Scenes Putin doesn't want you to see

From Sochi to Pussy Riot, Russian film-makers are speaking out

Geoffrey Macnab
Wednesday 20 November 2013 01:00 GMT
Loud colours: Pussy Riot
Loud colours: Pussy Riot (Igor Mukhin)

These are rousing times for the Russian film industry. A new Second World War 3D Imax blockbuster, Stalingrad, directed by Fedor Bondarchuk (son of legendary War and Peace director Sergei Bondarchuk) and made with substantial government support, has been a huge box-office success. It is now in the running for this year's foreign language Oscar. The state is pouring money into film production. In recent years, arthouse movies as well as commercial fare have benefitted. Alexander Sokurov's Venice Golden Lion winner Faust was championed by none other than Vladimir Putin. Nonetheless, there are limits to what the government will tolerate.

"If you want to make a film that says Russia is a horrible place to live, the only option is to fly away, don't ask the state for money," the minister of culture Vladimir Medinsky recently told an American film trade magazine.

Dissent is becoming the province of low-budget independent documentaries. At the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) this month, there are two films screening that most certainly did not receive the blessing of the government.

Alexander Gentelev's Putin's Games is the kind of movie bound to infuriate the authorities. It draws attention to the chaos, environmental destruction and corruption that have dogged preparations for next February's Winter Olympics in Sochi (which now have an estimated cost of $50bn.)

The tone of the film is ironic and often even comical. Gentelev uses jaunty music. His interviewees frequently express bemusement at the idea of staging a winter games in a sub-tropical region. "I know the city and I can tell you that picking it to host the Olympics is a fraud. First of all, Russia is mainly a cold, wintry country. You'd have to spend a long time searching the map of this huge country to find someplace with no snow. Putin found it," the Sochi-born politician Boris Nemtsov comments.

The documentary includes testimony from Sochi residents who claim their lives have been blighted by the Games.

"They took our water and plugged the wrong pipe back in. When we turned on the tap, we got sewage instead," one local complains of the building contractors who swarmed into the city after the Olympics were awarded to Russia in 2007.

"The city has turned into a concrete trap," says another resident, bemoaning the loss of flowers and fruit trees. There is footage of the giant landfill sites that now surround the city and which, the documentary suggests, is transforming Sochi, one of Russia's most famous leisure resorts, into "a giant dump".

As Gentelev reveals, officials behind the Games refused to speak to him. "It is very difficult to film in Sochi. The construction sites are reminiscent of military bases and it's almost impossible to arrange interviews with senior officials responsible for the Sochi Olympics." Putin's Games follows on from Gentelev's 2010 documentary Thieves by Law, an inside look at the history of the Russian mafia from the Stalin-era Gulags to the present day. Again, this isn't a side of Russian society that the ministry of culture can have been at all keen to see publicised.

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Also screening at IDFA is the documentary Pussy Versus Putin, made by the Russian film collective Gogol's Wives. This a grimly entertaining fly-on-the-wall chronicle of the protests against Putin by the feminist punk group Pussy Riot. It is the second film about the band in under a year, following on from Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, which opened the Sheffield Documentary Festival earlier this year.

The new documentary contains lengthy scenes of the Pussy Riot members discussing their political aims along with footage of their stunts during the run-up to the 2012 Russian presidential election. Early on, we see them performing a gig on top of a tram in their brightly coloured masks as the infuriated driver tries to stop them and then playing to bemused commuters on the subway.

The mood of the film varies wildly. At times, it is as high-spirited and full of energy as the performances by Pussy Riot themselves. However, the footage also reveals the intimidation and physical harassment the young protesters faced. With hand-held cameras, the film-makers are able to shoot from behind bars and inside prison vans.

"It is well known that Russian TV, the media controlled by the Kremlin, has no problem censoring any problematic issues that might cast a shadow on Putin's bright image," former chess champ turned opposition politician Garry Kasparov claims in Putin's Games. Independent documentary makers are stepping in where the mainstream media refuses to tread, giving us a glimpse of a Russia very different from the one portrayed in nationalistic epics like Bondarchuk's Stalingrad. The downside, of course, is that they won't be able to turn to the state for funding.

International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam ( runs to 1 December

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