Robert Flaherty's Children By Anna Geréb

in 7th Perm Flahertiana - International Documentary Film Festival

by Anna Geréb

Twenty years ago one would hardly have imagined that here, in “the depth of Russia,” on the edge of the Urals, we — the jury of the International Federation of Film Critics — would view documentary films from all over the world. Here on the ruins of the secret Soviet industrial city, which grew out of the early 18th century merchant town, somewhere on the borderline between Europe and Asia, the native land of Sergei Diaghilev, and the favorite place of Boris Pasternak, or more precisely the character Uriatin from Doctor Zhivago, forbidden in Soviet times.

The festival is already seven years old, but the FIPRESCI jury was taking part in it for the first time, which demonstrates that the festival city wants to open its gates to the world as well as to show — along with stories of many nations — its own sorrows and joys. And one could say that “Flahertiana”, named after the famous ethnographic documentarist Robert Flaherty, has ripened in the short period of its existence. And it is not by chance that the organizers have chosen the documentary genre, which is closely related to reality, to life itself.

Frankly speaking, despite the main objective of our jury — that is, to choose the best film from the international competition — I was primarily interested in the films from this part of the world, in the conflicts and cataclysms of the people who are going through drastic social changes. For example, an exceptionally lively, emphatic, and yet humorous film made by a local director, Pavel Pechenkin, about an old war veteran who lives with his sister in dreadful poverty in the stable with horses. While this film is not new (A Man Who Harnessed Idea (Chelovek, kotoriy zapriag ideyu,1993), its impact has not weakened because — as other films on provincial Russia also demonstrate — the lives of the millions of poor have hardly changed since.

Among other films in the information program there was a touching film by the Russian director Valery Balayan (not to be confused with the famous fiction-film director Roman Balayan), The Romance of Nadire (Romans Nadira, 2006), about an old lady violinist, who, after working for years in symphonic orchestras in Soviet times, is now forced to play in open markets for pennies while continuing to dream about art and beauty.

Yet already the first screenings of the international competition demonstrated that tremendous problems and conflicts are disturbing the filmmakers from many different countries. The program was surprisingly strong. Dan Alexe’s Cabal in Cabul (2007), which told of the destinies of the two last Jews in Kabul, passionately hating each other, reflected the tragedy of this nation. Another cathartic film was My Father, the Turk (Mein Vater, der Türke, director Marcus Vetter, 2007), where the traditional melodramatic love triangle turns into a dramatic demonstration of the seeming incompatibility of two cultures, ruining the lives of people and families.

In the Norwegian film My Daughter, the Terrorist (director Beate Arnestad, 2007) the reality is even more dramatic. The director shows us something incomprehensible: how initially innocent teenage-girls are turning into merciless murderers and kamikaze, reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s Ivan (Ivan’s Childhood, 1962), yet still more fanatic children-warriors traumatized by the civil war and terror in Sri-Lanka.

At least, during the first days of the festival, there was not a single “superfluous,” boring or banal film. After a few days this exceptional festival program turned into a ‘normal’ one with a few less exciting films. Set in Vienna, the Austrian film, Harald Friedl’s Out of Time (2006) is a beautifully made contemplation on old age as a difficult experience, a painful separation with the past. The characters are simple and familiar people, yet it is a pity that the director did not sense the danger of sentimentality and could not refrain from commenting on the beautifully filmed portraits, which speak for themselves.

Bazar (2006), by the French director Jeanne Delafosse, made me simply jealous: what a happy nation it must be, with no problems in view, with money for filmmakers to make a film about unexpectedly lost and then never found objects. Yet soon we come back to earth. And a great example of a possibility of a different approach is offered in Herbarium (2007) by Natalia Meschaninova, a young Russian “flahertist.” Here we see also old men and women, suffering and in pain. Yet what empathy, understanding and love towards these tormented people! How much human energy and kind feelings was collected and preserved, and later passed to us, the viewers! Yes, we are back again in Russia as in Tolya (2006), the short masterpiece by Rodion Brodsky. It feels like the warm emotions are saturating the audience and evoke in all the viewers deep feelings towards the unique hero who leaves his loving family and a poor village in Belorussia in order to try his luck and new life in Israel.