Vitaly Manskiy

Paulo Pasta, Cruz Azul, 2008, Oil S. Canvas, 240 x 300 cm
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By JOÃO LANARI BO*

A Ukrainian Documentary Filmmaker in Vladimir Putin's Russia

Empire or nation? Historians of the Russian epic deal with this impasse: in 1917 Tsar Nicholas II and the Romanov dynasty fell, four centuries of imperial autarchy over the largest country in the world in terms of territory; in 1991 the soviet empire collapses, the most daring experiment, for better or for worse, of communist governance, in a territory even larger than the tsarist empire, surrounded by an environment of vassal and subservient soviet republics. It was only after 1991 that Russia would experience the prerogatives of what is conventionally called a nation in the Western vocabulary: political decentralization, the rule of law, democratic and economic freedoms, the right to come and go.

Nations are not exempt, of course, from imperialist impulses. To contain them there is International Law and the UN system, despite the notorious imperfections. Russia's current démarche in Ukraine, however, seems to be based on anachronistic premises, prior to the nation-state in the modern sense of the term. After all, what do the Russians want? A multipolar world, where they will be able to pontificate with their nuclear arsenal, despite economic weaknesses? Cinema, before and after the collapse of the USSR, functions as an arena where negotiations around this historic transition are exposed, which announces the weakness of the empire – today Russia seems to be moving towards the status quo of China’s client state. After more than 20 years under Vladimir Putin, punctuated by authoritarian measures and heated by friction with neighboring Ukraine, the question remains: post-Soviet nation or empire?

Vitaly Manskiy was born and raised in Lviv, Ukraine, in 1963. He went to study film and documentary in Moscow: in his words, he considered himself “Russian because he lived in Moscow: at the time, it seemed like the obvious choice and I didn't lose much sleep over it; as children of the Soviet Union, we could not imagine a reality in which borders separated the former Soviet republics”. From 1996 he organizes an archive of private amateur videos that were filmed in the times of the former USSR, from the 30s to the 90s. In 1999 he became director of production for Russian TV. In 2014, after the annexation of Crimea, he moved to Riga, the capital of Latvia.

In a recent interview, he elaborated:

“When I'm making a documentary, I try to answer my own questions. And for me personally, the question was, where did I go wrong? Why did Russia end up in a dictatorship? Why did Russia allow itself to lose the path to democracy?”

 

Boris Yeltsin

In June 1991, Yeltsin had won the (first) elections for president of Russia with 57% of the votes, defeating the candidate supported by Mikhail Gorbachev, who managed only 16%. His presidency, however, was a breathtaking “roller coast”: he undertook radical economic reforms, widespread privatizations that favored smart guys and “ex-apparatchiks”, generating inflation, bankruptcies and corruption. He exhibited authoritarian and unpopular impulses, such as closing the Duma in 1993, ordering tanks to fire on the very building he had defended in 1991; and triggered the first (and disastrous) war in Chechnya, which began in 1994 and ended in 1996, the year of Russia's second presidential election.

The honeymoon with the electorate evaporated: Yeltsin was suffering from a meager 8% approval rating in early 1996, when he ran for re-election. In the second round, in July, he won with almost 55% of the vote (Gorbachov, who was running as an independent, had only 0,8% in the first round). Yeltsin's victory is credited to the presidential group's alliance with the powerful oligarchs who dominated the main television networks in the 90s. Coverage practically ignored the opponents, in a context where the public was only emerging from a controlled environment and press censorship. Gorbachov, for example, was deleted on TV.

In Russia, the only film about his rise to power – a dismal biopic, “Yeltsin: Three Days in August” – was released in 2011, to commemorate the 1991th anniversary of the events of 2000. According to the President's biographer, a film like this could not appear “in the 1990s, after the anti-Yeltsin hysteria and a total hatred of the damn 20s… it took at least 31 years to see things objectively ”. Yeltsin is presented as a courageous man who enjoys popular support, tall and strong, an unyielding fighter who saves Russia from an infamous reactionary coup. In real life, the surprise came on December 1999, XNUMX:

"I made a decision. I thought for a long time and in great pain. Today, on the last day of the century that is ending, I resign. (…) I understood that I needed to do this. Russia must enter the new millennium with new politicians, with new faces.”

And he added: “I want to apologize to you, because many of mine and your dreams did not come true. And what seemed simple turned out to be painfully difficult. I apologize for not realizing some of the hopes of those who believed that we, in one spurt, all at once, could jump from a gray, stagnant, totalitarian past to a bright, rich, civilized future. I believed it myself. It seemed that with one sprint we would overcome everything. With a dash, it didn't work."

 

Vladimir Putin

No one expected his abrupt resignation – his mandate lasted until March 2000. One more surprise: Yeltsin designated as his successor the then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a bureaucrat from the KGB, appointed in August 1999 and unknown to the public. “Putin’s Witnesses”, a documentary by Vitaly Manskiy, begins in the director’s apartment, the TV on with Yeltsin’s speech, his daughters and his wife, who prophesies: “Vladimir Putin will become a dictator” (Vitaly confessed in an interview that “we don’t always listen to what our wives have to say”). His film is a precious record of this acute moment of change in Russia at the turn of the millennium. Putin’s great achievement had been facing, in the month following (September 1999) his inauguration as Prime Minister, the terrible wave of terrorist attacks that exploded residential buildings in three cities, including Moscow, killing more than 300 people, injuring another thousand and spreading a wave of fear throughout the country.

The tough treatment of the crisis increased his popularity and helped him to reach the presidency in the March 2000 elections. His rise in the polls was a meteoric and irresistible leap: in a few months he went from 2 to 50% approval. Vitaly, who was director of state television at the time, followed this fast-paced moment in intimate fragments, showing hesitations and small desires, enjoying unbelievable access to interiors and ceremonies. And not just Putin, but also Yeltsin – together with his family, watching the results of Putin’s election – and even Gorbachev, socializing with friends on polling day (Putin called the fall of the USSR, under Gorbachev, “the greatest geopolitical collapse in history”). In particular, the dialogues between Putin and Vitaly show the President subjected to an unthinkable contradiction nowadays.

In 2001, Vitaly showed the “official” film on TV, approved by the President, but he carefully kept the recorded material for a future edition, which was finally completed and shown in 2018. With the consolidation of power by Putin, a (curious) oxymoron – “administered democracy” – began to prevail in the largest country in the world – that is: there is criticism and opposition, voiced mainly on the internet, some public manifestations are more or less repressed, but television and major media are controlled by the government; the chance of a real power alternative to Putin is slim, if not impossible. On the other hand, the chance of an opponent being arrested or murdered is high. Vitaly's documentary may upset Putin's fanatical admirers, admitted the director in an interview: just remember, according to him, the famous journalist and human rights activist, Anna Politkovskaya, staunch critic of Putin and the war in Chechnya, murdered in 2006 exactly on Putin's birthday - a "gift" to the leader.

 

Mikhail Gorbachev

“Gorbachov.Céu”, by Vitaly Manskiy, released in 2020, is one of those documentaries that hover in a spiritual sphere outside the normal conditions of temperature and pressure. Gorbachev's body is there – bloated by diabetes, slow by the wear and tear of age, 90 years old – he talks, eats, drinks, laughs and sings, but the vertigo of the historical flow engulfs everything and everyone. He, indeed, is the bearer of the phallocentric discourse that is so much talked about today: Gorbachev is responsible for one of the greatest and most radical landings of all time, that is, he was the pilot who landed (and neutralized) 70 years of Soviet empire in the mined and swampy terrain of the Cold War at the end of the 20th century, full of nuclear warheads and sharp teeth. He changed history without shedding a drop of blood. Not surprisingly, funding for the documentary came mainly from Latvia and the Czech Republic, some of the countries that benefited from this radical transition. Beloved in the surroundings of the former USSR and respected in the West, but ostracized in his home country, Russia – Gorbachev is a rare case of a historical subject sharing our contemporaneity, someone who, at the height of the pressure of this enormous task, anguishedly thought about “kicking the bucket”, as he confesses at the beginning of the film.

Every word uttered in “Gorbachov.Céu” has the backdrop of this materiality: the socialist project was to build the new Soviet man, who would change the face of the Earth and rescue humanity from the abyssal fall that perverse capitalism pointed to. Today it seems easy to dismiss the megalomania of the project, which fell, as the cliché goes, like a house of cards. But the immense intellectual and emotional effort that underpinned him, of which Gorbachev is a tribute, is undeniable: his trajectory, from the peasant family to university education, his rise in the Party’s devouring and clientelistic machine, and finally his reforms – “glasnost” (“transparency”), which increased freedom of expression and press, and “perestroika” (“restructuring”), which promoted the decentralization of decisions in the economic sphere – more than confirm the richness and complexity of the Soviet system.

Vitaly Manskiy portrays his character with elegance and intimacy, as someone who had enough decency to voluntarily step down from power. His house on the outskirts of Moscow – donated by the former republics that freed themselves from the Soviet empire, in particular the Baltic countries, where Gorbachev is an idol– is shown with finesse, space for recollection and serenity. Even the elevator, installed to allow it to move at the end of its life, was financed by friends and admirers. The deceleration of existence, dictating a melancholy and unhurried pace, the dimmed light and Raíssa's paintings on the wall, all contribute to the atmosphere of reflection. The few outings, a visit to the Gorbachev Foundation and a New Year's Eve celebration with friends, serve to insert Putin's television image into the film. After quarrels and public disagreements between the two, Gorbachev's age and his support for the internationally contested referendum that legitimized the Russian occupation of Crimea seem to have softened Putin: on the former leader's 90th birthday, the current President telegraphed: "You rightly belong to the group of extraordinary and brilliant people, of prominent statesmen of the modern era who have exerted a significant influence on national and world history".

 

The war in intimacy

“Close Relations” was released by Manskiy in 2016: family disagreements that the director records, with the elegance that his usual photographer, Alexandra Ivanova, knows how to capture, show relatives of the director who live in Lviv, Odessa and Sevastopol – and function as a premonition of the shocks and contradictions that we are witnessing at this very moment, the Ukrainian War, with all its absurd and pathetic violence. For a year, from May 2014 to May 2015, Manskiy visited homes with living rooms, rugs, tables, plates, glasses, celebrations – delving into the intimacy of human relationships, building a subtle sentimental cartography of the small desires and fantasies of people frightened by the approaching war. Ignoring advice from relatives residing in Donetsk, the filmmaker also visited the breakaway region, filming with what appears to be a secret camera: all the way, he asks, argues, listens, evoking painful memories of his characters and making them think aloud. In the end, in May 2015, the feeling is that war will break out, once again, the next day.

The family perspective was not chosen by chance – through family relationships, the image of modern Ukraine, this sociocultural mosaic of complex and challenging political repercussions, emerges crystal clear but insoluble. Aunt Natasha, from Sevastopol, talks on Skype with another aunt, Tamara from Lviv, they fight, their positions in relation to what is happening are diametrically opposed – Natasha is pro-Russia, worships Putin, Tamara has assumed her Ukrainian identity, worries about her son who will be called up for military service – but the common past makes them try to make peace… conflict.

Screams, mutual accusations and again the appeal: “We are only talking about relatives. Not a word about politics!” … missing links in the Russia-Ukraine connection, not only in intra-family relations, but in the relationship between the two countries and the people who live in them, since both share a common ground, known as the “Soviet Union” – when Ukrainian desires for autonomy were muffled by the ideological veil of the communist system. A stony and slippery ground – the supposed Soviet universalist identity, the socialist project above nationalities, was fragile and always needed threatening alterities, real or imaginary, to consolidate itself.

At the beginning of the communist era, it was counterrevolutionaries, then Japanese spies, Nazis and … the Cold War, which spanned decades. The explosion of this structure, symbolized by the fall of the wall in Berlin, left a trail of fractures and unpaid bills: “Close Relations” is an inventory of this account, contradictory images of scattered Ukraine, where some lives are on pause for reforms and unfinished plans, while others are seething. Russia still seems moved by a persecutory tone: on New Year’s Eve, 2015, Putin gives a speech promising to welcome the “liberated” population of Crimea – an hour later, thanks to the time difference, the then Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, swears that he will fight to the end for the return of Crimea and separatist provinces. The film circulates between polarities, dodging missiles and firecrackers – but showing, somehow, the anguished perception of the drift of the situation.

The war at the front

“The message is not to give anyone the chance to think they can hide from this war,” said Manskiy, referring to the documentary he co-directed in 2023 with Yevhen Titarenko, “Eastern Front”. “This war is an absolute reality” – and, at a certain point, the collaborators talk to each other: what would the end be like? Three versions are discussed: realistic, fictional (if the film were a game), and fantastic. Realism is imposed, even if fragmented. An ambulance carrying dying people dramatically stitches together the events: the girl with the pink backpack follows soldiers carrying her wounded mother; the soldier walks in the enemy's empty trench, examining abandoned equipment, dishes, books, dark chocolate bars. Destroyed buildings and shattered houses left and right. Someone kills a dog that has gone mad – dogs and cats are rescued in extreme circumstances where humans would not escape.

Titarenko is a film producer and teacher in Odessa, speaks Russian as his first language – Russian speakers are an important part of Ukrainian society, not a persecuted group as Russian media tends to claim – and went to the front as a volunteer paramedic, transporting the wounded to hospitals, offering emergency assistance. To film, he used a cell phone attached to his bulletproof vest. Intercut scenes show doctors relaxing in Western Ukraine as they attend a christening far from the front. They discuss various subjects such as sperm donation and health plans: they laugh and drink. Recorded in the summer, clear images, stable camera, it has Manskiy with occasional lines and toasts, although he does not introduce himself as a character, as in previous works.

Tytarenko's point of view allows for a focus on the brutal and unheroic dimension of war – as are the images of wounded soldiers facing death. There is no fetishism of combats and weapons. For an instant, an old Ennio Morricone song is played on the radio, which, however briefly, eases the tension. The weather sometimes refers to videos between friends and family. The uncertain future is softened by the calm flow of the river, on the banks of which friends remember how they decided to go to war. You cannot step into the same river twice, as other waters are flowing continuously, as the philosopher said.

The time frame of the documentary is six months, from the start of the invasion to the day of Ukrainian independence, August 24th. “Yevhen was filming the war and we were filming things that we could access in the peaceful parts of the country,” said Vitaly. Even visually: the initial idea was to use a sepia tone in the images, throughout the film – but in the end, two distinct styles prevailed, which the director named “real life” and “war life”. A caesura that crosses the landscape and magnetizes the image.

*João Lanari Bo Professor of Cinema at the Faculty of Communication at the University of Brasilia (UnB).


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