In 2010, filmmaker Olga Stefanova left her Moscow apartment to spend a year at Russia’s Bellingshausen polar station documenting the lives of 15 men who live there.
Thousands of miles away, Yulia Panasenko knocked on the door of her neighbor who was suffering from cancer that transformed her from a chic Russian woman to a skeleton clothed in yellowish skin. Panasenko let the camera run defiantly on.
The results of these persistent preoccupations -- Stefanova's "The Wintering" and Panasenko's "Outro" -- were part of the 12th annual Flahertiana Documentary Festival October 11-17 in the Russian city of Perm, where the two films participated in the international competition with 15 non-Russian documentaries.
Festival president Pavel Petchenkin has mixed feelings about films like these. While they're heartfelt projects, they illustrate one element of the troubling situation currently faced by contemporary Russian documentary.
"Men see that it is not possible to make a career in documentary as it is today,” he says. “So they seek out other sectors. Then we see a few directors, mostly young women working in documentary with virtually no budget. They buy a cheap camera and invest all their time in their projects.
"It causes a certain type of film that makes the span of Russian documentary pretty narrow."
Occasionally, there were experimental and internationally oriented films, such as Sergey Lintsov's "Factories of Imagination," about the international trend to transform abandoned factories into cultural centers. However, many of the Russian docs that screened at Flahertiana were often technically flawed films created with nearly obsolete equipment. Topics included the cancer-suffering woman, abandoned children and a grief study: Tragic human destinies, brutally portrayed as only Russians can do them.
According to Moscow-based film critic Vita Ramm, contemporary Russian documentary suffers from a systemic depression. While the state supports more than 300 documentaries each year, the grants are very low and go toward films with little artistic ambition. Russian documentary, she says, has more in common with old newsreels and chronicle footage.
"There is very little criticism and interpretation and this is related to the level of support and the poor distribution of documentaries," she says. "Of the 300 films being created annually, perhaps 20 of them are accessible for the public. The rest of the documentaries lie on shelves in an archive."
Also, unlike most West European countries, Russia's TV stations don't invest in documentaries. Smaller cultural channels will occasionally broadcast a documentary; the main channels, such as Channel 1 and 2, claim they do as well, but Ramm says these productions have very little to do with documentary filmmaking.
According to Ramm, "It is purely factual journalism, created after a predefined template. If you are a documentary filmmaker and would like to create a documentary for television, you are obliged to follow this template, which means a strict use of voiceover, static interviews and an impersonal approach.
"If you get too critical, the television station will immediately abandon the project because in Russia we have a very close connection between the television medias and the state which causes an ideological control similar to Soviet times," she says.
Technically, it's possible to create a critical documentary in Russia, but the likelihood that the film will ever be shown is very low. In 2006, Stefanova directed a film about the Beslan tragedy, “Beslan, The Right to Live.” Perm’s 2011 festival is one of the few places in Russia where her film has ever been screened.
"Only one TV channel in Estonia was interested in the movie, and it was only because at that time there was a crisis between Russia and Estonia, so the TV station could use the film to criticize Russia," Stefanova says.
International co-production not possible
Perm recently has been described as Russia's new capital of culture. At the governor's office, he's full of visions and rich words about his city's excellence. And Perm does have an excellent avant-garde theater, lots of brave street art and a wealth of cultural festivals.
Beneath the surface, however, is all the same old stuff. Bleak Soviet-style architecture, an unwieldy bureaucracy and street names such as Leninaskaya and Bolshevistskaya clearly illustrate a city and a system where the old and the new are not quite yet on speaking terms.
Boris Karadzhev, director of Moscow's documentary school VGIK, believes the situation is similar in Russian documentary.
"We have a systemic crisis in Russian documentary, rooted in the fact that we are caught between socialism and market,” he says. “A new funding model is needed where we get a series of independent and preferably regional funds as well as better opportunities to work internationally. As the system is today, we cannot offer Russian state money in international co-productions and without the ability to produce internationally, Russian documentary will remain on its rather infantile level."
Nonetheless, he’s confident that the public wants Russian documentaries.
"A festival like this one in Perm shows that the interest is there,” Karadzhev says. “These festivals are an alternative distribution system and to a certain extent they can make up for the lack of theatrical distribution in Russia. But it also means that there is a danger that the documentary will remain a niche medium."
At the close of the Flahertiana Documentary Festival, the lights are dimmed and golden statues go to the winning filmmakers. In the international competition, which included selections from more than a dozen other countries, the main prize goes to one of the two films from Russia, “Outro.”
No doubt that Panasenko’s work is a deeply touching and intelligently composed movie, but I wonder if there is a political motive behind the jury's decision as well -- a desire to get Russian documentary off the ground and link it closer to the international documentary arena.