Russian Documentary at the Turn of the 21st Century


The essay analyzes creative problems of the screen language of Russian documentaries at the turn of the 21st century in the context of the changed system of film production and promotion, as well as the changed paradigm of relations between the author and the hero and the evolution of the expressive methods of the documentary film which took place in that period. The essay reflects on the problems of the development of Russian documentaries at a crucial time when the issues of the survival of the documentary, so acute in the 1990s, have been overcome and are now bringing to the fore creative searches exploring essential contemporary phenomena. The author sees these innovations in the new concept of the documentary hero and in the formation of other authorial tasks and techniques aimed at capturing the uniqueness of the philosophy of human existence in the circumstances of a new social and psychological reality. Analysis of such films as Passengers of the Last Century, Solzhenitsyn. Life Is Not a Lie, Starling, David, Sorry for Living, Just Life, Live and Rejoice and others reveals the problems of the “homo historicus”, the relationship between the author and the hero, the new interrelationship between the ethical and the aesthetic, and the specifics of a human being’s self-realization in a dialogue with the author. At the same time, the essay emphasizes the continuity of the creative searches by documentary filmmakers of different generations in mastering the "human material" of the new reality.

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Almost two decades have passed since the beginning of the 21st century. As the older and middle generations of documentarians continue working, numerous festival screens in Russia reflect their creative potential and make the spectators acquainted with new names of young directors, whose films are now screened not within debut competitions, but rather as equal competitors in the festival’s official screening programs.

The change of creative resources in art has always been an obligatory condition for the dynamics of the creative processes that lead to the renewal of the screen language, and for the artistic comprehension of urgent problems of society as a whole and of each individual person. In this respect, an analysis of the not so remote creative processes in Russian documentary will prove rather useful, especially if we take into consideration the new reality formed by the social development in the 21st century.

The hard times when Russia was entering market relations at the end of the past century have had considerable influence on the moderate emergence of new names in Russian documentary, in situation that was more than problematic due to the impetuous fall of film production during the post-perestroika period. The number of films produced dropped by 10 times in the mid-1990s, reaching no more than half a hundred titles. Numerous television studios practically died away, correspondents’ offices closed all over the country, and newsreels left the screens. The sharp cuts in the financing of documentary films—which, as in many other countries, only relied on budget—caused the destruction of the once firm market segment of documentaries and the consequent selling of Russian studios (from the equipment to the buildings themselves).

Looking back, it is worth paying tribute to the enthusiasts who stayed loyal to their profession during those hard and indistinct times, who continued to make documentary films “by fair means or foul.” Representatives of different generations were among those who saved Russian documentary from “dying” and raised funds for films where possible, sometimes out of their own savings—a true act of heroism. It was thanks to their belief in the profession and to their urge to develop traditions of Russian documentary that the “tiny brook” of creative search, longing to understand what stands behind the means of a screen document, did not break. It should be noted that our documentarians strove to save the basis of the national cinematographic traditions—the principle of human prism invariably focused on social problems. Undoubtedly, they did it: Yuri Shiller, Viktor Kosakovsky, Sergei Miroshnichenko, Vladislav Tarik, and others preserved in their work the pathos of the spiritual core of their compatriots who were overcoming adversities in hard times 1.

Nevertheless, new principles of film production were introduced in the late 1990s: the celluloid film format was practically rejected, large studio teams dissolved, and filmmaking became the prerogative of small, mobile groups. Approaches to funding also transformed; when financing ceased to rely only on budget, the industry began actively searching for other financial means—from sponsors to benefactors, according to a model known as crowdfunding 2. As a result, documentary films that met screen with state “support” were hundreds (300-450 in the last 20 years). It is well known that production estimates for documentaries are scarce and imply serious creative limitations from authors; the feeling of disaster in documentary filmmaking as it was in the 1990s, however, has begun to recede. Now the priority is the filmmakers’ creative component, where authors find special means to reveal the experience of the years of change.

The man of history

A characteristic feature of those hard years is the conception of human being as a “grain of sand” in the face of history, which helps evaluate a social actor in their new role as conscious participant in the events. The main character of Viktor Olender’s film Passengers of the Past Century (2001) is the old, experienced master of film chronicle of the Ukrainian Studio of Chronicle, Izrail Goldshtein, who acts as if passing anew his professional way at the end of life. Chronicle, which used to be his profession, appears on the screen not as a speculative illustration of one or the other ideologeme, as it mainly happens to a chronicle frame in the context of the modern screen discourse on the past. The hero’s complicity in creating chronicle history is expressed in screen documentary moments from the country’s life satiated with real facts—not alienated in time but still living in the man’s memory as moments of his own destiny and history of the motherland. For the hero, what has been impressed in the frames are not fragments of the “movement of time” but minutes of being of real—though at times nameless—people. In his thoughts of the occurrence the cameraman advocates human life rather than speculative ideological statements. Olender managed to translate the bifurcation of the two vectors in the perception of history quite accurately: these are the contrast between new, official concepts offered by scholars and the truth of the individualized experience of several generations, who survived the past decades and know their worth. It seems that the public success of this film is connected, first of all, with the new hero of documentary cinema—the man of history, who appears less as a victim of the historical movement or a witness of time and more as a bearer of historical truth, the essence of his own fate.

The set of films comprehending human fortune as the cornerstone of this historical highway also includes other works that differ in the mastery and scale of the material presented—for instance, A. Solzhenitsyn: Life is not a lie (director Sergei Miroshnichenko, 2001), David (director Alexei Fedorchenko, 2002), Starling (director Boris Karadzhev, 2001).

The action of the film David, outwardly modest and seemingly unpretentious, is concentrated on the confessions of an elderly and weary man who faced all the cruelty of the fascist genocide presented in its most monstrous and disgusting image—medical experiments on children. David, however, tells the tale of his sufferings with the philosophical estrangement of one standing on the threshold of the afterworld: his speech is laconic, almost deprived of epithets. From time to time he attempts to say something about the gleams of humanity in his story, diabolic in its brutality—the brightest of such moments being when he touches his savior among his women torturers. Yet the historical Moloch never let go of him, from childhood to his late years: Soviet concentration camps followed the fascist dungeons. Astonished by the unthinkable cruelty the film protagonist goes through, we cannot help admitting his wisdom and the quiet intonation of his tale. On the screen we see a man who has suffered immeasurably and got tired of life but never lost his personality. Even on the threshold of eternity, David keeps the discretion, reason, and vivid reaction of a dignified man. He is the man of history, carrying in his fate and memory both the severity of the historical “chariot” and the everlasting steadfastness of a human “grain of sand.”

Working on his film about Alexander Solzhenitsyn, director S. Miroshnichenko faced a natural temptation while creating the portrait of a grand historical figure: to follow his hero’s narrative by fixing his very minute gestures and manifestations. We might justify such an approach by claiming that he was filming for history. This film, however, is characterized by the remarkable wholeness of its hero’s views, and the director’s task was not reduced to just fixing the details of the great man’s being but also to imprint the writer’s tense thoughts about Russia. The spectator saw in front of him the portrait of a thinker—one whose search of distinct and true word and convincing ideas make the plot strain against this outwardly static picture. Solzhenitsyn’s expressive close-ups are particularly meaningful, as we can see the dynamics of the emotions and the hero looking for the right speculation. At the same time, the director is not afraid to underline his respect for the hero by means of the filming point, the camera’s “unfussiness,” and the reserved rhythm of the montage. Although history is the subject of Solzhenitsyn’s reflections and works, his long life, with its odd dramatic turns, grandiosity of personality, creativity, and independent outlook on the world, determine the inner conjugation of the writer’s fate with that of his people.

It is much more difficult to grasp the connection between the hero’s fate and history in the film Starling. The touching longing of the authors, friends of Petersburg film director Sergei Skvortsov, who had perished untimely, to preserve on screen the memory of his pictures rather than the numerous monologues saved on an amateur film, demonstrate nothing more than a deeply intimate reflection of a small circle of people. Their desire to show on screen not the domestic memory of a chaotic and reckless hero’s life, but the essence of his intensive spiritual search of the sense of the profession, made the film Starling something more than a memorial. It is important to note how delicately the authors picked fragments of Skvortsov’s works, composing a kind of metaphoric monologue of “Skvortsov’s screen”—the multilevel aspect of his screen texts from different periods is revealed before the contemporary spectator. It became clear that in his recent films, as in those from a decade ago, the documentarian did not talk to his spectators in the language of casual narration; rather, it offered a dialogue—a complicated one that required spiritual and mental effort. Then the artist’s thoughts, veiled with plastic and montage, provoke the spectator into having long and deep reflections; these film fragments were collected in the picture, creating a unique screen space oversaturated with metaphoric polysemy.

Skvortsov was also a man of history. As any other subtle artist, he felt the true magnitude and measure of the need for the image. His works, largely hieroglyphic for his time, are now read as prophetic, foreseeing past our epoch.

Author and hero: dialogue

Documentaries have, in recent years, demonstrated two concepts of personality that are contrasting in many aspects. The first one sees the “human material” as a basis for illustrating reality as a whole—where personal fate and personality are sort of cut into fragments that do not constitute a wholesome idea of the character but are instead braided into the author’s general reflections on the world, politics, and history. The other follows the “human material,” studiously preserving the inimitability of the hero’s being on screen. This seemingly simple-hearted trust in creating reality does not deprive films that are made within the parameters of this concept of a scale of conclusions and generalizations; the latter appear in the spectators’ minds as their own reflections after seeing the film.

The most picturesque illustration of the first tendency is the film Moms (director Alexander Rastorguev, 2001), belonging to the niche of the so-called real cinema, which is seen by some experts as a kind of alternative to documentary films and is therefore worth considering. In the opinion of the program’s authors, real cinema strives to revive Dziga Vertov’s idea of life as it is, where the subjects of the films are marginalized people, who live in conditions far from human—alcoholics, tramps, prostitutes, and beggars. It would certainly be hypocritical to protest the author’s right to choose their hero.

The tradition of perestroika film and television lowered its bar to show cruelty and violence and declared its freedom to choose its subjects and the extent of investigating circumstances of other people’s lives. The shocking character of the “nude” subjects made the authors brave in their own eyes; those attempts to utilize indecent frames provoked scandals and public accusations of censorship. Still, it soon became evident that all those “brave searches” had nothing to do with creativity and were exceptionally aimed at the speculative use of scandals around films. As a matter of fact, the materials of the films Mummies and Mount (director Alexander Rastorguev, 2001) and the methods of their imprinting are based on the same profiteering. The author cannot perceive his heroes only in the light of his speculative program, though his willingness to show people who are far from respectable is understandable. Following the troubles of the vegetative existence of the characters, who are led through the narrative only by the search of alcohol, and casting aside the naturalist details of childbirth, we continuously wonder: these pangs—for the sake of what? The texture of the low details aggressively presented on the screen is filmed so jealously that it becomes clear: the authors intended to stress the doubtless difference, both social and psychological, between the spectators and the “objects of observation.”

Naturalist tendencies in documentary filmmaking seem alluring, as they outwardly reflect reality as it is; however, they uncover the authors’ true intentions, their views of the material. When boundaries are crossed, reality enters other criteria of veracity and artistic perception of the world, and the “still life” of a table after drinking is perceived rather as the author’s semantic accent than as a fragment of the heroes’ real life. The sequence of “still lives” of this kind, the close-ups of the characters with signs of alcoholism on their faces, and the panoramas of the ragged walls of the flat where the participants dwell determine the meaning of the author’s message for the spectator. The authors are caught in a trap familiar to novices, when a beautiful plan formulated verbally with such clarity does not find screen embodiment in its artistic transfiguration—it does not reach spectators and remains only the author’s declaration.

In this connection, it is interesting to compare the experience of Mummies with the film by Alexei Romanov Gorlanova, or A House with All Inconveniences (2001). The very title of the film draws attention to the atmosphere of the household life of the well-known writer from Perm. The subject of the heroine’s soliloquy lay, in the foundation of the film’s dramatic structure, the theme of ambience in a communal flat, life inconveniencies, and life next to miserable constructions as the main dramatic spring. The camera throws light upon cluttered up room corners, broken window frames, water stains on the kitchen ceiling. This side of life seems to be of interest to the author—not the logic of a verbal plot, but that of an artistically accentuated narration, urges the spectator to follow the heroine in her aspiration to transform the ugly household into facts of an artistic world rather than to compile a list of naturalist details. Burned towels become “birch,” and a stain on the ceiling or wall presents a fantastic image. It was this specificity of the creative process that Anna Akhmatova wrote about: “If only you knew of what rubbish the poetry grows without shame.”

Clearly, the pressure of the film Gorlanova might be explained by the heroine’s fascination, the originality of her intellect, and her freedom in front of the camera. When we watch closely, however, the film space opens the meaning of the “fragmented” composition of the heroine’s room, faultlessly chosen fragments that still focus on the writer’s figure and to a greater extent on her face, without violating the everyday life atmosphere. The writer’s variegated days did not suppress the author; they did not seem self-sufficient to him, but became a part of his artistic expressive system. Thus, by manipulating household details, natural in their essence, the documentarian managed to rise over his naturalism. The film talks to the spectator not about the complexities of the heroine’s everyday life, but of the power of her intellect and of her talent transforming the world.

One more reason the film Gorlanova is important is that it manifests the now symptomatic principle of working with a documentary hero. The dignity and expression of the heroine’s soliloquy are connected not only with the author’s professional skills, but also with the clear principle of communication with the writer. The man with the camera, for Gorlanova, does not represent some fourth wall, hiding the spectators—she does not try to imitate free life “beyond the camera.” The dialogic style of Gorlanova’s speech is seen in the unfinished sentences, in the gestures, in the actions addressed directly to the camera and, eventually, in the formula of her writer’s life. The man with the camera is her friend, she knows him well and she can speak freely to him without such obstacles as correctness, nor hide her feelings; it is in his presence that the confessional sincerity about her life events is possible.

It is this dialogic style that reflects the measure of respectful partnership between the author and the hero, increasingly seen on the documentary screen and often marked by the author as most acceptable. The condescending observation of the “common man,” the amazement before his freedom, the thorough fixing of the elements of this freedom, and the arbitrary manipulation of the moments of the hero’s life while designing the concept of his character in the film already seem archaic.

An interesting discussion arose around the film Pardon, I live (2002) by Alexei Pogrebnoi, a TV documentarian from the Vyatka region. The film centers around a woman who, by overcoming her illness, attempts to make her life as “normal” as that of healthy folks. Throughout the film the spectator does not see the heroine’s ugliness—her face remains attractive all the time, and even tears do not distort her well-maintained “portrait.” The director was asked to what extent the heroine embodied the film director. The author admitted that the observation was fair. As if begging pardon for his insufficient professional imperiousness against the heroine, he explained: “I failed to convince, I failed to spy, I let her choose the material…” I retorted to the director that heroes have no right to cause pity by demonstrating their misfortune; they must carry the spectator away by the depth of their souls and stableness of characters. Now I must add: the film also proves that our heroes have changed—they have obtained new dignity and independence in front of the camera, and that determines in many aspects the structural changes of modern films inclining to that free form that I determine as dialogic. However, this new form requires changes from the documentarian as well—from positions in the system of expressive means, methods, and, to larger extent, to the level of moral criteria of communications with heroes.

The freedom of a documentary’s hero in the film and the new terms of his or her partnership with the author give birth to new methods of fixing them on screen, simultaneously also renewing the genre and composition of documentary works as they are. The camera is personified, and the author ceases to be the demiurge of the screen space, becoming one of the characters. The conditions change and the meaning of each episode and scene grows as it is there, where the dialogue of the author and the hero takes place. Notably, the greatest freedom in modern documentary filmmaking is achieved not in portraying the hero (here past forms of imprinting still dominate) but rather in sound, or in the documentary speech.

The heroine of A. Pogrebnoi’s film is perfectly free and sincere. The measure of her openness seems unbelievable, since she reveals even ungainly moments of her life. Though Vera is worried for the expressiveness of her screen image, her words let us see her tormented soul; this, along with the outward reserve, produces an even stronger influence on the spectator. We are used to treating screen documentary speech as a source of additional factual information about the hero; yet the individual style and the system of pauses and gesture partially reveal the world of the heroes’ feelings. We have not noticed how our heroes gave grown up, how their minds have changed, and what new way of communicating with the camera they have acquired. At the turn of the new century, the documentary screen offered a train of extremely interesting talks-confessions, and the authors’ task was neither to interrupt this sincerity of souls, nor to drive the hero’s thought into a designed cliché.

Meeting the documentary film heroes lets us see the evolution of man in the context of audiovisual environment development. The individual has got rid of not only the constraint in front of the camera but also of the diffidence in expressing his or her thoughts and feelings—the unique verbal confessional trustworthiness of the modern screen portrait has appeared.

The new screen portrait concept

The new view of human personality in documentary filmmaking is paradoxically declared in the film Just Life (2002) by Marina Razbezhkina. The cameraperson Irina Uralskaya has all the rights to be mentioned among the authors, since it was the plastic idea of the film that created its style and meaning; moreover, it propagated the authors’ life philosophy.

The life of Shura, the main heroine of the film, is polemically simple: a routine of unpretentious work and thoughts of possible romances. With a different artistic program this would be a dismal description of everyday life, a physiological sketch, something akin to the real cinema. The authors, however, saw a common woman’s existence not as an occasion to peep into the simple plot of her life, but as a chance to attempt a translation of the inner “melody” of her nature through the artistic structure of the film. Uralskaya’s magic camera penetrates the shining of each tiny blade of grass, the restrained warmth of sunrays, the walk under the rain and wind bending the umbrella, the brief sleep in a hayloft, the self-oblivion in a tango with its melody sounding inside the soul—it sees the wonder of life everywhere. The aesthetic reflection of the spectators watching the film, certainly planned by the authors, creates a wonderful estranging effect, when simple and habitual things and everyday details are suddenly seen differently, transformed by the aesthetic prism of the eyes, acquiring new meaningful parameters. At first glance, the authors are engaged in sorting simple facts of the heroine’s being, pity toward “a common peasant woman with her colorless, unsuccessful life.” The feelings that the film message addresses, however, are an outcry against such an evaluation of Shura’s life. We do not see a wretched woman, reflecting and thrown away from the social “net”; we see a woman, the embodiment of a simple and great truth—the joy of being.

The human image evolves in the works by Yuri Shiller. His film of that period, Live and Rejoice (2001) shows, at first glance, the difference in understanding the sense of life by the two antagonists. One of them, a metalworker, plays accordion outdoors for passersby to lift their and his own spirits. The other is erecting a temple—by himself and with the help of his family. We could be touched by how cannily the director discloses the hidden imagery of everyday life, but this time Shiller’s sequence of cranks and queer men of the “Russian space” singles out two characters who clearly declare the problems of their world outlook.

One of them is an obvious sinner: he never rejects a drink and never disdains “gaiety” on fasting days. His whole appearance makes us recall Romain Rolland and his literary character Colar Breugnon with his indefatigable love of life and “zest.” Publicly amusing others with his accordion is a somewhat paradoxical conclusion to his life philosophy. To live and rejoice now, to entertain people with music, to go fishing, to eat fish-soup accompanied by drinks, to sing songs with children, and to be glad for having grandchildren: a very well-known, recognizable, and popular position in the Russian milieu. It is based on numerous popular “wisdoms” such as “we will live and not die.” Nevertheless, by watching the hero and his leisurely movements, we suddenly start to think of his wonderful openness to other people’s feelings, misfortunes, and problems. He is a swinger, but he is happy only when able to share his joy with the world; he will never rejoice alone. This is a man who practices the Christian principle of openness to his neighbor’s grief and joy.

A different man is opposed to him. He declares his life credo firmly: the tale of his life is made of temptations and sins, and one can only save oneself from filth hourly. His building his a temple in which he puts his forces and means, the realization of the struggle for saving his soul—a serene struggle reflected by extreme asceticism. Human nature is revealed in him as well; it is not suppressed by his religious will when he craftily operates his carpenter’s tools, elaborating the temple wall of logs with love. The camera shows not only professional adroitness, but also the satisfaction of a worker who is doing his work well and handsomely. Here he shyly speaks of his love—not to the menacing God but to his daughter—and a strange smile transforms his severe face and “illuminates” the spectators.

Such a public, alternative sound had probably never been seen this clearly in Shiller’s works. The spectator could always see the author’s look through the ligature of imaginatively capacious observations from the heroes’ lives; two life positions, however, had never conflicted so openly. The director might have deemed it important not only to distinguish two “poles” of man’s self-programming, but also to call out deferent life programs with the voices of the heroes. That is why Shiller’s film, though original and talented, which is habitual in his works, is closely related to the tendencies peculiar to the documentary filmmaking showing the real man of today.

Most heroes of documentary portraits from the beginning of the century comprehend themselves in their withstanding the world, and the latter is usually not socialized in their perception. Though man is subject to the social and political complications of modern history, these conditions of being entering life are understood as given, almost as natural phenomena. Man tries to build life according to inner laws, not to outward canons. That is why the rightness of the heroes’ life credos of the film Live and Rejoice is perceived not as conflicting, but as equipotent.

The considered stage of the development of documentary filmmaking demonstrates the evident orientation of the authors of the most representative films investigating, first of all, the space of the soul and human feelings, that is expressed in the short title of Shiller’s film: Live...






1 For more details v.: Prozhiko G. S. (2004) Kontseptsiya real'nosti v ekrannom dokumente [The concept of reality in a screen document]. Moscow: VGIK, 2004. (in Rus.).

2 Crowdfunding cooperation of donors ready to pool their resources, unite other possibilities in order support projects of other people or organizations.


Galina S. Prozhiko

Doctor of Arts, Professor


Author for correspondence.


  1. Posle vzryva: Dokumental'noye kino 90-kh [After the explosion: Documentary film of the 90s]. Moscow: Andreyevskiy flag, 1995.
  2. Prozhiko G.S. (2004) Kontseptsiya real'nosti v ekrannom dokumente [The concept of reality in a screen document]. Moscow: VGIK, 2004. (In Russ.).
  3. Prozhiko G.S. (2002) Kontseptsiya obshchego plana v ekrannom dokumente [The concept of a general plan in a screen document]. Moscow: Institut povysheniya kvalifikatsii rabotnikov televideniya i radioveshchaniya, 2002. (In Russ.).

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Copyright (c) 2019 Prozhiko G.S.

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