Interview

Hunting for Reality: An Interview with Marina Razbezhkina

Anastasia Kostina

From Film Quarterly, Spring 2020, Volume 73, Number 3

Marina Razbezhkina is a well-known Russian documentary filmmaker, educator, and founder of the largest independent documentary school in the country. She is now recognized as one of the most active and influential figures in Russian documentary circles. Razbezhkina has made more than two dozen documentaries and two fiction films, and is currently fully devoted to teaching filmmaking and to mentoring her alumni.

Her very original approach to documentary, which combines intimate proximity to the protagonist with raw observational aesthetics, revolutionized the Russian film landscape. It became the trademark of her school, the first to provide an alternative to traditional film education at schools such as VGIK (Russian State University of Cinematography).1 With an incredible force of will and imagination, Razbezhkina created a new movement in contemporary Russian documentary tailored to the specific realities and anxieties of the Putin era. While never explicitly political, its observational essence and yearning for unmasked reality challenges Russia’s censored and highly mediated mainstream media productions.

Razbezhkina herself never received formal film training. She graduated from the Department of Philology at Kazan State University and then worked as a village schoolteacher and a media journalist. Despite a keen interest in film, Razbezhkina could not make films professionally for a long time, due to state regulations that required film directors to have “appropriate” education, thereby controlling the profession. Razbezhkina’s film career began only in the late 1980s, when the softening climate of perestroika allowed her to become a director at the Kazan Studio of Cinema Chronicles.

Her early works earned the disapproval of the studio administration for their direct approach and emphasis on observation, yet that same style brought Razbezhkina international recognition when her film Konets puti ([The End of the Road], 1991) was selected for the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam (IDFA). This beautifully shot observational documentary follows the quotidian life of Zinaida Gorshkova, an eighty-year old woman who lives all by herself in a remote and completely abandoned Russian village. Razbezhkina shows Zinaida caught between the glorious Soviet past of her youth and the absolute solitude of her elderly years, inviting the viewer to contemplate questions of cultural heritage, national history, and belonging.

The key to Razbezhkina’s documentary approach is her genuine interest in the people she films—not their self-presentation or her own interpretation of their character, but their true selves. Whether it is the Orthodox Christian priest Father Vsevolod in Strannaya svoboda bytiya ([Strange Freedom of Being], 1995) or the immigrant woman Dilyara in Chuzhaya strana ([Another Country], 2004), Razbezhkina’s camera is not trying to encapsulate them within preset social or generic boundaries but is keen to explore who they really are. It is this absolute fascination with her subjects that enables Razbezhkina to create deeply authentic and captivating portrayals of real life and real people.

In the early 2000s, when Razbezhkina moved to Moscow, she began to teach documentary at the newly emergent private (i.e., not state) schools. Eventually, those courses evolved into a workshop conducted together with the theater director Mikhail Ugarov.2

In 2011, Razbezhkina and Ugarov opened their own film school in Moscow, appropriately titled the School of Documentary Film and Theater of Marina Razbezhkina and Mikhail Ugarov. Initially, they established a one-year program (later expanded to two years) encompassing both theoretical and practical courses and requiring that at least two documentary films be completed by each student. These films are usually shot in a pure observational manner because this is the official ideology of the school. However, unlike early movements like American direct cinema or French cinéma vérité, Razbezhkina professes a much more austere observational aesthetic. She also believes that digital technology has provided documentarians with a means of capturing reality unthinkable for a previous generation of filmmakers.

Razbezhkina has a particular approach to teaching documentary. One crucial aspect of her method is a set of five restrictions she imposes on her students at the school: they are not allowed to use nondiegetic music, direct-address interviews, voice-overs, tripods, or zoom lenses while making a film. The taboos arise from Razbezhkina’s idea that the filmmaker should not interfere with the reality unfolding around her subjects and must remain an anonymous recorder of her surroundings. The camera becomes an extension of the filmmaker’s hand, and the filmmaker becomes a shadow, silently following her protagonists wherever they may go. The students most often work as a one-person crew with a lightweight hand-held camera shadowing her protagonists up close. This “hunt for reality,” as Razbezhkina terms the practice, usually results in deeply engaging observational documentaries that completely absorb the viewer into an unfamiliar reality.

The school first caught the public’s attention in Russia in 2011 when alumna Madina Mustafina’s diploma film Milana (2011) won the Grand Prix at Artdocfest, Russia’s largest independent documentary festival. The documentary tells the story of Milana, a seven-year-old homeless girl who lives in the woods with her alcoholic mother and some homeless men. The heartbreaking story was charted in the candid observational style that Mustafina had learned from Razbezhkina. The combination of emotion and observation produced a massive effect on viewers, overwhelming jury and audiences alike. “We were stunned!” said the jury chair, renowned Russian film director Andrei Zvyagintsev.3

Broader recognition came to the school with the release in 2012 of Zima, ukhodi! (Winter, Go Away!), a documentary project about the massive civil protests that overtook Russia that winter. The previous December, allegations and evidence that the Russian parliamentary elections had been falsified brought tens of thousands of people into the streets. Ten alumni of the school documented the events, creating a lively and insightful chronicle of this unprecedented social upheaval. Shot in Razbezhkina’s distinct observational manner and presenting multiple points of view, the documentary was able to capture the unique atmosphere of the moment and became the school’s signature project.

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Marina Razbezhkina teaching a master class with her former student, Liza Kozlova.

In subsequent years, Razbezhkina alums have conquered Russian as well as international documentary festivals, including Artdocfest, Message to Man, IDFA, Hot Docs, and many others. The young filmmakers cover a wide range of topics, from highly political issues such as Askold Kurov’s Protses ([The Trial], 2017), which follows Oleg Sentsov’s trial, to deeply personal family stories such as Denis Shabaev’s Vmeste ([Together], 2014), a road movie about the relationship between Shabaev himself and his nine-year-old daughter.4

These students seem to easily enter and naturally fit within any environment, whether the rough world of two truck drivers in the Kamchatka region in Denis Klebleev’s 31-y Reis ([31st Haul], 2013) or the everyday life of a teenage girl in a small Russian town in Liza Kozlova’s V tsentre tsiklona ([In the Eye of the Storm,] 2016). They immerse the viewer in new, often harsh, realities, like Beata Bubenets’s Polyot puli ([Flight of a Bullet], 2017), a single eighty-minute sequence shot in the war zone in Donbass; or Dina Barinova’s Edoki kartofelya ([The Potato Eaters], 2018), set in the extreme poverty of a Russian village. Relentlessly hunting for reality, Razbezhkina and her students create intense, multifaceted, and deeply sincere portrayals of life in contemporary Russia and beyond.

The following interview, which took place in April 2018 when Marina Razbezhkina visited Yale University, was conducted in Russian and translated into English by the author.

Anastasia Kostina: Your path to filmmaking wasn’t direct. You never attended a film school. After teaching and journalism, why did you decide to make films instead?

Marina Razbezhkina: I can’t say that I fell in love with cinema from my early years and couldn’t live without it. Especially documentary cinema, since I didn’t see any. The newsreels we watched in theaters before the feature did not impress or engage me.

I was turning fifteen and my mother asked me what I wanted as a birthday gift. I wanted a winter coat, because mine looked horrible and I was ashamed of it, but I decided that asking for a coat would be strange: a coat is something you need anyway. So I asked for a film camera. I don’t remember why.

Mom took my request seriously, which I really didn’t expect. She bought the best existing 8mm camera, sound recorder, editing table, and a device to synchronize sound and image. For some reason, I didn’t want to make fiction. Right from the start, I knew I would make documentaries, observational documentaries. I didn’t know how to make such films, but I began shooting anyway.

We went to the Pskov region to make a film about a partisan unit [which operated there during World War II] and to find those who survived.5 It was a very interesting journey because I learned a lot of things I would never have read about anywhere. Suddenly I realized that all this Soviet mythology was far from the actual reality. And when, in front of me, two mothers of partisans who had perished began to fight and pull each other’s hair, arguing whose son was cooler, all of a sudden this real life opened up. I wasn’t disgusted by it. I realized that I am more interested in real life than in myth and pathos, that I have much more passion for real life.

This was a good lesson and, I see now, a good beginning for a documentarian. But in the end I was quite disappointed by filming with this small camera. When we developed the film, the image was dull and very far from what I had expected. That is when I [first] realized that the visual aspect is important in cinema, not just the story.

Kostina: You are not only a film director. You are also the founder and head of the biggest independent documentary school in Russia. Your school is famous for its extremely austere observational style that rejects voice-over, direct interviews, even nondiegetic music. How did this style come into being?

Razbezhkina: It wasn’t until very recently that I could answer this question myself. Before, it was more intuitive. Then I realized that this intuition is entirely based on my personal life experience.

I returned to the Kazan studio during the perestroika period when the so-called first departments were eliminated.6 Very quickly, within one year, I made ten short films. A year later, one of my first films, The End of the Road, was selected for IDFA and I saw that what I did was close to European cinema, while what they did at the Kazan studio wasn’t cinema at all.

When I moved to Moscow, what young directors were doing did not appeal to me. I didn’t like how they were taught. But how else could this be done? I never studied film directing, but I had life experience of a kind that benefited my filmmaking practice. It became the basis for some of the rules I developed. The first rule, and the one I now find the most important, is that a director has to film all on their own, at least during the course of study. It is hard. When you have your crew, you feel secure. You are protected by their sympathy, their professionalism, the sense of community. Filming alone, you are fully exposed to reality and its circumstances, and you learn to make this journey on your own. Because of this, you are more eager to grasp that reality and become part of it.

Kostina: What is at the core of the Razbezhkina documentary method?

Razbezhkina: You are one-on-one with your subject, but the distance between the two of you—what I call “the zone of the snake”—is their distance, not yours, and you need to read it carefully. Everyone has their own zone of the snake. If you cross this invisible line, the border your subject wants to protect, you can lose them. It takes a lot of effort to get inside one’s personal space. In the early years, it was almost impossible: bulky equipment and insensitive film stock did not allow one to get close, to enter into the zone of the snake. It was these technical deficiencies that forced you to stay far from your subject and look at them through a long-focus lens.

You also had to speak an “Aesopian” film language, because you shot on film and you had very little of it.7 You could capture only little fragments of life: one reel lasted just two and a half minutes; then you had to reload. During these two and a half minutes something might have happened—or not, which happened more often. So you had a lot of limitations. You couldn’t buy film stock just anywhere, either, because its distribution was controlled by the state. Because of this, one had to come up with film plans in advance. The entire system of metaphorical cinema emerged out of this necessity to have to put together your film before you film it.

When small hand-held cameras of high quality came into play, it became clear that we had to change our approach to shooting and minimize the distances between people. But you don’t just determine the zone of the snake—the personal space of your subject; you have to understand how to enter this zone, how to come closer than they might desire, but without intruding or affecting their natural behavior.

This is at the core of our style: to live this life with your subject. He is starving, and you are starving with him. He participates in something scary for him, and you are scared, too. You live this life together with him—not just mentally, but physically as well. You become inseparable from your subject, but you have to still manage some distance, because if you become one, then observation becomes almost impossible.

Kostina: You’ve mentioned “the zone of the snake” a couple of times already. This term is central to your teaching and film practices. How did this concept develop?

Razbezhkina: After university I traveled a lot with biologists. Once, on some island, the expedition crew included a young guy who studied snakes. He was very offended that everybody was afraid of the snakes, and he wanted to teach us how to interact with them. I felt pity for him and said, “Go ahead, teach me!”

He took out a cobra, put it on the grass, and said, “Now, come closer to it.” I took a step … then, another one. It was lying on the ground. A third step, and the cobra spread its hood. He said, “Now, stop. This is the zone of the snake. It is its own space.”

Years later, when I began to make films, I realized that exactly the same thing happens with human beings. We all have our zone of the snake. Social groups have their own snake zones, cultural groups have theirs, and there is also one’s personal zone of the snake. When we shoot we need to be aware of this zone, of how close we can get to our subject and whether they let us enter their private space. One misunderstanding, one wrong move, and we lose them.

Now, from the very first class, we send our students into the streets to communicate with real people, to try to understand what their personal space is. But once you enter the zone of the snake, you don’t just watch someone’s life: you have to live it. Our students learned it so well that when they go to live in a tiny apartment with their subjects, after a couple of days nobody even notices them. They do not become invisible exactly, but they become a part of the space, like a piece of furniture, a spoon, a fork. It is very important to physically share space with your subjects. This physical experience is essential. You share their victories and miseries. You are them, but “them” with a camera.

Kostina: Your students work most of the time as one-man crews, but the film Winter, Go Away! was a collective effort. Ten graduates of your school filmed mass civil protests in Russia in 2012 and made a documentary about it. You acted as a producer on this project. How was the work on this film different from the films your students usually make?

Razbezhkina: The Novaya Gazeta newspaper called me and asked me to film a big protest rally on February 4, 2012. It was the first joint action of the political opposition. I called upon my students, and ten of them decided to join the project. It wasn’t clear how to film such a large-scale event. I proposed that each filmmaker choose a concrete person or a group of people they would film. When they finished with the rally they realized they wanted to film further. I suggested that they think of where their subjects would cross paths so that the film would not become a series of vignettes. They took large sheets of paper on which they drew the tactic of “the battle,” planning where different groups would stand, where they could possibly intersect, why they would intersect. Each filmmaker had two or three groups that he or she was filming. We couldn’t include everything in the film: we had thousands of hours of footage, and the film is eighty minutes long. We knew that the biggest challenge awaited us when we got to editing.

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Protestors in Moscow in Winter, Go Away!

Kostina: How did you organize postproduction with such a tremendous amount of footage?

Razbezhkina: When we finished shooting, there wasn’t much time left. We decided that the film had to be released before the presidential inauguration [since] there wasn’t any doubt as to who was going to become the president. We had two months left. I began to look for editors to work on the project. When potential editors learned how much footage they needed to process within two months, they all declined; they said this job would take at least a year, or a year and a half. We didn’t have that.

Then the students decided to do the editing themselves. And this was the only right decision. Six of the ten filmmakers who worked on the film moved into one apartment: their headquarters. There were three computers [so] three people worked while the other three slept, then they switched, and that’s how they worked almost twenty-four hours a day.

I came from time to time and they showed me different versions. I agreed with some, disagreed with others. But it has to be said that the main direction of the film was solely their decision. This is a very mature film made by very young people who had just begun filming. For our school and for Russian documentary cinema of those years, this was the first film about the political events of that time. Before, it was not clear what documentary could do in this political situation. Are you taking sides, or do you try to offer some complex vision of this chessboard? We chose the latter.

Kostina: Today, your students and graduates are largely avoiding political topics. The rare exceptions are the films of Zosya Rodkevich, Beata Bubenets, Masha Pavlova, and Askold Kurov. Why do you think that is the case?

Razbezhkina: I think that documentarians, especially our Russian documentarians, are very sensitive to the energy of their environment and their subjects. However, this energy of a historical moment, which can evoke an immediate response, is no longer present in Russia. The evil persists, and the situation is becoming more and more dramatic. The case of Kirill Serebrennikov and his colleagues is tragic; Oleg Sentsov is still in prison on absolutely ridiculous accusations.8 “We can do it to anyone regardless of whether they are guilty or not,” says the state. Cameras can capture the breaking of the law and dramatic changes inside the society, but to turn this material into art you need historical distance—of years, or decades. We have the historical footage; it is waiting for its time.

Kostina: In 2014, the book Dokumental’noye kino v perelomnyi god [Documentary Cinema in a Pivotal Year] was published. You were one of its contributors. Now that five years have passed, do you still see 2014 as a turning point for Russian documentary cinema?9

Razbezhkina: When I think of this now, I feel that the turning point happened a bit earlier than that. Do not take this as egotism, but I think the emergence of our school [in 2008] was already evidence of the turning point—not because we immediately started making great films, but because somehow we could sense the present reality, of a present that wants to speak to us, but we don’t know its language, so we don’t know what to do with it.

We know the language of past documentary films, but for me that doesn’t work today and doesn’t provide any answers. I pay great respect to the classics, but I think that art—especially documentary cinema—is what responds to the present. Even if we talk about the past. Everything else is a museum. Some exhibits in this museum might survive and become relevant to the present. But it would be better to offer your contemporaries [something] that the most perceptive ones of a new generation see and feel.

These most perceptive people have to become documentarians. It is they who can understand this new language of the present, which they need to hear in the noise of time. If the present hasn’t fully developed this new language yet, then you must use any language that you think can tell your story: stumble, mumble, use profane language, use vulgarities … anything. If you can talk about the present in this language, then you have to use it.

Let’s not use categories like “good film” or “bad film.” What is important is that a film speaks to its contemporaries in this language of the present. The reality has changed substantially in the twenty-first century. I have spent the greater part of my life in the twentieth century, and I feel these changes very deeply. I do not divide them into good or bad, for I think we have no right to judge reality. A documentarian has no right to do so. The reality is just there. It is unfolding according its own rules, which we need to grasp.

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Workers pose with an old photo of their factory in Optical Axis.

Kostina: Your students’ films are primarily about the present. Meanwhile, your own later projects—the fiction film Harvest Time [Vremya zhatvy, 2004] and the documentary Optical Axis [Opticheskaya os’, 2013]—look to the past as well. Why the difference?

Razbezhkina: Because I am from that time! My students do not belong to the twentieth century. Even if they were born then, they were too little when that century ended. My roots are in the twentieth century, but I am also very interested in what happens here and now. That’s why I want to understand what happened to the people who lived in that time and how they transitioned to the new era.

Kostina: In both of these films, old photographs act as an anchor for the story. In Harvest Time photographs bookend the narrative; in Optical Axis, at the center of each episode, there is a particular photographic image. Why this focus on photography?

Razbezhkina: I believe that photography is a great art form, the greatest of anything invented in the nineteenth century. The ability to capture people as they really are—not their artistic image, like painting. I love any photography, but especially amateur photography. I love “street photography,” pictures taken by common people on the go, their relatives, passers-by. I can look at such images for hours. I would spend most of my time studying them if I weren’t busy with other things. For me, these photographs are the strongest source of reality. When I arrive in New York City, the first thing I do is run to the Strand Bookstore to see if they have any new photography books.

Kostina: So, for you, it is not the contemporary small mobile digital camera but rather the “old” analog photographic camera and its static image that offer an acute sense of reality?

Razbezhkina: When you film, move, live your or someone else’s life, you need a lot of time to tell a person’s story. But when they are in front of your photo camera, several seconds turn out to be enough. Everything becomes meaningful, even an accidental background. It is important how the person stands, what she is wearing. Why is she next to a birch tree and in this weird pose? I can contemplate them for hours.

When you watch a film, in order to catch such details and think about them, you need to constantly go back, unless a director considers it’s important for the narrative and puts a special focus on it. Looking at a photograph, though, you focus on everything that is in front of you. Then you began to augment this picture in your mind. This can develop your thought and your imagination like nothing else.

Kostina: This is the tenth anniversary of your film school. It has been six years since your last film was released. Are you planning any film of your own in the near future?

Razbezhkina: I am not planning anything at the moment because the school occupies all of my time. I never intended to give others so much of my time, but right now I realize that I still have energy for the school but very little for myself. I am busy with the ideas and films of others. And there are always plenty of them: besides my current students, I already have two hundred graduates who are doing things. They never leave me without work. And because I watch not just their final cut, but two, three, four, five versions of every film, I am visually overwhelmed and it is hard to reserve any part of my head or keep it absolutely clear for my own projects. I still have a lot of ideas, but it is unlikely I will have time for them.

Notes

1. VGIK (The Russian State University of Cinematography) is the oldest film school in Russia.
2. Mikhail Ugarov was a Russian theater director, playwright, and educator. In 2002 he founded Teatr.doc—a documentary theater that sought to bring contemporary, often marginalized, subjects onto the stage along with their authentic language.
3. Andrei Zvyagintsev, quoted in Ksenia Rozhdestvenskaya, “Artdocfest Festival: The Best Film Is Milana—a Documentary Drama about a Girl from a Homeless Family,” Vedomosti, December 12, 2012, http://www.vedomosti.ru/lifestyle/articles/2011/12/12/vse_vovremya.
4. Oleg Sentsov is a Ukrainian filmmaker who was arrested by Russian security services in Crimea in May 2017 and sentenced to twenty years in prison for plotting terrorist attacks. The case is believed to have been politically motivated, and many Russian and international public figures spoke in support of Sentsov, demanding his release. In September 2019, Sentsov was finally released as part of a Russia-Ukraine prisoner swap.
5. Razbezhkina was fifteen years old when she traveled with her schoolmates to make this film.
6. These “first departments” ensured that employees had degrees corresponding to their occupations.
7. By “Aesopian” language, Razbezhkina means the highly metaphorical language often employed by earlier Soviet documentary cinema.
8. Kirill Serebrennikov is a well-known Russian theater and film director, the head of the Gogol Center, Russia’s leading avant-garde theater. In August 2017 he was accused of embezzlement of government funds and placed under house arrest, which was lifted only in April 2019. The case is widely considered to have been politically motivated.
9. Mikhail Ratgauz, ed., Dokumental’noye kino v perelomnyi god (Russia: Colta.ru and Heinrich Böll Foundation, 2014).

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