Marina Razbezhkina is a well-known Russian documentary filmmaker, educator, and founder of the largest independent documentary school in the country. Her very original approach to documentary, which combines intimate proximity to the protagonist with raw observational aesthetics, revolutionized the Russian film landscape and became the trademark of her school. Her students most often work as a one-person crew with a lightweight hand-held camera shadowing their 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. In this interview Razbezhkina talks about the beginnings of her career, explains the origins and the core of her filmmaking method, and discusses the changing role of documentary in the modern world.
There was a dustup last fall over an op-ed by Martin Scorsese in the New York Times and his earlier interview with Empire magazine.1 Controversy erupted after he compared the movie franchises based on Marvel comic books to theme parks, saying they weren’t cinema, that he’d never go watch them, that they are ruining cinema. Hardly surprising! With the exception of his own delightful Hugo (2011) and his tireless World Cinema Project rescues of global film history, Scorsese is known for his own brand: a cinematic realism of hard streets, hard men, and hard mob battlegrounds, always set in specific pasts (New York, Las Vegas, Atlantic City, Boston) and always etching the DNA of masculinity onto the screen with unfailingly precise craftsmanship.
It was the Year of Julia: in 2019 documentarian Julia Reichert received lifetime-achievement awards at the Full Frame and HotDocs festivals, was given the inaugural “Empowering Truth” award from Kartemquin Films, and saw a retrospective of her work presented at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (The International Documentary Association had already given her its 2018 award.) Meanwhile, her newest work, American Factory (2019)—made, as have been all her films in the last two decades, with Steven Bognar—is being championed for an Academy Award nomination, which would be Reichert’s fourth, and has been picked up by the Obamas’ new Higher Ground company.
On the morning of August 20, 2019, a man hijacked a bus with thirty-five passengers in Rio de Janeiro, causing a standoff with the police on the bridge that connects that city with its neighbor to the east, Niterói. As the hijacker threatened to burn down the bus with gasoline, helicopters hovered over the scene, and news channels recorded every move they could capture from both parties. A few hostages had been released by the time the hijacker was shot—and killed—by a sniper in the police force.
Historically, the study of the idea of black film has been a fraught, insightful, and generative enterprise—be it a matter of industrial capital and its delimitation of film practice in terms of profit, or the tendency to insist that the “black” of black film be only a biological determinant and never a formal proposition. In many ways, the black film as an object of study mirrors the history of America, the history of an idea of race. While the field continues to shift and change, and the study of black film becomes more common, it is often still tokenized by the industry. Discussion about black film and media is booming in academic programs (e.g., American Studies, Women and Gender Studies, English) and in Film and Media Studies, but it is doing so even more in nonacademic spaces, with blogs, podcasts, and think pieces proliferating at a rapid pace. We offer our manifesto, recognizing that film manifestos never whisper. Their messages envision political, aesthetic, and cultural possibilities. They demand and plot. They question and insist. What follows are expectations bundled as concerns for not only the renderings of black film to come but, as well, the thinking on blackness and cinema that we hope will thrive and inspire future discussions. We are devising new terms of engagement with current developments in mind.
News flash: recently, my faith in the power of film was restored. Paradoxically, this lift of spirits was occasioned by witnessing film’s power in cultures where it cannot be taken for granted, where threats and constraints make access fraught or impossible, where public assembly is more difficult yet ever more desirable than back home in the United States. As much as I love the joys and ease of streaming, the surprise of online discoveries, and the thrill of privilege when a DVD or Blu-ray lands unbidden in the mailbox, I am still a sucker for the theatrical experience and the transformative power of people assembling, all together in a hall, to share a screen.
Two special evenings took place at BAMPFA on November 17 and 18, 2016 featuring filmmaker Madeline Anderson and Orlando Bagwell, former Director of the documentary program at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, in conversation on Anderson’s groundbreaking career.
There are many Flaherty Film Seminars. The one I first encountered was the image of a staid, cliquish institution, as shared by Jonas Mekas in his Lost Lost Lost (1976). In one extended sequence, recorded in 1963, Mekas, Ken Jacobs, and several of their friends try to crash the week-long gathering in rural Vermont with the hopes of screening Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963) and Jacobs’s Blonde Cobra (1963). They’re turned away, but no bother: the group sleeps outside in their truck and film themselves rising with the sun.
One of the most significant aspects of the wave of protests and uprisings that began in Syria in 2011 was the use of the cell phone camera as a tool of documentation, political activism, and creative expression. With professional journalists and major news networks barred from entering the country, Syrian citizens took it upon themselves to record their own protests as well as the violent reactions they provoked from members and supporters of the Assad regime. In the first few months of protests (March–June 2011), these recordings were virtually the only images coming out of Syria. Gradually, however, exiled political activists smuggled cell phones, cameras, and laptops into Syria with the specific aim of documenting protests and violence.
By happy coincidence, Mexico in 2016 yielded two expert and moving documentaries on women, sex, and aging: María José Cuevas’s Bellas de noche (Beauties of the Night) and Maya Goded’s Plaza de la Soledad (Solitude Square). Both are first-time features by female directors. And both are attempts to reclaim previously neglected subjects: showgirls of the 1970s and sex workers in their seventies, respectively. Moreover, lengthy production processes in which the filmmakers cohabitated with their subjects have resulted in films that are clearly love letters to their protagonists.