Copyright © 1997. All Rights Reserved.
Snapshots of a city
Regina filmmaker documents the rarely seen sights of Moscow
Preview by D. Christensen
Directed by Robin Schlaht.
September 26 - 28
Even though Canada likes to pride itself on its documentary film heritage, the pickings have been woefully slim over the last decade or so. Because they're usually the most timid organization in the moviemaking chain, and because they don't know how to market documentary films, Canadian theatrical distributors usually pass on them, deciding in advance that there is no audience. Supposedly, television has stepped in to fill this gap. With the proliferation of new specialty channels, network lap-dogs like to wag their tails about the fact that Canadians can see more documentaries than ever before. But with very few exceptions, what Canadians are seeing are cookie-cutter programs that are formally and thematically uninspired. Think wall-to-wall narration, interviews with "experts" and a heavy reliance on a six o'clock news style esthetic and you have a general idea of the sorry state of documentary film in this country.
"It's absolutely about what is considered marketable in Canada," says Robin Schlaht, a Regina-based filmmaker in town to present his latest documentary film, the enchanting Moscow Summer. "Documentary filmmaking is so much about appeasing those people with veto power - the distributors, broadcasters, commissioning editors and so on. And it's very little about encouraging audiences to broaden their horizons.
"I have this feeling that even the most conventional mainstream audiences are eager for something new and are willing to take a journey with you. But broadcasters and distributors are very fearful of that. They only want to do what has been done before."
As a Canadian documentary goes, Moscow Summer has definitely not been done before, although its antecedents include such films as Walter Ruttman's 1927 Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, Chris Marker's 1962 film on a summer in Paris, Le Joli Mai, and even more recent fare like Baraka and Koyaanisqatsi.
But Moscow Summer, with its radiant black-and-white cinematography and outright confidence in its artistic priorities, doesn't really square with the social-realist documentary tradition in Canada. Thanks to the NFB thinking that informs most of it, this is a heritage that believes art is completely irreconcilable with documentary's task of historical representation. It's the old truth vs. beauty debate, the argument being that an exquisite image could not be realized except at the cost of its closeness to reality.
Moscow Summer is far closer to a European sense of documentary film, which has never bought into the idea that truth and beauty exist in inverse proportion to one another. Schlaht has crafted a film that is as removed from a journalistic think piece as possible and yet he's possibly gotten closer to a sense of the "real" Moscow than any news-based film could. With its extended and unedited interviews with citizens interposed with lyrical, slow motion sequences of the city itself, Moscow Summer creates a rich and nuanced portrait of Moscow that is radically different from anything we see on the news.
"I knew when I was working on my last film, Sons and Daughters, that I wanted to make a city portrait film. So I considered London and Paris, Barcelona, Jerusalem and Mexico City, but nothing seemed to really click somehow," says Schlaht. But when he was in Israel, Schlaht spent time with some recent immigrants from Moscow, listening to their stories, watching their home movies and basically, becoming more and more interested in the city they'd left behind.
"I was surprised at how different Moscow was from what I had been led to believe," he says. "When you watch home movies, you're seeing real people at birthday parties, not the six o'clock news images of politicians and the gray masses in the street."
So Schlaht flew to Moscow and within hours of arriving knew that it would be the subject of his next film. "I found the people very forthcoming and very open. They were very passionate about their beliefs, whether political or not, and had such an incredibly intense devotion to things like music and literature that it seemed positively alien compared to our culture."
Films about cities tend to rely heavily on location shots to establish a feeling for the place - New York by a shot of Times Square, Paris by a shot of the Eiffel Tower. Schlaht's film gains by not playing travelogue. There are very few easily recognizable sites in his film and those that are familiar have been rendered new by filtering them through an artistic sensibility. Schlaht wandered the streets of the city looking for filmic opportunities and in doing so was able to respond to curious details and fortuitous juxtapositions and get a feel for the quirkiness of life on Moscow streets. It's not surprising that Schlaht used to be a newspaper photographer because a photographer's street sense shows up in nearly every frame of Moscow Summer. In fact, the film is almost closer to a set of photographs than a movie. Filmed at regular speed, Schlaht's images would get buried, their uniqueness lost amongst the complex flow of action. But slowed down, they make for a vivid look at everyday human experiences.
"With the slow motion, I hope that I'm creating a frame for something the audience can pay attention to, in much the same way that a person in a gallery looking at a painting participates with that image," says Schlaht. "For me, the ideal situation would be to push a button and then friends of mine or my audience could then stand beside me and look at the scene I see in Moscow, but I can't do that. So what I do instead is try to capture what I am experiencing at the time and deliver it in the form of a film to the audience.
Ruttman filmed Berlin at the tail end of the Weimar period, Marker captured Paris in the midst of the Algerian war and now Schlaht has profiled Moscow during the pivotal summer of Russia's first presidential elections. It would seem that the street tradition, whether photography or film, has the greatest currency and activity in societies that are unstable and undergoing conflict between old and new. Schlaht has filmed a Moscow of Orthodox weddings, of communists and ultra-nationalists arguing on the street corner, and of children playing at war. He has listened to a young man describing his elaborate strategy of feigning madness in order to avoid the draft, to a magazine vendor lamenting the new "freedom to be unkind," and to two little girls reciting Pushkin from memory. And from all of this, he has created a truly unique documentary that conveys both ideas and feelings in an artful way. Something quite precious in these esthetically straight-jacketed times.
Robin Schlaht will be in attendance at all the screenings at the Uptown Screen.
Back To Main Contents
Back To This Issue Table of Contents