The Russian documentary film tradition is acknowledged by documentary professionals all aver the world. Russian docs are often selected for festivals outside Russia. Russian filmmakers such as Victor Kossakovsky, Vitaly Mansky and Sergei Miroshnichenko are involved in international co-production. But this is just the top of the Russian documentary production iceberg. What lies under the surface seems paradoxical.
There is a Russian joke of the post-Soviet era, when awful truths of recent national history were revealed: Russia is a country with an unpredictable past. Now I can add that it is also a country with an unexpected present. This idea inevitably occurs to anyone who, for instance, gets to know some of the facts and figures related to documentary production in our country.
In the last decade more than 500 docs were made in Russia annually. This exuberant production flow is divided into two spill streams, and it is no exaggeration to say that they almost never cross each other. Approximately half of annual docs production is comprised of docs made by and for federal (Russia-wide) TV channels. The documentaries that comprise the second half are, in a manner of speaking, commissioned, but really just supported, by the state.
Russian TV docs are not a disputable question. They cover the same topics as tabloids, are focused on scoops and have just one purpose – to earn money through commercials, made by professionals hired by the TV-channels which never make any other type of films. This is the nature of Russian TV; it’s aimed mostly at profit-making due to the special – and utterly feudal – design of the relationship between the heads of the channels and state power. The heads of the federal channels are appointed by the ruling circles and must carry out political propaganda. But having executed this political villein-socage, they are free to earn money for themselves in practically any way deemed acceptable by criminal law. That’s why TV-docs are just another form of leverage to make the heads – or, to be frank, the owners – of the TV channels rich. So it doesn’t make any sense to discuss the quality of these docs – since their aim is neither artistic nor informative.
Artistic ambition and creative search is supposed to be concentrated in the second spill stream of Russian documentary making – the docs made with the financial support of the state (granted through the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation). These films are meant to perform artistic functions, and are made by people struggling to consider themselves artists and not just workers on the commercial conveyor belt. And at this point one faces the biggest secret.
Russia is a country with an unpredictable past
Every year more than 200 documentary films are made in Russia with support from the state. This means that the studios get their funding solely from the state budget. The state’s aims with these productions are diverse: to create visual chronicles of the country, to support docs as an art form, to develop the film tradition, and even to employ the professionals involved. This approach is definitely paternalistic from the state’s side and was inherited from the USSR, but this approach allowed docs to survive in a new economic situation.
But as a spectator and even as a festival programmer I only have the possibility to watch approximately 50 films out of this impressive number of productions. It’s not permitted to watch all the films that have been produced. Why, and by whom, is it prohibited?
You may not believe me, but it’s prohibited by the producers of the films and caused by the mechanism of the state support requirements, which is as follows:
The film is just a product in the eyes of the state. It’s commissioned by the state as any other product the state needs – be it film or pipes for the new South Stream Pipeline, for example. The relationship between the state and manufacturer are regulated by Federal Law #94 (a law on government contracts and procurement) demanding that any product paid for by the state budget must be commissioned through a tendering process. That’s why the winner must guarantee the shortest term of execution of an order at the lowest price.
So we find ourselves in a paradoxical situation – artistic duties are carried out with the tools of economical expediency.
This brings into play the obstinacy of the functionaries within the Ministry of Culture responsible for the procedure. And it happens almost on a regular basis that the winning projects are not the most interesting projects, but the projects that can be realized in the shortest term with the smallest budget. As there is no creative control of the fruits of production by the Ministry of Culture, being a producer you can come into close personal contact with a Ministry official, and make him or her personally invested in your reception of the grant…and may even get the easy option of not having to produce a film at all. You just have to make something to entrust to the custody of the State Film Archive (this is a rule), and nobody will ever watch it: because the films produced in Russia with state support over the last 10 years can only be watched at the State Film Archive with the permission of the copyright holder. That’s why I cannot watch the majority of the films that are supported by the state – the producers who are the copyright holders are not interested in me watching them. I could reveal a kind of forgery where a state commissioned film should be.
So please tell me: is there any need for political censorship under these circumstances? It’s really enough to have functionaries who can be corrupted. This is how the economics of Putin’s era is designed in almost all spheres – the feudal way, whereby all authorities have a financial vested interest to remain loyal.
For the same reason the majority of the documentaries that became available to viewers –presented at film festivals, both national and international, and broadcast by TV-channels outside Russia – are made without any support from the state or private sponsors, (there is almost no private sponsorship in the documentary field in Russia – all topics here can be considered political, and the Khodorkovsky example taught business circles “the importance of being loyal” to the political power). Victor Kossakovsky, our world famous filmmaker, prefers not to apply for state grants at all – in order not to be involved in unfair competitions or the chains of corruption, he says. And the most acclaimed Russian documentary of the last festival season Winter, Go Away! was created from pure enthusiasm, with no budget, by a group of young filmmakers from the workshop of the director Marina Razbezhkina.
Artistic tasks are solved with the tools of economical expediency
Now, thanks to the desperate efforts of the film community, new rules to govern the awarding of state grants are being presented. One of the innovations is the option of special grants for projects of a certain complexity that must be defended by the authors in public and in viva voce. But such innovations won’t apply to the majority of state productions.
This means that films and pipes are still the same in Russia._
WINTER, GO AWAY
Directed by graduates of Marina Razbezhkina’s School
of Documentary Film and Documentary Theater,
Russia, 2012, 79 min.