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In the Basement
Still from Ulrich Seidl's "In the Basement"

Daring documentaries challenge Russia's status quo

With artistic freedoms continually restricted by the Government, Russian filmmakers are taking a stand at the Message to Man Film Festival

With free expression under threat more and more by the day in Russia, it's a hard task for Saint Petersburg's Message to Man Film Festival to live up to its name. Focused on documentary but also showing shorts, animation and recent global festival circuit highlights that push the boundaries of the medium, the event has a rep for being less willing to pander to the state than the Moscow International Film Festival, and is in the tough position of reconciling funding problems and the fragility of its very existence with the sincere desire to retain a humane, open-minded vision and challenge audiences. At the opening press conference the question was posed outright as to whether the festival organisers would make a public declaration in protest against the current political situation in Ukraine. Its 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. And did they? While Sergei Loznitsa's Cannes-wowing Kiev revolution portrait Maidan was noticeably missing, and invited Ukrainian directing legend Kira Muratova in a strong message of her own boycotted the festival, audiences came together around a selection of bitingly honest films that felt all the more important because of the feeling in the city that artistic freedom is under siege from a government intent on taking it back toward Soviet times. A couple of highlights below can also be caught at the London Film Festival next week.

ALINA RUDNITSKAYA'S BLOOD (2013)

Not afraid to show financial desperation in its crudest form, documentary-maker Alina Rudnitskaya travelled with a mobile blood collection team to donor stations in the regions outside her hometown of Saint Petersburg, where locals queue to offer up their veins and score the 850 rubles in pay that for some is their only source of income. The film's been praised both in and outside Russia for its raw, intimate depiction and grotesque, absurdist comedy, as nurses grapple with burly, fainting men and relive the job's stresses with booze-soaked escapades that blur into the next day. It's the same tragicomic humour that buoyed up her prior socially incisive shorts about the new Russia such as 2007's Bitch Academy, about a school for women wanting to attract loaded oligarch husbands.

RUDNITSKAYA'S LGBT RIGHTS PROJECT

Rudnitskaya's latest brave project, set to premiere at this month's DOK Leipzig festival, could be her most controversial yet. When I met up with her, she'd rushed from just finishing up on it in the editing room, helped out by friends willing to volunteer their time despite the lack of funding support. The half-hour documentary, she told me, features several gay couples talking about their lives in Russia and feelings about the new "gay propaganda" law passed last year by the state curbing LGBT rights. These scenes are intercut with scenes from the annual patriotic May 9th parade – a vision of a state harking back to the Soviet era in its repressive tendencies. While her cameraman insisted his name be left from the credits due to fear of repercussions, Rudnitskaya told me any fear she has pales beside the need to speak up. "People don't live in the society, they live in the shelters of the society and they have to hide their lives," she said.

Blood screens at the London Film Festival on 10 October

ULRICH SEIDL'S IN THE BASEMENT (2014)

What Austrians get up to secluded from the public eye was the subject of Paradise trilogy director Ulrich Seidl's latest vexation – but rather than suggesting the lives of the marginal outside society's narrow codes we get the sense that bourgeois hypocrisy reigns supreme and anything goes - so long as it's out of sight in homes' secluded cellar zones. Sensationalising his subjects into a bizarre gallery of grotesques, the Austrian auteur with his typical pitch-black humour confronts us with portraits of citizens engaging in a range of compulsions and hobbies in their basements – from an S&M mistress and her slave to a tuba-player whose friends visit for beer-drinking sessions amid his wall-to-wall Nazi memorabilia to a woman who tends a latex baby as if it were real. 

Tapping stereotypes for viewers whose imaginations have been flamed by the Fritzl kidnapping and imprisonment case, Seidl revels in a kind of tongue-in-cheek provocation that becomes almost radical therapy in challenging audiences to gauge how much is realism and where their denial should begin and end. Raucously received by a packed audience in Saint Petersburg fresh off its Venice premiere, the film offered back-to-front reassurance of a kind that, if we can't have global peace and acceptance, at least societal fucked-upness is probably universal. 

In the Basement screens at the London Film Festival at BFI Southbank from 10 to 16 October