"The Unseen": Behind Closed Doors

in 54th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen

by Mark Peranson

Oberhausen likes Pavel Medvedev and, I think it’s fair to say, Pavel Medvedev has good reason to like the International Film Festival of Oberhausen in return. After winning last year’s international competition with On the Third Planet from the Sun — a somewhat quizzical decision, given the films rather throwback pictorial aesthetic of Russian peasants and work and play (albeit, cavorting around parts of what appear to be scrapped nuclear missiles) — Medvedev was an easy choice for this year’s FIPRESCI award among a number of strong works from Russia and Eastern Europe. Shot immediately before, during, and after the 2006 G8 Summit in the Constantine Palace, outside of St. Petersburg, Medvedev’s half-hour doc The Unseen (Nezmiroe) is a multilayered portrait of a country where the gulf between the haves and have-nots has been exacerbated by capitalism, where an international summit is one large photo opportunity: the unseen are not just the common people, but also the business that is done here, behind closed doors. He manages to express a great deal about Russian society without a voiceover (and hardly any spoken dialogue), with carefully chosen and edited images, and leaves the viewer wanting more: this is an excellent short documentary.            

The bulk of the contrast that Medvedev sets up, however, is between the formal events attended by the leaders of the eight largest countries of the “free world” and a bordering cemetery, poignantly closed for the weekend of the summit, lest death in any way intrude on a system that’s doing a hell of a job of sowing the seeds of its own demise. The film begins with tombstones being constructed that won’t have the change to be erected until after the G8 has vacated, the sculptor etching away at the icons of the passed on, whose faces will be the ones to witness the private jumbo jets flying ahead over the empty streets of St. Petersburg. (One poignant moment well captured by Medvedev’s camera is a slight rain shower, as the drop from the sky speckle the faces on the stones like a flow of tears.) When the summit begins, the same sounds, click clicking, reappear on the soundtrack — but they belong to the hundreds of cameras of the members of the international press whose job it is to enshrine, not to question, the leaders, whose summit takes on elements of a different kind of funeral procession.              

Medvedev’s cameras (there are four credited cameramen) somehow have been given extraordinary access to moments behind the scenes—such as a clearly moronic President Bush complimenting Putin on his table setting while sporting what is presumably a nonalcoholic beer — but these so-called “private moments” seem just as staged as the awkward faked friendly handshakes between leaders and their wives. And what would the recording of a G8 summit be without shots of protestors: but unlike in the US, where the police allow angry protestors only to tear gas or shoot them with rubber bullets, or Germany, where protesting was allowed, but only in a fenced off area hundreds of yards away from the event, here we witness one sign unfurled, literally a few seconds of chanting, then the police swoop down, shove the poor radicals into a police wagon, and drive away. And no more protests are to be seen.                

And it ends with an enigma: after all the traces of the event are destroyed (we see the media centre being taken apart, the leaders flying away), Medvedev leaps ahead, two months later, into the city, and are again met with a procession that last for minutes on end, what one assumes to be a funeral procession of a Russian higher-up, as police cars stream by — a hearse or two is spotted amid the sirens (if you look closely enough). The people inside are unseen, and the mourners, who have come to pay respects for someone, are held back behind the walls of the cemetery once again. Very slyly, in the corner of the frame, we see a woman taking a photograph of the procession, as it zooms by, on her cell phone. At last Medvedev returns to the beginning image, a close-up of a Russian painting whose title he reveals at the end: “The Banquet of Kings”, painted in 1913 by Russian Revolutionary painter and theorist Pavel Filonov. A bit blatant of a statement, this image of a feast by then-leaders, with the peasants serving them at their feet, but again, this also recalls the process of image-making at the heart of The Unseen, the contrast between the official photographs which will have been enshrined into history as a recording of this grand summit, and the underground art whose maker surely has earned an entry in the new Russian state’s book of shame.

Mark Peranson