St. Petersburg study-abroad students attend international film festival

The eight participants of William & Mary’s St. Petersburg summer study abroad program knew they had signed on for a summer of learning more about Russian culture, language, literature and films. They were prepared to earn nine credits while abroad, and to make their own documentaries under the supervision of the College's film-maker in residence, Jes Therkelsen. They were prepared for home stays, including taking regular meals with their host families. They were certainly prepared for evenings filled with cultural activities including the ballet, theater and opera.

What they were not prepared for, and didn’t even know they would be participating in until the day they were to attend, was the St. Petersburg International Film Festival “KinoForum.”

This festival, which ran from July 10-15, just completed its second season. The inaugural event was organized in conjunction with the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II and the program was dedicated to the best Russian and international films on war. The success of this first festival, which showed more than 100 feature, documentary and animated films in 10 cinemas across the city, led the government of St. Petersburg to make it an annual event.

Around the world KinoForum has become known for its Best of the Best category, in which seven films, all awarded top honors from other international festivals, are screened. This year’s program also offered a “New Territories” program which included Russian and international premieres of 10 films from China, France, Poland, Spain, Denmark, Croatia, Iran, Sri Lanka and the United States.

W&M students became involved with KinoForum when Associate Professor and St. Petersburg Program Director Alexander “Sasha” Prokhorov, a member of the Russian Film Critics’ Guild, saw details on an email listserv and sought accreditation for the group.

“Four of the students in the program work on Russian cinema-related projects and the festival allowed them to learn more about Russian movie culture,” he notes.

The group attended press conferences, round-table discussions and many screenings. Ashby Gaines ‘13 and Megan Doneski ‘13 also interviewed the manager of one of the major St. Petersburg movie theaters, the Aurora Theater on Nevskii Prospekt. They discussed the significance of the festival for the movie theater, and on the distribution of domestic and international films in the city. This footage will become a part of their own documentary film.

Two other students, Monika Bernotas ‘12 and Alex McGrath ‘12, worked on the Russian Movie Theater Project, an oral-history project examining the history of movie-going in Russia. McGrath attended a KinoForum screening of “A Diary from a Burnt Ghetto,” based on the diary of a survivor of the Kaunas Ghetto in Lithuania during World War II. Watching documentary footage without the aid of English subtitles made for a powerful experience.

“The all-Russian narration forced me to connect with the movie in different ways,” he explained. “I found myself watching the movie as a film producer might, noticing how they used effects, applying music or sound effects to match certain visuals, splicing new footage with archival footage, and switching between "voice of god" narration, diary narration, and first-person interviews.”

Bernotas so enjoyed the Festival that she took to the group blog to describe her days.

 “So far, the KinoForum has been a beyond-interesting international experience,” she wrote from St. Petersburg. “To be surrounded by film-fanatic Russians and other international professionals and scholars alike has been fascinating. When I arrived at the headquarters today, they were conducting a panel about international film education. In the cinema halls, I’ve heard so many languages, and, while I have been forced to press my Russian listening comprehension, I have also been lucky enough to see two films subtitled in English. For those films, Russian viewers had to borrow headsets and listen to dubbing through earphones, making the movie theater buzz with a whispering of Russian translations.”

For all involved, attending KinoForum has added another dimension to their summer studies.

“Working on the film projects here in St. Petersburg has helped me better understand film making,” says McGrath. “I appreciated the opportunity to see a historical documentary and be able to evaluate it from more angles than I could before attending this summer program.”

Bernotas agrees, going so far as to muse on how St. Petersburg and KinoForum may even change her future.

“Through this program, I’ve been constantly surrounded by cinema ideas, about our research, and the movie theater project. The importance of cinema in this country resonates not only in the movie theaters but in every aspect of life. To witness this… is certainly something to stumble upon, and turns my gaze to yet another potential career path. Who knows?”