Anatomy of violence: “Manifesto” at the goEast Festival of Central and Eastern European Film4 min read

 In Review, Reviews, Russia

Using hundreds of social media video clips, the documentary Manifesto presents an intrusive panopticon of the violence, indoctrination, and despair youth face in Putin’s Russia.

At the beginning is an alarm bell. In the early morning, thousands of children across Russia are awoken on-time up to embark on their journey to school. The first minutes of Angie Vinchito’s Manifesto capture the mundane preparation for a long school day and the way to school on a dark winter day. These early scenes, however, don’t follow a carefully created set and script. Instead, the early minutes of the film rely on a collage of home-made videos by dozens of schoolchildren – the average age is 13 years – shared over different social-media platforms and collected by the director.

This collage technique consisting of various social media videos is skilfully applied throughout the film. Although hundreds of different videos are used, the first minutes evoke an illusionary unity of time and space, namely of an ordinary school-day in a mid-sized town in Russia. Only the epilogue reveals the width of the material, with the footage dating between 2015 and 2021 and the location ranging from Tatarstan and Chechnya to the suburbs of Moscow. 

Very quickly, the audience’s first impression of a peaceful and solemn day in school is shattered. Over the following 60 minutes, the audio-visual vignettes turn more and more brutal, dissecting the lived experience of violence and militarisation.

Within the school building, the video material displays a shocking degree of sexual abuse and aggression of teachers towards their students. The videos were often clandestinely recorded while a teacher violently punishes a pupil in front of his classmates. Despite this repressive atmosphere, the documentary also leaves space for small acts of resistance. For instance, a young girl is shown writing “Путин вор” (En.: Putin is a thief) on the board. This circle of violence continues with the reaction of the teacher, who blatantly states that “for that, in Soviet times, there would have been an execution.”

The selected material not only depicts the ideological influence and physical abuse Russian schoolchildren have to experience, but also sheds a light on the conditioning for violence and tacit militarisation. Marching-trainings and the constant simulation of emergencies create a surreal atmosphere, which makes it difficult for the viewer to tell reality from simulation. This is particularly the case when the violence exercised by the school authorities backfires in the form of school shootings, which figure as an explicit and violent climax of the movie.

One could justifiably question the need to show this violent and shocking material. However, the selection by Vinchito, whose name presumably is a pseudonym, provides for a more subtle analysis and interpretation of the contemporary Russian condition. Resonating with the movie’s title, the second half starts with a fast-paced collection of Tik-Tok videos, which were disseminated to mobilise for the protests on 23 January 2021 in reaction to the arrest of Alexei Navalny and the publication of his investigation on Putin’s secret luxury mansion on the Black Sea coast. The young voices speaking in the video are unified by a sense of urgency and determination to change their own future. This short sequence of hope and agency, however, is quickly broken by the succeeding videos of police raids, public confession, and apologies of protesters who were detained by police forces.

In hindsight, this failed mobilisation attempt in early 2021, together with the protests occuring in February 2022, can be seen as a last attempt to organise a mass demonstrations by Russian activists and the civil society in light of ever increasing repression and violence. While the title of the documentary, which world-premiered to great acclaim in 2022 at the International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam, might suggest a counterpoint to this dynamic, the closing scene strikes a rather pessimistic tone. Two teenagers film how they, highly intoxicated, use different guns, targeting household objects and a police car on the street. Awaiting the arrival of the special police, the couple sits in the dark, deliberating a collective suicide. After a nerve-stretching minute of silence, the sound of two shots leaves the viewer in shock facing the black screen. With the sound of an alarm bell disturbing the silence, the documentary powerfully suggests that the cycle of violence is to continue.

Feature Image: Manifesto
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