Posted: 6/1/11 -- Photo by Marcin Kulakowski, Polish Film Institute

Michał Marczak's At The Edge of Russia, a gorgeously photographed and constructed film about life on a Russian army border post, screened at the 2011 True/False Film Fest. In the months since, the film has received several major awards, including the HBO Documentary Films Emerging Artist Award at Hot Docs. It screens this summer at Rooftop Films in New York City. Elliot Reed, wT/F editor, caught up with Marczak during True/False's closing night reception. In the middle of a very busy True/False Film Fest, I travelled with Marcin Sauter, director of the charming film North of Calabria (T/F 11), to central Missouri’s Amish country. Through his interpreter, I learned about a mysterious class Marcin and fellow Pole Michał Marczak, director of At The Edge of Russia (T/F 11), had taken together.

Marcin told me that the teacher of this class encouraged director interventionism in documentary filmmaking. In reference to the base in which Michal’s At the Edge of Russia takes place, Marcin told me, “Michał built that barracks. He makes no secret of it.” Confused, I decided to speak with Michał to learn the truth.

T/F: Your film, At the Edge of Russia, came out of a famous documentary master class led by Marcel Łoziński (Director, 89mm From Europe, 1993). Tell me a little about the master class, and Łoziński’s analogy of the world as fish aquarium: the world is like an aquarium, where the fish usually sit still, so the documentary filmmaker’s job is to shake things up in order to get the fish to move around. How does this reflect the doctrine of the school?

Marczak: There is no doctrine. Everybody has their own style. You have to be true to your subjects, you can’t be an asshole. The truth that you portray, your truth, your subjective view of reality, has to be true to what is in life. You have to be fair. You can’t exploit people.

To get into the class, you had to know how to make films. You overlook all parts of your production, across the one-year class, with two established filmmakers. In Poland, at the school, we were just a group of friends, 5 or 6 of us, all different ages, with the idea that we will help each other. We edit, discuss, do a second edit, and discuss. We develop our own language, our own way of depicting documentary which is not influenced by anything else, but comes from within us.

T/F: You create your subjective view of reality. do you feel beholden to the viewer to show them how subjective you’re being as far as creating the place?

Marczak: I don’t do reenactments, I don’t do interviews. It’s not my type of cinema.

T/F: This class sounds more like an artists’ community. Do most of the Polish docs come from this community?

Marczak: It’s not really a community, but from the start, Poland has had its own documentary language. We never really used talking heads, interviews, or reenactments. It was about following reality in a specific way.

T/F: What specific films created this language?

Marczak: I would say it started with the films of {Krzysztof} Kieślowski (The Decalogue), with Łoziński. Two things that have a sort of common denominator [in Polish documentary cinema] are precise cinematography and craft, where the films are made with the highest technical and artistic vision. We think about how to tell the story and with what medium. We think about how the form suits the subject, and all our films have different forms. Many documentaries look bad because people think the subject is enough, story is strong, and then people sort of leave the camera work for last. That’s one thing about Polish documentaries. We really think about the form, and we try to really match the form to the story that we’re telling. Shooting a documentary is just as important as shooting a feature. We pick the best kit possible to shoot a story and spend a lot of time in post production.

T/F: How did the form-fitting-story consideration pan out when you were making your film?

Marczak: Well, from the start, I knew that, in my film, my protagonists were always dressed the same. They basically do the same repetitive actions every day. They’re soldiers, they have the same routine they follow, they sit at the exact same place at the same table. When they go on scouts and patrols outside, they’re very similar. Also, the light outside doesn’t change, because it’s all white. There are three locations within the base that we shot in. Corridor, kitchen, and sleeping area. From the start, we knew we had to tell the film using long lenses to get a feeling of claustrophobia inside. That also helped us in editing because, in using only one camera with the same lens, we could edit anything with anything. We could edit a two or three-minute scene from something we shot over the course of two or three hours. And because everything looked the same, we could cut one dinner scene from ten dinners, or cut in some shots from breakfast. We shot our cutaways at one dinner, and so didn’t have to worry about getting them when we were shooting a later dinner scene. So when we’re shooting something, we were really able to concentrate on the action and emotion of the people. We never made the characters go back or repeat something or ask them to sit down again.

T/F: Did you realize you’d be able to shoot it like this when you began making the film?

Marczak: From the start, I knew, even when I looked at their home footage (ed. note: Michal was sent home footage on VHS prior to his decision to start production), it looked great. There’s no spare, random information in the frame. When you shoot, you usually have to get rid of stuff - there’s too much information in the frame, it distracts you. That’s the problem of making good compositions. In their base, it was very minimal. they didn’t have a lot of stuff which would just get in the way. Outside, it was always easy to compose. We brought in a lot of bulbs with which  replaced a lot of their lights, and filtered a bunch of them. They got used to it quickly, forgot about [the lighting change], and went back to their normal life.

T/F: The base is like a space capsule. The juxtaposition between the endless nothingness of Siberia outside and the cramped inside makes it seem odd that they couldn’t make the base even a few feet bigger.

Marczak: It’s all about heating the place. We did change a lot inside to make it more suitable for shooting, so we’re against windows, we have back lights, and so on and so on. But the subjects got used to the changes for about two weeks before we started shooting. That allowed us to film pretty quickly, just me, the cinematographer, and the microphone. We didn’t use any movie lights. We had very minimal gear.

T/F: Do you think there’s a moment in the film where it’s obvious a subject isn’t used to the presence of the camera?

Marczak: Some of the subjects, from the start, were great [at ignoring the camera]. The young guy, the main subject, was great from the start. Three of the other subjects were really, really difficult. It took us two weeks, in some cases, to tire them out. They were looking at the camera, and they had certain stories they wanted to tell that they obviously really wanted to get out. So I told my cameraman to follow them around and not actually record. After a week or so, the subjects got everything they wanted out and returned to normal life. I’d spent some time with these subjects beforehand, so it was clear to me that when the camera arrived, they started acting. After a week of tiring them out, I felt that it went back to this presence that was there before, without the camera. And then when I felt that they’re not acting, that’s when we really started filming with them - scenes that were of importance - because that’s what’s really important to me, to give off that truth, to establish that sort of climate - and that’s the director’s job, to establish that sort of atmosphere, one where the camera is invisible, and trust is established.

T/F: I feel like if I was in a situation like that, where I realized how pointless my presence in that place was, I would start making a big mockery of the whole thing.

Marczak: But isn’t 90% of military mockery?

T/F: They’re guarding the Arctic Ocean.

Marczak: Russia, for me, is the most patriotic country I’ve seen. It’s extreme, true patriotism that is not just patriotism told but patriotism done. These people are proud to be there. Of course, they see that from a military standpoint, that [their post is] pointless. But because they’re there, there’s a point on the map.

Russia’s borders are very dangerous. Most of the other borders have conflict. All the lower republics, and Chechnya and Afghanistan, are very dangerous. There are many attacks on Russian border guards. Russia is hated. They did a lot of bad things, and I don’t blame people for hating Russia. When these guys are sent out to serve in the north, where there’s no intruders, no one who will hurt them, all they have to do is survive together. They just have to get along with each other.

T/F: So what we see in At The Edge of Russia is solidarity with other border guards in more dangerous areas. Did you ever think about wanting to include some background in your film to make that clearer?

Marczak: That’s the whole thing. I never wanted to include it. I wanted people to think about it. I wanted to leave it a mystery so people can actually start thinking themselves, “Why are these guys sort of happy? Why is it that they’re there? Why is it that they get along, that it works? Why does their community work, and that they’re proud of it?” I knew the answer to those questions, but I never wanted to have them talk about it, of course they did talk about it, I just cut it all out. I wanted to keep it open, for people to put some work into coming up with that conclusion. Of course, they’d need to do more research, but that’s the idea of my kind of cinema. To leave some things open and not give everything.

Nowadays, a lot of documentaries really piss me off. Because they tell everything, they tell the audience how to feel, what to think, and why certain things are the way they are.

T/F: It’s given a lot of people the impression that documentary film is always a didactic tool.

Marczak: Yeah, it’s an art to me. Reality is a mystery, and documentary films are a portrayal of reality. You have to leave that certain mystery and magic in there. Who am I to tell you how it is? I can’t stand many documentaries. It’s reportage, to me, it’s not documentary.

T/F: I still see a lot of parallels between reportage and documentary.

Marczak: Reportage is something I’ve never wanted to do with my life. Showing that something crazy or fun or happy or sad or pathetic or extra-ordinary is out there, it’s not enough. Because then documentary films become a contest of who has the better subject, who has the better story, who has the fancier, crazier character. And that’s not what it should be about. It should never be a contest of extravagance. It should be a discussion about essence, and about, sort of, getting down to things - to understanding, to uncovering something, to living something. For me, documentary is a journey that you embark on and that journey leaves me different and the protagonist different. Doing this thing with me, they should come out different people at the end. That’s what I tell my protagonist at the beginning. I say, listen, I’m not just going to show that you’re here. We’re going to do something that’s going to change us both. If you’re ready for that, let's do it.

I believe in intelligence. I believe that humans are a very intelligent species capable of thinking for themselves. I think a lot of people, and I don’t know why, think that people are just not intelligent, that everything has to be told to them. It’s not true, and it takes out the fun for me. It’s much more fun if people can get to certain conclusions by themselves, instead of if they’re just given everything.

T/F: So, how about American audiences? Do they realize that the mentality of the soldiers is based a little on solidarity with people in more dangerous places?

Marczak: Here, a lot of people came up to me and interpreted the film spot on. A lot of people who haven’t been to Russia understood it. This is the first screening in North America.  I’m doing two new documentaries. One of them is about this group, Fuck For Forest, who are porno-eco-activists, living in a threesome. Thanks to their website, they generate about $100,000 per year, with which they buy land in Brazil and Ecuador and then give it back to the indigenous population. Crazy new hippies. I’ve shot with them in Berlin for a month.

T/F: You can make this film without it getting rated X?

Marczak: I don’t care.


Work-in-progress trailer of upcoming film Priest

At the Edge of Russia trailer

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