see so very little. Documentary can enrich our knowledge of other places, people, in such a personal, complete way. Nobody here has seen the film My Vote is My Secret. I saw the film, because I was on the jury for a festival. I was crying all the way through! The film was made by South African filmmakers. And I could feel the soul of the people from this film. What do we know about the daily lives of people in other lands? o wonder we have these stereotypes, out of ignorance. We know that documentary is a way to change the policies, we all know that. So we work in documentary because we have the feeling that we can do something for the society. And that's not a socialist idea: it 's the idea that started Flaherty, and Grierson, and Joris Ivens, and all the contemporary filmmakers, an Errol Morris or a Chris Marker or a Jessica Yu, they feel the same way.

I'm wondering in Los Angeles, where at leastf our of the best schools for film and television are located, what role does the training of documentary makers have in the programs here? Well, of course, there is UCLA, and USC, and Cal Arts, Loyola Marymount, also AFI. And most of the young people come to Los Angeles because this is still the entertainment capital. So, their interest is in entertainment, special effects, screenwriting, animation. The schools here are excellent for that. But we owe it to the students to introduce more avenues. And we can't ignore the people from other fields, who perhaps aren't thinking about making films or television shows as their primary career. Documentary today is the most important tool to create a dialogue within the society. Not only as an art form but as a tool, for research. So, at UCLA, I have all these students who want to take my class, and they come from different departments, not just the School of Film and Television, but from all over the campus, from sociology and anthropology, architecture and urban planning, psychology, all over. And they want to know how to make documentaries. The technology today is so accessible, Hi-8, digital, that these researchers can use them fairly easily, to record their research. And they can do this with very little money and reach so many more people than in print.

We hope in the future at UCLA to open The Documentary Center, where we can give the tools of the documentary to those people who need them, to researchers in other fields who can share their findings with vast groups of people through screenings of their work, a place where documentary is a common interest, not just an alternative. Focus, that's what we want; and a salon fits perfectly with that idea, you know?

And the interest is very much there. I have a workshop at UCLA, for documentary makers: they will be the documentary professionals of the future. And I showed them Portrait of Jason, a film that lasts for 104 minutes, my class is only two hours. So, what happened? The class is over, they can go home, but they sit for another 2 1/2 hours discussing the film. Can you imagine that in a classroom after you've shown Waterworld? I'm sure that when I show Fast, Cheap and Out of Control these students will spend another three hours discussing with each other the film.

We had a great discussion on a.k.a. Don Bonus, by Spencer akasako, a portrait of a community from the point of view of one of its members. This film is a perfect example of what can be done today with the new technology by those who have talent and interest in their roots. And most young people—judging from my students—are interested in their roots: they want to find out what made them who they've become—it's important to them.

That's what I want to get into the salon. All these questions and interests, discussion, interchange. And we've had a good start. Our first evening, we had Shonali Bose, an Indian filmmaker, and her new film Lifting the Veil. For November, we followed up with Lourdes Portillo, a very talented filmmaker from the Bay Area. December, we won't schedule anything: a busy month for people. But in January, we are bringing Albert Maysles, for a week of workshops, screening all his work. We plan discussions with him about his work. He is such a great guy, so filled with ideas, so much energy. The sessions will be open to others, not just UCLA students; it should be very stimulating.

What do you see as the biggest challenge today for documentary?

Well, I don't think it is money anymore. Of course, it would be great to get good funding and not to spend most of your time and efforts searching for grants and sponsors. I was lucky to work for more than twenty years in a situation where I was funded by the government and later, by the networks. That's no longer possible, but I am not pessimistic. I think the situation in recent years has changed drastically for documentary. We have digital technology, small cameras and editing equipment that enable us to make films of high quality at a very low cost. You remember Alexandre Astruc's "Camera stylo?" Yes, he was right: the camera becomes as accessible as a pen is to a writer. Now we can live with a camera and record life as well as our own personal experiences.

Do you know Bill Viola's film, The Passing? It 's about his mother, and it moved me deeply. I myself made a film when my mother died. I took a camera and I went into the streets and I made a film with a very simple camera. I made it for $5,000. It gave me a chance to express my own feelings and to record events of 1992 in Russia. Documentary is an amazing thing: it is a record of time, a condensation of time, and its emotional picture.

No, it 's not the money. It 's getting the work out so that the most people can see it. And talk about it, let it influence them. And the work has to be about the people, not just the facts, not just the history. It 's the people, their memories, this is the history to preserve. We have to remember that we are citizens of this world , and if we want to be sure that this world does not get blown up, we have to speak the memories. When we are collecting the memories, we are preserving the history of the world. And documentary is the best way to preserve this history. But let's get back to the documentarian: he is a lone wolf. Now what is difficult is not how to handle the technology and not how to make people comfortable, to avoid staging and other problems in capturing life. No, now we face structuring, conquering and taming the reality that is captured by the camera: shaping the film. And here the filmmaker is alone. For him to be able to share his experience, to get friendly and professional feedback or help from a good editor or sound person, becomes more and more important. That's why I am sure that we need an atmosphere of a community, a community of people, for whom documentary is a way of life, an obsession.

I hope the documentary salons, which UCLA and IDA will co-sponsor, will become the first step in creating just such a community in Los Angeles.