New East Digital Archive

Beat Films: the upstart Russian heirs of documentary cinema

Meet the duo behind Russia’s best new film festivals

6 November 2017

Based in Moscow, Beat Films is the brainchild of Petersburg natives Alyona Bocharova and Kirill Sorokin. As an independent production company, Beat has worked since 2015 on creative documentaries in collaboration with Russian and foreign filmmakers, cultural institutions and brands: recent efforts include Bonfires and Stars, about cult Russian electronic musician Moa Pillar and his encounters with Circassian folk performers; and the recent Brexitannia by Timothy George Kelly, a penetrating insight into the mentality that led Britain to break from the EU. Beyond these bold young voices, Beat have also worked with heavy hitters like Werner Herzog, Nick Cave and Laurie Andersen.

It’s through their festivals, though, that Beat Films may well end up leaving a permanent mark on Russian cinema. When it comes to film festivals, Russia tends to lag behind other New East countries. With most festivals now state-run and dogged by lacklustre programming, there is an alarming discrepancy between the quality of cinema the country can turn out, and its ability to showcase domestic and international talent. Bocharova and Sorokin run two annual events: Beat Film Festival (which has both a Moscow and regional iteration) and the 360° Science and Technology Film Festival. The former focuses on modern culture and music, with the intention of engaging young people in the world of documentary; the latter provides a more educational edge along with stunning visuals. We asked the Beat founders about their work and the future of Russian documentary cinema.

How and why did you decide to set up Beat Films?

The company was built around the Beat Film Festival. We started the festival in 2010 as a small cultural initiative dedicated to documentaries on music and have grown it into one of the largest film festivals in Russia that screens high profile docs on contemporary culture. The concept was to bring forth a new cultural format that would mix film and music and appeal to young people like ourselves. We try to maintain this vibe at all levels, mixing film screenings with parties and DJ sets, round tables and master classes. For example, we brought two LCD Soundsystem members over to present the premiere of [band documentary] Shut Up And Play the Hits; we had Placebo in attendance for the world premiere of the film about their Russian adventures; we had a rare speaking appearance from Hypernormalisation director Adam Curtis; and we organised a special screening of Heart of a Dog by Laurie Anderson — for dogs.

Beat Films as a company was built to keep us and the team busy all year round, so apart from the Beat Film Festival, which takes place in May, we also do a regional showcase of the festival in 15 cities across Russia and post-Soviet states, run [360° Science and Technology Film Festival], which is a commission from the Polytechnic Museum, curate film programs for some other festivals and cultural venues and do branded events. Three years ago we joined forces with the Stereotactic filmmaking collective, and although we have separate economies, we share the same values and make each other stronger in many (secret) ways.

How would you describe your experience working in documentary film in Russia?

Back in 2010, documentaries weren’t so sexy as they are now. I believe we have contributed to promoting the genre by turning a documentary festival into a new type of urban entertainment in Moscow, where documentaries serve as a language to speak about the state of contemporary culture — from electronic music to contemporary art, sports, or media. Since we don’t have any state support, making the festival exciting and fun is the only way to sell tickets and gain sponsorship; since this is the only economy that is accessible to us, we tried to turn this into our advantage.

How would you like to direct your work in future?

It is not news that documentaries have been enjoying a growing interest worldwide in the past few years, and documentary-style video is the new black in advertising. Yet we exist within a local cultural agenda that has been quite gloomy recently, with an increasing number of cases of cultural censorship that can even lead to jailing people — like Kirill Serebrennikov. The creative economy in Russia is quite a tiny sector, yet we do and will play by its rules as long as exterior factors like laws, taxes and cultural censorship allow us to do so.

Text: Samuel Goff