Slave Inside Us. An interview with Russian filmmaker Vitaly Mansky about Motherland or Death

In Motherland or Death you don't add to the uncritical fascination with the Island of Freedom but you don't talk to dissidents either. You avoid siding with any of these typical images of contemporary Cuba. The film is rather a portrait of decay and rupture... An interview with Vitaly Mansky on Russian documentary world by Hana Rezkova (IDF).

In Motherland or Death you don't add to the uncritical fascination with the Island of Freedom but you don't talk to dissidents either. You avoid siding with any of these typical images of contemporary Cuba. The film is rather a portrait of decay and rupture...

I believe that the less clear signals you supply for perception, the more complex and multilayered the resulting film. The title comes from the slogan of the Cuban Revolution - Patria o muerte. The film is about a generation of people who lived well before the revolution and then fifty more years following this slogan. But now as they move closer to death, the affirmative cry suddenly falls apart and gets twisted into Death or Motherland.

I travelled to Cuba without any clear concept of the subject, protagonists or storyline. But I was sure that I was interested in the state Cuba is in right now. I had a strong feeling that Cuba has been going through some very crucial changes, that it has found itself on tectonic boundaries. It's essential for a documentary film that the filmmaker is able find a powerful energy field that later finds its way into his film. Even if you claim to always keep distance, this kind of energy and the spirit of the environment and situations will always get imprinted in the essence of the film. One has to have the right kind of intuition, you must know when to open up the film. There are fields, places and environments that seem to be overflowing with something interesting but in fact they've long lost their energy. While there still might be external signs of attractiveness, they're bloodless. They're merely cold lava fields on a dormant volcano. This living energy is to me the most precious thing about documentary films and that's why I'll never abandon documentary film.

Back to Motherland or Death. The film opens with two completely antagonistic scenes and then, gradually, it is allowed to take on a more specific shape...

I wonder if the opening scenes left you curious to see more..? Introduction is seduction, it's an invitation without any details or information. You set out on a journey with people and guide them along. But it's not just about methods of seduction. I don't want to give direct answers or provide information. As soon as you provide information at any stage of this journey, as soon as you spoil the magic trick and solve the puzzle, the viewer will abandon you and any connection is blown. The viewer goes on with his ready-made answer and no longer needs the film. The film then runs along on its own. Maybe that's what sets documentary film apart from fiction. With a feature film, you know all the answers, you know the ending. If a fiction film director doesn't immediately unveil the answers, he plays a certain game with the audiences. It's completely different in documentary film. Your sincerity is genuine because you undertake this journey as a guide but, like the viewer, you see everything for the first time, discovering everything on the go.

Any filmmaker would agree with this on a general existential level. How would you translate it to specific examples?

I've read a number of the projects here [The interview was made at IDF's Ex Oriente Film, Ed. Note] and I can see films in most of them. Not films per se, but the message they want to convey. The filmmakers are very self-confident in writing, which is a valuable quality but it needs to be kept in check with a sufficient amount of doubt. The budgets are very self-confident, too, the lowest one is twenty thousand euros. In 1990 I was shooting a feature film in German's studio. And Alexei German, a famous, well-respected filmmaker, would always say that a filmmaker must be hungry. Back then I was making five times less than my assistants and I really was hungry. Then as time went I worked my way up some but I also realized that a filmmaker really should be hungry. And he should keep that in mind when drafting a budget. Viktor Kossakovsky who is a friend of mine has spent four years trying to get one million euros for his film. I told him that his first film was also his best and that one cost some USD 20,000. There needs to be passion behind every film. It's like falling in love. It's different from spending long years with a wife. There must be passion when you're making a film. We mustn't age ahead. Before we tackle global issues like international conflicts and global warming, we should look at ourselves to see whether there's something to be discovered. Maybe, maybe not. But that's something you never know in advance.

You started with a 35 mm camera. How do you adapt to new technology? How does it affect your films?

I started shooting on a 35 mm camera when there were no video cameras. Well, they did exist but you couldn't call it a camera. Shooting on film was always a process of loss for me. Life and events came to life before and after the shoot. And moments when shooting really made contact with life were very rare. The connection between technological developments and the development of film language is a well-known fact. The 16 mm camera was related to cinéma verité. There are guards in front of our honourable mausoleum on Red Square. I always liked to watch them. Their legs shoot up into the air like missiles. I also watch their drills and I found out that they attach 8 kg weights around their legs. And once they are on duty at the mausoleum, the weights are gone and their legs feel extremely light. I think that we should all put 8 kg weights on our cell phones and see what we can shoot. And only once you really want to make a film, you would be able to take the weights off. Otherwise our legs might move about in all directions and the film will be incomprehensible. But nobody likes to put weights on their cell phones these days.

You shot Motherland or Death using a still camera.

Yes, for example, one of the opening scenes. A long camera dolly shot in the street. We were shooting it for three days before I found just the right moment when the car goes in a good angle and when the dog runs across. I would never be able to do this with a 35 mm camera because I'd use up 10 - 20 rolls. But I still do have that phantom feeling of the film buzzing inside the camera and the magic moment as you are about to press the shutter.

Europe has been going through some major changes with regard to broadcasters, modes of distribution, and funding. Russia still seems to be a very much impenetrable territory. How would you describe the current situation?

It was at a moment when documentary cinema all but disappeared from television. Obviously, there was no documentary film in cinema release. And in DVD shops, the stand with documentary cinema sold things like How to Look After Pets, How to Practice Yoga and so on. We had a situation where all leading documentary filmmakers in Russia either worked abroad or they went into feature cinema and there was basically no new Russian documentary films.

Did you establish your festival Artdokfest in reaction to this situation?

Yes, it was created as a sort of opposition to what existed on television. I know that in Europe, we all try to find a common language with television, we are ready to make compromises, at least we have some kind of a dialogue. But by 2005 in Russia, we realised that we could have no dialogue with Russian television, this dialogue was over. By 2005, Russian stations basically defined what they considered documentary cinema and they made no exceptions, so it was against this background that we created our festival. And perhaps it is thanks to this background that at the moment the festival appeared it created quite a lot of interest in what we could call the enlightened viewer. We were quite pleasantly surprised by the interest we generated, because our festival lasts eight days, we have simultaneous screenings in five cinemas and one of these cinemas seats 650 viewers and films are shown all day and in the evenings as well. Each year, we show twenty one films, and so in the five years we've shown over a hundred films and out of the hundred films, only two were shown on Russian television. Basically, we function in a sort of opposition to television. Our slogan is This is something you won't see on television, which generates quite a lot of interest in viewers.

This text was first published in October 2011 in IDF's Industry Reel #3. On October 29, 2011, Mr Manskiy held a master class as part of our Industry Programme in Jihlava.

The article was cut by the DAFilms. To read a full version of the interview, please visit the website of the Institute of Documentary Film.


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