Open City Docs and Frontline Club present Documenting Ukraine, two days of cinema and debate, special events and Q&A discussions exploring the realities of modern Ukraine and the depth of Ukrainian cinema, on 16 and 17 May 2015 at London’s Frontline Club.
The weekend’s events bring together Ukrainian and British filmmakers and experts to explore the intersection of cinema, culture and politics in Ukraine. On Saturday 16 May there will be discussions with Serhiy Bukovsky, the famous ukrainian documentalist. In his interview the director tells about early ukrainian documentary and changes in approach to it comparing to contemporary times.
How was it like to join the ukrainian documentary field back then in the 80s?
I was still a student when I came to the Ukrainian Studio of Documentary Films. It was summer, and we had to pass the mandatory practical course on production. The studio was like a factory. At the factory next door, just over the studio fence, they made navigational instruments for rockets. Likewise, our studio handled the full production cycle: film laboratory, sound department, editing department, transport department. The rough cuts were passed to the director of the studio and to the editor-in-chief. Then the artistic committee watched it. They awarded something like an evaluation, or category. That's what your payment depended upon. But that wasn't everything.
As our films reached a certain stage of production, the censors came to visit the studio. Silent people with leather satchels. The civilian censor came first, then the military censor. They sat in the theatre, proud, alone, and watched the studio's entire production. The military censors were particularly strict and uncompromising. They could return a movie for revision, get it re-made. They were responsible for making sure that nothing “sensitive” ended up on film. Factories, army barracks, bridges. God forbid! After all, NATO and our enemies were vigilant! It's funny to remember it now. Nixon had already given Brezhnev a photograph of The Red Square taken by a satellite. But the censors came all the same.
Then the films were sent to Goskino, which was kind of like the Ministry of Cinema. That's where the worst bosses were. The minister's verdict was absolute, irrevocable. Everyone shook with fear. Films were often sent to the Central Committee Ideological Department. That's where the “experienced comrades” sat, including people from the KGB, who were in charge of maintaining the party line. Just in case some director (and they did exist), particularly those who weren't Party members, would suddenly defame Soviet power in a hidden, veiled form! It was a long road to the audience.
The upside is that documentary cinema was shown in movie theatres back then, as well as feature films and newsreels. This was pretty much the standard for all Soviet film studios. There were around 40 of them.
And of course we all had a “plan”. The studio's annual “thematic plan” had to include films which exposed and shamed “world evil”. This evil had different shades but the main threats were global imperialism and Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism. Just like in the Russian media nowadays, Stepan Bandera was the chief enemy of the Soviet Union, and Ukraine, in particular. International Zionism was a separate target. The western way of life, particularly American, also got a good seeing to. And, of course, certain, minor shortcomings on the Soviet side were also criticised.
The main conflict back then was always between the “good” and the “better”. There were a lot of films about fascist atrocities. We are only started finding out the real truth about the war 20 years after Perestroika.
Did you have the instinct that something was changing?
In the 80’s there was something in the air, to be sure. There were so many jokes about Brezhnev and the Communist Party. For instance, Brezhnev summons the Minister for Film and asks: “Why don't we have any horror films? We're falling behind the West”. And the Minister replies: “Soviet man is happy: everything is great here. There aren't any subjects for making horror films”. Brezhnev responds: “I'll give you a subject. For example, a communist loses his party card...”
Soon after, the leaders started dying one after another. Then Gorbachev appeared, and he nudged the window of Glasnost open.
And we, the documentary makers, were simply forgotten. We recorded everything that we wanted. But financing continued. The inertia of the Soviet system was boundless. But we had the disturbing feeling that this time of freedom, this carnival, would soon come to an end – as it did.
Did it change a lot comparing to contemporary times (the way of shooting, approach to shooting, approach to producing)?
It sounds strange, but it's true that despite the idiotic Soviet system, monstrous propaganda, documentary cinema gradually began to develop its own unique language – thanks to the efforts of an army of documentary makers who fixed the gigantic lies of the Soviet system every day on 35mm film. The camera tried to look between the lines – at least, within that small realm where we could search for artistic truth.
When I think about the present, though, our cinema, indeed, or culture as a whole, has stopped pursuing ideas. In this age of mobile phone film few really think about the art of the shot, its capacity for expression. It's a rarity now when a documentary film actually investigates something.
Why no Ukrainian filmmakers are making anything about Oleg Sentsov and why exactly the Russian director made this to his main topic and became a fighter for Oleg Sentsov?
It is striking for instance that Ukrainian filmmakers are not making anything about Oleg Sentsov, the Ukrainian film director currently sitting in prison on “terrorism” charges in Moscow. It is the Russian director Askold Kurov who has started making this film. Partly there is the question of finance. Even if you win a competition for projects with Derzhkino, the state film agency, you can't expect to receive the first payment for a year – if it does, of course, arrive. And when you receive money, you are obliged to spend all of it very quickly and then account for it just as quickly. The system is still very Soviet. And who will finance a project which no one knows how and when will end.
But the other reason, in my view, is more serious. Oleg Sentsov is a director, and directors, if I'm honest, are not that fond of one another. What is more, Senstov isn't one of us. He didn't finish our theatre institute – he appeared from nowhere. His film Gamer (2011) is principally different from everything that has been done by other young Ukrainian directors: the actors performed well, realistically; the younger generation's world was depicted convincingly. Everything in Gamer was done differently to other young directors working at the moment.
In March, Teatr.doc from Moscow came to perform in Kiev, at the DAKH theatre, and the actors performed Rooms, a play by Sentsov. The ticket sales went to his family and lawyers. These are concrete actions of concrete people. And my thanks to them: this is something you can believe in!
Interview conducted by Michael Stewart, the founder of Open City Docs Festival (UK) and Darya Bassel, program coordinator of Docudays.UA.