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April 1, 2005

Land of the deaf

From: St Petersburg Times, Russia - St. Petersburg,Russia - Apr 1, 2005

By Linda Werbner

Nikolai Makarov is trying to save the world - one film at a time.

The St. Petersburg-based documentary filmmaker creates films that give voice to little-known and often misunderstood communities in Russia, such as the blind and the deaf. His latest movie "Ya Glukhoi" ("I am Deaf") premiered recently at Dom Kino to critical accolades and a rousing and emotional response from the audience.

The film portrays deaf children and adults with unflinching, unsentimental honesty, highlighting the dignity and humor in their everyday lives. The lives of disabled people in Russia is often ignored in the media, reflecting a general social and political lack of awareness of the challenges they face.

There are thought to be as many as 12 million deaf and hearing-impaired people living in Russia, which represents nearly 1 percent of the population.

"I am Deaf" is the second work in a series that began with "Family of the Blind" (2001), a film which Makarov produced for television that highlights the problems of a blind couple after the birth of their first child. The films offer a sympathetic, humanist portrayal of their subjects.

"I'm an idealist," says Makarov, 50, a soft-spoken, unassuming man who has the glasses, moustache and thoughtful demeanor of a Russian intellectual. "It's a central Russian idea."

The spirituality of the fabled Russian soul is a popular refrain in Makarov's films. His subjects are often damaged people, but Makarov's lens is never pitying or paternalistic.

In "I am Deaf," he depicts a vibrant, dynamic and creative universe, a "deaf planet," as one character says, of people who act in plays, paint lyrical scenes from childhood, weld and construct ships, sing and worship, travel and tell jokes.

"In the film, one of the subjects, a talented and successful artist and teacher, reflecting on the many countries his art has taken him, says, 'Perhaps God closed my ears so I could concentrate on other things in life, in the world,'" Makarov said. "I share his viewpoint. I want to be in harmony with the world, as a director, as a human being, as a Russian."

Alexander Pozdnyakov of St. Petersburg's Lenfilm studios said: "Nikolai's films show the enigma of the Russian soul, the real Russian mentality. These are people who can do anything. Russians are so patient. They can do a job for decades and receive almost nothing in compensation. They are innocent and they believe in God."

In the final, arresting scene, a crowd of deaf people gather to salute the launching of a ship largely built by a team of deaf builders.

A bottle of champagne is smashed on the bow and the ship is launched to the cheers of the crowd. Afterward, the camera soars overhead, gently spying on the dozens of spirited, silent conversations, all done in zhestovy yazik (sign language).

Makarov describes the experience of working with the deaf community as a revelation. "Seeing how they understood the world was fascinating. I was also surprised to learn that there are many different sign languages," he said.

The film puts different sign languages from around the world into historical context and even explains the meaning behind some examples of Russian sign language.

For instance, the sign for Moscow is an awestruck face with upraised hands, mimicking the reaction of someone seeing the big city for the first time. The sign for St. Petersburg traces an imaginary moustache sported by Peter the Great.

Makarov said that making a film about the deaf community is an idea that has been simmering in his mind for decades.

His father was a professional sportsman who taught sports at an internat or boarding school for handicapped children. Years after he was an established filmmaker, Makarov repeatedly pitched the project to various production companies but was met with rejection.

Ultimately, St. Petersburg's Lennauch Film Studio agreed to sponsor the project and appealed to Moscow's Ministry of Culture for financing, which it agreed to do.

Although financing was secured, the film didn't get the green light until Makarov could find people to participate in the film. This would prove to be the biggest challenge of all.

Makarov was disheartened to receive the cold shoulder from deaf societies and schools in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Having been burned by unflattering portrayals in the past, they were less than enthusiastic to let an outsider with a camera into their world.

But eventually administrators sensed Makarov's sincerity and integrity and introduced him to the group of dynamic, upbeat people who appear in the film.

The film took a year to shoot and Makarov gathered over 20 hours of film, which he then edited into a 75- minute movie. He described this task as "painful but necessary."

The explosion in polemic documentary filmmaking in the U.S. prompted by such recent films as Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 911" and "SuperSize Me," a critique of U.S. fast food culture, doesn't impress Makarov.

Makarov characterizes Moore as a self-promoting journalist with a yen for the sensational. Unlike the agenda-driven Moore, Makarov says he tries to leave all biases and prejudices behind. "I enter each film with a tabula rasa [blank slate]."

If Makarov hadn't discovered filmmaking in his first year at the Tula Polytechnic Institute, he would probably be working as an engineer for the metro right now.

But Makarov fell in love with creating quirky celluloid vignettes with his pal and fellow film aficionado, Sergei Silyanov, who has gone on to become one of Russia's most successful producers. The pair shirked their studies, created dozens of films, and started a film club. Together, they made hundreds of short student films and participated in many student film festivals around Russia.

Makarov sent his best work to the State Institute of Cinematography or VGIK, a training ground for filmmaking in the Soviet Union. On the strength of his films, he was admitted to VGIK, where such masters of Russian film as Eisenstein and Tarkovsky studied and taught.

At VGIK, Makarov immersed himself in the craft of documentary filmmaking and garnered accolades and more than his fair share of criticism for his underground, experimental works.

Makarov was invited to the prestigious Leningrad Scientific Popular Film Production Company (Lennauch) where he created many unflinching documentaries, including "The Sea Was Opened Wide" (1987).

The film, which gets its name from a popular Russian folk song, looked at the human impact of a Soviet public works project to build an enormous dam. Many villages were submerged as a result. Makarov's film shows former inhabitants of the submerged villages traveling by boat to the site of their lost village. They beg divers to bring up something from the bottom, a brick, a piece of wood, or a cross from the local cemetery.

Makarov's documentaries explore questions of memory, time and impermanence. The main principle of documentary filmmaking, he explains, is to be a witness of an event, or a person, to "leave traces in the memory of people because life is so fleeting and changes so quickly."

"I believe there are three secrets to making a good documentary," said Makarov, who also teaches filmmaking at St. Petersburg State University for Film and Television. "You must be open to life and you must love the moment you are shooting because in the next moment, it will be gone. Above all, if you are not in love with your subject, your film will be flat and one-dimensional."

The glossy lure of feature filmmaking has never appealed to Makarov. Even in the darkest days of his career, at the end of the 1990s when the documentary film market was saturated and there was little work to be had, Makarov resisted the move. Many filmmakers either left the country or left the field altogether, according to Pozdnyakov, who characterizes Makarov as a "rare bird" in today's film world. Makarov continued making his gem-like films, feeling that there were more stories to tell.

Now Makarov is working to find a wider audience outside of Russia for "I am Deaf. After its Dom Kino premiere, the film is now in a state of limbo, a frustratingly common plight for films of this genre, Makarov acknowledges. He hopes the film will find a home on television and at various film festivals around the world.

Makarov's dream is to screen "I Am Deaf" at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., one of the few universities in the world which serves the deaf community. He is still waiting to hear from the school, after sending an email introducing himself and the film.

Despite its distribution problems, Makarov feels enriched by the experience of making "I am Deaf."

When asked what Russians can learn from the deaf community, he responds without missing a beat, "two things. First they can explore a new, hidden world and then they can learn compassion for damaged people. Wider society needs to understand the problems of the minority."

Makarov hopes that hearing audiences will discover the film because very little is known or understood about deaf society in Russia.

"The main thing I want them to take away from the film is that the deaf have the same feelings, ambitions, and fears about life as the hearing. They fall in love, they have jobs, they create art and live full, happy lives. Their language is different but the soul is the same."

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