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27 January, 2011  ▪  Oleksandr Mykhed

No Special Effects

Ukrainian amateur filmmaking in the context of global trends

Amateur Ukrainian director Borys Hryshkevych recently became an Internet celebrity. His debut short film Ivanky was shortlisted for a project called Life in a Day. The project intends to have amateur directors from around the world shoot a short documentary about one day in their own lives or in the life of their country, region or simply a place where they live. The organizers chose 24 July 2010 to be documented and called their project the first global look at the life of the contemporary world. This is no exaggeration: in the end the project received nearly 80,000 films from 192 countries of the world. The project, which was initiated by YouTube, will be executive produced by the Hollywood classic Ridley Scott. Initially, 26 finalists were shortlisted whose works would paint a holistic image of the life of the modern globalized world. By late January, the noted Hollywood director Kevin MacDonald will have edited the final film, which will premiere at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. The finalists include films from Afghanistan, Egypt, Nepal, Russia, USA, Japan, Ukraine, and other countries. The story of Ivanky and the global project amateur film project itself prompt several remarks on the modern media world and the latest trends in the world cinema and television.

Out of great love for art

The boom of amateur cinema was caused by two historical factors that play an important role in contemporary culture. The first and most obvious one is associated with the tradition of cinema fans when amateurs would gather in all kinds of clubs to shoot their short films which sometimes made it to the programs on the central channels specifically designed to broadcast such films. Clearly, with the simplification of the process amateur filmmaking spread with the speed of light. This component in creating amateur films was brilliantly conveyed by Michel Gondry in his film Be Kind Rewind (2008) in which he captured the new wave of amateur film shooting attempts. His films are about two amateurs forced to remake their own version of films for a film distribution store. They covered the path from repeating and recreating someone else’s stories to making their own full-fledged film project. And it seems that this is the way most directors who have made a name for themselves have gone to achieve glory.

In the contemporary world, love for cinema is often transformed into an inclination to make various trash videos involving friends, relatives and close ones. Dozens of self-made absurd horror movies about zombies, RoboCops, and other suchlike creatures are enjoying widespread distribution through powerful social networks. One of Ukraine’s most active independent film studios, Kyiv-based UPV Art Group, regularly holds its own mini festival called Kinofront and has a sizable online information database of nonprofessional film groups. A large number of all-Ukrainian festivals of amateur movies is proof of the popularity and scale of this trend: Kinokimeria in Kherson, Zhemchuzhnaya zvezda in Odesa, Inshi terytorii in Donetsk, etc. The main thing that unites this movement is fanaticism and love for cinema and entertainment with a camera in hand.

Reality on display

Another factor in the development of amateur filmmaking is more complicated and less evident, because it is linked to the influence of contemporary television on our perception of life. Nonprofessional shooting and amateur recordings made by “witnesses of real events” have become so rooted in the culture of the mass media that we simply fail to notice this. The spread of simple-to-use video cameras led to the shaping of the most popular trend in the world television space — “reality television.” The idea is simple: make events of real life as dramatic and interesting as possible. The “grandfather” of reality television is Allan Funt and his Candid Camera which appeared in 1948. What he put into the foundation of his TV show was the concept of a similarly popular radio show called Candid Microphone (1947) which portrayed people in spontaneous and absolutely unexpected situations that were not foreseen in the film script.

Specialists single out two ideas that lie at the basis of modern-era reality television. First, television is available to everyone, and everyone can become the protagonist of a TV program. Second, the shooting is done in real time. Therefore, what emerges is that the essence of the dominant television phenomenon is in full accord with the conception of the Life in a Day project where each person can assume the role of an actor or the director by filming one particular day — 24 June 2010.

In the early 2000s, reality television transformed the life of TV viewers themselves. For example, one in six American families has a camcorder while the producers of America’s Funniest Home Videos receive over 2,000 tapes a day. Svetlana Urazova, a researcher who studies reality shows, sites telling statistics: since 1999 the world average rating of reality TV shows has increased by 40 percent, which means that nearly 1.3 billion people prefer this type of TV programs.

It is common knowledge that the contemporary media are changing the perception of the world, influence worldviews, and guide viewers in their selection the life priorities. The slogans of modern times are such truisms as “You don’t exist if you’re not in online search.” and “You are unknown until you become a media personality.” General phrases take on special meaning if you look at statistics provided by the British Department for Education which says that one in seven teenagers in Great Britain wants to gain glory by appearing in a reality TV show. A contemporary illusion of interactivity when the viewer believes that he influences what he sees on the screen (voting by text messaging, calls to the studio, etc.) inevitably causes the viewer to want to at one point become the director and shoot his own story.

Pseudo-documentaries

In their reviews of the film industry in the 2000s, film critics pointed to, among other things, a remarkable feature of the past decade — documentary stylistics made it to the cinematographic mainstream. In the past years, this trend emerged in totally opposite projects, such as the disaster-monster film about an invasion of a bloodthirsty creature in Cloverfield (2008, directed by Matt Reeves) or in the pseudo-documentary chronicle about Soviet space exploration ambitions First on the Moon (2005, directed by Aleksey Fedorchenko).

Some people linked the spread of pseudo-documentaries in mass culture with the box-office success of the horror movie  Blair Witch Project (directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, 1999) which was shot with a camcorder and presented as a documentary pieced together from amateur footage. According to some estimates, the budget of the film reached $40,000 (and another $1–2 million was spent on advertisement), while it brought nearly $250 million in box-office receipts.

It later became evident that making pseudo-documentaries is the surest way to generate superprofits. The box office hit of the past years, Paranormal Activity (2008) had the budget of $15,000 and collected $119 million across the world and led to a sequel.

Last year, Gareth Edwards’ Monsters was released in the post-Soviet space. Responsible for its distribution was Timur Bekmambetov, who knows, as no one else does, the best ways to squeeze money out of the post-Soviet viewer. It is now known that as he shot his film, Mr. Edwards traveled across Mexico for eight months together with a six-man camera crew of which two people played the main parts. There was no film script as such — only an outline of the plot. The director responded to the immediate surroundings and improvised by involving locals in the shooting. Mr. Edwards did the effects himself with the help of his friends and later often said in interviews that something similar can now be done by anyone, because modern personal computers are powerful enough to do even greater things. Monsters reaped approximately $3.5 million across the world. It has recently been reported that Mr. Edwards will be the executive producer of the next installment of Godzilla.

Similar vivid examples of semiprofessional filmmaking capable of influencing the mainstream are the direct opposite to Hollywood fireworks with their bloated budgets, because they achieve the highest artistic effect while requiring minimal effort, and through their special stylistics they create an illusion of sincerity and reality in defiance of the established laws of their genre.

Ivanky at the crossroads of trends

Borys Hryshkevych’s Ivanky emerged at the crossroads of the above global filmmaking trends — amateur interest, portrayal of real life and documentation of reality. Ivanky captured several episodes in the life of Carpathian shepherds. The filmmaker and his assistants set up a tent next to the shepherds’ hut and took about a day to get used to each another. The next day, shepherds were accustomed to the video cameras around them and lived at their usual pace without paying much attention to the guests from Kyiv. Mr. Hryshkevych says that he guided conversations in a desired direction. And it is indeed noticeable when the shepherds talk among themselves in their dialect and when they try to choose understandable words to say something on camera.

The camera documents the slow passage of time in Carpathian polonynas (mountain valleys). In the film, these shepherds do their routine — milk and put the sheep to pasture, have quick conversations interspersed with curses, wash and put crosses on themselves, show brynza (ship’s milk cheese) to the guests, and cook meals. The dogs stretch lazily in the sun. The sheep blissfully rub their sides against fences. The ringing of the cattle bells sometimes shuts out human voices — and this is the best musical accompaniment.

Life goes on, away from the bustle of modernity, and one gets an impression that 24 July 2010 is just a moment in the life of these mountains, and the next decades will be just like this one day. The film does not look too romantic, but its sincerity and authenticity makes it stand out in the flood of amateur films of dubious quality. Ivanky would look the best in the context of some global exhibit of contemporary art that would raise the issues of national identity, historical memory and tradition, and perhaps the emptiness of everyday life.

Great prospects

It is impossible to tell which fragments of Ivanky will make it to the final mosaic Life in a Day, but we can already speak about the great and undeniable prospects for amateur and semiprofessional filmmaking in Ukraine. Modern digital technology and social networks offer the best opportunities for viewers to engage in their own filmmaking and creative search. The borders that once separated art and kitsch are now completely gone. Indeed, the distance from sickening amateur trash to commercially successful horror movies is as short as that from Ivanky to Mudaky and to the most recent festival hits.

There is a recent tendency for people to speak at various events and repeat the formula of contemporary art which each one of us has uttered at least once in our lifetime: “Oh my, I would have done a better job!” or “My grandmother would paint a better picture.” But for some reason none of us does it. And those who do turn out to be capable of showing our life from a special angle.

 

OPINIONS

 

 

 

Borys Hryshkevych, finalist of the Life in a Day competition:

 

 

“With the arrival of the Internet, the amateur filmmaking trend spread like wild fire. This made things a lot more difficult for artists due to tougher competition and a flood of spam. However despite these drawbacks, this is a real way of making yourself known. Of course, one should approach it in a professional manner. You shouldn’t think that amateur filmmaking will become the alternative in the conditions of ‘nearly missing’ Ukrainian cinema. Rather, it’s a springboard for future filmmakers who do not have education in this area. The [Life in a Day] competition has a high profile owing to its organizers, in particular Ridley Scott and YouTube. However, despite a large number of participants and serious competition, it is too early to make any conclusions. It will all become clear after the premiere.

“The rules of the competition gave me a wonderful opportunity to get a grip on myself and complete at least one of my filmmaking projects. I have always dreamed of making such a documentary. Of course were not directors and cameramen of world renown, but it’s hard to call us amateurs, either. The lottery has given us an opportunity to make ourselves known which I’m very happy about.”

Myroslav Slaboshpytsky, film director:

“That the film by Borys Hryshkevych has been shortlisted is very important: now people in Park City, the location of the Sundance Film Festival and one of the most elite places of the cinema world, will learn about Ukraine. In the conditions of a financial crisis, production costs go down, which makes it possible to produce totally independent films. However, a YouTube blowjob video and Brian de Palma’s digital film Redacted are very different in their artistic quality. In this sense amateurs are amateurs and artists are artists. In cinema or video production, equipment does not make a huge difference. What makes the difference is the content. Sundance, the Berlin Festival and the Rotterdam Festival that were held early in the year were some of the first ones … to accept films on digital carriers for competition.

“YouTube is not as simple as it seems at first glance. For example, in Russia, where there is no link between the government and society, there was a lot of fuss about the video with Major Dimosky in which this provincial police officer addressed [Vladimir] Putin, telling him about abuse in his police department. This story inspired successors, and similar video appeals were posted by policemen and farmers. One month later, Major Dimovsky was already giving a press conference. YouTube played an important role of a social elevator. Similar things happened in the USA. Regarding art objects, micro-YouTubes have already sprung up. Online festivals grow like mushrooms after rain and are likely to continue to develop in the near future.”

 


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