From his base in Latvia, Russian filmmaker Vitaly Mansky hopes to break the state media spell that has gripped post-Soviet audiences. The documentary filmmaker is president of Russia’s biggest and most controversial documentary film festival Artdocfest. Sitting in his office last fall, Mansky cut a figure that is half media mogul, half political operative. Earlier in the day Artdocfest’s e-mail addresses that are hosted on Russian servers appeared to be have been compromised, causing the festival team to scramble to set new passwords. As Mansky’s technical staff pored over their computers their boss fielded questions about Russia-Ukraine relations from a reporter at radio station Echo of Moscow via Skype.

“Maybe don’t post any more photos with Khodorkovsky,” Mansky’s camerawoman suggested when Mansky finished the interview. A recent picture of Mansky with the oil tycoon turned opposition financier on Facebook had drawn unwanted attention, she explained.

Vladimir Putin’s clampdown on dissent has turned Latvia into an important center for Russian media and culture with many organizations moving to Riga. Mansky joined the exiles in 2014 after pressure from the authorities made it difficult for him to continue operating from Moscow. “In a situation of total lies, the more documentaries, and the more outlets, the better.”

From Riga Mansky still pursues the broad release of his films in Russia and Artdocfest screens its films in several Russian cities. In a country where state media has a monopoly on public discourse and lies have come to dominate the official narrative, Mansky believes that independent documentaries have a new and important role to play.

“Everything needs to be brought up for analysis,” said Mansky. “Artdocfest exists to ask questions.”

Photo courtesy of Eyemo.

A documentarian since the early 1990’s, Mansky has been on both sides of Russia’s cultural establishment. In the early 2000s he shot three consecutive documentaries about Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin with Putin’s avid participation. By 1999 he was among the several founders of the Laurel Branch Prize, Russia’s Peabody award for nonfiction filmmaking.

Then in 2006, together with film critic Victoria Belopolskaya and others, Mansky started Artdocfest. For 10 days in the winter audiences in Russia can watch the art house documentaries that are contenders for the Laurel Branch Prize.

The nature of the festival began to change as the Kremlin clamped down on independent media, first in the wake of mass protest against Putin’s return as president in 2011 and then in response to the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine. A showcase for non-televised films, the festival and its post-screening discussions strongly diverged from the official state narrative broadcast across government-controlled airwaves.

A year after the release of Mansky’s documentary “Truba (Pipeline)” in 2013, a film that made clear how little locals benefit from Russia’s oil and gas industry, things came to a head with Russia’s Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky. The government would cease funding Artdocfest, Medinsky announced, as well as all of Mansky’s projects. This decision came shortly after Mansky signed a public letter condemning the Kremlin’s television coverage of Euromaidan.

Other sponsors of the festival, like Canon Russia, followed in order to toe the party line. That same year Mansky and his wife Natalya Manskaya, who also works in film, picked up and moved to Riga.

“Until then, I had always thought of Latvia the same way you think about a sailboat on the water. You know it’s out there somewhere but you don’t think it has anything to do with you,” says Mansky.

Though the Artdocfest team left the country, they decided to continue screening its films in Russia, in part to tap into an unexpected documentary boom in Russia. Television, film and theater are still heavily dependent on state funding in Russia, explained Mikhail Iampolski, a professor at New York University and a post-Soviet cinema expert. But advances in technology have made documentaries easier and cheaper to make. The result is an unexpected flourishing of the medium as a form of political expression.

“Today, the most important thing is to have a diversity of voices,” said Iampolski. “In a situation of total lies, the more documentaries, and the more outlets, the better.” “Nonfiction film becomes the repository of quality and of resistance.”

Held in early December in three Russian cities, Moscow, St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, this year’s festival featured more than 150 films on topics that rarely make headlines in Russia’s mainstream media. Among them were films on disability rights and neo-Nazism, a political portrait of the murdered opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and two films following the trial of performance artist Petr Pavlensky, a man who spent much of 2016 in jail for igniting the doors of the Russian secret police building. On December 9 the Artdocfest competition prize went to Alexander Kuznetsov’s “We’ll Be All Right,” which follows a group of disabled adults in a state-run facility in Siberia as they seek to emancipate themselves from state guardianship.

“There is a war of ideas,” said Daniil Dondurey, editor of the magazine Iskusstvo Kino (Art of Cinema), of the need for such social criticism. “Can fiction film take it upon itself to rise to the challenge? No. Can television? No. Nonfiction film becomes the repository of quality and of resistance.”

Beyond losing state funding, Artdocfest has faced serious challenges, from disruptive last-minute inspections by authorities to special film edits in order to accommodate Russia’s obscenity laws.

“It’s a new form of censorship,” says Mansky of Russia’s costly and bureaucratic new copyright restrictions which were passed in 2014. “Say you shot the film on your iPhone. You don’t have a company. You have no capacity to file paperwork. That means you also cannot show your film.”

Photo courtesy of Artdocfest.

Mansky believes that the law is simply used to restrict, not protect, filmmakers. Artdocfest recently lost a lawsuit after being prosecuted for a copyright infringement.

Originally adopted to regulate profane speech, the law allows a certification committee to deny a company the necessary screening certificate for essentially any reason. Mansky’s 2014 film “Under the Sun,” shot in North Korea and hailed as one of the best documentaries of 2015 by western and South Korean media, was delayed in Russia for over a year due to the law.

Many Russian filmmakers worry that the already cramped space that they have carved out for themselves will also be shut down. For many Ukrainian filmmakers, or for those working on subjects in Ukraine, Russia can now be off limits. For the first time this year, Artdocfest held its roundtables in Riga in order to avoid provocation in Russia and to allow Ukrainian participants to attend. “I am ecstatic that I’ve picked a side, and I urge those who have not done so to pick one,” he said of directors who shy away from political themes and statements. “I breathe easier in the morning.”

Looking forward, Mansky plans to expand partnerships with online media and even launch an online platform that could expand Artdocfest far beyond the 300,000 tickets it typically sells during its 10-day festival.

Mansky said that he’s wary of the repercussions he can face for his line of work. His newest film “Rodnye (Close Relations)” is shot in Ukraine and Crimea. After the documentary premiered in Russia at this year’s Artdocfest he said he wonders whether he could face trouble. The worst case scenario, he said, would be for him to be detained on his way out of the country after the festival or a visit.

Each year, the director prepares a backup plan in case Artdocfest is canceled last-minute in Moscow. But he is unrepentant about his stance.

“I am ecstatic that I’ve picked a side, and I urge those who have not done so to pick one,” he said of directors who shy away from political themes and statements. “I breathe easier in the morning.”