IDFA, the world’s biggest and most prestigious documentary film festival, is now underway in Amsterdam. IDFA has always been an important event on the True/False calendar, responsible for significant discoveries such as Last Train Home, Burma VJ, Afghan Star and Family Instinct. This year T/F co-director Paul Sturtz and associate programmer Chris Boeckmann have made the journey to the Netherlands in search of powerful new films for T/F 2013.
Every year IDFA selects a master filmmaker to present his or her documentary “Top Ten”, a set of important films that have informed their work and continue to reward repeat viewings. These films are shown at special screenings during the festival. This year the honor has gone to Victor Kossakovsky, the Russian auteur who also received our 2012 True Vision Award.
Kossakovsky presented his earliest and most recent features at T/F 2012. This was a rare treat for an American audience, as Kossakovsky’s films are shamefully still unavailable in the US. His first film, The Belovs (1993), places us alongside an elderly brother and sister living together in rural poverty, their lives punctuated by intense pain and joy.
His new film is ¡Vivan Las Antipodas!, a whimsical and mind-bending trek around the planet to compare existence at points exactly opposite one another on the globe.
For those of us who couldn’t make the trip to Amsterdam, but want to dig deeper in the history of documentary, there is good news. Half of Kossakovsky’s Top Ten selections are available online.
His list begins with two early masterworks. The first is Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (Russia, 1929), recently declared to be one of the ten greatest films ever by Sight and Sound’s critics poll. Vertov was a Soviet film theorist who maintained that the Russian Revolution required a new revolutionary cinema, one completely divorced from what he regarded as the pernicious influence of literature and the theater. Man with a Movie Camera is the fullest expression of this vision; it has no story, but employs a dazzling array of editing techniques to present a true symphony of a city. The film is available online with an excellent new soundtrack from The Alloy Orchestra created from Vertov’s notes.
The second early feature is Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran (England, 1934), a stunning ethnographic study of life on the Aran Islands off of the West Coast of Ireland. Flaherty’s films have been described as “docudramas” or “ethnofictions” because of his willingness to stage scenes and even reconstruct cultural practices no longer in existence at the time of filming. In the case of Man of Aran the shark hunting techniques the islanders employ in the film had not been in use for over 50 years.
Interestingly, Kossakovsky selected two similar short films. In both we study the faces of people who are themselves studying a particular piece of art. In the first, Pavel Kogan’s Look at Her Face (Russia, 1968), a tour guide introduces museum goers to Da Vinci’s famous painting Madonna and Child, and hidden cameras capture a diverse and fascinating range of reactions.
In the second, Herz Frank’s Ten Minutes Older (Latvia, 1978), the frame gracefully dances across the faces of young children enthralled by a puppet show. In contrast to the primarily natural sound of the previous film, Ten Minutes Older features a bold orchestral score, which helps to powerfully evoke the transporting nature of the arts.
The final film available online is Artavazd Pelechian’s Seasons of the Year (Armenia, 1975), an eloquent visual poem on the complex relationship between nature and humanity in an isolated mountain community. In a mere 29 minutes the film covers the cycle of an entire year. The unorthodox soundtrack combines Vivaldi with traditional Armenian folk music.
You’ll have to track down the remainder of Kossakovsky’s Top Ten elsewhere. They are: The Tram Runs Through the City (Ludmila Stanukinas, Russia, 1973), Our Mama is a Hero (Nikolai Obukhovich, Russia, 1979), Spiritual Voices (Alexander Sukharov, Russia, 1995), Workingman’s Death (Michael Glawogger, Germany/Austria, 2005) and Position Among the Stars (Leonard Retel Helmrich, The Netherlands, 2010).
Six years ago, at IDFA 2006, Kossakovsky presented another list of 10, his provocative Ten Rules for Documentary Filmmaking. The list, reprinted below, is still much discussed and still much worth discussing.
1. Don’t film if you can live without filming.
2. Don’t film if you want to say something – just say it or write it. Film only if you want to show something, or you want people to see something. This concerns both the film as a whole and every single shot within the film.
3. Don’t film, if you already knew your message before filming – just become a teacher. Don’t try to save the world. Don’t try to change the world. Better if your film will change you. Discover both the world and yourself whilst filming.
4. Don’t film something you just hate. Don’t film something you just love. Film when you aren’t sure if you hate it or love it. Doubts are crucial for making art. Film when you hate and love at the same time.
5. You need your brain both before and after filming, but don’t use your brain during filming. Just film using your instinct and intuition.
6. Try to not force people to repeat an action or words. Life is unrepeatable and unpredictable. Wait, look, feel and be ready to film using your own way of filming. Remember that the very best films are unrepeatable. Remember that the very best films were based on unrepeatable shots. Remember that the very best shots capture unrepeatable moments of life with an unrepeatable way of filming.
7. Shots are the basis of cinema. Remember that cinema was invented as one single shot – documentary, by the way – without any story. Or story was just inside that shot. Shots must first and foremost provide the viewers with new impressions that they never had before.
8. Story is important for documentary, but perception is even more important. Think, first, what the viewers will feel while seeing your shots. Then, form a dramatic structure of your film using the changes to their feelings.
9. Documentary is the only art, where every esthetical element almost always has ethical aspects and every ethical aspect can be used esthetically. Try to remain human, especially whilst editing your films. Maybe, nice people should not make documentaries.
10. Don’t follow my rules. Find your own rules. There is always something that only you can film and nobody else.
Kossakovsky explained each of these rules at length, as well as presenting clips from his films, in a ten part masterclass at the festival.
Finally, for a small sample of Victor’s own work, check out his recently released New York Times Op-Doc. The short film LULLABY spies into a growing phenomenon in Europe, homeless men and women sleeping inside banks near 24 hour ATMs. The film is part of the Why Poverty? initiative, which uses films to encourage conversations about poverty.