Message to Man

in 26th Message to Man International Film Festival Saint Petersburg

by Andrea Martini

The origins of the St Petersburg Film Festival as one of the last cultural initiatives launched in 1989 by the dying Soviet regime was clear as the 26th edition drew to a close: “Message to Man”, the motto devised at the time, remains appropriate today, although obviously in a much broader and less ideological sense. Despite encountering some stormy weather along the way, the festival is growing as vigorously as ever and, more importantly, it has kept abreast with the city’s cultural life.

The event is essentially dedicated to documentary cinema, which means that while the importance of selling x number of tickets is not to be underestimated, studies have shown that audience numbers reflect widespread enthusiasm among a younger age group. Indeed, in addition to the Velican multiplex, itself part of the Music Hall complex, the historic Rodina and Aurora cinemas have also been restored and now stand as reminders of how harmoniously the presence of cinema blends in with St Petersburg’s monumental architecture. A partial reconstruction of the LeninFilm studio-cum-museum can be seen in the shape of Aurora, which dates back to the Tsarist era.

The range of international works presented was particularly broad-based: full-length documentary, short documentary, short animated, short fiction, and of special interest due to their rarity at major festivals, experimental short films. There was also a Russian-language documentary competition which, despite being perhaps overcrowded, was undoubtedly informative. The excellence in the selection of the entries is thanks to director Alexey Uchitel and the other vigilant curators on the selection committee.

Contributing to enrich this edition of Message to Man, the event featured parallel sections, panoramic and retrospective. Noteworthy among these were Glitchdoc, a section for technological and scientific films, and Docudrama, which as its title suggests, features historic reconstructions made for TV. Of particular interest were the retrospectives on Frederick Wiseman (an authentic innovation for Russia), Chris Marker and Guy Maddin. The New Life for New People retrospective was outstanding, with sixteen medium-length films from the 1920s showing how the Soviet Union instructed people to deal with certain social issues such as nervous disorders and abortion, as well as modelling one’s general conduct in accordance with the dictates of New Soviet Man (do not spit, how to walk along the street, how to do battle with flies). The forms of some of these films were very avant-garde – some of them have never been screened at festivals, and they are authentic cinema pieces of great worth.

As is now practically always the case at film festivals, a series of events was woven into this already rich programme – master classes, meetings with directors, round-tables, book launches and so on.  An international conference on Theory and Practice of the New Visual Culture (including the intriguingly titled “What happens in the brain when we watch a movie” by French researcher Cécile Bordier) was one of the most prominent.

The Russian premieres of foreign films, from Elle to Sierra Nevada, were closely followed by the public. The festival was inaugurated by Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, the new acclaimed documentary on the world of the web by Werner Herzog, winner of a lifetime career award. Closing night was La Fille Inconnue by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, a reminder of the Festival’s stated vocation (“humanistic ideas expressed by truly cinematic language”).

Unsurprisingly, the awards were kept to the main sections: the international full-length documentary competition, the festival’s centrepiece, included ten films from ten different cultures. In the end, the international panel of judges headed by Belgian director Gust van den Berghe awarded the Gran Prix to the Serbian film Depth Two, the debut of Ognjen Glavonic (about how a mass grave was discovered in the suburbs of Belgrade as a result of NATO forces bombing Serbia), with a special mention to the Iranian film Starless Dreams by Mehrdad Oskouei, (about the dreams and hopes of a group of teenage girls detained in strictly disciplined remand care). The FIPRESCI Prize was awarded to In the Sun by Vitaly Mansky, a film of fine intelligence and great camera presence that reconstructs the everyday life of a North Korean adolescent, despite the unforgiving checks on his work carried out by the authorities in Pyongyang.

Other awards went to Russian films featured in the national section, where female directors absolutely dominated. The award-winning films were My Friend Boris Nemtsov by Zosia Rodkevich and Fire by Nadia Zakharova, while Someone Else’s Work by Denis Shabaev won the prize for best debut.  The best short-length documentary award went to I’m Not From Here by the Chilean-Lithuanian couple Maite Alberdi and Giede Zickyte. In addition to the winners, Pål Refsdal’s Dugma-The Button, the story of an Al Qaeda suicide bomber’s last days, was deemed worthy of note, and Helena Trestikova’s Mallory, about the harrowing resurrection of a drug addict, was the film which won the consensus of the student panel of judges.

Edited by Lesley Chow