Russia was one of the main themes at the Movies That Matter Festival this spring. Entitled ‘Russian Spring’, the program dedicated to this complex country combined documentaries, debates and music and it was part of the Netherlands-Russia 2013 Year.
The docs included in the program are part of an exchange between Movies That Matter and the Moscovian Stalker Festival, which takes place every year in December. The Russian festival sent three of their best films to The Hague – Winter, go away!,5 Minutes of Freedom and Tomorrow. Russian Libertine, a film about the writer and dissident Victor Erofeyev, was the fourth film in the program. In return, Movies That Matter will send three of the best Dutch productions to the Stalker Festival in December.
The Russian docs portray dissidence and civic engagement in Russia from different angles and through different stories. All four seem complementary and shed light over what it means to oppose Putin’s regime and to speak up your mind publicly in nowadays Russia.
And that’s not all. Human rights violations and corruption are part of the public image of Russia these days. What these films create is not the classical portrayal of these issues. Instead they give them depth and context, both necessary in order to understand not only how Russia is but also why Russia is the way it is right now.
5 MINUTES OF FREEDOM
Directed by Kirill Sakharnov.
Ksenia Sakharnova, Russia, 2012, 86 minutes
In 1968, 15 years after Stalin’s death, public protest was unconceivable. That year Russia invaded Czechoslovakia. Only 7 people had the courage to denounce this abusive act. 5 Minutes of Freedom tells the story of these 7 people who had the unimaginable courage to go to the Red Square holding protest banners. The 5 minutes between the moment they sat with their banners and the moment the police came to take them away, signed their tickets for years in mental hospitals and work camps and eventually exile and early death. Through interviews, photos and nowadays images, the film draws a parallel between the lives of those 1968 protesters and the lives of a group of young civic activists in today’s Russia. Their stories mix in a portrayal of what was like to be a dissident in 1968 and what it means to be one today. Set against the bravery of the group of 1968, being a civic activist in today seems an easy option simply because activists are not sent to work camps anymore. But that doesn’t mean protesting in Putin’s Russia is safe. As the camera follows the young group, it becomes clear that speaking your mind in public still has a high price. The 1968 protesting was an act of extreme courage, admirable in its symbolism. Protesting today is an act of endurance, like the Chinese drop but one that comes with mistreatments from the police and the government. The nowadays activists do hope that their efforts will bring change. But their work seems at times too dangerous and too hopeless and they too consider leaving the country for fear that at the end of their life, all they efforts might sum up to nothing.
WINTER, GO AWAY!
Directed by Sofia Rodkevich, Anton Seregin, Madina Mustafina, Elena Khoreva,
Anna Moiseenko, Dmitry Kubasov, Askold Kurov, Nadezhda Leonteva, Alexey Zhirayakov, Denis Klebleev.
Russia, 2012, 79 minutes
Winter, go away! is a film that shows without telling. The doc is a mix of footage filmed by ten young directors for a period of over two months. The images cover the events just before Putin’s third re-election, until the winter protests which followed. In its mix of portrayals, Winter, go away! Depicts the two sides of political activism in Russia. That means two options, one can either be pro or against Putin. The images combine the absurd, the disgusting and the involuntary humor. We see the police “arresting” a caricature of Putin. We see the efforts of hanging an anti-Putin banner. We see old USSR nostalgists and nuns praying for Putin while explaining what a difficult job it is for Putin to run a country like Russia. We see young people with Communist party attitudes, talking to people in the streets and trying to convince them to vote for Putin. It looks like the camera is simply present and everything we see are pieces of uncensored, unedited life. It also seems like all these pieces of political activism are present at any time in the Russian life. Throughout the film, the camera (or in fact cameras) captures a feeling of the demagogy and the populism of the political talks. These talks are centered on Putin. The film gives a comprehensive image of the different degrees of interaction between Putin’s supporters and his opponents. It also shows the role organizations like the police play in the political game, an organization that serves the state and preserves the old mentalities.
Directed by Ari Matikainen
Finland, 2012, 75 minutes
Russian Libertine combines photos, archive footage and recent images and portrays Russian dissident and writer Victor Erofeyev. The film is a personal essay, narrated by Erofeyev himself, telling about his life and political views. He is eloquent, calm, analytical and original in his ideas and explanations. Each of his sentences fits perfectly and brings the story further and gives context to his ideas. Coming from a diplomat family, Mr Erofeyev spent his youth mainly abroad and mostly in Paris. Those were times when travelling outside Russia and representing the country were privileges. But everything changed when in 1979, Victor Erofeyev published an article in an anthology titled Metropol. The article destroyed his father’s career. A particularly suggestive detail of what this meant is that Mr Erofeyev, now 66, still remembers how the family phone stopped ringing. No one wanted to be in contact with the outcasts. The entire story gives a dimension of what it meant to step outside the circle in those times. The story of his family is intertwined with Victor Erofeyev’s views on why Russia is where it is now. His explanations are often new and surprising for an outsider and he has the voice of an understanding father. Even though he does not agree with many issues, he can understand why they happen. For example, he explains the circle of corruption, how everybody is dragged in for need of protecting themselves and how everybody therefore shares a feeling of guilt. He tells about how many people support Putin simply because he guaranteed something they did not have before: a private life. The comfort of this life can keep people silent. Like in many other ex communist countries, in Russia voting legitimizes the political class without making it responsible in front of the voters. In Erofeyev’s view, people don’t know for sure who Putin and his group are because they did not spend time gaining the trust of people. The writer does not support the regime. But in his analysis he brings an element that is often not mentioned. He discusses the risk of nationalism and the fact that once Putin removed, it is not sure that the next president will be better. While the story and the explanations give a comprehensive understanding of Russia, the soundtrack of the film is disturbing. The director uses music to guide the viewer emotionally and he often accentuates feelings of danger and insecurity.
Directed by Gryazev Andrey
Russia, 2012, 90 minutes
Tomorrow will leave you intrigued if not outraged. The film tells the story of Oleg Vorotnikov, the leader of the art collective group Voina, his wife, Natalia Sokol and their toddler, Kasper. The camera follows them in their daily lives, focusing on the child. Kasper grows up as part of the art collective. The group’s activities are at the border between symbolic art and vandalism, often raising the question of what kind of message is their acts getting across. And Kasper is brought along everywhere, he’s a witness to everything they do. And there is more to this. His parents don’t use money out of their personal beliefs. Therefore they steal the food they eat and collect from garbage bins whatever they can reuse. Kasper’s toys are collected this way. We also see Kasper chewing on a big sausage still wrapped in plastic, recently stolen from the supermarket by his dad. The director said that Tomorrow has been received with different levels of indignation in different countries, depending on each country’s culture of raising children. That is only because of the stolen food and the recycled toys, which for many can be intriguing to a certain level. It is also because Kasper’s tears win their parents credit. They use him as an alibi. They use him to steal and to defend their actions. The director mentioned his idea of questioning the future of today’s children. That is why the film is called “Tomorrow”. But it’s difficult to make this connection when watching the film. In fact the story in the film is so absorbing, outraging and tender at the same time, that it is difficult to see any relevance in the boldness of Voina’s projects. What you see is a life that is fascinating and terrible at the same time. The love for Kasper is unquestionable; the eccentricity of a life without rules and money is seducing and worrying at the same time. Whether you agree with this life or not, Tomorrow is definitely a memorable film and a glance into the life of a family that defies any rule in a country in which one can be silenced for much less. _