When Women Call the Cuts: the Marina Razbezhkina School of Documentary Film

When Women Call the Cuts: the Marina Razbezhkina School of Documentary Film

Author
Daria Shembel
Abstract
Over the last decade, Russia has seen a significant upsurge in independent documentary film production. This phenomenon could be linked, on the one hand, to the Russian liberal opposition’s search for outlets of expression outside of state control, and, on the other hand, to the development of digital media environments that made it possible for independent documentaries to become a powerful rival to omnipresent state-run media. Marking its ten-year anniversary in 2018, the Marina Razbezhkina School of Documentary Film has become the major source behind unofficial documentary production in Russia and has produced over 100 critically acclaimed films. Notably, around two-thirds of the School’s student population are women – which, I suggest, affects the School’s aesthetic decisions and relates it to the discussion of a gendered perspective in their work. While there are many components to the School’s aesthetics, seemingly associated with the mode of observational realism and feminist culture, I argue that it is specifically the School’s approach to editing that points toward new perspectives for rethinking documentary in a changing digital environment and identifies the Razbezhkina School as a significant cultural and social phenomenon. The Razbezhkina School documentaries point at the directions of how a convergence of multiple documentaries on digital platforms can turn individual projects into a dynamic media event that challenges traditional approaches to editing and introduces the concept of participatory montage. Offering a close analysis of several documentaries made by female directors, I will explore the trajectory of the School’s editing approach that culminates in a single take in Beata Bubenets’s Polet puli / Flight of a Bullet (2017, Latvia, Russia) and invites an exploration of new collaborative mechanisms of documentary distribution and viewership. I will also examine the essential elements of the School’s aesthetics, the concept of horizontal filmmaking introduced by Razbezhkina, its relationship to gender, and its antecedents, as well as the social, political, and cultural modes it draws upon.
Keywords
Marina Razbezhkina; Beata Bubenec; The Razbezhkina School of Documentary Film; independent documentaries; documentary film in Russia; montage; editing; women’s cinema; digital platforms; collaborative documentary; single take

Introduction

On December 10, 2017, members of the Russian far-right, Kremlin-supported movement SERB crashed the screening of Beata Bubenets’s film Polet puli / Flight of a Bullet (2017, Latvia, Russia) shown as part of the main competition at the most influential Russian documentary festival, Artdocfest. Shot in a single take, Polet Puli deals with the covert war that Russia has conducted in Ukraine after the Crimea annexation, chronicling one and a half hours from a day of Ukraine’s volunteer military battalion, Aidar. Protesting the film’s pro-Ukrainian propaganda, the assailants sprayed pungent gas at the audience screaming that the “fascist, anti-Russian film won’t be screened”. The incident was covered extensively in the news and commented upon in social media1 and was an indirect confirmation of the fact that independent documentaries have once again become an important social and political phenomenon in Russia.

Beata Bubenets is a graduate of the Marina Razbezhkina School of Documentary Film, which will be the focus of this study. Polet puli employs many approaches of the Razbezhkina School’s documentaries, such as consistent use of vérité style through the rejection of written script and voiceover, foregrounding the intimate domain of experience, and selecting material that is absent from the official media representations. It is also made by a female filmmaker – which, I suggest, affects its stylistic decisions and relates it to the discussion of a gendered perspective in the work of the Razbezhkina School’s graduates. Notably, around two-thirds of the School’s student population are women who have received multiple awards at national and international film festivals. 2

Marking its ten-year anniversary in 2018, the Razbezhkina School represents a cohesive artistic movement that merits serious scrutiny. Since its foundation, the School has produced over 100 critically acclaimed documentaries3 and became the major source behind unofficial documentary production in Russia. The Marina Razbezhkina School emerged at the time when independent documentaries have been already marginalized by the state, and had no access to major TV channels or official theatre networks. It was also the time when the audience for independent films was dramatically expanding through online media outlets. The School made itself visible particularly through the YouTube screening of the collaborative film Zima, ukhodi / Winter, Go Away (2012, Russia) that documented 2011-2012 anti-Putin protests.4 These external circumstances of the migration to the Internet and working with extremely limited production budgets with no outside support in many ways shaped Razbezhkina’s method. Moreover, Marina Razbezhkina has managed to make award-winning documentaries under these conditions.

Part of the School’s success lies in Marina Razbezhkina’s teaching method that hinges upon a set of strict prescriptions concerning her students’ engagement with the subjects they are filming. This entails a specific mechanics of cinematic observation based on the filmmakers’ intimate and empathetic connection with their subject. This approach forms the core of, what Razbezhkina calls horizontal filmmaking. Challenging official, top-down documentaries propagating universal truths, horizontal cinema is committed to minute observation of private aspects of human life. While there are many components to horizontal documentary associated with the mode of observational realism, I suggest that it is specifically the School’s approach to editing that makes it a special cultural and social phenomenon.

The issue of editing in the Razbezhkina students’ work ironically comes forth through the absence or at least radical minimization of editing in a traditional post-production sense. Razbezhkina’s method treats editing in a wider context, which assumes not only editing after filming, but also editing during filming.5 Furthermore, I suggest that the Razbezhkina School’s documentaries present a case for expanding the notion of montage in today’s changing digital environment. These documentaries foreground the transition from sequential to spatial montage or from editing an individual work to editing between different films or their fragments within a digital media system.

Over the last decade, there has been an ever growing number of digital environments that merge multiple documentaries into a single space. This concerns the development of software for documentaries’ assemblage (Korsakow, Reconnect, Livingdocs, GoPop), as well as launching individual convergent projects (Filming Revolution, The Doc Collective, Storyscapes, Out of my Window, 18 Days in Egypt, New Atlantis). In fact, the first platforms bringing together The Razbezhkina School’s works––The Razbezhkina Studio’s Vimeo and ArtDoc Media channels have gathered a large internet community around their work. Moreover, the director of Artdocfest, Vitalii Manskii, plans to develop partnerships with online media outlets and launch an online platform that could expand beyond the festival’s 300,000 attendees.6

In addition to analyzing the constituents of Razbezhkina’s horizontal filmmaking, I will illustrate how the School’s oeuvres presage a new type of participatory and inter-film montage suitable for documentaries’ web migration in the current political environment. Focusing on women’s films in particular, I will offer a close reading of a few Razbezhkina School documentaries which illustrate the trajectory of the School’s approach to editing that culminated in Bubenets’s single take in Polet puli.

The School and its Antecedents

The Razbezhkina School of Documentary was founded in Moscow by the internationally acclaimed documentarian and producer Marina Razbezhkina in collaboration with the artistic director of the documentary theatre Teatr.Doc Mikhail Ugarov.7 It is a private school with no government funding. The School is actively involved in producing and disseminating its graduates’ projects at international and Russian documentary festivals and other media outlets.

With the exception of a few documentaries, Razbezhkina’s students tend to stay away from overtly controversial political topics. Their films rarely concern the issues of political prisoners, civil liberties, voters’ rights, or government crackdowns on opposition rallies. Using inexpensive technology, and, in most cases, financing their projects themselves, Razbezhkina students get out into the streets and record things happening around them, their relatives, their hometowns, and make films about “insignificant” people and trivial details of their daily lives. Very often their interest is turned to the social subaltern: the homeless, the poor, the disabled, the old, sexual minorities, and other social groups that are usually marginalized by official representations.

Certain techniques that Razbezhkina students use – shooting on location with synchronized sound, favouring a long take, minimizing editing, and, in general, eschewing techniques that expose a pro-filmic event – situate the school within the tradition of observational realism. Representing a huge body of work across various national histories (cinéma vérité, direct cinema, real’noe kino / real cinema,8 etc.), the observational cinema essentially provides intimate access to its subjects’ daily lives and observes them for an extended period of time. With roots in ethnographic filmmaking, the observational mode hinges on the idea of the director’s minimal intervention, replacing expositional or critical modes with descriptive ones and focusing on the private or micro-social rather than the public (Nichols 1991; MacDougall 1985). There is a general consensus among film historians that observational cinema emerged in the 1960s from the traditions of French cinéma vérité and American direct cinema with the works of Frederick Wiseman, Robert Drew, John Marshall, and Jean Rouch, among others (Grimshaw, Ravetz 2009; Spence, Navarro 2011; MacDougall 1985).9 A number of vérité filmmakers drew on the work of Dziga Vertov, who was rediscovered in the West in the 1960s (Kahana, Musser 2016: 432). The term “cinéma vérité” (truthful cinema) was invented by the French filmmaker Jean Rouch in reference to Vertov’s Kino-Pravda: “our sole intention was a homage to Dziga Vertov… who completely invented the kind of film we do today” (Rouch 1971: 135).

The Post-Soviet rebirth of the documentary genre using cinéma vérité style occurred in Russia in the early and mid-1990s. Later, a new term, “real’noe kino”, was assigned to it by the genre’s outspoken advocate Manskii. At that point, the first wave of glasnost’ expository documentaries by Iuris Podnieks, Stanislav Govorukhin, Herz Frank, Semion Aranovich, et al. on unearthing the painful Soviet past was waning, as was enthusiasm about political liberalization while the country’s economy continued to implode. On this point, Birgit Beumers makes a poignant observation:

After the collapse of the communist ideology, filmmakers rejected the demands to construct the future, but also abandoned the concept of the formerly underground, dissident filmmaker who defended spiritual values. Instead, they began to portray the reality that surrounded them without the ideological constraints hitherto imposed (Beumers 2005: 78).

The first notable post-perestroika films that used observational technique mostly dealt with detailing Russian poverty-stricken rural life, e.g., Aleksander Sokurov’s Maria (1988, USSR), Viktor Kosakovskii’s, Belovy (1993, Russia), Sergei Dvortsevoi’s Schast’e / Happiness (1995, Kazakhstan), and Vitaly Manskii’s Blagodat’ / Bliss (1996, Russia, Finland). Marina Razbezhkina also began her filmmaking career in the beginning of the 1990s chronicling the life of Russian villagers in Konets puti / The End of the Road (1991) and Dormition (1991). Of all observational traditions, “real’noe kino” can be seen as the most immediate antecedent of the Razbezhkina School method.

It should be stressed that the hallmarks of the observational documentary – the long take and minimal editorial intervention – were a completely new territory for the Russian documentary tradition, which had been using heavy contrasted montage and authoritative male voiceover “explaining” the visuals. Sergei Dvortsevoi’s 1998 Khlebnyi den’ / Bread Day (Russia) is a brilliant exemplar of “real’noe kino”. The director focused on a group of elderly Russians living in a remote village of the Leningradskaia region where bread supplies were cut off due to the poor conditions of rail lines. The director’s long uninterrupted takes reveal the pensioners’ weekly ordeal of meeting the bread train at the nearest station and then pushing it for hours with bare hands to their village. The film received multiple domestic and international awards.

“Real’noe kino” did not enjoy popularity in Russia for long. From the beginning of the 2000s, directors working in the style of observational realism began losing state support. At that time, the official media rhetoric gravitated toward glorifying past achievements rather than offering a critical approach to current events. In 2005, Vitaly Manskii, an outspoken advocate of observational cinema, published a manifesto on the nature of real cinema (Mansky 2005a). While the manifesto set a few technical prescriptions, such as a full abandonment of the script and staged scenes and replacement of voiceover with intertitles, its main concern was to stay committed to social reality as opposed to a utopian vision offered by the state-run media.

For almost two decades now, independent documentaries have been pushed to the margins by the state’s ongoing media control. This year, it seems, they are losing their only remaining outlet, the independent documentary festivals. After the screening of controversial Beata Bubenets’ Polet puli, Artdocfest had to move to Latvia. In the summer of 2018, a new, extremely restrictive bill regarding independent film screenings was signed by President Putin. Under this legislation, in addition to a complex process of obtaining screening license, festivals now will have to satisfy a number of new conditions for film screenings: having a professional jury, screening films that are no more than one year old, and being added to a government-approved list of qualifying festivals.10 It should be understood that the latter requirement gives leeway to the Ministry of Culture to shut down virtually any festival. Many festival organizers commented that even the professional jury clause is restrictive enough to force many projects out of business simply because of the lack of budget for a jury. 11

Razbezhkina’s graduates are still able to work in this hostile environment due to several reasons: besides decreases in production cost prompted by new technology and online distribution opportunities, Razbezhkina students work under very specific guidance prompted by Marina Razbezhkina’s horizontal cinema. In what follows, I will explore her approach to documentary filmmaking, focusing on editing as its major constituent.

Horizontal Cinema and the School’s Approach to Editing.

The Razbezhkina School offers a 14-month program open for adults of all ages who are interested in doing documentary work.12 The program provides students with essential training in documentary production, emphasizing hands-on learning with industry professionals. During my long conversation with Marina Razbezhkina about her pedagogical approach to editing, she stated that their editing style stems from their overall approach to filming and is shaped mostly by the events in the lives of their subjects.

The most important thing for us is to observe the subject’s life and their existential state. This assumes a specific style of shooting, which, in its turn, suggests different approach to editing. Our editing style is very different from the traditional, classical montage. We do not do close-ups, we do not splice together long and medium shots. We are shooting a movement, a person in motion. They might freeze, but the camera does not break them up into small parts. Editing happens within the scene. Those are cuts that life itself suggests. Your camera must see a montage sequence in life (Razbezhkina 2018).

Razbezhkina treats montage in a wider sense, speaking of editing not only in terms of the post-production stage – the slicing of shots, but in terms of camera rearrangements during shooting. This analytical use of camera or montage during filming relies on activating the “act of seeing”. “Enabling her students’ vision” is the main objective of Razbezhkina’s teaching practice. She always insists that a documentary filmmaker must first learn how to see reality (umet’ razgliadyvat’ real’nost’) (Razbezhkina 2011).

First and foremost, the act of seeing entails disengaging from industry-established canons. Razbezhkina has a special mistrust of VGIK’s (State Film Institute) education, pointing out that they have not changed their film program almost since the institute was established, and that their young graduates are incapable of relating to contemporary reality (ibid.). Razbezhkina’s method comes from a decidedly anti-logocentric position: she promotes experienced-based learning and bans textbooks on film production. In many ways her teaching practice aligns with an approach to observational technique prevalent in anthropological visual methods. The observational style of filmmaking in the West has been tightly associated with visual anthropology and ethnography. Many new visual methods have come into being to distance observational cinema from the original empiricist approach of recording the subject. The initial commitment to the fly-on-the-wall perspective underwent major changes with regard to foregrounding the relationships between the filmmaker and the subjects. For example, David MacDougall (1985) advocated for a more empathetic, reflexive, and engaged role for the filmmaker, arguing that “by entering actively into the world of his subjects, he can provoke a greater flow of information about them” (MacDougall 1985: 283). The latest developments in the genre include an emphasis on the collaborative practices between observer and observed, approached through the philosophy of phenomenology, space and place, practice, and the senses and movement (Pink 2012: 5).

It is no coincidence that anthropology is one of the main disciplines taught in the Razbezhkina School. Razbezhkina’s interest in ethnography and anthropology predated her career as a filmmaker. She has undertaken many expeditions to the Volga and the Russian North, during which she lived in small ethnic groups, learning about their life and disappearing trades.13

Furthermore, the act of seeing derives from Razbezhkina’s understanding of documentary as an act of intimate and empathetic connection between the filmmaker and the subject. One of the major tenets of her method, “the zone of the snake”, is based particularly on establishing physical proximity between the director and the social actor. Like snakes, which might attack when someone comes too close, subjects need a certain distance from the camera to feel comfortable when being filmed. In order to approach the subject as close as possible without unnerving them, the students must learn how to gauge each subject’s “zone of the snake”.

It is very important where the director is situated – outside of the zone of the snake, or inside it. This affects the entire film. All documentarians of my generation worked outside the zone. They merely observed, or, worse, made it metaphorical. If a person had a courage to get inside the "snake zone", the most interesting things begin: he comes very close to the subject, he brings the camera straight to their eyes, he becomes part of the event, which is very important. He is not just an observer, but he is also a participant in an event called “the life of the subject” (Razbezhkina 2010).

Developing an intimate personal relationship with the subject is the first step towards mastering the zone of the snake, and Razbezhkina’s students are committed to living with their subjects for weeks and months. The concept entails the specific mechanics of participant observation and cultivation of embodied vision, which teaches how to attend to the subjects in ways that presuppose multiple instruments of vision beyond just looking. Razbezhkina teaches her students to learn to understand the biology of their subjects, to develop skills in positioning themselves with regard to them, and to accomplish a certain visceral connection with them. She always emphasizes that camera should be an extension of one’s body (Razbezhkina 2012a). This approach reverberates with Cristina Grasseni’s concept of “skilled vision”, which refers to the social and the physical dimensions of constructing meaningful visual knowledge. According to Grasseni, “skilled visions are embedded in multi-sensory practices, where look is coordinated with skilled movement, with rapidly changing points of view, or with other senses such as touch” (Grasseni 2007: 4).

Razbezhkina states that Russian culture on the whole is inappropriately preoccupied with universal values and doctrines rather than with concrete identities and individual experiences:

Culture in general, and Russian culture in particular, is always structured vertically, on the system of oppositions: good vs evil, the great vs the bad, God vs devil and so on. Everything that is located on the horizontal plane ––the details of our physical life, everyday life–– they are in the service of this vertical paradigm, as if they have no significance on its own. We remove this vertical plane and try to redirect the camera and their vision so that they can see the horizontal space around them (Razbezhkina 2012b).

In opposition to this tendency, Razbezhkina offers horizontal cinema, based on meticulous participatory observation of the subject empowered by the director’s skilled vision and editing within a scene.

Razbezhkina prescribes extremely rigid aesthetic constraints to her students, which mostly stem from achieving shared experiences between the director and the subject. She states that the violation of some of the rules might lead to expulsion from the school (Razbezhkina 2017). Razbezhkina bans hidden cameras because of her conviction that cameras should never be directed at an unsuspecting subject. She forbids the use of zoom, as adjusting the lens focal length for close-ups allows filming the subject from a comfortable distance without entering “the zone of the snake”. The use of tripods is also not allowed because it interferes with establishing a kinetic contact with the subject through the camera’s direct connection to the filmmaker’s body. Razbezhkina insists on avoiding extradiegetic music, which, in her opinion, interferes with the students’ understanding of visual rhythm (Razbezhkina 2012а). 14

One of the earlier works of the Marina Razbezhkina School, Milana (Madina Mustafina, 2011, Kazakhstan) constitutes a major exemplar of Razbezhkina’s method. The film is about a seven-year-old girl who lives in the woods with her homeless, alcoholic parents. Despite its low budget and minimal technical resources, the film immediately earned a high profile and received top honours at the largest Russian festivals, Artdocfest (Grand Prix) and Lavr (Best Debut Film). Mustafina spent three weeks with the family documenting their daily routine. The film is marked by Mustafina’s consistent and strict adherence to Razbezhkina’s prescriptions.

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Frame grab from Milana (2011).

Milana also illustrates well Razbezhkina’s approach to editing. The film opens with an uninterrupted take that lasts for almost 10 minutes. Mustafina’s camera follows two little girls walking with determination through a half-urban, half-rural area of an unidentified liminality of an unidentified city. Three minutes into the take, we learn that they are heading down to Milana’s “apartment” – an outside space that her family set up in the bushes on the outskirts of the city.

Mustafina’s montage essentially consists of editing-during-filming and relies more on analytical camera movements that track the experiences of the characters within a given scene rather than on conventional arranging of shots. The length of almost every shot in the film is determined by the scene’s duration. Although the adults’ daily activities are mostly limited to heavy drinking, rambling obscenities, fighting and occasionally venturing out to steal scrap metal, the experiences of the child become the focus of Mustafina’s documentary. Every shot or scene conveys Milana’s emotional state: she wants to play, she can see that her family does not have a home, or how her parents mercilessly fight with each other. She understands how unbearable the reality is for them, and how they still have a faded hope for a home.

Mustafina definitely succeeded in entering the “zone of the snake” and observed the family with a striking physical proximity, recording notoriously awkward situations, including bouts of drunken rambling and fights, as well as their shocking living conditions. She has learnt to attend to the rhythms and flow of her subjects’ actions and fully immersed herself in their surroundings. Mustafina’s careful observation of her subjects allowed her to discern the emotional texture of the relationship between Milana and her mother, which would otherwise remain unseen. Despite the outrageous, debilitating behaviour of the adults around Milana, the girl does not look unhappy. We see a vivacious child exploring everything around her in the woods. She doesn’t seem to mind the obscenities and insults her drunk mother directs at her. Mustafina’s “skilled vision” reveals a strong emotional bond between the two. The film’s aesthetics and its intense effect of presence were formative for many graduates of the Razbezhkina School.

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Frame grab from Milana (2011).

The Method Becomes Recognizable

When ten students of Marina Razbezhkina (among them Madina Mustafina) went to the streets in 2012 to document what proved to be the largest protest actions witnessed in the capital since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the result was more than 1,000 hours of video that was edited into an 80-minute documentary, Zima, ukhodi / Winter, Go Away (2012, Russia). Their focus shifts from the public to the private, recording crackdown on the protests, conversations quickly degenerating into shouting obscenities, actionist art, security throwing Pussy Riot members out of the Cathedral, and a young man painting Putin with his head dipped in red paint. Cameras followed notable opposition members, such as Boris Nemtsov, Alexei Navalnyi, Ilia Iashin, and Evgenia Albats, as well as students, sometimes interested more in personalities than politics. One camera follows a young protester to his modest apartment in Moscow where he lives with his mother and grandmother. He builds stilts for the protests and tests them in his tiny apartment, while his mother gets nervous that he is going to knock over crystal in the living room.

If ten different filmmakers’ work could be so seamlessly edited together, it emphasizes the fact that they were working under the same set of aesthetic prescriptions and therefore asserts the efficiency of Razbezhkina’s method. The same year, another collaborative documentary Srok / The Term (2012, Russia) (in which many Razbezhkina students were involved, observing the method) was produced. Its individual episodes or mini-films were immediately aired on YouTube.15 They created a voluminous picture of the digital-age protest movement in Russia. Notably, the online audience of some of these episodes reached up to one million users, substantially exceeding the number of views of edited versions of both documentaries.

To teach her students to create an immersive story that moves forward through time and space, Razbezhkina’s school offers a course “The Construction of Reality” (Razbezhkina 2013a). She is convinced that the best way to teach editing is through music. Thus, instead of hiring lecturers on film editing, the School recruits composers who teach courses on the structure of musical composition and the history of rhythm. For example, acclaimed Russian composer Alexander Manotskov teaches Razbezhkina’s students the laws of harmony and melody, and how they relate to the rhythmic structure of opera. At the end of the course, students (who have no prior musical education) are asked to write their own operas, which, according to Razbezhkina, helps them to think critically about the rhythmic composition of film (Razbezhkina 2018).

Dina Barinova’s Proshchenyi den’ / Shrove Sunday (2013, Russia) stands out as an important development in the school’s approach to editing and illustrates a sort of intermediate stage in its transitioning to single take in Bubenets’s Polet puli. The structure of the film is markedly laconic, consisting of several scenes shot in long takes. The film opens with an uninterrupted five-minute take, in which we see two men slowly moving around a small room and singing. Their synchronized humming and the choreography of their movements produce an immersive soundscape that appeals to precognitive perceptions and speaks to the archaic nature of cinema. The movements of these men are not choreographed but naturally synced through a co-dependent relationship. They are brothers who are both blind and mentally handicapped. Their sister Shura, who is blind herself, takes care of them.

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Frame grab from Shrove Sunday (2013).

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Frame grab from Shrove Sunday (2013).

In Proshchenyi den’, the ordinary everyday of the blind family succumbs to the oneiric aesthetic, which radically minimizes the editing. The external montage is almost fully dismissed in favour of action within the shot. One day from the life of this blind family is shown to us through a series of painterly-like tableaux in which the scenes are static but full of emotional dynamism. This creates a peculiar cinematic form that does not depend on the continuous flow of shots but underscores the individual value of each shot, which the viewer contemplates as a painting. Barinova’s film is also representative of Razbezhkina’s cultivation of multi-sensory knowledge as she renders the experiences of people who do not rely on vision as their primary perception mode. The characters’ sonic alertness creates a distinctive sound aesthetic in the film. In the scene where Shura is inching her way to the grocery store on a dilapidated village road covered with potholes and puddles, the soundtrack consists of the detailed sounds of the physical movements of bodies and objects. The sounds of cars honking and crunch of boots walking on snow dominate in this scene as Shura manoeuvres her way around the passing cars, which are not particularly sympathetic to her disability.

Proshchenyi den’ draws heavily on the structure of a musical composition with its tripartite model of exposition, development, and recapitulation. The film ends with a long shot of three siblings singing the prayer, which immediately sends us back to the soundscape of the film’s opening. The film’s emotional depth and sensory enticement of visual tableaux also underlie a special operatic disposition about Barinova’s work.

Feminist Theory and Women’s Cinema: Razbezhkina on Gender and the Family Trope

Razbezhkina’s cultivation of a special type of vision that goes beyond seeing and emphasizes embodied knowledge certainly channels the feminist treatment of the body as a female realm and multisensory knowledge-making processes as an allegory for feminist versions of objectivity. As Donna Haraway states, “I am arguing for the view from a body, always a complex, contradictory, structuring, and structured body, versus the view from above, from nowhere, from simplicity. … [Feminists] seek not the knowledges ruled by phallogocentrism (nostalgia for the presence of one true Word) and disembodied vision” (Haraway 1988: 589). In this sense, Razbezhkina’s revolt against authority through revision of the major cinema institutions, e.g., VGIK, is telling. Furthermore, the concept of horizontal cinema she offers, as the strategy to escape cultural and socio-political dichotomies, resonates with the feminist critique of foregrounding the generalized other at the expense of the concrete and individual in national narratives. As argued in feminist scholarship, the generalized other does not take into account multiple viewpoints, in particular ignoring the realities of women’s experiences and discarding the significance of domestic and private spheres within which women’s lives unfold (see Benhabib 1985). Finally, Razbezhkina’s enabling students’ vision and cultivation of a special attention to their subjects also purports to challenge and rethink social otherness.

It seems to me that the main function of art is the expansion of human vision, so that everyone can consider the other person in a wider perspective, and not judging them if they are different; so that the concept of "otherness” disappeared. It seems to me that the function of art is very important in achieving this. It can remove the "alien" in any plane: social, political, etc. There is no "other", there is a person with whom you want or you can negotiate. This function develops imagination and tells about the pain of the other, about their drama, and you accept them as your own pain and your own drama (Razbezhkina 2016b).

Razbezhkina’s linking minority representation to horizontal cinema clearly indicates the feminist perspective of unsettling the difference discourse through embodied observation and participation.

Despite a certain affinity with feminist principles, Razbezhkina often makes statements that make her sound unsympathetic to gender constructions: “I hope my cinema does not have any specific gender markers. It seems to me that it is generally not right to make gender cinema” (Razbezhkina 2013b). This simultaneous subversion of the patriarchal discourse and a failure to position themselves as feminists or even consider feminism as “relevant” has been an old paradox of Russian women. It is not uncommon to encounter hostility to feminism from female Russian authors and academics who suggest that gender problems do not exist in Russia; that feminism is a western implant; and that they live in a society where women dominate as a result of the Soviet regime destroying the patriarchal order (Temkina, Zdravomyslova 2014: 260).

Razbezhkina’s position on gender prompts a few questions: Would Razbezhkina’s method be any different if it were designed by a man? Do documentaries made by female students of the Razbezhkina school have a characteristic aesthetic? Is there anything in contemporary observational realism documentaries made by male auteurs, such as Manskii, Dvortsevoi, Kossakovskii, or Kostomarov, that suggests that they are made by men?

To have a discussion on gender in the Razbezhkina School’s works, it is important to revisit a difference between women’s cinema and a feminist perspective. Judith Mayne argues in “The Woman at the Keyhole” that while certainly feminist theory is informed by women’s cinema practice, it is not right to conflate the works of women filmmakers with the theory of feminist aesthetics. She stressed that one of the problems in contemporary feminist criticism is the inability to account for works that do not fit neatly within the parameters of theory (Mayne 1990: 7).

In the Razbezhkina School, women directors never refer to their work as feminist, nor are their films exclusively about female subjects or made for female viewers. And yet there is a certain approach that makes gender come forth in their films, and, I suggest, it concerns foregrounding the trope of family relationship in their aesthetics. Many of their films directly concern the subject of family, e.g., Milana (Madina Mustafina, 2011), Mama (Lidia Sheinin, 2013), Malen’kii prints / Little Prince (Ol’ga Privolnova, 2015), and Proshchenyi den’/ Shrove Sunday (Dina Barinova, 2013). In other films (as in Poslednii limuzin / The Last Limousine), the plots and themes – e.g., protests, war zones, factories, or any other work space – are associated with the private sphere and enact familial intimacies. The filmmakers themselves develop strong intimacy with their subjects when they literally move in with them, becoming part of their families. In an interview to the Meduza news website about Ukrainian battalion Aidar, Beata Bubenec said: “At that time, they were more like my family” (Bubenets 2017).

In feminist scholarship, the trope of family is usually treated negatively, as a tool for writing national histories based on social hierarchy with unity of interests. Anne McClintock argues that family functions as a site for sanctioning the social subordination of women within the domestic sphere (see McClintock 1993). Razbezhkina students’ work suggests a shift in this critique, making family the locus of manifold activities and non-hierarchical relationships with a potential for inclusion of the Other.

Another documentary made by a female graduate of the School, Olga Privolnova, Zviszhi (2014, Russia), places a carnivalesque female character at the centre of the story. The film’s focus on the ordinary and its extensive use of skilled long takes further illustrate Razbezhkina School’s horizontal cinema and its editing principles. Privolnova’s long takes containing uninterrupted passages of the characters’ behavior allow for nuanced insights into the description of contemporary rural lifestyle and the exploration of complex class interactions.

The filming of Zviszhi was accidental. Razbezhkina’s studio was recruited to film at Archstoianie, the annual festival of land art reminiscent of Burning Man that takes place at Nikola Lenivets, a small village in the Kaluga region, about a hundred miles away from Moscow. Ol’ga Privolnova, one of Razbezhkina’s crew members, defected to the neighbouring town of Zviszhi to explore. The result is a powerful and gripping immersion into the rural life of contemporary Russia.

In the opening scene, a woman introduces herself to the camera by discussing fashion and the virtues of her personality (“I love nylon dress, nylon sarafan. First of all, I do not work, I sit at home, I don’t drink a single gram. Honest, kind person”). She is in her 60s and wears an above-the-knee dress and a saucy shoulder-padded blouse – her own idea of chic, possibly based on a certain female look from the Soviet movies of the 1970s. Her name is Natasha, but she dubs herself kukolka – a doll. At the beginning of the film, we see slow and traditional for observational realism long takes as Natasha-kukolka takes camera on a tour of her village.