Calls from the Fortress

in 26th Message to Man International Film Festival Saint Petersburg

by Claus Löser

Since Perestroika, the Message to Man festival has been held in St Petersburg. Today, it is an event which seems more important than ever.

In the Pelican shopping and events center, hundreds of young people and families stroll by. It’s nice to be seen, showing off expensive clothes and high-maintenance hairstyles. The escalator continually drops off new loads of guests at the upper level. Yet it would be a mistake to suppose that all these people were gathering for the legendary film festival. Most visitors just want to go shopping, drink coffee, or watch one of the many mainstream movies which are also screened here.

In its 26th edition, the festival has a slightly unfavorable location, squeezed between special offers and mainsream cinema, but it is still recognized as an important international event. Most screenings, including those in the middle of the day, are well- attended. At the time of its inception in 1989, Message to Man was a real Perestroika project. Reflecting the historic upheaval of the time, the slightly pompous concept of a message to men around the world announced the Soviet Union’s return as a partner to the global stage. It was Gorbachev who came up with the notion of the co-operative ?European House?. Over 25 years later, this ideal is more distant than ever. In wide sections of the Russian population, Gorbachev is considered a traitor, while the US is once again enemy number one. Today, the festival’s motto sounds more like a desperate call from the fortress.

One might imagine that the festival could serve as a conduit between Russia and the outside world, becoming a kind of ?flow heater? for criticism and rejuvenation. Not necessarily. The event depends on the Ministry of Culture and the city administration for its existence. They are not about to burn any bridges. In the international competition this year, there was not a single local film which dealt critically with Russia’s present or past. Criticism can only be found through certain detours – and as in Soviet times, visitors must know how to read between the lines and search for hidden codes.

A successful example was Vitali Manski’s anatomy of North Korea, Under the Sun, the unquestioned sleeper hit of the festival. The blatant displays of power, lies and manipulation in this film should trigger the memory of any person who grew up in the Soviet Union. But Manski does not only point to the past. While the absurd quasi- religious hubris in North Korea seems like a Monty Python sketch, there are inherent overlaps with the current situation in Russia: the persistent, precise use of intimidation to instil obedience and self-censure. Manski has himself experienced how Russia deals with its nonconformist artists. Even though his film is a Russian co-production, its first local premiere did not take place until eleven months after its international debut. The ArtDocFest documentary festival has also been denied government funding while under Manski’s charge.

There were other important movies to be discovered at Message to Man. Helena Treštíková’s Mallory is a long-term study of a former drug addict, following her struggle over twelve years to get back to a ?normal? life. There is simply no place for people like her in modern Czech society – the scale of misery has no end. In his group portrait Starless Dreams, Iranian director Mehrdad Oskouei presents a fatal circle of drugs, abuse and violence. He finds his ?heroines? in a prison for juvenile female delinquents; they exude a beguiling, angelic grace despite their long criminal records. Linus Miluta’s Dead Ears shows the constraints of a Lithuanian village, where a deaf and no-longer- young man leads an extremely restricted life. Monica Lazurean-Gorgan’s A Mere Breath documents the harrowing struggle of a Romanian family to improve the life of their severely disabled daughter. When traditional medicine fails, the parents turn more and more obsessively towards God.

It is good that there are such movies, but to see them in St Petersburg is a slightly disorienting experience, reminiscent of the Leipzig documentary festival up until 1989. While Message to Man shows documentaries about injustices all over the world, it appears that the host country does not suffer from any problems whatsoever.

Edited by Lesley Chow