Gilbey on Film: Ciné vérité

The future of the documentary is in safe hands.

It would be tempting to suspect, after Exit Through the Gift Shop and I'm Still Here, that the documentary genre was entering a particularly disingenuous phase. Thank goodness, then, for two new works screening in the London Film Festival which assuage any concerns that the form has been hijacked by smart-arses.

Surely you won't need any encouragement to seek out Pink Saris, the new film from the brilliant Kim Longinotto (Divorce Iranian Style; Sisters in Law). Its subject is Sampat Pal, an indomitable crusader who fights the corner of abused and downtrodden women from northern India. Teenagers abandoned by the men who fathered their children, wives beaten by their in-laws, child brides -- these are the sorts of cases that Sampat Pal takes on with an elemental fury that is nevertheless tempered by wisdom and tenderness.

She talks, quite wonderfully, in boasts and slogans: "There is no higher power than woman"; "Who cares what the world thinks? It's never helped us!"; "I am the messiah for women." Oh, and: "I beat up a cop once." File her alongside Bette Davis.

The picture takes its title from the jubilantly bright dress code of the Gulabi Gang, which comprises members of the "untouchable" caste whose rights are defended by Sampat Pal. Seeing them all crowded together at a wedding resembles an explosion at a pick'n'mix counter. It is Sampat Pal's gossamer scarf, though, that sees the most active duty, mopping up the tears of women and men alike (and, on occasion, her own tears, too). She's not perfect, as the film reveals, but her shortcomings only deepen her struggle for justice, and our understanding of it.

Should you miss Pink Saris at its LFF screenings, it turns up again next month at the Sheffield Doc/Fest, where Longinotto will be presented with the Inspiration award, celebrating "a figure who has championed documentary and helped get great work into the public eye".

I urge you also to catch The Peddler, an Argentinian documentary that is one of the most disarming and compassionate films you'll see all year. The set-up is deceptively slight: Daniel Burmeister, a 67-year-old, white-bearded amateur film-maker, stops in the town of Benjamin Gould to encourage its citizens to participate in a movie he's making called Let's Kill Uncle.

This is how Burmeister spends his life -- settling in towns and villages for a month or so at a time, casting the inhabitants in one of the five or six films that he has in his repertoire, shooting the picture, then screening it for the delighted cast before moving on to the next stop on his journey.

If you could feed Day for Night, Ed Wood and Be Kind Rewind into a documentary-making machine, it might come out looking something like The Peddler. From the glorious auditions (well, they're not really auditions -- everyone is guaranteed a part) to the can-do shoot, and on to Burmeister's DIY publicity campaign and finally the triumphant premiere at the town hall, this is a glorious celebration of community, imagination and the transformative power of film-making.

Burmeister describes his work as "handcrafted", and the same evocative tag could be attached to the documentary itself. There may turn out to be better films in the LFF, but I'll be stunned if there is anything quite so soulful.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times