Documentary Filmmakers and Journalists in Central and Eastern Europe under Growing Pressure

23. 3. 2018

Author: Martin Svoboda

Estonian producer Max Tuula, Polish filmmaker Konrad Szołajski, Azerbaijani TV Executive Editor for Features Kenan Aliyev, Bulgarian filmmaker Vesela Kazakova, and Czech filmmaker and producer Filip Remunda attended Prague's East Doc Platform discussion “New Resistance”, organized by the Institute of Documentary Film.

These filmmakers and journalists are long-time observers and commentators of the local political and social situation and struggles. Their work often deals with topics such as the post-communist legacy of the Iron Curtain era and Russia’s influence on its former satellites. These ghosts not only fail to fade away but seem to be gaining in prominence and influence. A dark cloud was hanging over the panel discussion. The recent assassination of Slovak journalist Ján Kuciak (27) and his partner has sent shockwaves throughout Central and Eastern Europe. This unprecedented act is still under investigation and suspects include an Italian organized crime group cooperating with high-ranking Slovak officials.

The situation in Poland is difficult and not very optimistic. But there’s one thing I should stress: Nobody has ever been killed. People have been beaten up and arrested but nothing like what we’ve just seen in Slovakia. This has really been a shock,” said Szołajski. “Even though we are very divided in Poland, we all agree that this is horrible.”

Aliyev then explained that investigative journalism is the most dangerous part of the job and all cases of violence of this kind must be harshly condemned by society. “It is sad to see this happening in Central Europe where we believed society was past these threats,” said Aliyev. “But you can still do something about it. You have elected governments, unlike in Azerbaijan where the president appoints his family members to the parliament. You have institutions that are able to challenge this situation. People who committed this crime must be punished and society must remain strong.”

Two weeks ago, nobody would have guessed there could be a discussion on these topics. “This is only comparable to Russia,” claims Remunda, a progressive Czech filmmaker and producer. “This is over the line. And if this happens a second time and then again, journalists and documentary filmmakers will see it as something that could happen to them. And we’ll enter the age of self-censorship,” warns Remunda. “Fortunately, journalists in Slovakia reacted fearlessly, they published Kuciak’s unfinished story and committed themselves to continuing their deceased colleague’s work.

For the sake of the debate, documentary filmmaking and journalism were banded together. In the Czech Republic and other countries in the region, documentaries are very often an outcome of social or political activism and usually take form of a visual essay comparable to TV reports. The border between journalism and documentary filmmaking is finer than it might be elsewhere.

Max Tuula, who produced a documentary about the Russian dissident Oleg Sentsov, then shared his experience of working inside the borders of Putin’s regime. “Last time we were lucky and nothing happened, even though we knew Oleg’s phone was tapped but before that we worked on another project in Moscow and one early morning, the police came to search our apartment. They took our computers and hardware as evidence for some investigation.

Not all problems come from Russia. There are plenty of local threats to democracy. In Poland, conservative parties have taken over and are currently trying to control public space. Konrad Szołajski talked about the growing level of censorship after the state has tightened its grip over the Polish Film Institute and public TV. “There is neither a prosecutor nor a judge. Filmmakers simply don’t have a chance to get the money they need to make their film.” Small national markets are not a place where documentaries can survive alongside commercial competition. With no state funding, most documentaries could never be made.

Most countries in Central and Eastern Europe have state funding in place that officially should not be political. But in cases such as Poland, state influence has been growing. “Getting funding has been more and more challenging but we manage to survive thanks to, for instance, one of the independent TV networks owned by Americans. Political pressure doesn’t affect it because U.S. diplomacy is involved,” explains Szołajski. Another possibility for independent filmmakers is international funding. “This form of censorship is nothing new, it slowly started eight years ago when right-wing parties started taking over. But lately the situation has been escalating.

Szołajski was able to secure Scandinavian funding for his latest project but he had to persuade the producers that his work would be internationally relevant. That can be problematic because local issues mostly do not have any international appeal. Some dissidents and topics are internationally “popular” but most of them are not.

In the case of Poland, we see a strange paradox. Polish documentaries (Communion, Over the Limit, Close Ties) are among the most successful at the international festival market. That’s because Polish filmmakers know how to include universal appeal. On the other hand, this approach can develop a blind spot to local problems that are not properly addressed. The European Union and its funding schemes may offer the last hope in this case.

Kenan Aliyev is executive editor of the new independent Current Time TV that broadcasts in Russian for all of Eastern Europe. “We are funded by Americans but the mechanism was established in such a way that it would be impossible for the U.S. government to influence the content. In the time of fake news, we guarantee the flow of fact-checked information for Russian-speaking audience all over Eastern Europe.” Aliyev’s goal is to show the kind of documentaries that cannot be broadcast in any Russian television. “The Russian government spends millions on documentaries, they know this medium can be very important. But these films are just a part of propaganda. We need to offer an alternative,” says Aliyev.

Vesela Kazakova makes documentaries about communist structures surviving in Bulgaria. “There is a lot of fear when it comes to this topic. After the premiere of our last film The Beast Is Still Alive, the country was on fire – it stirred up some strong emotions. We’ve been told some terrible things even by elected officials. They tried to have us sued because of copyright issues, which was of course an artificial problem to make us look like criminals. With our next film Uncle Tony, we already managed to generate some public interest outside Bulgaria, which made many people furious.”

Of course, Central and Eastern Europe is not a monolithic space and the situation in every country is different. The Czech system is among the most independent ones in the region. Remunda explained that the state fund is run by experts and operates separately from the government. The same goes for Czech TV that has since 1989 served as a major partner for independent documentary films. There are useful nonprofit organizations like the Institute of Documentary Film (which sponsors this article and organizes the East Doc Platform). “When I talk to filmmakers in the East but often also in the West, they can’t believe how easy it is for Czech crews to get access to the prime minister or president. We are just used to it.” But there is some pressure to change it. “Lately, the newly elected populists have been saying that the state should get more control over these independent institutions, especially Czech TV. And it is not impossible for them to succeed in the current environment. That must never happen,” warns Remunda.

Documentaries are not a very influential medium in Poland,” says Szołajski. “There are too many forms of entertainment and sources of information. Documentaries affect neither everyday reality nor the government. But it is nevertheless important to document the events of our time. Even during communism, Polish filmmakers quite freely documented almost everything because Lenin said it was a great idea. Of course, the films were immediately banned and locked away. But they were preserved for the next generation and today they are the source of important knowledge. The most important parts of Polish history, including some very disturbing events, are recorded. So even if today the importance of documentaries seems to be at a low point, they should still be made. They can be useful later.

Remunda adds that “it is important for documentary to capture reality, but for me it is just as important to capture the personal view and poetics of the author. That’s what separates documentary filmmaking from journalism.”

The discussion was quite pessimistic and emotional after the recent events. And even though the situation in each country in the region is different, they have a few things in common. Internal and external forces have been pushing institutions that should guarantee free exchange of information over the cliff. These institutions can be state funds, public TV networks but, in the end, this also includes filmmakers and journalists themselves. The upcoming times won't be easy.

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