Named after the dystopian novel by Andrei Platonov, which imagined Russian culture as building its own mass grave, The Foundation Pit (Kotlovan) is a remarkable state-of-the-nation address. Built entirely from YouTube videos in which Russian citizens directly lay their complaints to President Vladimir Putin, it is an enraging, humorous, blistering, panoramic view of the contemporary nation. The film premiered in Berlin in the Panorama Documentary section. We talked to Director Andrey Gryazev about the inspiration behind the film, the current political situation in Russia, the new internet sovereignty law and why Vladimir Putin is a bit like Santa Claus.
What inspired you to make a film that consists entirely of YouTube videos?
My last film, Tomorrow, was made in 2012. Its world premiere took place in Berlin. After that, no matter which project I started, each got into some kind of trouble. During one project, Russian producers advised me not to talk about this topic out loud. In another case they could not get official permission to shoot. Then in the third case we could not raise enough money through crowdfunding.
There was also a feature film script on the table, co-written with Cannes winner Oleg Negin (co-writer on Leviathan). Despite big co-production with 5 countries, we could not find a Russian investor. At some point, I got a desire to find a universal and simple form of expression. It’s like someone, after visiting a contemporary art exhibition, saying: “It’s so easy. I can do that too.”
And the topic was just in the air all this time. It escalated due to the meaningless summer elections to the Moscow State Duma. When opposition representatives were not allowed to run, people protested in the streets to put demands on the president. These events pushed the theme of unification. My desire was to understand the motivation of these people. And since the form was intended to be simple, it was necessary to remove oneself as a director from the production of the material. I turned to YouTube channels in search of video messages to the president of Russia.
How did you find all these videos? What does the search process look like?
I started with a simple search query: “Video message to President Putin”. After a few days, I reached the end of the list and decided that there are no more videos of this kind on YouTube, so I just capitalised the P in President and hundreds of new videos turned up. Even a dot in a query matters a lot. There is a big difference between “VV Putin“ (Vladimir Vladimirovich) and “V.V. Putin”. I had to put myself in the position of the person who filmed and put the video on YouTube and gave it whatever title. Then I started to notice the difference between real honest messages and scripted, broadcasted TV channel recordings.
How long did it take and how many videos were not used in the end?
It is a pretty long process. It took several months. It’s hard to tell the exact amount of footage, but it’s around 80-90 hours of live recordings. Some videos lasted less than a minute, others went up to 10-20 minutes. In the end there were thousands of messages. The first montage was three hours long. It was fascinating but also felt like standing in the same spot on a Ferris wheel. It’s interesting but it’s not going anywhere. In the final version there are around 130-140 addresses.
What were you looking for in each video? Were there certain topics or questions that you were aiming for.
Each video showed a clear dramaturgical line. A slow or a very quick dive-in, when the greeting is either a polite address or a curse. Then the middle part: some frustration or description of a particular problem or demand. Then when everything is said and emotions are wasted, the third part begins, when the person filming hasn’t yet decided if they have to switch the camera off or not. At this point spontaneous thoughts emerge. They ask themselves or the nation rhetorical questions. And by this principle, when you don’t take the personal part with descriptions of problems, but the impersonal and emotional part, the montage was put together. Because it’s not the topic that unites people, but emotions and experiences.
I would say that the material for the film was “made” by the authorities in Russia.
How long did it take you to edit the film?
It took two months, around the clock. It was impossible to step out of the zone and to switch to something else. Every single character and his scream was staying in my head. Each character needed to be thoroughly studied so that the scripted material and hype videos for likes would not make it into the film.
In the credits you are listed as author, editor and producer. Can you say it is your personal project?
I would say that the material for the film was “made” by the authorities in Russia. Citizens of the Russian Federation filmed it. And I just packed it in a beautiful wrapper and translated the messages into the cinema language by creating the metaphor of the foundation pit. I give the name of each video, the date it was uploaded on YouTube, and the number of views. This is a tribute to these people. Without them, there would be no movie. 90% of all videos contained a message that any person who sees this video can convey to the public and distribute it in any way.
What are your thoughts and feelings about the “Sovereign Internet” law in Russia? Will YouTube stay independent?
This law did not come from nothing. A whole chain of legislative initiatives led to it. For example, The Law on Oblivion on the Internet, according to which any information can be permanently deleted from the Internet on demand. There’s also the Law on Insulting a Representative of Authority. This is the introduction of censorship at the legislative level and its inclusion in the legal field. Therefore, the “Sovereign Internet” is today’s inevitability, which cannot be changed in our reality. But if you project the direction of these laws, YouTube will not fit into the concept of a “Sovereign Internet”.
Do you think that a new political hero like Alexei Navalny might be born on YouTube? He started on LiveJournal…
From many past historical events in Russia (in Soviet and modern) we know that any opposition figure, if they are not behind bars, has at least some connection with the authorities. Or the government has control over this figure for as long as it is profitable for the government. This is called a controlled protest. Therefore, the further emergence of such people is, first of all, the backstage work of individual state bodies. It is impossible to imagine that the authorities allowed the emergence of an independent and uncontrolled opposition. If someone appears, then someone needs it. In Russia, there are different opinions about Navalny. Especially about his recent statements supporting the president in his initiative to amend the Constitution of the Russian Federation.
Why doesn’t your movie include any LGBT perspectives?
These topics did not occur in the messages to the president. The LGBT community has long had a fear of entering any public field because such communities have been intimidated, fragmented and deleted on the Internet. A unified community simply does not exist in the media space. Like they used to say before: “There is no sex in the USSR!”
People do turn to Putin in the public sphere, for example during his annual Direct Line. Do you think these people believe that he has the power to help them, or is their appeal rhetorical?
There is a big difference in these messages. It can be explained by the example of Santa Claus, or as we call him, Father Frost. There are children who know that Santa Claus is really mom and dad and whether they receive a gift or not depends on them. This is how the official direct line works, which demonstrates a certain order — if there is faith and hope, the problem will be solved. For the authorities the main thing is to show that the system is working.
But there are children who write to Santa Claus, but receive something else: a letter instead of a gift, or nothing at all. For such people, as a rule, faith disappears, but after all, desires and needs do not go anywhere. This is especially true when the presentation of gifts occurs more than once a year, unlike the New Year’s holiday. And self-deception often happens: maybe Santa Claus doesn’t know, or he has the wrong address, or it just doesn’t work out for me? From the outside, this may seem like a pointless attempt to go through a locked door — a rhetorical question in a video message. But if you look from the person’s side, then this faith is the meaning that justifies his existence. Belief in the game always gives hope for a result. Only this game was not invented by the person himself, and the rules are constantly being changed.
All hope comes from the side of the authorities but in reality, it is as unattainable as an ephemeral concept of love or happiness.
What emotional changes did you go through while making the movie? Did something change about your view of structural problems in Russia? Do you feel worse about it now or did a new sense of hope emerge after you finished the film?
When I started tackling this topic, I was well aware of the structure of power and its tasks and the language that authorities use to speak to the people. The authorities have long called things by their proper names. The slogan “We are building a strong state” says that the authorities do not need weak people. A kind of natural selection. The strongest survive and only the strongest will be included in the concept of a strong state. We already practically live in a country different to the one that existed in the 90s or from 2000 to 2020. USSR 2.0 is already here. Amendments to the Constitution will be adopted in April. One of these amendments says a lot — it is the priority of Russian over international law.
There will be fewer problems not because they will be solved, but because the government has learned over time to hide the unnecessary things. The credits at the end of the film show this too. The film includes only 2 videos from 2014: both on the topic of events in Ukraine. I almost did not see video messages to the president that dated from 2014. The substantial amount comes from 2013 and 2012. Does this mean that suddenly in 2014 there were fewer problems?
After the work on the film was completed, a fact formed: all hope comes from the side of the authorities but in reality, it is as unattainable as an ephemeral concept of love or happiness. On the contrary faith and hope in positive changes kill critical thinking and lead us away from real problems.
At the beginning of the film, the reports of state channels alternate with the videos of eyewitnesses. Do you think that most people no longer believe the propaganda?
People’s memory is erased very quickly. According to psychologists, up to 90% of the Russian population suffers from the learned helplessness syndrome. In Putin’s Russia, the splitting of consciousness has become the main tool for suppressing civic will. Mao Zedong once claimed that “The folk is a blank sheet of paper on which you can draw any character”. The Russian people are a white screen on which any movie can be shown. In Russia, the word propaganda itself has an inverted meaning. There is a certain course that the country is following, and the word “propaganda” has for a long time only been used in the context of the foreign media’s influence. People live in a propaganda state while they do not comprehend that it exists. This allows the authorities to make the same promises and use the same words every year or every 6-year presidential cycle. The film allows you to see the last ten years and reflect on the future for comparison.
The more we believe in a brighter future, the deeper we dig a pit under it.
Do you agree with the idea of Platonov’s novel about the essence of the USSR / Russia? Or do you see the future of Russia in a more positive way?
I not only agree, but I am sympathetic towards it. The more we believe in a brighter future, the deeper we dig a pit under it. We are at the bottom of this pit. The horizon is moving farther away from us, and it is not possible anymore to reach it.
Finally, how do you see the future of independent documentary films in Russia?
Independent cinema in Russia only survives thanks to co-production with Western countries. But this trend can change. It seems to me that the future will be different — especially the speed of creation of the films because the texture in our time is rapidly changing and disappearing. In a country where independent journalism is virtually absent, documentary films should fill this niche, recording and reflecting life here and now. This is the main condition for its development. The uniqueness of the topics and view of the problems. This is our advantage and our main difference from the rest of the world.
Translation from Russian and additional editing by Maria Trofimova.