I recently had an opportunity to take my first trip to Russia and ended up in the small city of Perm (population just under a million), traditionally an industrial spot which is currently trying to morph into a cultural one, that sits at the foot of the Ural mountain range. This also happens to be the place from which many, many people commenced their long walk (thousands of kilometers) to Siberia from the days of "Ivan the Terrible" onwards, a place of exile, imprisonment and death, a place where both criminal and political prisoners had been sent for more than three centuries. Siberia makes up about 77% of Russia's territory, but has only 28% of its population. Lots of elbow room for those looking for space and some peace and quiet.
Now, Siberia is becoming a place with a nascent documentary film tradition with the help of a new initiative called the EurasiaDOC Project run by Rebecca Houzel (France) and Nicolay Bem (Siberia), financed by the European Union. More from me on Houzel's and Bem's work in a future issue of DOX Magazine. The two will be running an inaugural workshop in Perm next February and were at the fesitval to introduce the initiative to interested participants who will come from all over Russia to develop their documentary film projects. Supposedly, at some point in the future, I will be invited to Siberia to see for myself what's happening up there. Hopefully, I will not be expected to come on foot.
In fact, I became quite appreciative of experiencing a place like Perm before having a chance to visit the bigger cultural capitals of Moscow or St. Petersburg. And, of course, my experience was circumscribed within the context of a film festival, its namesake that of the legendary filmmaker, Robert Flaherty. The trip was further circumscribed by the privilege of being asked to be a member of the jury of this year's international competition where we were tasked with awarding several prizes--a Grand Prix, Best Feature, and Best Short, with some special mentions, if we so chose. A separate FIPRESCI jury was asked to award a film from the same selection. (Photo of cosmonaut façade in Perm, courtesy Bayou Self on Flickr.)
It was a large and diverse competition, with nineteen films represented from eighteen different countries. The films were all over the map stylistically, technically, narratively, and otherwise. I juried with a Serb, a Frenchman and two Russians (I was the only girl), each of us as vastly different as five human beings can get. But, somehow, we easily reached a consensus on the films we wanted to honor.
"The more your work corresponds to real life, the better it seems. . .," was said by Albrecht Dürer, a German painter, printmaker, engraver, mathematician and theorist from Nuremberg. These words express the major aesthetic conception of the festival, according to its website. Keeping this in mind, as well as the legacy of Flaherty, whose film work focused on prolonged observation to realize "the naturalness of a documentary subject's behavior in front of the camera," we all voted for films that pushed beyond the boundaries of all of these various philosophies, instead choosing the ones that moved us into such profound and deep emotional territories, we could barely articulate anything about them at all after watching them. I don't know about anyone else, but this is the place I want to reach when encountering any work of art, an encounter that illustrates and illuminates all the pain and joy of being human and leaves you temporarily speechless in its wake. However "staged" or "natural" that encounter might be is of no import to me, whatsoever--the emotional reactions and reverberations are the same, and they're staggering. (I usually have some kind of emotional breakdown / breakthrough during festivals and this is why I love documentary. It's cheaper than therapy.)
For the very first time in the Flahertiana's history, the Grand Prix was awarded to a short film; also, for the very first time in the festival's history, we awarded the grand prize to a Russian film. I would, in fact, urge the selection committee to pepper the main competition with more films from the Motherland in future, and, perhaps, stay away from much more mediocre fare from the international scene since "diversity," in concept or fact, never ever connotes quality.
Here are the three prize-winners (and a special mention), and our jury statements about these films:
"The jury gives the Grand Prix to Yulia Panasenko for her radiant film, Outro. The jury was shocked at the rawness and immediacy of Panasenko’s piece. With an exceptional balance of intimacy and distance, as well as unabashed courage in her dramaturgical choices, Panasenko gracefully navigates the ever-increasing complexity of the territory she traverses with her main protagonist. She uses her camera like the most sensitive metal detector looking for treasure on a vast and wild beach and, in that process, has achieved a highly proficient, remarkably restrained and economical construction that left us all moved beyond words."
This 45-minute piece (my latest film mantra: 45 Is the New 90) will also play at this year's IDFA as part of the mid-length documentary competition, and this is the director's third prize for this film in Russia. I will attempt to articulate my thoughts on Outro in my next post.
"The jury gives the Best Long Documentary prize to Marianna Kaat for her film, Pit no. 8. Kaat grows a unique and complex relationship with her main protagonists, particularly in her portrayal of one very powerful man who still resides in the body of an adolescent boy. We observe how he and his family try to survive under unbearable social pressures with grace, dignity, and persistent resistance against the forces that might pull them under at any given moment. They display clarity and fortitude, as does Kaat in her filmmaking. Pit no. 8 is an inspiring portrait of Ukraine, a country in painful transition, where there are no rules, but Kaat shows us plenty of examples of the miracle of humanity amidst inhumane conditions."
Happily, Kaat has agreed to sit for an extended interview with me in early November from her home in Tallinn, Estonia, so look for that in the near future. The film also recently played at the International Documentary Film Festival of Mexico City (DOCSDF), will have its German premiere at the Film Festival Cottbus in November, and will exhibit at IFF Watch Docs in Warsaw in December. More on the film's website here.
"The jury gives the Best Short Documentary prize to Piotr Stasik for his film, The Last Day of Summer. This Polish director achieves a deep and profound penetration into a culture not his own, in the process portraying a warm, wry, and very humorous ode to the strange poetry of childhood." More on this superb piece in a couple of days. And, lastly:
"The jury would like to give special recognition to Andrea Roggon’s feature documentary, Soy Libre | I Am Free. Roggon has realized an impressive début, displaying a precocious mastery of formalism that utilizes an incredibly rich visual language in her documentary images of the people of contemporary Havana, Cuba."
Roggon's film was selected for IDFA in 2010, where it exhibited in competition for best student documentary.
And, FYI, the FIPRESCI prize went to another Polish director, Jakub Stozek, for his 30-minute film, Out of Reach, already a multiple award winner, and so here's one more to add to his mantle for creating the best half hour ride of your life.
Congratulations to all the filmmakers. And a huge personal спасибо to the beautiful and exceptional La Casa de Olya.