Real Talkies

Real Talkies

Every cut is a lie. It’s never that way. Those two shots were never next to each other in time that way. But you’re telling a lie in order to tell the truth. –Wolf Koenig.

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IS “AT THE EDGE OF RUSSIA” a DOCUMENTARY?

June 29, 2011 , , , , , ,

Poster - At the edge of Russia

No border incursions ever occur at this or other northern Russian posts except occasional animal invaders.

SYNOPSIS: This is an absurdist look at Russian border guards on the frontier of northern Russia in one of the few remaining outposts on the Arctic Ocean.Young recruit Alexei gets flown in and is oriented to the ritualized ways of living and working in the permafrost.   He is schooled by the other soldiers, who in the Russian tradition quote poets, sing bawdy songs, play macho games like removing hands from wood about to be chopped, and share wisdom such as “When you start to freeze, hold your breath, and your body will start to function like it’s hooked up to a battery.” The film is a satire of nationalism and borders, packaged in a modest portrait of a few men performing their  absurd duty in this snow covered no man’s land, hundreds of miles from the nearest human settlement. Source: (various review sites)

When this film popped up on my twitter feeds, I marked in on my list of films to watch. I was intrigued by the idea of a filmmaker going to harsh terrains and was just interested in the logistics of the whole operations. The naive documentary filmmaker in me presumed he secured permission to actually go to an existing military outpost, filmed an observational documentary and edited it together as a film.

Marczak says he set out to make his film as a pure observational documentary. He traveled for three months searching for the ideal military base to shoot. “During this time I went through cadet training, spent two days in a snow cave, meet a lot of soldiers and visited various outposts,” he explains. He hired former soldiers to populate the outpost. He says there was no script, no set idea. “The protagonists were never tested on camera before the shoot. After one month, the base was fully operational and the life of the soldiers was set according to military standards, which the captain enforced very strongly.” Filming began on the helicopter flying in the cadet, who did not know that he was flying into this “sort of staged situation.” Shooting continued for two months. The film is “undoubtedly” a documentary, says Marczak. “The initial situation was helped, but everything that followed came from inside the people. I had no clue how the story would develop.” Marczak believes he has staged much less than many documentaries “which are never questioned about being documentaries. Source: www.documentary.org.

Yes all documentary films are subjective views of reality. But would Restrepo a film by Sebastian Junger and Late Tim Hetherington or Heather Courtney’s – “where the soldiers come” evoke the same response and emotion from the audience if it was revealed to them that Hetherington scouted Afghanistan found an outpost and then hired former soldiers and flew in a recruit and got the post functioning. Then he spent 9 months filming their “real” interaction. Does it not ridicule the whole situation? What about filmmakers like Tim Hetherington who put themselves in dangerous situations to get those stories to us or Heather Courtney who embedded with the soldiers on and off to film them.

Let me give you another example, director Micheal Winterbottom’s “In this world” ( the youtube trailer below) and “The road to Guantanamo” are fictionalized films about reality.

These films are shockingly real at times and do blur the lines of fiction and real but the filmmaker lets us the audience know upfront that this is not a documentary. That does not take away from our experience of the reality of what the two refugee Afghans go through.

Therefore films like “At the edge of Russia” do not sit well with me. If the situation was set up and non actors – former soldiers were “hired” and an actual cadet (even if he was oblivious to the actual situation) were all put in a situation and the camera filmed their interaction then call it what it is. Acknowledge it and reveal it to us, we would come and watch the film gladly and appreciate the nuances it brings in but please this is not the same as “Restrepo” or “Where the soldiers come from”, were the situations are real, the people are going through their real lives. Granted the filmmakers make subjective choices and force things to happen or wait for things to happen but it is still a very different story from “At the edge of Russia” And I believe it is necessary to communicate this difference.

Does the film reveal this in the credits? Are most of the audience oblivious to the set up? I just don’t get it.

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