Russian documentary filmmaker Vitaly Mansky doesn’t keep things off the record, he said during his masterclass at Ji.hlava Intl. Documentary Festival. Celebrated with a tribute section featuring “Under the Sun,” “Putin’s Witnesses” and his latest doc “Gorbachev. Heaven,” Mansky has already outlined his methods in his 2005 manifesto “Real Cinema,” including the fact that directors shouldn’t abide by any “moral” restrictions. 

“Once you agree to be filmed, you lose your right to say things off the record. I am not here to have a chat about your life, I am here to record and then it’s up to me whether I will keep it or not. Otherwise, I would lose my freedom,” he said, admitting that Gorbachev, former leader of the Soviet Union, accepted his rules. 

“He very soberly assessed his physical state. Initially, he was a bit shy about it, but we managed to persuade him it was important for the film. Later, when some people tried to regulate the way we were shooting, he was defending us. But it’s not always the case,” he said, mentioning the case of Alina Rudnitskaya’s documentary “School of Seduction.” 

“One of her protagonists sued her. She didn’t like the way she came across and the law was on her side – the film didn’t go into distribution and wasn’t shown on TV. I guess we need a new code of conduct because this could be the end of documentary cinema. Soon, we will only be able to film docudramas with actors.”

According to another point of his manifesto, there should be no script when filming documentaries, also to accommodate “unexpected meetings.” 

“When I read other directors’ treatments or applications, everything is planned in advance. I ask: ‘Why make a film if you know what’s going to be in it?’ But when I talk about the absence of the script, I don’t mean the absence of preparation.” 

The Russian director also opened up about taking responsibility for potentially putting his protagonists in danger. “Under the Sun,” focusing on a little girl and her family in Pyongyang, was overseen by the North Korean Ministry of Culture. But Mansky decided to keep the cameras rolling also between shots, turning it into an exposé.

“At that time, an American student who visited North Korea [Otto Warmbier] was sentenced to 15 years in prison because he took a poster off the wall and wanted to take it home. We were going to do what he did a thousand times a day,” he recalled. 

“In North Korea, where there is no rule of law and human life has no value, these people could have been taken to labor camps. I knew I had to make a powerful film to guarantee safety for all involved. Still, after I came back, I went through a mental crisis. It took me a while to come back to normal life.”

Mansky also addressed the criticism concerning “Putin’s Witnesses,” which he said could have influenced the way people perceive him in Russia. 

“It doesn’t show Putin as this dangerous person that he is now. No one can tell you that you should atone for your ‘sins’ a bit more, however. When they announced he was appointed President, my wife said who he really was. But we didn’t know what his rule would bring,” he said. Also adding that the arrival of digital technologies didn’t liberate documentary filmmakers as much as they hoped.

“We felt we were finally free. In order to film a sunrise, all you need is a mobile phone, a roof over your head, a glass of milk and a piece of bread not to die of starvation. Unfortunately, we live in a world governed by economic rules. Even when you have a project that doesn’t cost much, the machinery of the film industry will tell you: ‘You need a budget,’ ” he pointed out, also teasing his new project.  

“It’s a short film – six hours and a half. I made it without a budget and unless its protagonist kills me or sues me, I believe it will be entertaining. I know filmmakers who started developing their films five years ago and still haven’t finished. That’s ‘the machinery’ I am talking about. Me, I want to film from my heart.” 

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Vitaly Mansky Credit: Stefan Berec