Why film matters: Oksana Sarkisova on the importance of documenting society

In this conversation with RevDem assistant editor Lucie Hunter, Oksana Sarkisova – Blinken OSA Research Fellow and the Director of Verzió International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival – discusses the role of filmmaking in today’s society; how festivals are reacting to contemporary global conflicts and challenges; the importance of safekeeping visual archives; and how micro-histories help us understand the wider context.

Oksana Sarkisova is a Research Fellow at Blinken OSA Archive at Central European University and the Director of Verzió International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival in Budapest. Her fields of research are cultural history, memory and representation, film history, amateur photography, and visual studies. Besides university teaching, she also participated as a tutor in multiple workshops including Cinema Without Borders, and served as Jury member at international film festivals around the world.

Verzió International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival, 19th edition, November 8-20, 2022. https://www.verzio.org/en

Lucie Hunter: As a visual studies scholar and a director of a human rights documentary film festival, what do you perceive to be the role of film and filmmakers in today’s society? And has this changed significantly compared to the historical periods that you are personally researching?

Oksana Sarkisova: I have been working for the festival since its establishment. I am talking now about Verzió International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival, with its 19th edition held in November 2022. I started it together with my colleagues at Blinken OSA in 2004 and I have continued throughout the years to combine academic work with festival programming. So in this sense, there are really a lot of changes in the field that I can observe, both in terms of research but also programming and curatorship. Documentary filmmaking really is a very dynamic field. It has been really interesting to both observe but also contribute to the development of this alternative cultural space.

Festivals, of course, have been around for a very long time, appearing very soon after the emergence of cinema. They have emerged as platforms for film screenings but often also as spaces of cultural diplomacy.

Lately, festivals have also become very much concerned with the issue of engagement, impact and outreach, and the question of how to work actively with audiences. They have also always served as international meeting places, but I think that this kind of transcultural circulation of documentary films is really entering a new dimension in the 21st century. I think another very interesting change that we are observing now is critical visual literacy, with which festivals are increasingly engaging. Of course, I am thinking primarily about Verzió here, which I know from the inside, but also because Verzió has emerged from a university environment. It still has a very strong connection with the CEU and is therefore very concerned with the educational impact that festivals and documentary films can have.

For this reason, we consciously include many self-reflexive films in the programme, but I do believe that this is something specifically new to documentary film. Starting from about the second half of the 20th century, we can see an increased number of self-reflexive works that also focus on the nature of seeing as such and the roles that spectators and filmmakers, i.e. both producers and consumers of images, can play. I think this kind of engagement with the nature of viewing is really something that best characterizes recent documentary production.

What about the role of documentary film festivals? In what ways should they reflect and answer to contemporary political situation and conflicts? And could you give us some examples of the ways in which you at Verzió are responding to current political matters, most importantly to the ongoing Russia-waged war on Ukraine?

Festivals, and of course documentary film festivals, are great places to learn about the world because they give viewers a chance to literally travel the world. Even if only virtually.

There is also a very different type of insight that documentary films provide, as opposed to news reports or reading headlines in daily media. Most importantly, the degree of empathy and the degree of immersion with different cultures and different communities that the viewer experiences is exceptional.

And of course, festivals can in many ways direct audiences towards important social issues, giving them some food for thought and a possibility for further engagement. In this sense, our festival programming also naturally reflects and responds to what is currently going on in the world.

Several years ago, for example, we launched an Anthropocene section. When we started our human rights film festival in 2004, our understanding of human rights was very broad. We did not want to screen only activist films but instead focus on films that generally help us understand the importance of human rights, human agency, cultural differences, global transformations, and local specificities. Several years ago, we realised the need to focus more actively on the entanglement of human rights with environmental issues. For this reason, we have started a thematic block of films under the framework of the Anthropocene and we continue to do so until today. This year, the focus of our films range from indigenous rainforest communities in Brazil to nomadic practices of the Sámi people up in the north.

At the same time, each year we also organise specific thematic blocks.

Of course, this year the war is on our minds and our lives as a very important theme and concern.

For this reason, we decided to organise a solidarity block. We are screening a number of Ukrainian films and have invited a number of Ukrainian filmmakers to attend the festival. We will also open the festival with a film about two young Ukrainian artists living in Budapest. This way, we would like to invite the Hungarian community to reflect on those Ukrainians who had to leave their homes and come to Hungary, on their experiences and the ways in which they interact with the local community here.

We also always try to introduce themes reflecting on the nature of the documentary medium. For example, this year we will have a Viewfinder section, which is a thematic block of films not necessarily directly dealing with any concrete social or political issue. Rather, these are experimental films using the documentary medium and archival footage in an original way that forces us, the viewers, to make an effort to understand the different ways of visual expression that filmmakers can use.

In this sense, I think that we are trying to not only see the documentary as some kind of a transparent window onto the world but as a very complex medium, with its own diversity of visual forms and of expression. This way, we are also training our audiences to better understand and appreciate the diversity of visual language in which messages and themes can be presented.

My next question is connected to film and its relationship to democracy. On the one hand, we have vast archives of propaganda material and have witnessed up-close how film can be misused and instrumentalised by repressive regimes. On the other hand, visual material is more often than not our only source of evidence of human rights violations and serves as a crucial tool for providing voice to those who otherwise would remain unseen and unheard. What would be your take on this issue?

I think that you are very right about the double-sided nature of visual material. And in that sense, of course, the festival is a space of encounter of different narratives, but it is also a space where we can show works in which filmmakers are using, reusing, repurposing or reframing the archival material. I have already mentioned the Viewfinder section. This is exactly where we are trying to foreground works showing the variety of ways of treating archival material, in many cases reframing and repurposing it with a very different result compared to their original aim of creation.

We have a film in the programme this year that is exploring just three minutes of a home video recorded in 1938 in a Jewish community in one Polish town, right at the outbreak of the Second World War. The filmmaker took these three minutes and made an hour long, very deep investigative film, showing us what we can see and discover if we were to dive deep, view and review, immerse, and zoom in and then zoom out. So in that sense, it is a very thorough, complex and creative work, showing that temporality of archival footage is also something that can be in itself a subject of exploration.

This is just one example which shows how archival material can be studied deeply, literally, or very immersively. There are also multiple other examples that are trying to rethink, rework and reconsider archival footage. Not in a manipulative way but in a largely sophisticated way, giving justice to the context of its creation, but at the same time not just reusing the material in a simplistic way. In that sense, of course, we are curating the selection in order to show the audience exactly this kind of complexity of the studied material.

Looking through some of your publications, you often focus on stories of specific friendships or memories of particular families. In your opinion, what is the benefit of these often highly subjective personal biographies for understanding the bigger picture? And perhaps related, what is the importance of amateur visual documentation, be it either film or photography?

In my research, if I now speak from an academic perspective, I have worked with both large-corpus visual data and micro-histories. For example, you have mentioned the work on Soviet Kulturfilms from the 1920s. Right now, I am just completing a collaborative research project with a colleague of mine, Dr. Olga Shevchenko, on Soviet amateur photography, which is also based on a large corpus of not just visual material but also interviews that we have conducted with multi-generational families in Russia.

There is always this attempt to balance between the large corpus and individual voices. In my work, just as in this collaborative project on amateur photography, this has been very important. It has been very important for me not to lose sight of these individual voices even when we are talking about the large corpus of films or other visual data. Filmmakers, as much as private individuals, have always preserved their agency and if we are only dealing with big data, with statistics, and take things from a bird’s eye perspective, we risk losing this crucial fine-grain understanding of the lived reality.

In a sense, the methodology of micro-history and oral history are sort of latecomers in historical studies, but they are fairly established by now.

I think that the creative challenge at this point, at least for me, is to really combine the micro-history and micro-perspective with an attempt to see broader social and cultural dynamics, i.e. not going just for singularities but really focus on how individual agency can affect cultural dynamics.

This is very important in history. It is important in cultural anthropology. And it is important in the humanities more broadly.

Besides documentary films, you also work as an archivist. Could you tell us what is the importance of visual archiving for understanding the past but also contemporary society? In other words, what do you think is the benefit in safekeeping visual memories?

I work in an archive as a researcher, so I would not position myself as an archivist. However, I do work with an archival corpus and I work in a very special archive. It positions itself as an archival laboratory and is very actively engaged with questions of self-reflection on the nature of the archive, on agency of archives, and combines that kind of reflection with very active and conscious public engagement efforts.

That is why we not only have archival projects but also run very diverse and very interesting public programs, and the festival is just one of them. Being an archival laboratory means that you are really reflexive not only of the material that you store but also your own work, especially in terms of collaborative research that can help rethink some of the structures that for a long time might have been taken granted. This, nevertheless, requires a kind of inquisitive mind and reflexive thinking.

It is not only important to preserve collections, to preserve materials, it is also important to think about how we present them, how we structure them, and how we make them available for broad audiences.

There is certainly a lot that has been done at OSA at very different levels, not just with audio-visual collections. We have a very heterogeneous and diverse visual collection, starting from private photo and video footage. As you know, the Péter Forgács’ collection of home video and film is deposited at OSA. We also have a broad range of other collections, including media monitoring files. So every time we approach a new collection, we have to think about the categories with which we describe it and present it to the public.

Verzió Human Rights Documentary Film Festival, of which you are the Director, has started just a few days ago. Could you give us a little hint about what we can expect at this year’s edition?

You can certainly expect a lot. This year you can expect more than 70 creative documentary works. And in addition to this, a lot more in terms of masterclasses, discussions, panel debates, and all sorts of meetings and encounters. We have three competitions: International competition, Hungarian competition, and a student and debut competition. And the festival is held in a hybrid form to increase access for people who wish to participate. We started on the 8th of November and until the 16th we are in cinemas in Budapest and in five other towns in Hungary. And in the second week, starting from the 14th until the 20th, there is a possibility to watch documentary films online via a special festival platform. Most of the films are geo-blocked, but not all.

Aside from competitions, each year we also have different thematic blocks, and the novelty this year is an animation documentary programme that we jointly organise with Primanima, an animation film festival in Hungary. We are also going to host a VR programme with virtual reality documentaries. Once again, a format that makes us rethink what a documentary film actually is, while engaging with very important social issues.

However, a festival is always more than just a sum of its films. It also provides a possibility to meet new people and make new connections. And it is really worth travelling a mile to personally participate, so I do hope to see many people at the festival. But for those who cannot come, I would like to say that we have made it our policy to keep almost all films with the permission of the distributors in our Film Library. This means that it is also always possible to come to Blinken OSA and browse through films from our earlier editions. We have several thousand documentaries, which currently are not in distribution but can be viewed on-site. It is a fantastic resource to learn about the world, archiving, and visual culture more generally.

This transcript has been slightly modified for length and clarity. In collaboration with Karen Culver and Kasia Krzyżanowska.

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