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Films Have Become Illustrations

The upcoming Karlovy Vary IFF will present several documentary films from Eastern Europe, many of them in competition. Among them is the Polish documentary film At the Edge of Russia by Michal Marczak, a unique insight into the private worlds of soldiers stationed in a military outpost deep behind the Arctic circle, guarding the Russian border.

The film with an extraordinary visual appeal was awarded with our Silver Eye Award for Best Feature-length documentary in 2010. At the Edge of Russia is currently included in East Silver Caravan, where it proved to be very popular film as illustrated by 7 festival releases, including an award at Hot Docs in Canada or Special Mention at Visions du réel, Switzerland. We used the opportunity to ask the director few questions about his film.

 

At the Edge of Russia

Director: Marczak Michał
Production company: Ozumi Films, Aperto Films, TVN SA

Koniec Rosji, Poland, 2010, 72 min, Digi Beta, Society

Alexei is a nineteen year old recruit being flown in to perform his military service on the frontier of northern Russia. The base is one of few such remaining outposts on the Arctic Ocean. There are five other seasoned and long serving soldiers stationed here, each with their own personal story or secret that has caused them to retreat from the real world. Their training and breaking in of the new arrival is sometimes humorous, at times harsh. Gradually, they each reveal something of themselves in their daily interactions and private moments as they continue their absurd duty in this snow covered no man's land, hundreds of miles from the nearest human settlement.

East Silver 2010Silver Eye Award 2010East Silver Caravan 2010Ex Oriente Film 2006East European Forum 2006

 

 

When I first saw your film, I immediately remembered How I Ended This Summer by Alexei Popogrebski. I think At the Edge of Russia must be compared to this film very often, isn’t it? Similar place, characters, also the relationship between the young cadets and the old soldiers...

I often receive that comment. We shot At the Edge of Russia in the winter of 2008, before How I Ended This Summer came out.  The first time I heard of this film was during the Berlinale, but I still have not seen it. It’s always interesting to watch how people interpret similar subject matter, if it’s done in a personal and subjective way redundancy should not be feared.

Did you know Alexei - the young soldier - before, or it was just a good coincidence to start shooting with his arrival to the station?

From the very beginning I planned to start shooting in the helicopter to build a mystery of the destination and place of the action. I needed someone with a strong camera presence to initiate the story and guide the viewers through the base and other soldiers. We meet many young recruits and with the support of the Army officials chose Alexei. It was apparent that he’s our man although we only tested him with a small handy cam for about half an hour.

Was it hard to get permission to shoot at this station? Well, after all it is still a military outpost.

It was treacherous, illogical and took over a year , but at the same time it was fascinating to have the possibility to delve  and develop a deep understanding of the current state of Russian politics and inner workings of the government.

How many days you stay there for filming and how big was your crew?

The crew consisted of five people: The cinematographer, soundman, camera assistant (we shot about half of the film in super 16mm), director’s assistant / translator and I.  We shot as a full crew for almost two months, and then I stayed alone for another month and a half.

I am asking, because the station look as very small place to live and that could bring some problems between the inhabitants – some tensions are also evident in the film, when Valerij bursts with anger. How did the other soldiers accept you? After all, you came there to shot a film and that could be quite an intervention into their small private space.

It was an interesting culture jam. The beginnings are always difficult, this one especially. The main problem was not of the confined space, which we adapted to very quickly but of the protagonists need to talk to the camera. To get certain information out, which they wanted the world to hear, information, which was too redundant, too straightforward, touching on subjects, which should be shown and not necessarily talked about.  It took us over a week of non-stop pretend shooting to get the soldiers to act natural in front of the camera.

As I understand from the film, Alexei will stay there for at least one and half year, but how long are the others there?

That’s a tricky question. There are only a couple of these bases left. The government decided to close them as soon as they have available means to send the soldiers of to retirement. Usually they would be there between two to six years.

This station on the far north could evoke some sort of punishment, kind of an exile. What are the stories behind the other soldier’s lives? Were they relocated there for some specific disciplinary reason?

The funny and most fascinating insight into these bases was that they seem to have always housed some of the most intelligent soldiers of the time. In the old days they were sent there as a form of punishment or as a precautionary means to keep the most forward thinking people in a place where there is not much they can do to inspire others. In today’s world, it’s their choice. The older soldiers are contract based. They can choose where and for how long they want to go. This is what the film is partly about, to give the viewer a hint of the reason behind their decision, but not to say it straight out. I wanted the audience to fill in the gaps. To have them invest some energy in to supplementing of the story. This is one of my problems with today’s documentary cinema in general. It’s too concrete. Too many people seem to exactly know where the problem or solution lies. Films have become illustrations of preconceived concepts with little space left for the audience, or reality because once you try to capture it you lose it.

At the moment you are very busy with shooting a new film. Could you describe a bit your new project?

I am actually working on three new projects. Two are documentaries, the last one is a feature film which I have recently finished writing. The first one called Fuck For Forest (working title) follows the lives of three eco-porno activists which save the forests in Latin America, buy buying massive amounts of land and giving them back to the local populations with the exception that no trees are to be cut. The funding comes from their pornographic website. The second one is about a priest who at the age of thirty-seven fell in love with a girl from a high school in which he was teaching religion. He robbed a bank to have the means to start a new life with her, but was caught half an hour later and is now serving a three-year sentence. I am following him from the first day after capture and will continue until he gets released. The feature is about a perverse game between a son, father and his women. It has a documentary part, which I will start filming this November and continue for a year when principal photography will commence.