We are at the 34th edition of Warsaw Film Festival with Igor Minaiev, the director of The Cacophony of Donbas.
Călin Boto: Your film is a brief deconstruction of the Soviet propagandistic discourse regarding the Donbas miners. How did you get the idea for such a specific project? Igor Minaiev: It started with the story of Iryna Dovgan. She took part in the film. I saw a video of her on Youtube, and it was horrifying. On Ukrainian Independence Day (August 24th) she was tied to a pole, beaten and tortured. It was shocking. She was saved by a journalist. It’s an inhuman story. And I thought I should say something about that. It was the main motivation for the film.
Călin Boto: What are the sources for all the footage you use? Igor Minaiev: We had different sources. We worked in the archives – the Pshenichny one, for example, which is the biggest photo/video archive in Ukraine. I had also interviewed people who left Donbas, and included that in the film.
Călin Boto: There is a chronological gap in the film, namely between the 1950s and the 1980s. What happened with Soviet propaganda during that period? Igor Minaiev: There is no big gap in the film. I show Soviet propaganda from its beginning – with Symphony of Donbas in the early 1930s and until 1989. We followed it chronologically. Changes came with Perestroika, starting in 1989, when the truth began to appear on screens. All in all, Soviet propaganda didn’t change much from the 1930s until the late 1980s.
Călin Boto: Soviet propaganda is well documented, with a huge amount of audio-visual material. On what base have you selected yours? Igor Minaiev: I selected stories I was interested in, starting with specific topics. Some stories I remember from Soviet times, seeing them on TV. Some of them were ordered by Ministries - Healthcare, for example. Then we selected the most significant films, the ones with artistic value.
Călin Boto: Ukrainian cinema is showing a loud voice at the moment. Would you like to comment on the situation of Oleg Sentsov? Igor Minaiev: Oleg Sentsov’s situation is horrifying and unbelievable. He was wrongly accused and sentenced to 20 years of prison. This sentence is against any law. A couple of years ago, when Oleg was still only detained, people at the University of Paris held a protest in his support. I thought the best I could do was to translate his play Numbers into French. Later, Oleg made it into a screenplay and now there is a film in production. I read Numbers to the people in Paris so they could understand what sort of man he is, how he struggles. I hope he survives and gets out prison.
Călin Boto: What are your thoughts on found footage as a filmmaking form? Igot Minaiev: I think that all the ways of making films are good, as long as you’re making a good film. It’s not important whether you use found footage, home videos, etc. - the most important thing is that you have something to say.
Found-footage films have a very specific place in the history of cinema. Using pre-existent material in order to articulate a discourse about the present by referring to the past is as much paradoxical as it (still) is iconoclastic. Igor Minaiev introduces the public to the idea of found footage even from the title – he “found” Dziga Vertov’s ENTHUSIASM: SYMPHONY OF THE DONBAS (1931) and by connecting it to recent events turned it into THE CACOPHONY OF DONBAS. The reasoning behind this title comes in clear focus since the beginning with the apparently omniscient voice-over, deployed as a deconstruction of the Soviet propaganda between the 1930s and the 1990s.
August 31st, 1935: Alexey Stakhanov, a miner who would become a national hero during the propaganda process imposed by the Soviet authorities in order to create a fake public image of the superiority of the socialist worker (the so-called “Stakhanovite movement”), breaks a world record by mining 102 tons in one shift. In the Soviet newsreels it is said that a miner’s salary is between 1500 and 7000 rubles per month, enough for a miner and his family to build a stable life in the USSR. When the miners’ problem with alcohol becomes public, the authorities declare everything under medical control. Minaiev disassembles old myths, propagandistic information and legends by contrasting them with the miners’ strikes from the 1990s. The record behind Alexey Stakhanov was made up, and so was the entire promoting apparatus of the Soviet miner and he eventually would die because of an alcohol-related illness – a series of vox-populi interviews with the miners who took part in the 1990s strikes under the Gorbachev regime show an angry, disappointed and fed-up category of the working class.
Sequences of newsreels, propaganda films, interviews and music videos are pieced together to highlight a certain discrepancy between the propagandistic discourse and the truth. And it’s not only the dramatic conclusions of his essay-like argumentation that is being highlighted by the compilation, but a certain type of humor betraying the ridiculousness of these materials to the contemporary public. The director eventually touches upon the subject of Donbas of the XXI century, but only after a transition between the brief intro to the dollhouse construction of Soviet propaganda and the appearance of more recent footage, namely an interview with the Ukrainian artist Arsen Savadov on his Donbass Chocolate project from 1997. What remains to be said about this considerably larger part of the film is that, even if the voice-over discourse moulds on the semi-academic essay and even if its strongest point is the usage of audio-visual material, Minaiev never actually brings up a source to empower his argument, and never shows any relevant audio-visual proofs that would 100% sustain his counter-propaganda observations.
The actual footage of the recent events from Donbas features interviews with two Ukrainian victims of the Russian separatists and home-movie type footage which presents a couple who organize their wedding as an ode to militarism. Minaiev never draws a socio-political conclusion but more of a romantic one regarding how much hate there is between people and peoples. Nevertheless, the thesis behind the usage of found-footage becomes apparent – after deconstructing and demolishing the roots of Donbas in Russian history, the events from 2014 suddenly seem pointless and unjustifiable, especially when the human element offered by the two Ukrainians is firmly established as the starting point in depicting the horrors of war.
Joost Vandebrug’s debut feature Bruce Lee and the Outlaw has its roots in his career as a photographer as well as in the very first representation of Romania as a “free country” in the international media back in the 1990s. The orphanages of horror, as the Romanian press called the shelters, in which thousands of children were kept in miserable conditions due to the chaotic state in which Romania found itself during the political transition, were much discussed in media and remain a stain on Romanian history. Nicu, also known as Haiducul/The Outlaw, takes Vanderbrug’s camera into the forgotten underground world of Bucharest.
This underworld is a home for homeless people. An extremely poor community is guided by the so-called ‘Bruce Lee’, a problematic paternal figure who shares everything with his ‘sons’, from love to drug abuse. The Jean Rouchian footage of the underground paint a shaky, unfocused and handheld picture of the out-of-this-world (or perhaps under) band of misfits and their day-by-day life.
Nicu is one of the many orphan children who found a home in the underground more than a decade ago. Vandebrug follows him around, a young boy în transition who ultimately turns out to be a success story thanks to a NGO activist (Raluca Pahomi) who tries to reintegrate him into society, with few of his companions sharing hopes of being so lucky. The material is tough, with Pahomi discussing AIDS and TB issues with the underground community, and Nicu visiting the grave of an 18-years-old girl, followed by footage of a scandalous TV reportage (“from underground to the ground”).
In terms of visuals, the film display a remarkable eclecticism, with the director mixing his own material with episodes shot by Nicu and his friends, Bruce Lee interviews, conversations between the children and Vandebrug, and striking moments of immediacy, like when the director has to stop observing from behind the camera to help Nicu who has fallen ill. The documentary author welcomes the pain of others, harking back to the cinéma-vérité experiments of the 1960s. The voice-over often comes by an older Nicu, chronicling his life in diary-like fashion. TV news footage alternates with documentary chapters to fully investigate the dynamic between the world and the underworld.
Nicu’s commentary on his past is helpful to also make questions regarding his consent essentially vanish. In the ongoing debate regarding the role of the director in observational documentaries, Vandebrug clearly takes a stand, letting his personal and social integrity overthrow his professional mission. It’s safe to say that his solution to the dilemma of whether you should ‘save a man who’s drowning, or film him’ (as Japanese director Kazuo Hara puts it in an interview with Film Menu) falls firmly in the camp of putting down the camera and diving in.