Modern Social Problems in the Works of Novice Documentary Filmmakers

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The article highlights the significance of the topic of social problems among young documentary filmmakers represented at the VGIK International Student Film Festival. The author analyzes the visual and sound techniques used and reveals the interdisciplinary approach to creating an auteur documentary film.

Young documentary filmmakers cannot stay away from the challenges posed by the global problems of modern humanity. In their works, they strive to reflect the most crucial social problems associated with ecology: environmental pollution, climate change, poverty and preserving the authenticity of small ethnic groups. For instance, the documentary film “Pirana” (12 min. Director Nainisha Dedhia, National Institute of Design, India) shows endless dumps leading to environmental disaster. The documentary “Dulhaji Dolena” (28 min. Director Anita Reza Zein, Indonesian Institute of the Arts Yogyakarta, Indonesia) presents human life in the context of an unresolved environmental problem: the constant threat of flooding the village and its dwellings. Another example is the film “The End of Eternity” (10 min. Director Pablo Radice University of Buenos Aires, Argentina) about the Amazonian community of Ese Echo, based in Palma Real, Peru. If there is no forest, there will be no life and there will be no Ese-Echo, either. Ese-Echo is a language on the verge of extinction.

Hence, the importance of social problems is highlighted in the above-mentioned films. Despite the geographic remoteness of the filming areas, the filmmakers independently touch upon the pressing issues of modern mankind.

Involvement in such topics is gaining international significance. In general, the festival gives an idea of the most disturbing themes among young filmmakers, allowing us to single out the main trends in the development of modern cinema.

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The International Student Film Festival held annually at Moscow’s Gerasimov University of Cinematography (VGIK) has been an educational opportunity for novice filmmakers from many countries since 1961. It is natural that journalists, taking into consideration the esteemed reputation of this festival, often call it the “Student Oscars.” The Moscow festival allows us to distinguish the subjects that cinema students from around the world are concerned with today while also disclosing the innovative devices the filmmakers-to-be use to elucidate these issues. In 2019, 72 schools of cinematography from 37 countries sent applications for participation, and the representative jury held selection. Such quantitative indices are achieved thanks to the variety of genres included in the competition, juried categories of which include feature, documentary, animation, and multimedia films. The festival program is no less diverse. It includes master classes, competing film reviews of competing films, non-competitive and special screenings, discussion sessions with prominent directors, and minor competitions (those of scripts, paintings and graphic works, producer projects, and works in cinema studies). Analyses of works in terms of production economics, film distribution, and stage works competition are also part of the program. Still, the key event is the student film competition. Generally, it reflects the model of well-known film festivals across the globe, but the difference is that all competitors are young men and women just starting their professional career.

Another distinguishing aspect of the VGIK festival is that the competitive selection is organized in two stages. The first stage, conducted internally, considers VGIK students’ works for nomination into the international competition. The selection board is formed of Russian directors and VGIK teachers and students. The second stage, the international stage, presupposes creation of the independent jury, which consists of eminent Russian and foreign directors. In 2019, the international jury, which selected 47 student films from 37 countries, was headed by Marco Müller, a prominent producer and cinema historian. Such strict selection can give us an idea of the contemporary issues that most trouble young filmmakers. This allows us to identify some of the main tendencies in contemporary cinema.

A landfill on documentary screen

A great number of films dedicated to social problems could be seen among the works presented at the international nonfiction movie competition in 2019. The authors addressed global problems of modern society, thus marking the young generation’s interest in social problems. This phenomenon seems natural. According to G.S. Prozhiko, an expert on nonfiction cinema, “The prognostic character of the world image, its concentration at reflecting what exists but what will come to existence in the nearest or far future. We really live not in the world as it appears every this fraction of second, but in the world as it will be after some time passes. This distance makes us, human beings, creators of our reality” 1. In other words, focusing their attention on modern social problems, young directors figuratively fix dramatic aspects of their epoch’s emotional experience.

The documentary film Piranha (director Nainisha Dedhia. India, National Design Institute, 12 minutes), is most exact in its reflection of modern reality, focusing on environmental issues. The plot is dedicated to an especially urgent ecological problem: landfills. From the very beginning of this emotionally expressive film, director Nainisha Dedhia offers a subjective view of an enclosed territory, concentrating the spectator’s attention on the space filled with garbage. Meanwhile, the sounds of advertisements for these once used goods counter the images of enormous landfills. These contrasting images give the impression that the world is no more than a limitless landfill. Children are playing in the center of the trash, adults are digging into household waste, a cow is licking a calf on top of a heap of rubbish. These images bear witness to a growing ecological disaster. We are left with the idea that human lives are lived on a landfill. Birds and animals are also condemned to exist in this manmade crisis. The hum of a fly comes as an exceptionally expressive sonar element during the first few minutes of the film. This odious sound interweaves with obtrusive commercials advertising goods that are now trash. “Wake up, India!” advertisements invoke. But a new day comes, and bird flocks are still circling over the landfill. Like humans, they are also fated to live and die in these odious circumstances.

The subjective filming method used by the director, who concentrates on the most expressive characteristics of the objects filmed, allows the spectator to feel sharply what is happening. As cameraman and cinema theorist Anatoly Golovnya posited, “The camera’s point of view is as if the spectator’s point of view. When the two points of view are superposed, it creates, in most cases, the so-called presence effect, when the spectator ceases being a detached, indifferent onlooker and as if turns into an interested participant in the cinematographic action” 2. We can hardly disagree with this judgment. In nonfiction films, the camera’s methods can achieve special expressiveness. When night comes in the film, the appearing foreshortened light outline presents the illusion of living nature on a mountainous site, while really it is garbage.



Frame from Piranha (director Nainisha Dedhia, India)


The next scene of the film also presents an audiovisual contrast. The spectator sees mall shelves full of goods. Seemingly, the image would not make us think about what happens to things when they are no longer needed. But again the fly’s hum obtrusively reminds us of this question. In the film’s final act, a trash truck arrives at the landfill and leaves behind a new waste “mountain.” An impression comes that here we see a sign of quite popular, practical, and habitual solution — how to easily get rid of one of the most aggravating problems of modern society.

The author of the film has managed to delicately use such expressive instrument of artistic creation as a metaphor. According to S.P. Shevtsov, “metaphor allows us to discern one in the light of the other, whereas not analogy is intensifying, not outward comparison, but sort of a provocation, a challenge that let us look into essential qualities of the target object. So, it is well understandable that perception as a living metaphor disclosing, say, in visible things those qualities that can be known only through touch or hearing” 3. There is no narration in the film Piranha. The audience’s comprehension of this pressing social problem comes as a result of watching what is happening on screen. The film’s image of the environment plunges us into shock. It becomes evident that an ecological disaster is already in progress, while humans and animals are forced to adapt to these severe conditions. The barbed wire put around the landfill serves as a symbolic border separating our consumerist society from its monstrous consequences, the results of a neglected natural world.



Frame from Piranha (director Nainisha Dedhia, India)


Having watched this film, I was left with a firm image of consumerism as a destructive force, a reality that refuses to change consumer culture. Only humans are capable of stopping our destruction of nature. And it is not an extremely difficult task in the digital world, where any activity could potentially be automatized. Nevertheless, truck streams to landfills have not stopped, accelerating the ecological disaster. As a result, all living beings have become hostages of human indifference. It seems deliberate that the filmmaker has not singled out a main hero, so that all spectators could confront their own participation in consumerism and its harmful consequences. And in this way, Dedhia has given us a frightening modern portrait of a supposedly “faceless” reality.

Incessantly growing our consumption level requires that we also form a cultural imperative to efficiently process our waste. It is in this context that the name of the film—Piranha—carries its true meaning: “piranha” in Hindi means “suffer pain, experience sadness.” One more fact is worth noting in regards to the screening of the film at the festival. According to the author’s words, during the production process, some of her colleagues began to wonder if it was necessary to present their native land in such an unfavorable light. Practically the same question was asked while discussing the film at the festival. What if such a critical interpretation of the subject gives birth to a negative stereotype in respect to the country as presumable place of action? 4 But the novice director was sure that every country suffers from its own set of urgent problems, and the documentary image is an effective way to inform the public of such issues. In fact, the screening of her film had already brought a positive result: the director’s alma mater now no longer uses plastic tableware, as any plastic is a serious problem for waste processing. Generally speaking, the problem addressed in the film is a great deal deeper and has already reached a global scale. As the documentary cameraman and director Sergei Medynsky has fairly noted, “filmming nature and man in it, a documentary cameraperson gives their own subjective appraisal to the world objectively existing, to the facts of human activity and man—the hero of the film. The same objects are differently interpreted by different artists” 5.

Ecologic crisis problems are increasing

An essentially different theme, though also connected with ecology, is elucidated in the documentary Dulhaji Dolena (director Anita Reza Zein. Indonesia, Indonesian Institute of Arts, Yogyakarta, 28 minutes). In the film, the author reveals the plight of those living under the threat of flood. The plot of the film is simple, as the director observes the everyday life of the protagonist, Dulhaji. He is one of those whose Indonesian village Api-Api, Pekalongan in Central Java has been suffering from floods since 2008. Village life had been in full bloom before those cataclysms, but misfortunes came to the Northern part of the island of Java, and cabins were submerged. The government miscounted the scale of the catastrophe, and not only town residents but also villagers found themselves on the verge of evacuation.

Dulhaji is not cast down. In fact, his life appears to organically fits these severe conditions. He buys food at the market, cooks fruit salads, and delivers food to the threatened community members. He himself is a victim of the floods. His clothes evidence it clearly, as he is endlessly darning them. He is a simple-hearted, highly spirited guy. He understands how valuable life is and feels grateful for having been given it. It is important for him to feel needed, and he joyfully respects the fact that life exists. This character is a sort of fatalist and a bit of a philosopher, and he sees laziness as a source of stress, while work lets him solve problems. Selling fruit is both work and a hobby for him. Dulhaji is conscious of how large the disaster is. He understands how difficult it is for man to overcome nature and expresses his feelings in a song, asking God for one favor: to let him survive the flood.



Frame from Dulhaji Dolena (director Anita Reza Zein, Indonesia)


The film shows a man’s life in a practically desperate situation. Nature does not submit to man’s will, so it should be taken without vain speculation. But the film’s hero is sure that it is not good to lose heart even in the hardest circumstance. The finale of the film is also symbolic: the closing credits are followed by a scene with a drowning boat, hinting that nature is a stern power, and the whole of humanity is on the verge of ecological calamity. Remarkably, this particular ending provoked discussion after the festival screening. Some spectators did not consider the author’s intention acceptable. Instead, they took that episode as alien to the plot. In this context, it is worth remembering Boris Uspensky’s observation: “Sometimes the narrator’s point of view is consecutively slipping from one character to another, from one detail to another—and the readers themselves are allowed to join these separate descriptions into the general panorama. In this case the movement of the author’s position is similar to the movement of the camera’s focus in a cinematic narration, when it is consecutively reviewing some scene” 6.

In the last scene of the film, the spectator sees the hero and the director drowning in their boat before the film comes abruptly to an end. The author of the film deliberately left it “unfinished,” which is perceived as a trick: the spectators’ attention is redirected to the author’s point of view. The audience could feel how tragic and inevitable the situation is and compare the image of the world’s fragility to that of the resilient protagonist.

Another film competing in the festival with an ecological subject is also worth mentioning here. This is the documentary End of Eternity (director Pablo Radice. Argentina, University of Buenos Aires, 10 minutes). It gives an account of an Ese Ejja community in the Amazon, located in Palma Real, Perú, where rainforests are at the edge of disappearance and Ese Ejja—mother tongue of the inhabitants—is also dying away.

The consumers’ negligent attitude to nature threatens the existence of the Amazon’s tropical rainforests, and local populations may die along with them. People are fighting for the survival of their community, and the memories of their ancestors help them in this struggle. Communications with forefathers, as the people’s beliefs and traditions teach them, take place at the hours of dreams, when ancestors can reveal mysteries or secrets. Time is passing into eternity, leaving everything behind—so the starting credits tell.

The film soundtracks are satiated with noises of nature. These sounds emphasize the character of a community detached from the modern, urbanized world, where the rhythm of life changes very rapidly. No life without forest, and no Ese Ejja will be,—the heroine’s off-screen voice says. The wide-frame picture discloses the expressiveness of the villagers’ faces taken up close. Their faces seem mysterious. The film director uses the main heroine’s mythological consciousness as a special form of reflecting reality. The demise of this seemingly eternal community is ending, at least in the filmmaker’s mind, due to a loss of originality, lack of understanding by outsiders, and the lack of care given to the population’s basic necessities. Nature is vital for the Ese Ejja community’s survival, as the forest thickets give people both shelter and food. For a small nation, the forest is an integral symbol of eternity. The river is no less symbolic: it detaches real life and ancestors gone. According to the community’s traditions, crossing the river banks means passing from life to death. After death, one is able to reunite with their ancestors on the other side.

The young Argentinean director’s film demonstrates the solitude of a local community condemned to oblivion, while the heroine, a woman of venerable age, confides that at night she sees ancient inhabitants of her land. Her life has been lived, and soon she will reunite with her ancestors on the opposite bank of the river. “Devil is everywhere, no shamans and healers any longer. We are losing secrets […] Only dreams reveal mysteries,” she explains. Watching the everyday life of the community, we come to know that the grandmother is growing her granddaughter by herself, as the little girl’s mother died during childbirth.

The elders’ portraits reflect the motif of losing authenticity and the fear that the local culture is going away. The old woman’s modest dwelling reflects an existential anxiety caused by the disappearance of habitual signs of being, and that process symbolizes the time passing.



Frame from End of Eternity (director Pablo Radice, Argentina)


In the last scene of the film, the heroine disappears from the long shot. The musical accompaniment is as if drawing the community to the opposite side of the river, to their ancestors. Only when the heroine comes out from the frame does the uneasy note fade. But the spectator sees a little girl running around the camera, frisking childishly, a moment that metaphorically reminds us of life’s cyclical nature. But isn’t it the way the end of eternity approaches?


The VGIK students’ participation in the annual international festival is significant for their professional life. The competition contributes to the development of the next generation’s creative work, helping them to acquire practical experience, knowledge, technical competencies, and the motivation to continue with their artistic practice. A modern moviemaker should possess a vast skillset in order to create an audiovisual work that will leave a lasting impression on the viewer. The international platform of the festival offers opportunities to study urgent problems from different standpoints. The three films we considered in this essay have taken markedly different approaches to addressing social problems, whether through investigation, contemplation, or understanding. The author of the film Piranha uses the investigation or observation method, as the film continuously watches the landfill with accompanying imagery that wields powerful influence over the spectator. In contrast, the director of Dulhaji Dolena focuses her attention on the hero’s life, using contemplation as a sensual and emotional means to reflect reality. And the film End of Eternity leads us to an understanding of the community’s life in order to comprehend the whole scale of the ecological disaster.

Analyzing the world as presented on screen, audiences may have the chance to engage with the deeper layers of the author’s message. We can even formulate a hypothesis of aesthetic character. I surmise that–depending on how each of the film’s elements are presented and what expressive artistic means have been used to reflect objective reality–the audiovisual aspects of nonfiction cinema are able to reveal various readings of the laid-in information, from sensual contemplation to comprehension.

When the filmmaker has mastered interdisciplinary skills, such as directorial vision and methods of film shooting, he or she is able to work not only on a film crew but also independently. The examples of nonfiction films presented at the competition in which the director was also the cinematographer, have confirmed again that the future of documentary cinema belongs to mastering several professions.

Documentary cinema, which is attracting more and more spectators in today’s Russia, has the potential to reveal non-trivial sides of the world and preserve unforgettable imagery in a person’s conscience, which is important when information streams are abundant. Documentaries wake viewer imaginations, teaching them to observe, comprehend being, and urge them to seek answers to numerous questions about our social reality and the complexities of the universe.

Socially oriented documentaries give opportunities to reflect not only national but also international problems, broadening perceptions of objective reality. But only society is capable of changing the situation for the better. As Alexander Ivin and Irina Nikitina put it, “among multiple global problems, the following four are sometimes picked out: survival in the conditions when weapons of mass destruction are constantly being improved; the globally growing ecologic crisis; forming united humanity; preservation of personality, a human as a biosocial structure. It is doubtless that the very human nature is under threat in the epoch of modernity. And the risk of total loss of human essence is so great that can be rightfully ranked as a global problem” 7.

The nominated documentary films screened at the VGIK festival has revealed the named social aspects in the works of future directors of different countries. Though the local sites of the documentaries I discussed are geographically far from one another, they have each addressed the most topical problems of humanity on a global scale.



Frame from Dulhaji Dolena (director Anita Reza Zein, Indonesia)


Because of low living standards, the heroes of these films suffer great difficulties dealing with hard life situations. Their dwelling places, as portraits of the heroes themselves in Dulhaji Dolena and End of Eternity, fix tragic aspects of the images, as well as the atmosphere of being, that embody the conflict of the time passing.



Frame from End of Eternity (director Pablo Radice, Argentina)


But the problems reflected by the authors of the films destroy psychological walls, unveiling the hardships faced by human beings around the world. Future filmmakers now entering the professional world of cinema cannot avoid facing the challenges of their time. Impressing through their works the most urgent social problems connected with ecology, environment pollution, changing climate, poverty, and the preservation of ethnic cultures they broaden their reach internationally. And it is understandable that films dealing with these urgent problems, which present unstudied and penetrating stories, are able to find a place in the spectators’ hearts.






1 Prozhiko G.S. (2004) Koncepcia realnosti v ekrannom dokumente [The concept of reality in a screen document]. Moscow, 2004. P. 19 (In Russ.).

2 Golovnya A.D. (1995) Masterstvo kinooperatora [Cameraman skill]. Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1995. P. 101 (In Russ.).

3 Mediarealnost: koncepty i kulnurnye praktiki: uchebnoe posobie [Media reality: concepts and cultural: a textbook] / V.V.Savchuk. Saint Petersburg: Fond razvitiya konfliktologii, 2017. Pр. 135-136 (In Russ.).

4 The film was made 5 km from the author’s institute (from where she was a student).

5 Medynsky S.E. (1984) Masterstvo kinooperatora khronikalno–dokumentalnykh filmov [Cameraman of chronicle-documentaries skill]. Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1984. P. 124 (In Russ.).

6 Uspensky B.A. (2000) Poetika kompozicii [Poetics of composition]. Saint Petersburg: Azbuka, 2000. Pp. 104-105 (In Russ.).

7 Ivin A.A., Nikitina I.P. (2016) Filosofia nauki: uchebnoe posobie [Philosophy of science: a textbook]. Moscow: Prospekt, 2016. Pp. 346-347 (In Russ.).


About the authors

Anastasia A. Shtandke

S.A.Gerasimov Russian State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK)

Author for correspondence.


Russian Federation, 3, Wilhelma Pika str., Moscow, 129226


  1. Golovnya A.D. (1995) Masterstvo kinooperatora [Cameraman skill]. Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1995. 225 p. (In Russ.).
  2. Ivin A.A., Nikitina I.P. (2016) Filosofia nauki: uchebnoe posobie [Philosophy of science: a textbook]. Moscow: Prospekt, 2016. 352 р. (In Russ.).
  3. Mediarealnost: koncepty i kulnurnye praktiki: uchebnoe posobie [Media reality: concepts and cultural: a textbook]. V.V. Savchuk. St. Petersburg: Fond razvitiya konfliktologii, 2017. 388 р. (In Russ.).
  4. Medynsky S.E. (1984) Masterstvo kinooperatora khronikalno–dokumentalnykh filmov [Cameraman of chronicle-documentaries skill]. Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1984. 223 p. (In Russ.).
  5. Prozhiko G.S. (2004) Koncepcia realnosti v ekrannom dokumente [The concept of reality in a screen document]. Moscow, 2004. 454 р. (In Russ.).
  6. Uspensky B.A. (2000) Poetika kompozicii [Poetics of composition]. St.Petersburg: Azbuka, 2000. 352 р. (In Russ.).

Supplementary files

Supplementary Files
1. Frame from the film “Piranha” (director Nainisha Dedhia, India)

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2. Frame from the film “Piranha” (director Nainisha Dedhia, India)

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3. Shot from the movie “Dulhaji Dolena” (directed by Anita Reza Zane, Indonesia)

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4. Shot from the film “The End of Eternity” (director Pablo Radice, Argentina)

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5. Shot from the movie “Dulhaji Dolena” (directed by Anita Reza Zane, Indonesia)

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6. Shot from the film “The End of Eternity” (director Pablo Radice, Argentina)

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Copyright (c) 2020 Shtandke A.A.

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