Denis Klebleev: Documentary is when one fails or not

Today I’ve invited for an interview Denis Klebleev – a young Russian documentary filmmaker, the winner of Artdocfest documentary film festival with his documentary “31st Haul” (best feature documentary nomination) and one of the creators the “Winter Go Away” documentary about the last winter protests in Russia. “Winter Go Away” documentary was an official selection of Locarno Film Festival, 2012.

denis_klebleevZ: Denis, you are the writer, director, editor and cameraman for your film. So, we are in a situation when a filmmaker needs to be competent in many areas in order to stay afloat and be financially independent from film industry. This has become the norm around the world. Tell me how do you do it?

D: To make a movie entirely by myself was the main requirement imposed on the diploma project by my master Marina Razbezhkina. For me, this requirement was pretty natural, because I always search for stories in real life and love to shoot by myself. Technologies have now reached a point where filmmakers can be completely autonomous. A good story, a small video camera and a laptop – that’s all I needed to make this movie.

Z: In order to shoot your movie “31st Haul” you went to Kamchatka Peninsula. Your heroes are long distance drivers,  Juri and Vitaly, who complete their 31st supply haul to a settlement of 2000 inhabitants cut off from the outside world by kilometers of impassable swamps and mountain passes. On their way the land rover breaks, Murphy’s Law at work, a plot device that allows you to tell a story about human relationships. What do you think was important for you as a director to show in your characters? How did you organically capture their lives?

D: My characters make heroic deeds every day, in a manner they do or die.  For them this type of life has become routine like household thing or peeling potatoes. I wanted to convey this about them. For example, to start a several ton land rover by pushing is a trivial thing for them.
My characters behaved naturally initially. It was important not to startle them. It could be difficult if I hold a bulky professional video camera, crew and so on. Instead, I was alone with a small camera. Besides that, I had already gained experience as a street photographer and knew how anticipate a frame unnoticeably.

Z: Why did you decide to shoot in Kamchatka? (Russian territory near Japanese border)

D: There are places where one can feel an incredible concentration of life, rich of human stories. The environment smells like a movie there. When I first arrived to Kamchatka I immediately felt that it was my place – dangerous, brutal and at the same time incredibly romantic.

Z: What is your method to get a stream of life, immerse the viewer’s attention in what is happening on the screen, in other words, to create “a sense of presence”, in the context of Richard Leacock’s term?

D: I never intervene in this stream of life. It must be treated carefully so that it does not break. And if there is life on the screen that is happening and flowing properly, the viewer will be immersed in it himself.

Z: Tell me a little bit about your working process. How do you decide on the right material from everyday life? Do you foresee episodes while you’re filming or do you craft your story in postproduction by selecting potentially winning moments that define the story?

D: The selection of material relies on a simple principle. Whether it works in the overall structure of the film or not and how much the material is interesting in itself.

Z: How do you get close to the characters, at which point do they not notice the camera? Is there some kind of universal rules as to how one makes oneself unnoticeable or does everything depend on situation?
D: There is no difference in approach between a character in documentary and an interesting person in real life. There are no specific strategies and tricks. All people have some unnamed organ that allows us to read each other unconsciously. The most important thing is a genuine interest in the person, the thrill or whatever you can call it, to his story. And if you have it, the character is yours.
My characters stopped noticing the camera quite quickly. First of all, they were very involved in their lives and my existence was simply the last thing they were caring about. Secondly, my camera is really unnoticeable – a small, black thing.

Z: How did you prepare for the shooting? What should a filmmaker have in his pocket when shooting?

D: My kit consisted of a small digital HD-camera, 6 pre-charged batteries of a high capacity, 2 shockproof hard drives and a laptop to copy materials. Well, also optic cleaners because it was very dusty there.
The one thing that saved my life during the filming was mosquito repellent.

Z: What was important to know about your characters before the shooting?

D: I did not have a pre-written script before the shooting I only had a sense of density for the film. During filming, I started to design the movie in my head and each day of shooting this design changed and looked different. In this process I see the main drive a documentary filmmaker has; when you imagined that it should be like this but in real life it is a thousand times different. Life is always a better scriptwriter than I am.

Z: What do you think is happening now in Russian documentary filmmaking? Are there new forms of expression, which might lead to some interesting results – the birth of something new- a paradigm shift, when the movies again have an influence on minds and reflect the social processes in the society?

D: In Russian documentary filmmaking there is some good guys who are trying to come up with new forms and are not afraid to experiment. For example, the duo Alexander Rastorguev – Pavel Kostomarov and their movie “I Love You”. They hand out small digital cameras to their characters, so that they can film their lives every day.  All of this turned out to be a quite interesting movie.

Z: How do you manage to combine the social aspect with the artistic expression in your message as a filmmaker? Let’s say we are dealing with a cast of reality. We’ve got our characters, got the story and on the screen everything looks like a documentary but we all know that in spite of formal features it has nothing do with cinema. Conversely, sometimes we shoot a household story, but there metaphysics appears. Where is the line for you as an author between film and not film?

D: Documentary is when one fails or not. I do not know how to say it more precisely.

The excerpt from the documentary “31st Haul” by Denis Klebleev


About zinasemenova

Russian filmmaker and blogger at

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