Learn From Home: Stand-out Russian Nonfiction
Continuing our deepdives into the documentary culture of select countries around the world, this week we're looking at stand-out Soviet and Russian nonfiction.
We'll start, where else, with Dzjiga Vertov in 1930...
[Caveat: we've stuck to films that are available to view in the UK, which sadly means there are some notable exceptions.]
ENTHUSIASM: THE SYMPHONY OF DONBASS / Dziga Vertov / 1930 / 65 mins
Pioneering filmmaker Dziga Vertov set out to develop a new kind of filmmaking, using experimental techniques to reach a greater truth.
His best known film, the magnificent Man With A Movie Camera, topped Sight & Sound's 2014 poll of the greatest documentaries of all time - a city symphony which, with its playful use of split-screen, slow-mo and stop-motion, still appears fresh and joyful today.
For this list though, we've chosen Vertov's first sound film, made a year after Man With A Movie Camera. Vertov carries his theories of montage through to an avant-garde soundtrack for his portrait of the coal basin of Donbass. The score incorporates sounds of machinery, with a misalignment of sound and image that was criticised, and even mocked, when it was first released.
Made with the intention of glorifying Stalin's five year plan, which inlcuded the industrial development of the Donbass area, Enthusiasm has been critised as propaganda, but is a must for marvelling at the complex, creative possibilites of sound and image that Vertov pioneered.
Watch Enthusiasm on Amazon Prime.
Moscow Strikes Back
Leonid Varlamov, Ilya Kopalin / 1942 / 55 mins
"Here is a film to knot the fist and seize the heart with anger, a film that stings like a slap in the face of complacence, a scourge and lash against the delusion that there may still be an easy way out. Here is a film to lift the spirit with the courage of a people who have gone all-out."
So reads the original 1942 New York Times review of this missive from the frontlines of the Battle for Moscow (Oct 1941 - Jan 1942), which you can read in full here.
Despite the infamous Russian winter and the fierce battle, cameramen dispatched to the front captured the Red Army pushing back the advancing German troops with tanks, cavalry, planes and even soldiers on skis.
Cpaturing the grim reality of a freezing and brutal war as well as the glory and triumph, Moscow Strike Back won (jointly) the Academy Award for best documentary in 1942.
Watch Moscow Strikes Back on Russian Film Hub.
ROCK / Alexei Uchitel / 1988 / 80 mins
Cult classic Rock documents the underground music scene in 1980s USSR.
Director Alexei Uchitel combined concert footage and interviews to show the vibrant rock scene defiantly at odds with the 'party line' during the last year's of Perestroika.
Watch Rock on Russian Film Hub.
THE BELOVS / VIKTOR KOSSAKOVSKY / 1992 / 58 mins
It is all very uncomplicated. Anna Feodorovna Belova lives in a small village near the source of the Neva River. She is twice a widow and now lives together with her brother Mikhail. Anna does the housekeeping while Mikhail drinks and philosophises about life.
Occasionally, their two other brothers Vasily and Sergei pay them a visit, and the siblings drink a lot of tea, take a Russian steam bath and argue - arguments that get louder by the minute, especially when alcohol comes into play.
Sometimes tender and other times harsh, The Belovs is a mesmerising, tragic and raucous portrait of a Russian farming family.
Watch The Belovs on DAFilms.
Private Chronicles. Monologue
Vitaly Mansky / 1999 / 95 mins
Exploring the collective life of the generation born as Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, Vitaly Mansky worked with over 5000 hours of home movies to create this unique chronicle of everyday life in the Soviet Union.
Over this archive Mansky applies a fictional framework, weaving together a fabricated biography of a Russian - speaking in voiceover.
The result is a moving document of the fictional, but nonetheless true life of the generation who grew up in this time of huge change and upheaval.
Watch Private Chronicles. Monologue on DAFilms.
KHRUSHCHEV DOES AMERICA
Tim Toidze / 2013 / 59 mins
This little known story could have ended the Cold War long before Gorbachev.
In the autumn of 1959 with communist paranoia at its peak, the US Government made the extraordinary decision to invite the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, America’s arch-enemy, for an unprecedented, 'no-holds-barred' two week tour of the United States.
Khrushchev’s personal voice recordings from the trip are used to offer a remarkable insight into his experiences in America, mixed with television footage, home movies (by Khrushchev’s son Sergei), photos and political propaganda – both Soviet and American.
His often humorous commentary makes for a surreal and fantastically entertaining documentary about this now forgotten historical event.
Watch the film on YouTube.
Perm-36. Reflexion / Sergei Kachkin / 2016 / 100 mins
A former prison camp for Russian political prisoners is now a Museum of the Gulag, and open to tourists, who huddle together in the cold to learn about its history.
In an annual summer event known as the Pilorama, three former prisoners, a worker, a literary scholar and a human rights activist, tell the story of their arrest and imprisonment.
The Road Movie / Dmitrii Kalashnikov / 2016 / 67 mins
In Dmitrii Kalashnikov’s mesmerising compilation of dash cam footage, we are spectators to a series of extraordinary moments.
From reckless drivers and hammer wielding thugs, to extreme acts of nature and the occasional wild bear, this film is an eccentric portrait of contemporary Russia, as seen, all too briefly, through the front windscreen.
For all viewing site options, go to https://www.theroadmovie.net/
Our New President / Maxim Pozdorovkin / 2018 / 77 mins
Composed entirely of found footage, Maxim Pozdorovkin’s jaw-dropping fever-dream of a documentary tracks the 2016 US election through the lens of the Russian propaganda machine.
Using user-generated YouTube content and Russian TV clips broadcast during Trump’s presidential campaign, Pozdorovkin’s timely evocation of fake news is in turns hilarious, shocking and deeply sobering.
Watch Our New President on BFI Player.