“At The Edge of Russia,” a film observing the daily routines of a small group of Russian soldiers posted in the far north near the Finnish border, was one of the most successful international documentaries on the 2010/11 film festival circuit. It seemed to play at every second doc event. And it won many awards at these festivals, including the “Filmmaker’s Award” at Hot Docs 2011 (in which attending filmmakers nominate their favorite film).
I had seen “At The Edge of Russia” at it’s world premiere at CPH:DOX 2010. Later that day I met the film’s young director, a sharp, ambitious Polish filmmaker, Michal Marczak. I congratulated Michal on his work, especially on the access and the seamlessness of the stylization in the film. It looked like a movie movie, I may have said (because it’s the weird, lazy way I often describe how some docs play like, well, movies).
Michal was using a lot of shot-counter shot sequences to capture conversations within the soldier’s quarters, for instance. He was a clearly a gracious (if confident), intelligent young filmmaker who, he told me, was also working on some fiction scripts. What Michal failed to mention was that he had actually just premiered his first fiction feature: “At The Edge of Russia.”
Describing a film work as “hybrid” in one way or another has pretty much been hackneyed to death. Ditto the “blurring of the boundaries/borders” of the fiction/non divide. Or “docu-thriller,” and “casting sessions, reconstructions and improvised scenes,” and “semi-documentary meta-noir,” not to mention “between unfiltered reality and careful staging,” or “neither documentary nor fiction, but simply a film.” (These snippets were all lifted from the first several pages of the CPH:DOX 2012 programme guide.)
CPH:DOX has done more than other film festival to stimulate, as festival director Tine Fischer noted in her closing night speech, “a dialogue around the notion of what documentary is, and what it could be.” One of my favourite new works at CPH:DOX was “Public Hearing,” a U.S. production which had its world premiere in Copenhagen last week. Filmmaker James N. Kienitz Wilkins uses the minutes from a public hearing around a Wal-Mart zoning request in a small town in uptown New York as his script, re-staging it with actors who are only shot in close-up and in 16mm black and white. The film even keeps the 5 minute-break intact, showing a title card for the duration. As Fisher also noted, “documentary has a relationship to the real that no other form provides.” “Public Hearing” leverages that relationship to its fullest, taking the reality behind a mundane administrative document and spinning it into a shifty satire.
“There’s nothing more unreal than yesterday’s reality,” paraphrased Jakob Høgel during a seminar around his work at Danish New Screen. DNS is a talent incubator funded by the Danish Film Institute and two Danish broadcasters. Jakob is no stranger to “hybrids,” and in his seminar seems a little jaded to the term. “There was no before,” he noted, regarding the myth that hybrids are something new (the prototype example being “Nanook of the North”). The DNS mission is to support directors who want to push the form, with the belief that mixing and rubbing styles and forms not only creates something new, but also reveals more about each distinct form. One of last year’s best documentaries, Mads Brugger’s “The Ambassador,” was produced within the Danish New Screen context.
Flying under the radar at CPH:DOX 2012, given the abundance of new high profile Danish films, was “Traveling With Mr. T,” which also received support from DNS. Here the filmmakers shape a narrative from the dream of a slacker friend to write a novel. They, the filmmakers, sign their friend, the eponymous Mr. T, to a contract, giving him a year to finish a novel, with monthly deadlines. And, naturally, they will film their friend, who happens to model himself after his favourite writer, Hunter S. Thompson. In short, things get murky, and dark, and sometimes there are cartoons.
At a Toronto International Film Festival panel, Mark Lipson (producer of several Errol Morris films) sighed, “It’s all fiction.” He’s clearly exasperated with questions around these border issues. Yet, how does the it’s all-up-for-grabs approach to creative documentary co-exist with notions of documentary filmmaking as journalism? How many of even the straightest of documentaries would be unscathed by the fact-checking processes of, say, the New York Times? These are not theoretical questions, given the rash of subpoena’s demanding the release of unpublished documentary footage. The stakes are high. The most recent case is a request by New York City for unreleased interviews and footage from “The Central Park Five.” City lawyers argued that state laws designed to protect journalistic sources did not apply in this instance. “The movie has crossed from documentary to pure advocacy,” stated NYC lawyer Celeste Koeleveld.
The beauty of documentary is that it has always been a bastard form, ducking and weaving through fixed definitions like an aspiring producer at a crowded cocktail party. Yet, it’s power is, and will always be, the primal connection of a documentary film to the real. There’s also a responsibility attendant in employing that power. The frisson and friction between creative and point-of-view documentary rubbing against notions of documentary journalism and veracity makes not-fiction the most interesting formal space in current narrative cinema. Though it also generates some interesting problems and dilemmas.
I’ve seen “At The Edge of Russia” twice since learning that it was basically scripted, shot on a constructed set, with actors hired to play soldiers (or versions of themselves). I’ve also spoken with Marczak several times. He gradually dropped the vagueness with which he spoke of the making of the film and gave me the skinny. He had wanted to make “At Edge of Russia” at an actual outpost, with actual soldiers, but couldn’t get access. So he and his production team improvised. Following Herzog, he believes the result is more real than the reality, the whole “poetic truth” thing. But audiences (and film festival programmers) invest themselves in the work because we believe it’s real, which somehow tickles our imagination. Yes, that’s what it must really be like to a Russian soldier living for months and months in isolation. Could I do it? (They shot for a few weeks or so). The film’s entire power comes from it’s stated, primal relationship to real places and persons. What’s the filmmaker’s responsibility here? Is the authority of “documentary” diminished when the form is used so permissively? As for watching “At The Edge of Russia” as a drama? A decidedly unremarkable experience.
I don’t like that Marczak was dishonest in labelling his film a documentary, or at least remaining rather quiet as others did so. Yet, I kind of admire that he was the first filmmaker to craft so seamless a work as to make me believe I was watching a purely observational documentary (at least on first viewing, “At The Edge of Russia” falls apart fast on a second look…fresh paint everywhere!). Hats off to that.
However, as I watch Marczak’s excellent second film, “Fuck The Forest,” I’m on my guard. Two weeks ago it won the Best Documentary Award at the Warsaw Film Festival. But “At The Edge of Russia” also won many Best Documentary awards. Marczak has already assured me that the new film is, like, real. And it does indeed seem to be, even if the treatment has a distinctive creative/authorial touch (sort of reminiscent of John Maringouin’s “Big River Man,” in fact). Yet, my favourite line is when one of the subjects of the film is asked if he’s an actor. “No, I’m an activist,” he replies. I was wondering if it was something in between.