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Petersburg International Film Festival

By Louis Menashe

Politics was in the air last June during the 6th Petersburg Festival, which still bears its original title, "Message to Man." The Festival, once a strictly documentary event that now includes short fiction and animation, coincided with the first round of the Russian Presidential elections , with the incumbent Boris Yeltsin facing a strong challenge from the Communist Gennady Zyuganov. Yeltsin survived and—thanks in great part to overwhelming media support-went on to take the second round as well. My impression was that the Russian film world breathed a sigh of relief. Russian television was filled with anti-communist documentaries before the elections, and a few documentarists—too few, some said—produced political infomercials for the Yeltsin campaign. The film people I spoke to were unanimously for Yeltsin, not always enthusiastically, but out of a compelling sense of anxiety about the alternative. No one wanted the old ham-handed controls that Party-State authorities once imposed on filmmakers in the Soviet system, and that a Zyuganov victory threatened to bring back (though one still might find traces of nostalgia for the ample state subsidies that came with the controls).

Politics impinged on the Petersburg Festival in another way, quite directly, and almost fatally. City elections prior to "Message to Man" cast out the incumbent Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, a patron of culture, and of film in particular, who was always generous to the Festival with municipal funds. His successor, Vladimir Yakovlev, was less concerned with projecting Peters­burg's image as a fountain of culture than with repairing its crippled economic infrastructure. (The contrast between the breathtaking physical beauty of the city, home to a rich cultural life, and the dreadfully neglected rutted thoroughfares and crumbling architectural treasures is all too evident.) Yakovlev promptly held back funds for the Festival, leaving its organizers in a high state of panic. As the distinguished Latvian documentarist, Ivars Seleckis, summed it up, "The problems of the Festival are the problems of Russia." A mark of just how serious the situation was: on the eve of the event, there was no advertising, out of fear that the Festival would abort. But the Festival Director, Mischa Litvyakov, and his colleagues are nothing if not perennial survivors of post­ Soviet fiscal dislocations; they have a remarkable capacity to tread water and improvise, not to mention an unsinkable commitment to film and to the endurance of this Festival.

And so, the 6th Festival was realized, smaller in scale, with few frills and a bit bruised, but it still shaped up as one of the most important international venues for showcasing new work in different genres. Tsar Peter the Great built his new capital as a "window on the West," letting in fresh currents from abroad. For Russian documentarists and followers of non­ fiction film, the Petersburg event has acquired a unique significance as a window of opportunity to glimpse global developments and to meet an ensemble of filmmakers drawn from many lands. It is also one of the few festivals that allows films and filmmakers from all parts of the former Soviet Union to come together. (The formerly "All Union" documentary festival, "Rossiya," still runs annually in Ekaterinburg; also the International Visual Anthropology Festival in Parnu, Estonia.)

There is considerable poignancy in all of this. At a time when documentary production in Russia has been drastically reduced and virtually orphaned by the break-up of the old system, the non-fiction film is enjoying an unprecedented flowering elsewhere, especially in the U.S. Even the few Russian documentaries that get produced find no theatrical outlets at home. The old distribution networks have disappeared, and theaters are happy to bump domestic films, documentaries and features alike, in favor of cheap foreign imports.

But no one should have expected a simple and smooth transition to a market driven economy, in film as in all other sectors. Amidst the traumas of this transitional period, there are several bright spots, and the Petersburg Festival is one of them. Its organizers affirm its "goal, its main idea" as reviving through the universal language of film the "cultural values so important to a Russia [that is] trying to survive this difficult time." High-minded sentiments aside, Russian filmmakers, particularly of the younger generation, are trying to cope with the new culture of the market, in many cases even welcoming the challenge. For one thing, there is always television. State and independent broadcasting has now become the major magnet for documentary filmmakers in Russia. For another, there is the new energy of creative freedom. For someone like the young documentarian Vitaly Mansky, current conditions are no deterrent to the committed filmmaker, and he scoffs at com­plaints over funding; all he needs, he told me, was a subject and a camera.

Mansky's Bliss, a prizewinner at the San Francisco Festival in March, was one of only two Russian full-length documentaries shown in competition in Petersburg out of a total of twenty from sixteen countries—a sign of hard times for the Russians, in contrast to earlier Festivals when their films out­ numbered others, and garnered most top prizes. The ironically titled Bliss is a sometimes elegiac, sometimes sardonic portrait of a dying Russian village where a woman has dedicated her life to caring for her deformed sister. "Village" films and an emphasis on the personal and individual are a focus of contemporary Russian documentary interest, unlike the political and advocacy themes of the late-Soviet glasnost period. Even the other Russian full-length entry, Nikolai Obukhov It's Not About Stalin, as its title suggests, avoids a political, polemical stance in favor of a personal, rather whimsical, and heavily psychodynamic portrait of the Soviet dictator as others see him.

If there were political, or politically tinged films at the Festival, they didn't come from the Russians. The "Centaur" Prize for Best Full-length Documentary went to one such film, Predictions of Fire, a striking tribute to the savagely satirical work of the Slovenian industrial—rock group, "Laibach," by the American Michael Benson. Ivars Seleckis's Crocodile's Move explored problems of national identity and purpose in his native and newly independent Latvia. Personal identity as adults was the problem confronting several Jewish men and women who owed their survival to false identity as children under Nazi occupation in John Walker's Hidden Children, a Canadian­ British production. Shown out of competition in one of several special programs was Richard Gordon and Carma Hinton's The Gate of Heavenly Peace, their powerful three-hour chronicle of the Tienanmen Square massacre of 1989, probably the most deeply textured and revealing film of that event and its back­ ground to date. China and its 20th-century political convulsions was also the backdrop for Ronald Levako's Round Eyes in the Middle Kingdom, which focuses on those foreigners who remained true to Chinese communism even when it turned on them. Levako weaves into the narrative pages from his own biography—he was born in China, but left it as a boy with his parents in 1949, the year of communist victory. A French production by the South African filmmaker Koto Bolofo, The Land is White, the Seed is Black, is a sensitive, multi-layered treat­ment of an Apartheid victim forced to leave his country for his radical ideas, but who returns to his liberated land 30 years later.

The Petersburg Festival keeps Russian and other filmmakers from the former Soviet Union and Soviet bloc abreast of exper­iments in documentary form by Western directors. Marlon Fuentes's Bontoc Eulogy (U.S./Philippines) exemplified the developing sub-genre of the "fake documentary," in this case an intriguingly recreated biography of the filmmaker's grandfather, imagined as one of 1,100 tribal natives from the Philippines exhibited at the 1904 World's Fair. Nina Davenport's Hello, Photo (U.S.) is a seamlessly edited, narration-free, and very evocative juxtaposition of images in color and black and white, shot in a range of settings in contemporary India. In The Idea of North (U.S.), Rebecca Baron's 14-minute reconstruction of an 1897 expedition, some shots of ice and horizon, the fragments from an old film and a journal are assembled with an almost hallucinatory effect. Equally haunting, if in a more conventional form, is a film from Great Britain, Simon Everson's Silent Witness, about a London police inspector whose melancholy duty it is to identify the corpses of suicides recovered from the Thames. Using the inspector's own narration, Everson very skillfully alternates moody shots of the river with riveting sequences as the camera follows the inspector in the humdrum work of locating friends and relatives of the deceased—and giving them the painful news. (If despair was the subtext of this sad film, the persistence of human spirit marked Jessica Yu's Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien (U.S.), about the paralyzed poet-journalist enduring over 40 years in an iron lung. The film earned the Festival "Centaur" for Best Short Documentary, a prelude perhaps to its recently bestowed Academy Award®; it was later shown to a national Russian television audience estimated at 70 million.)

It's a pleasure to report that despite much gloom generated by current conditions, the Russians haven't forgot to laugh, and to laugh at themselves. Winner of a Festival Diploma for Best Debut Documentary was Today We Are Going to Build a House by Sergei Loznitsa and Murat Mambetov. In it we are introduced to the Russian work ethic—a carry-over from Soviet times?—at a construction site: there's a lot of random activity with many smoke breaks and plenty of horsing around; nothing seems to be getting done... until a couple of dissolves 28 minutes into the film, and Presto! a shot of the completed building. Nor have the Russians forgotten their humanity, expressed most touchingly in an animation fable of love and loyalty between a lion and his trainer by the Moscow director Andrei Khrzhanovsky, in collaboration with Tonino Guerra, The Grey-Bearded Lion; the film has been showing internationally to adoring audiences.

That this animation film captured the Grand Prize of the Festival is emblematic of how the Petersburg event has evolved since its inception in 1989. The present mix of documentary­ short fiction-animation, enriched with a variety of special programs seems here to stay. (One of the more successful special programs this year featured work by students at the New York University Film School, presented, interestingly enough, by the former Leningrad director, Boris Frumin, now an instructor at the School. At a press conference, Frumin noted that while the student films shown at the Festival did not include documentaries, "real-life " documentary production was a requirement of all students at NYU.)

Plans are now in motion for a 7th Festival in Petersburg this year set for June 22-29. According to Anne Borin, long the perceptive scout and co-ordinator for North American entries at the Festival, there are reports that it might comprise one major component of a larger, citywide International Cinema Festival scheduled to begin a week earlier. My assumption at this writing is that the new arrangement, if it comes off, might insure adequate funding and enhance publicity. For the sake of documentary film, its Russian and non-Russian practitioners alike, and for the sake of Mischa Litvyakov and his hard-working colleagues and staff, the Petersburg Festival merits long and secure life.


LOUIS MENASHE teaches Russian History and Film at Polytechnic University, New York, and has reported on earlier Petersburg Festivals for International Documentary.