Marina Razbezhkina’s “snake area,” or What a good documentarist cannot do
Films by Russian film director Marina Razbezhkina, who began her career of a documentarist in Kazan, have since 1991 been traveling over world film festivals, winning them with their sincerity, truth of life, and with upbringing of a new generation of moviemakers. Valeriya Gai Germanika, an odious, yet an interesting person, considers Razbezhkina her only guru in cinema.
Razbezhkina, who devotes much time to her school, finds time to shoot films and leads a stormy festival life. She does this in order to present works of her pupils, whom she is openly proud of. For she knows well, how difficult it is to tell the truth. But she cannot do otherwise.
Ms. Razbezhkina, you have been inside documentary filmmaking for a long, and we all have gone through numerous changes over this period. We know periods of history, when the main instrument of documentary films, i.e., the truth of life, was painted in many ways, following someone’s instructions. And no matter what the result was, it was called a cinema document. In your opinion, how does time affect and shape the documentary moviemaking?
“Time is shaping, because, in my opinion, to fit in time is the most important thing for a documentary filmmaker. And falling out of it means to fall out of filmmaking, because cinema repeats the reality. I am old enough, and it seems to me that reality has never changed as rapidly as in the 21st century. At the same time recent decades were a totally different time. I’m not labeling it as good or bad, it’s just new. It seems to me it is important for a documentary filmmaker to avoid labeling and freaking out if some connections or traditions break. I think we attach too much attention to them. More important is what is taking place here and now, at least for a documentary filmmaker. If we don’t catch it, we are in the past.”
Has the notion of documentary cinema changed as a result of digital technologies? Are these new technologies important for you as an artist?
“It was a painful process of moving from film to digital technologies, when digital technologies emerged. Now I am totally fond of digital technologies, I am fond of technologies which are rapidly developing and of the possibility to take a small camera and work with it in a quite qualitative way. There is an opportunity to get inside a human life much deeper than it was possible to do with a movie camera. The process dictated a kind of space abstractness from the hero, we were the observers. I introduced [and I’m proud of it (laughing). – Author] the term of ‘snake area.’ This is the inner area of every person – it is his/her private space, which you either can enter, or cannot. The moviemaking before digital age existed beyond this area. Now digital technologies have allowed get very closely to the hero. He does not even notice the camera and does not care about it. Now, when we work with the students, the hidden cameras are forbidden – the hero must know about the cameras. At the same time we do our best to teach the students to get very closely to people.
“A camera, the light, and the group. In our school the word ‘artist’ is forbidden, especially when it is written in capital letters. It is forbidden to write it, because it seems to me that the messiah culture, which is connected with the technologies, does not have any right to exist now. From the point of view of God, artists in capital letters cannot talk to people. The dialogue should be led on equal terms, people should listen on equal terms, but for this they should refuse from messiah’s role.”
Where does journalism (today’s television is full of pseudo-documentary films) end and art begins? For documentary cinema is recognized as a true fact of art. Where is the line and how can it be kept?
“We have to talk about all of this with our students. Many of them know about documentary cinema only from TV. We accept students from provinces more often than, let’s say, from the capital. It seems to me they are closer to life. And we immediately define what a television production, often propaganda, is and what documentary cinema is, the way you and I understand it. Television films are always about an object-to-object communication, and our cinema is about a subject-to-subject communication. And this is a basic difference. Further it defines everything: both the form of relations and the form of the cinema. This is the only way to develop the relations: there is always a personality in front of me, and I should act as a personality.”
Does it insult you that television does not always treat audience correctly, “treating it” to so-called information-documentary “dishes” of doubtful quality, which deprives documentary cinema of the possibility to communicate with broad audience?
“We don’t need to embrace vast space. We can leave it to Channel One, which is involved in brainwashing. My position is that bringing up people is a very slow and pinhole way. They cannot be raised en masse, people should be brought up separately, because we travel much, and every week we appear in Moscow for sure. There can be a small venue – there are projectors in all good cafes and clubs – we make use of everything. And we have the right to appear there without any screening license, without +18, +16 restrictions, and so on. There are always young people in these venues. We have audience of our own. During open exams, defense of course papers and theses, we have full houses. Sometimes there are 200 people in the classroom, who watch the works of the students. They are interested. We have had an incredible experience with the film Winter, Go Away! I have received a screening license for this film only recently [this documentary cinema almanac have been successfully screened in many international festivals, and immediately made a name for its authors. – Author]. I did this deliberately because I understood that if I go with this film at once, there will be a scandal and some bans, no doubt. Therefore we have shown it in 30-40 cities of the country on invitations of different clubs. Siberia, Far Siberia, the Urals, where we were invited and where we went. There was only one condition we had: one of the directors (there are 10 of them) should have been present to lead a discussion. People should talk, people should develop an opinion of their own. And it turned out to be very interesting. The result was very interesting. I think this accurate conditional distribution is much more important, than official state distribution. We already have lots of admirers. Some cities are waiting for new films. I regularly receive letters. The correspondence with people who want to show our films is absolutely incredible. Some cinemas in Siberia, for example, are ready to show only documentary films. This is the only way we can compete with the all-mighty Channel One.”
How is documentary cinema funded? To what extent does it depend on state funding, and to what extent does the state order helps the state to realize its dictate?
“Now everything is getting more and more complicated. There is state funding, which practically remains the only source for making documentary cinema. The state holds one or two competitions a year, announces winners, and gives them on the whole small grants of about 30,000 dollars’ cash. But it tends to want more and more love for its money, and if we give this love, we will turn into prostitutes, because apparently this is love for money. The government wants to be glorified for this money; it wants us to tell about its greatness, glorious history, and so on. It wants myths and mystifications. In my opinion, what a good documentarist cannot do is create mystifications instead of making a documentary. We have felt this censorship. But this time the censors are the producers who regard it as best to do this, rather than let the committee on culture do this. This is nonsense!”
Is it realistic to attract investors to documentary cinema?
“I think it is hardly realistic, especially today, and further it will get even less realistic. First of all, it is a question of when investor gets paid back. Secondly, he sits on a hot pan and understands what the state may do tomorrow with his money. In order to invest, wealthy people should be confident that they will remain rich for a while. Then they could give this money even without interest. Borrow it, give it because of love, idea, you name it. Our school has an investor of our own, an entrepreneur who likes the cinema we make very much. He gives a grant for one place to study in our school, and he gives some money for the best three diplomas, which are defined by students and teachers. For the place it is a 5,000 dollars’ cash prize, which is quite enough to shoot a film with a digital camera. Naturally, it won’t be a BBC level, there won’t be any nice big screen, but it is enough to make expressive and quality cinema.”
My acquaintances who teach in universities report the incredible total decrease of educational standards, intellectual standards and so on. To what extent to you see this in your students? Can we and should we fight this? If so, how?
“My attitude to this is quite complicated, because I don’t belong to the general trend of those who lament. I think the cultural level of Soviet people is extremely exaggerated. And the ability to read many books is not equal to education, it does not really have an effect on the ability to think, make one’s own decisions, and on talent. It does not mean that an artist must be inexperienced; it would be good if he is educated, but it is not a crucial factor. And I can see this from people, even my coevals. I grew up in the time, which is now recalled nostalgically, but I don’t feel any nostalgia for the past.
“Different kinds of young people come to me. Two years ago I had a student, a girl, who at the age of 25 years had not read any book. But she writes better than candidates of philology, whom we accept too. She has a wonderful judgment, she has all qualities to become a director. Much more than a girl next to her, who is amazing, who defended candidate’s paper, read lots of books, but who is unable to step over the barrier of a ‘different kind of reality,’ which she mastered very well and with pleasure, because she grew in a high-cultured family. But she does not perceive the primary reality. And the former girl does. She does not need to read Dostoevsky to understand something about the humiliated and insulted, she reads them from the primary reality. Because this question is not so simple. You know the names of Chekhov’s sisters – so, you can be a director, if you don’t – you can’t. This is not true. In fact today they are very nice, much freer; I remember very well how restrained I was, which tormented me for so long. But those constraints were temporary, epochal. Now they have fewer barriers. They easier overcome certain things inside of them. We only need to put them in some unbearable conditions and see what they do. Will they be able to jump over these barriers? If they will, they will find a niche beyond cinema. This is much more important than total high cultural level of people, like it was promoted. I cannot see it in the past. I cannot see it, and it does not captivate me.”
Do you shoot anything apart from your work in school?
“I have finished a feature documentary. The translator has just sent me the subtitles. Aleksandr Rodionov and I are writing a script for a film we are going to shoot without subsidies. I am not going to stand in line for money, and I don’t have a good producer who could do this on his own, and I cannot do this myself, because this is a humiliating business, which actually has nothing to do with cinema. Therefore we will shoot the film conditionally without finding, we’ll raise some money somewhere; this will be, so to say, making love. In fact, lack of money sometimes brings more positive results than when you have it.”
The Day’s FACT FILE
Marina Razbezhkina is a member of the Union of Filmmakers of Russia, member of Guild of Non-Action Cinema and Television, member of Russian Academy of Cinema Art “Nika,” European Academy of Cinema Art, member of jury of the Kinotavr Film Festival. She teaches at the Higher School of Journalism at National Research University “Higher school of economics” in creative studio “Directing Documentary Cinema and Documentary Theater,” jointly with the artistic director of Teatr.doc Mikhail Ugarov. She is director and scriptwriter of several tens of documentaries. In 2003 she shot her first dramatic film Time of Harvest, and Ravine (2007) is her second dramatic film, based on Sergey Esenin’s novelette. Since 2009 Razbezhkina has been holding an annual creative competition of documentary works “Hunting after Reality.” The winners get the right to study in her studio free of charge.