Revolution and Ethics of Documentary Film

in 13rd Perm Flahertiana - International Documentary Film Festival

by Anjelika Artyukh

Russian formalists, who reflected on the laws of cultural dynamics, noticed how “center” in culture can shift towards the “periphery”, thus making the outskirts a new center. The city of Perm, with its Flahertiana, has become if not Russia’s center of culture, certainly the center of documentaries. For many years, Permkino under the leadership of Pavel Pechenkin, has regarded documentaries within the broader context of a major educational project, of which Flahertiana is the climax. And during that time, documentaries have been a prominent feature with educators in Perm, encompassing all levels of education, from high school to university. That includes tailor-made shows enabling students to discover the world via the means of documentary cinema. A number of filmmaking competitions have taken place, where both teachers and students of all ages took part. The results were featured at local film festivals.

Both Perm and Flahertiana have proven to be a major initiative that appears to be positively affecting the cultural policy throughout Russia. Only a few days ago, Vladimir Medinsky, Russia’s Minister of Culture, asked to include documentaries in the nationwide program for schools.

In its thirteen years, Flahertiana has cultivated its own keen viewers, very eager about film and always looking forward to the festival’s new productions. It is very interesting to be present among them, their intellectual gusto far exceeds that which any metropolitan documentary festival can offer. There is a great sense of purpose, organization, professionalism, indeed inspiration. Flahertiana is hardly ‘yet another routine event’, or worse, a trivial Russian-style public funds syphoning exercise. Here it is all about a quest for innovation, collaboration and exchange of ideas — what could be a better place for a quality documentary?

Flahertiana international competition features many experimental pieces of contemporary documentary cinema, each film presenting an ethical challenge for a filmmaker. Sean McAllister’s The Reluctant Revolutionary was perhaps the most powerful example of that, taking the documentary genre onto an altogether new level.

The movie brings us face-to-face with one chapter of the so-called Arab Spring, namely the revolution in Yemen, which eventually resulted in the dethroning of its president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. The movie is a powerful document, a testimony of a courageous undertaking by the filmmaker, involving considerable personal risk. McAllister remained in Yemen throughout the most difficult days, sticking to his protagonist. Filmed with a portable camera, the movie’s form is superbly matched with its content and aim: to depict an ordinary resident of Yemen’s capital city Sana’a gradually acquiring a political consciousness, overcoming the inertia of an apolitical person, and getting involved in the protests that transform into a full-blown revolution. Disguised as a tourist, McAllister manages to remain at the heart of the uprising in Sana’a even when the majority of foreign journalists are expelled by the authorities. Having witnessed the bloody events at Al-Tahrir Square (which has since been re-named the Square of Change) on the Friday of Dignity (18th of March 2011), that took the lives of 52 people, most of which were young males, McAllister tells a universal tale of an ordinary man acquiring a sense of freedom. The movie is an attempt to change the Western misperception of the Arabs as disorganized chaotic masses, perpetually hijacked by Al-Qaeda, and deprived of any capacity to sacrifice for values similar to Western ones. The movie is not staged, since revolution is a spontaneous liberation of energies, of which a man with a camera is merely an attentive observer.

The above makes the movie ideally suited to the aims of Flahertiana, echoing what Robert Flaherty himself envisaged when employing lengthy observation and forging an intimate connection to his protagonists. McAllister most definitely shows unity with his protagonist, whilst sympathizing with his revolutionary pathos. The movie made a strong impact on the FIPRESCI jury by being faithful to the ethics of documentary cinema. The focus was not on the media event which can be of interest to a television crew, but rather on the person himself enacting this historical event side-by-side with his fellow countrymen. The focus is on the essence of revolution, its early origins and growth, while its end result is completely beyond foretelling.

A universal take on the dynamics of revolution enacted not so much by big leaders, but rather by the common people gradually acquiring political consciousness.

Edited by Yael Shuv