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Slave Inside Us

An interview with Russian filmmaker Vitaly Manskiy about Motherland or Death, energy fields, cell phones and self-censorship. In his latest documentary film Motherland or Death, Manskiy explores Cuba from an unconventional perspective, uncovering its dreary side and a quiet atmosphere of despair. A master class with Mr Manskiy was part of our Industry Programme in October 2011 in Jihlava.


Slave Inside Us
An interview with Russian filmmaker Vitaly Manskiy about Motherland or Death, energy fields, cell phones and self-censorship
by Hana Rezková


In Motherland or Death you don't add to the uncritical fascination with the "Island of Freedom" but you don't talk to dissidents either. You avoid siding with any of these typical images of contemporary Cuba. The film is rather a portrait of decay and rupture...

I believe that the less clear signals you supply for perception, the more complex and multilayered the resulting film. The title comes from the slogan of the Cuban Revolution - "Patria o muerte." The film is about a generation of people who lived well before the revolution and then fifty more years following this slogan. But now as they move closer to death, the affirmative cry suddenly falls apart and gets twisted into Death or Motherland.
I travelled to Cuba without any clear concept of the subject, protagonists or storyline. But I was sure that I was interested in the state Cuba is in right now. I had a strong feeling that Cuba has been going through some very crucial changes, that it has found itself on tectonic boundaries. It's essential for a documentary film that the filmmaker is able find a powerful energy field that later finds its way into his film. Even if you claim to always keep distance, this kind of energy and the spirit of the environment and situations will always get imprinted in the essence of the film. One has to have the right kind of intuition, you must know when to open up the film. There are fields, places and environments that seem to be overflowing with something interesting but in fact they've long lost their energy. While there still might be external signs of attractiveness, they're bloodless. They're merely cold lava fields on a dormant volcano. This livimg energy is to me the most precious thing about documentary films and that's why I'll never abandon documentary film.


What about fiction?

I made a feature film in 1990 which is now completely forgotten. But I've recently spent four days with actors in the studio, shooting reenactments for a documentary film. It was an extremely tedious process. I haven't done anything so boring in the last ten years. I didn't learn anything, I didn't get anything out of it. I simply donated four days of my life to do it. I know there are people who are very happy to donate. They're Russia's most respected donors. But we all have only several litres of blood and if you give it all away, what then?


You say that you want to get something out of the filmmaking experience. But what about the viewer?

It's the same thing. Every film should feel like an encounter that will leave you transformed. It must enrich you in some way and the effects will carry over to everyone and everything around.


Back to Motherland or Death. The film opens with two completely antagonistic scenes and then, gradually, it is allowed to take on a more specific shape...

I wonder if the opening scenes left you curious to see more..? Introduction is seduction, it's an invitation without any details or information. You set out on a journey with people and guide them along. But it's not just about methods of seduction. I don't want to give direct answers or provide   information. As soon as you provide information at any stage of this journey, as soon as you spoil the magic trick and solve the puzzle, the viewer will abandon you and any connection is blown. The viewer goes on with his ready-made answer and no longer needs the film. The film then runs along on its own. Maybe that's what sets documentary film apart from fiction. With a feature film, you know all the answers, you know the ending. If a fiction film director doesn't immediately unveil the answers, he plays a certain game with the audiences. It's completely different in documentary film. Your sincerity is genuine because you undertake this journey as a guide but, like the viewer, you see everything for the first time, discovering everything on the go.


Any filmmaker would agree with this on a general existential level. How would you translate it to specific examples? 

I've read a number of the projects here [The interview was made at IDF's Ex Oriente Film, Ed. Note] and I can see films in most of them. Not films per se, but the message they want to convey. The filmmakers are very self-confident in writing, which is a valuable quality but it needs to be kept in check with a sufficient amount of doubt. The budgets are very self-confident, too, the lowest one is twenty thousand euros. In 1990 I was shooting a feature film in German's studio. And Alexei German, a famous, well-respected filmmaker, would always say that a filmmaker must be hungry. Back then I was making five times less than my assistants and I really was hungry. Then as time went I worked my way up some but I also realized that a filmmaker really should be hungry. And he should keep that in mind when drafting a budget. Viktor Kossakovsky who is a friend of mine has spent four years trying to get one million euros for his film. I told him that his first film was also his best and that one cost some USD 20,000. There needs to be passion behind every film. It's like falling in love. It's different from spending long years with a wife. There must be passion when you're making a film. We mustn't age ahead. Before we tackle global issues like international conflicts and global warming, we should look at ourselves to see whether there's something to be discovered. Maybe, maybe not. But that's something you never know in advance. 


You started with a 35 mm camera. How do you adapt to new technology? How does it affect your films?

I started shooting on a 35 mm camera when there were no video cameras. Well, they did exist but you couldn't call it a camera. Shooting on film was always a process of loss for me. Life and events came to life before and after the shoot. And moments when shooting really made contact with life were very rare. The connection between technological developments and the development of film language is a well-known fact. The 16 mm camera was related to cinéma verité. There are guards in front of our honourable mausoleum on Red Square. I always liked to watch them. Their legs shoot up into the air like missiles. I also watch their drills and I found out that they attach 8 kg weights around their legs. And once they are on duty at the mausoleum, the weights are gone and their legs feel extremely light. I think that we should all put 8 kg weights on our cell phones and see what we can shoot. And only once you really want to make a film, you would be able to take the weights off. Otherwise our legs might move about in all directions and the film will be incomprehensible. But nobody likes to put weights on their cell phones these days.


You shot Motherland or Death using a still camera.

Yes, for example, one of the opening scenes. A long camera dolly shot in the street. We were shooting it for three days before I found just the right moment when the car goes in a good angle and when the dog runs across. I would never be able to do this with a 35 mm camera because I'd use up 10 - 20 rolls. But I still do have that phantom feeling of the film buzzing inside the camera and the magic moment as you are about to press the shutter.


Last year Pavel Kostomarov was here with a project which now travels international festivals. I Love You was shot on cell phones by several people.

I talked to Pavel Kostomarov about this method and I told him my opinion. I'm not a believer in that. People are by nature dishonest. And I think that the main goal of documentary film is to break through to one's true nature, and to unmask any sort of image or appearances people might build around themselves. But if you give them a camera to shoot themselves, the only thing you'll get is a transfer and amplification of that construct, shell and lie.


Europe has been going through some major changes with regard to broadcasters, modes of distribution, and funding. Russia still seems to be a very much impenetrable territory. How would you describe the current situation?

It was at a moment when documentary cinema all but disappeared from television. Obviously, there was no documentary film in cinema release. And in DVD shops, the stand with documentary cinema sold things like "How to Look After Pets”, "How to Practice Yoga” and so on. We had a situation where all leading documentary filmmakers in Russia either worked abroad or they went into feature cinema and there was basically no new Russian documentary films.


Did you establish your festival Artdokfest in reaction to this situation?

Yes, it was created as a sort of opposition to what existed on television. I know that in Europe, we all try to find a common language with television, we are ready to make compromises, at least we have some kind of a dialogue. But by 2005 in Russia, we realised that we could have no dialogue with Russian television, this dialogue was over. By 2005, Russian stations basically defined what they considered documentary cinema and they made no exceptions, so it was against this background that we created our festival. And perhaps it is thanks to this background that at the moment the festival appeared it created quite a lot of interest in what we could call the enlightened viewer. We were quite pleasantly surprised by the interest we generated, because our festival lasts eight days, we have simultaneous screenings in five cinemas and one of these cinemas seats 650 viewers and films are shown all day and in the evenings as well. Each year, we show twenty one films, and so in the five years we've shown over a hundred films and out of the hundred films, only two were shown on Russian television. Basically, we function in a sort of opposition to television. Our slogan is "This is something you won't see on television”, which generates quite a lot of interest in viewers.


Your approach seems quite confrontational. Is it common? Are there many people and organizations in Russia who are as engaged?

There is quite active self-censorship in Russia today. Two years ago, we had an opening of an Estonian-Finnish film called The Revolution That Wasn't. This is one of the very few films dedicated to Russian political opposition. Our festival venue is about 200 metres from the Kremlin in the very centre of Moscow, and this was a very big ceremony, opening ceremony of the film. The press wrote about this film a lot. And after this official opening, most Russian festivals refused to show it and they said that there could be repercussions, there could be persecution. We never asked for permission to show this film and there were never any repercussions. The thing is that the slave is inside us, not imposed from the outside.


Is this attitude reflected in the absence of critical films? I can think of a number of Belarusian films that critique the regime but what about Russian films? 

In Russia you don't have a single local film that is critical of the current regime. All this while Russia is still regarded as more or less a democratic country, at least not like Belarus. While in Belarus you have at least 3 or 4 anti-Lukashenko films produced every year, so I really don't understand what's going on. I think that in our country where you have 145,000,000 inhabitants that not a single person dislikes the regime, that seems kind of unlikely, but judging by the state of our documentary cinema, everybody likes the regime.


How would you describe the programming of the public broadcaster?

In all Russian stations, including regional ones, they produce 3,000 hours of non-fiction content each year. And nationwide channels that broadcast from Moscow and Saint Petersburg produce about 1,500 hours of non-fiction material every year. An average budget for TV documentary film is 10 to 30 thousand dollars. The production of these films happens in the following manner. The channel first defines the subject matter. Then they have to approve the text of this film to the very last detail, to the very last full stop. And if the film is 44 minutes long, then there is 38 minutes of voice-over, not less. A maximum pause without voice-over is 15 seconds. So that's the general documentary production.


Apart from television, what other funding sources can documentary film use and how efficient are they?

Every year the Ministry of Culture supports a huge number of films – 380. They spend about one and a half million dollars on this. When you divide that by 380... when you divide one and a half million dollars by 380, you get something like 30,000 dollars per film. Only the sound in Motherland or Death. And the way the Ministry of Culture regards their support is "This is 100 % of your budget." They don't provide partial funding. And therefore, this film belongs to us and when it's ready, you have to give it to our archive and it's ours. And for this reason it's really impossible to do Russian co-production with another country, because I have co-producers in Germany and even though they give me five times more money than Russia, on paper it looks like Russia produced this film 100 %. So it's very difficult to come to an agreement. It's like having a European plug and being in America, you can't just plug them to the wall. For instance, I was making a film in German, Finnish, Polish and Russian co-production and when I was submitting it to the Ministry of Culture, they said: "OK, these German and Polish and Finnish producers, you have to remove them from the credits, the credits should say 'The film was produced by the Russian Ministry of Culture'”. Even though they gave me only one tenth of the budget. So you have 380 films produced that will not be shown on television, they will not be released in theatres, they will not be in the DVD market and their technical quality is not even adequate for archives. So there are complete fakes, I mean their statistics. Russian cinema at the same time does and doesn't exist. You will not see these films at international film festivals. And over the years of Artdokfest's existence, not one of these films produced with the state support ever received a prize. So not Sergei Dvortsevoy, not Kossakovsky, basically nobody makes films with state support.


How do you fund your festival?

We have basically two sources. One of the sources is the Ministry of Culture, they give us what they consider a huge sum of money – 60,000 dollars per year. But our festival costs about 200,000 dollars. So every year I go around to my friends and even acquaintances and I simply extort them for money. At the same time, the government is quite generous in supporting and subsidising some festivals, at least one of them in Russia. The Moscow International Film Festival, which opens in a week, receives 6,000,000 dollars from the government each year. Well, the Moscow International Festival would cost at the most 1,000,000 or 1,200,000 dollars, even if you were lighting up the projector by burning dollars. So basically, the money that's given to this festival is more than the total given to all festivals in Russia. And the reason for this is that the de facto owner of this festival, it's head, it's organizer is our great Nikita Sergeyevich Mikhalkov. The budget of Nikita Mikhalkov's last film is larger than the sum total of all money spent on cinema, including archives, including documentary films, fiction films, including pensions for all filmmakers, including the education system in cinema. Last year for his 65th birthday, the government gave Mikhalkov a gift of 1% of the total import of electronics into Russia which constitutes about 100,000 US dollars net profit per year. I know that in the Czech Republic people like Mikhalkov. Well, you can have him as a gift. Mikhalkov is also the head of the Union of Cinematographers. And last year, in protest all the great filmmakers left the Union and created a new film organization of their own. When I say "everybody”, I mean people like Aleksei German, Alexander Sokurov, Yuriy Norshteyn and so on.


What about film education? Where and how can you study documentary filmmaking?

At the moment, we have a great school for documentary film which actually isn't under the Ministry of Culture, it is a part of an economics university. The head of the documentary programme is documentary filmmaker Marina Razbezhkina. And this is the best documentary school at the moment. And as for official or state schools, it's a hit-and-miss situation because as a rule, the teachers are an older generation of filmmakers and they follow traditional filmmaking methods and they have a more traditional world view. Students have to be very strong indeed to break through this, to do something new, whereas Marina Razbezhkina clearly has a new approach and she offers a more open perspective. I respect Razbezhkina very much because hers is probably the only generation in documentary cinema to try to capture real life, real conflicts, essentially reality. As the head of a documentary festival, I see about 1,000 films per year and a lot of them are total rubbish, so I have a lot of respect for Marina Razbezhkina.


This text was first published in October 2011 in IDF's Industry Reel #3. On October 29, 2011, Mr Manskiy held a master class as part of our Industry Programme in Jihlava.

photo: Motherland or Death (dir. Vitaly Manskiy, Russia 2011)

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