With the conflict in Ukraine and flurry of new laws by Putin's government tightening their hold on citizen freedoms and free expression in the arts, it's impossible when visiting Russia not to have politics at the forefront of your mind. And it's the same, of course, for the organisers of the nation's main festival for documentaries — that cinematic medium charged with reflecting the truth about the world around us, and sharpening our relationship with reality — who are in the pressured position of reconciling funding difficulties and the fragility of the event's very existence with their sincere desire to retain their humane vision. At the opening press conference of the 24th edition of the Message to Man festival in Saint Petersburg, which ran from 20 to 27 September, the question was posed outright as to whether the festival would make a public declaration about the current political situation. The festival's official line was that politics and art were to be kept separate outside the cinema — but that the films themselves would be allowed to speak.
True to the festival's word, the diverse programme — which as well as documentaries now also includes shorts and animation — showed a commitment to bringing films to Russian audiences that got to the raw heart of social truths, provided exposure to challenging perspectives from around the globe and stretched the form with bold experimentation. In other words, cinema trusted when stakes are high to provide the nourishment that keeps minds supple, open and human — with an indispensable dash of irreverent humour to keep it all down to earth. Sergei Loznitsa's Cannes-wowing Kiev revolution portrait Maidan was noticeably missing, but it was claimed at the conference this was more through logistics than ideological design.
Stand-outs in the main competition of full-length documentary films included Saint Petersburg local Alina Rudnitskaya's Blood (Krov), an absurd tragicomedy about a blood collection team on the road in regional Russia, where donors line up desperate for the monetary rewards, and Swedish director Linda Vastrik's winning Forest of the Dancing Spirits, an intimate, gripping portrait of life with the Aka hunter-gatherers of the Congo Basin, whose rainforest home is under threat. FIPRESCI winner Bugarach by Ventura Durall, Salvador Sunyer and Sergi Cameron, a playful mix of mysticism and wry skepticism about a tiny French village that became a pilgrimage hub for Mayan doomsday prophecy believers, also screened in this section. Notable shorts included London-based director Laure Provost's off-the-wall tribute to her fictional grandfather Wantee, an Experimental section winner, and Danish filmmaker Emil Langballe's Short Documentary winner Beach Boy, which depicts the relationship between a middle-aged English sex tourist and a rent boy in Kenya. In addition to the competition were many screenings of recent high-profile, challenging festival highlights, from radically innovative Ukrainian hard-hitter The Tribe (Plemya), solely in sign language and directed by Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, to Ulrich Seidl's sensational gallery of grotesques In the Basement (Im Keller), about some of the more extreme activities Austrians engage in in their secluded home spaces. (Carmen Gray)
Message to Man International Film Festival Saint Petersburg: