Documentary maker Alina Rudnitskaya travelled in regional Russia filming a medical team as it collected blood from donors and measured it by the bucket. The result is Blood, a film that's been praised both within and outside Russia for its raw, shocking honesty and absurdist humour. Nurses grapple matter-of-factly with the fainting undernourished who've joined the queues, and relieve the stresses of the day with booze-soaked evening jaunts.
It's the second in a proposed triptych of hospital films for the 37-year-old St Petersburg Documentary Film Studio director, whose other brave and socially incisive depictions of Russia — such as the short Bitch Academy (2008), about a school for women wanting to attract millionaire husbands — have also shown Russians struggling to live with dignity in a politically trying climate rife with desperation.
Film critic Carmen Gray spoke to Rudnitskaya at the Message to Man film festival in St Petersburg where Blood was screening last week. The hour-long black-and-white film is set to show at the London Film Festival at the ICA tomorrow, together with Cristina Picchi's short Zima (Winter), which depicts life in the Siberian winter. Blood will also be screened at Brixton’s Ritzy Cinema on 13 October 2014.
The Calvert Journal: In Blood we see that donating blood is an important source of income for many. How important was it for you to show this?
Alina Rudnitskaya: I saw a lot of people queuing to donate blood — people were travelling pretty far to do it. The fact people have to support themselves like this indicates the state of society in general. It's nonsense that there are not enough jobs to provide people with minimum wages. In the middle of shooting, a new law appeared in Russia forbidding the donation of blood for money, but by the end of the editing process, the law had been cancelled because there were not enough people to donate blood for free. The law existed for only five months but the situation was absolutely terrible. There were a lot of demonstrations because there was no blood in the hospitals, and if you went for an operation you had to bring five people with you as donors, otherwise no operation.
TCJ: It's your second film set in a hospital, after I Will Forget This Day…
AR: Yes, we wanted to make that on 35mm but we had a really, really small amount of it, so we came up with the idea of just filming the faces of the women five minutes before they go into the surgery room to get an abortion. These films are not just about medical treatment or health but human relationships in these circumstances. I want to film a triptych about hospitals and make a third film about IV pregnancy, because every third family in Russia experiences problems with women getting pregnant. But I'm not sure I want to film in hospitals anymore as it's too difficult from a psychological point of view. I spent a month in hospital myself after filming Blood as I got a little bit obsessed with the possibility of catching a disease, so finally I started to get real symptoms, a slight fever and so on, but after a series of tests they told me it was just psychosomatic.
TCJ: Blood is empathetic but also has shades of the comic and grotesque. Whose films are you influenced by?
AR: For me that's the best way to express life itself because there are many tragic things that can make us laugh and funny things that can make us cry. I got this perception from directors like Miloš Forman and Federico Fellini.
TCJ: The film reveals a lot about the donation team's behaviour on the road. What did they think of it?
AR: They didn't like it. It won the prize at a festival so the sponsors got to immediately show it on their channel before the protagonists had seen the final cut. The next morning it had already been downloaded from the internet and was on the computer of the hospital chief. The central woman consequently lost her job, but because I was responsible for the situation in a way, I paid her compensation until she got another one. I feel really terrible but I did tell her that she’d been aware of everything I’d shot. She said she didn't think I could put it all in the film.
TCJ: There is a lot of drinking and swearing in Blood. If you were trying to make it now would you have big problems with the new obscenity law that limits what you can depict?
AR: There are two kinds of censorship here in Russia. The first is like semi-censorship — that you shouldn't show people smoking or drinking — but that's more a problem for fictional films. I have experienced problems with the obscene language in my films — Message to Man is the only festival where they didn't require that I cut it out. The other kind is that the state still gives money to producers, and producers just pick the projects that are going to be liked by the state — something about children, happiness, or hope. If you submit some harsh, socially critical project, they are very likely to refuse. I applied for a state grant for Blood, but they didn't accept, because they felt it would make Russia look bad. As I had a really, really small budget I had to shoot really close to St Petersburg.
TCJ: Do you feel optimistic about where Russian cinema is heading, despite the current restrictions?
AR: The good thing is that we have a number of young, respected directors, like Andrey Zvyagintsev for instance. And there is a school in Moscow taught by Marina Razbezhkina which creates a community of filmmakers that support each other. They have this interaction going on all the time and they get great results because of that. Filmmakers in Russia should just stick together and help each other.
TCJ: What are you working on now?
AR: The Russian LGBT film festival Side By Side asked five directors to film a ten-minute piece about the festival. I made two variants — one for them and another 30-minute short that will premiere at DOK Leipzig, which features interviews with several gay couples.
TCJ: Were they worried about speaking on camera?
AR: Yes, it was hard to find couples ready to talk but we worked through an LGBT organisation. They talk about their life generally and how they felt after the law about gay propaganda was passed. It's terrible — every day there's a new law and you don't know which one will be worse. Segments of the film also show the 9 May parade because that's one of the big annual events that celebrate patriotism. I got a feeling of the calm before the storm, like the situation in 1939 before the war. Gay people don't live in society, they have to find shelters within it and hide their lives, while in their own country more weapons are being built up against them.
TCJ: Do you think this will play at any festivals inside Russia?
AR: No. It's too dangerous. My cameraman said he didn't want to be in the credits because he was afraid that a lot of aggressive people might call him.
TCJ: And you?
AR: I'm a little bit frightened but I'm not thinking about this now. I need to do something. Nobody in Russia should feel separated from what's happening. Why does the political regime think it can just make laws and tell people what to do and what not to do? To some extent it's been possible for us not to think about this tendency, with people saying this propaganda has nothing to do with us, but then I had some friends who lost money after banks started to go bankrupt because of the economic sanctions from the EU and finally the situation affected them. The same friends when they saw Blood realised they should be concerned about the situation, and they donated blood themselves. People are more likely to get the truth from documentary movies more than from television or other sources.