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Sunday, 9 March 2014

Russian Film Figures Reply to their Ukrainian Colleagues

This is a post which relates to the previous post relating to the appeal by people from the Ukrainian film world to their Russian colleagues. As well as a number of individual replies from people such as film director Pavel Bardin who wrote as an 'official statement' on his Facebook page

"Dear Ukranian colleagues!
I am ashamed of the lies and propaganda of the Russian pro-state media, ashamed of those soldiers denying their citizenship (this is a reference to Russian soldiers in Crimea who don't even admit their own nationality to keep up the lie that Russian hasn't sent troops there), ashamed of their leaders disowning their own soldiers, ashamed of those fellow citizens and colleagues who support this war.
I am with you: for peace, for truth and for love! "

After this initial response more members of the Russian film world decided to write a collective reply to the Ukrainian appeal. So far it contains 120 names and among them figure the most important directors and scholars in the film world. Feature film directors such as Andrei Proshkin, Andrei Smirnov, Boris Khlebnikov, Alexei Popogrebsky, Vladimir Kott, Alexander Zeldovich, Vladimir Mirzoev and Andrei Stempkovsky as well as Pavel Bardin himself are amongst the signatories; in the documentary world directors such as Vitaly Mansky, Marina Razbezhkina, Alexander Rastorguev, Elena Demidova have signed as well as the festival selector Victoria Belopolskaya. Gary Bardin the well known animation film-maker and father of Pavel Bardin. Pavel Kostomarov perhaps Russia's leading cameraman also signed. The film critics and film scholars are also very well represented. Here signatories include Andrei Plakhov, Evgeny Margolit, Elena Stishova, Anton Dolin, Nina Tsirkun, Zara Abdullaeva, Andrey Shemyakin, Yuri Gladilshchikov, Elena Plakhova, Yuri Bogolmolov and Pyotr Bagrov. Other significant names include the script writer Pavel Finn and actress Yulia Aug.

Here is the text of the letter signed by the names above and by many others:

Dear friends and colleagues!

It is with great pain that we have read your letter and listened to your video address. You are justly bringing to our attention the unprecedented anti-Ukrainian campaign launched by the Russian mass media, and of the mass people’s uprising against the infamous Yanukovich regime.
We share your contempt as to the lies and distorted coverage of the momentous events in the Ukraine, and all the more so we are against Russian military intervention in the Ukraine. There are so many ties that bind us, so that we cannot fall to the botched propaganda. Therefore our answer is laconic and straightforward: Don’t doubt us. We side with the truth, and we are with you! 

The text and full list of names in Russian can be found in this link:

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Appeal to the Russian Film World from their Ukrainian Colleagues.

Below is an appeal by many well-known Ukrainian film makers, scholars and actors to their Russian colleagues. I believe that this appeal  should receive as much coverage as possible. It is important that people in the Ukranian and Russian film worlds (and other cultural spaces) resist the attempts to sow hatred and enmity between them through the insane project of war that has loomed ever larger in recent days. I'll try to blog on how people in the Russian film world have themselves reacted (there have been important interviews with Sokurov and others). It would be a tragedy if this appeal should fall on deaf ears. It really is time that the voice of Russian cinematographers be heard loud and clear against the idea that problems can be resolved militarily.   I'll be adding updates on the facebook page


Dear friends and colleagues!

For many years, entire decades we were together with you, worked with you creating films in a single cultural and cinematic space.
And now something is happening which until only recently would have been impossible to imagine in our worst nightmares: a Russian army on Ukrainian territory, a war that at any moment can become a reality, a spine chilling reality that we will no longer be able to escape from.  
We wish to tell you, friends: it is not possible to understand and accept the motives which have determined this decision by the leadership of the Russian state. In recent years in Ukraine a regime has been established whose members have been involved in the extortion of our national wealth, the destruction of a legal system, and the undermining of morality itself, as well as a disregard of any individual rights. This has ended in the rebellion of a people, a rebellion which led to the fall of Viktor Janukovich and his subsequent flight from the country.
The Kiev Maidan, being a symbol of transformation, brought under its banner people from different nationalities and beliefs. They are united by a trust in the progress of the country, in democratic values, in high culture. Those images which the Russian press try to stamp on the Maidan, as though it consists only of “fascist  rednecks” and “warring nationalists” is no more than a propagandistic myth. Nationalistic and hateful rhetoric never defined the ideology of the Maidan. And it is a complete untruth the assertion that there has been any derogation of rights or persecution of Russian-speaking people. Difficulties of the coming transitional period undoubtedly exist but they have altogether other features.
It is even more bitter to acknowledge that we are the hostages of the ambitions of politicians following their own aims, so distant from the interests of people.
Can it really be so that we are powerless to stop this power, it is really the case that our fraternity should be subject to destruction? We call on you to say “NO” to those plans to divide our people, to sow hatred which can only catastrophically influence our great and glorious art.
We believe in reason, we believe in the power of truth and memory which unite us with the strongest of bonds. 

In the faith of a better future for our peoples,

Sergei Trimbach. Film critic, chairman of the National Union of Ukrainian Filmmakers.
Larisa Kadochnikova, Peoples Artists of Ukraine and Russia.
Kira Muratova, Film Director, Odessa.
Roman Balayan, Film Director
Raisa Nedaskovskaya, Actress
Yaroslav Lupiy, Film Director, Odessa
Sergei Lisetsky, Cameraman.
Valerii Balayan, Film Director, Crimea.
Yuri Garmash , Cameraman.
Viktor Shkurin, Film Director
Valentina Sloboda, Film scholar, Dnepropetrovsk
Oleg Fialko, Film Director
Bogdan Verzhbitskiy, Cameraman.
Oksana Musienko, Film Scholar.
Vyacheslav Krishtofovich, Director.
Evgeniy Golubenko, artist, Odessa.
Dmitry Tomashpolskiy, Film Director.
Vladimir Tikhij, Film Director.
Sergei Bordeniuk, Cameraman
Elena Parfeniuk, Film Scholar.
Alyona Demyanenko, Film Director.
Volodymyr Voytenko, Film Critic
Alik Shpiuk, Film Scholar.
Taras Tkachenko, Film Director.
Valentina Slobodyan, Film Scholar.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Sfiorando il Muro: A Russian reading of an Italian film

It's rare that I write about foreign films shown in Russia and their reception here but this time I have decided to make an exception. It was very interesting for me to observe how a Russian audience watching a foreign film (in this case an Italian film by Silvia Giralucci entitled Sfiorando il Muro) reacted to this film. Since I have been at two distinct showings of the film,I think that it is right to point out that the reception of the film was very different at the two showings. The film was first shown at a small festival of Italian cinema (devoted to Italian films shown at the Venice Film Festival) at the Khudozhestvenniy cinema near the Arbat in Moscow. Here the director was present and the question and answer session generated a very lively discussion. This first showing took place last March. Almost a year later Moscow's Museum of Cinema decided to represent this film at the offices of Memorial. This showing led to a very passionate discussion. In many ways the Russian audience highlighted and were curious about certain scenes whose meaning to an Italian might seem obvious. It was also a film that showed how connected Italian events in the 1970s were to events in Russian history as well as to what is now happening in contemporary Russia. But connected in complicated ways.

To give a brief description of the film. It is both an intensely personal film about the tragic death of Silvia Giralucci's father, Graziano, at the hands of the Red Brigades on June 17th 1974. Her father- a militant in the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement- was one of the first victims of the Red Brigades.Yet as well as a reflection on this personal history it is also a film about political violence in Padua in the 1970s. There is a narrative which is focused not so much on the Red Brigades but on the autonomists who were an influential radical force in the Padua of the 1970s. Padua in the 1970s was the epicentre of much political violence on what seemed an almost daily level. The narrative begins with graffiti on the wall and footage of Toni Negri at a meeting. Negri is heard stating that professors at Padua were given a 'few slaps' like in the rest of the world in 1968. (At this point it is important to note that Toni Negri refused to be interviewed or take part in the film as did many others in the Paduan autonomous movement). Then a series of accounts are given by actors in the events. First, one of the Professors attacked, Guido Petter, gives his account and this leads on to other accounts by Antonio Romito (the first person to denounce his former comrades in Autonomia and Potere Operaio) and Pietro Calogero as well as a member of Autonomia, Raul Franceschi, who now lives in France (leaving Padua to escape the wave of arrests ordered by Calogero which broke the back of the autonomia movement). Finally towards the end of the film Stefania Paterno'- a former 'camerata' of Silvia Giralucci's father- gives her account of the 1970s as a time when a brutal game was played which should never happen again. These interviews are interspersed with further scenes. For example, a demonstration in memory of a worker from Genua, Guido Rossa, who had denounced the Red Brigades cell in his factory and was himself to become a fatal victim of the Red Brigades as a reprisal. Another scene in the film is the final one of Giralucci looking on at young fascist 'camerati' paying 'homage' to her father and the other missino shot in June 1974. She looks alienated from this group of neo-fascists intent on renewing this brutal game.

I hope to write about this film elsewhere though what was interesting was how it was received by those who watched it at the offices of Мемориал (Memorial). Those on the panel were Adriano dell'Asta of the Italian Cultural Institute; Olga Gurievich, a Russian Italianist; Vlad Tupikin, a Russian anti-fascist and libertarian anarchist; and Alexander Cherkasov, the chairman of Memorial. Moreover, there were some others in the room such as Yaroslav Leontiev who made an important contribution to the debate about the film.

The film was introduced by the director of the Italian Cultural Institute, Adriano dell'Asta, who wished to make some introductory remarks. He talked about the biography of the director and the fact that Italy wasn't living through a period of civil war at the time although the amount of violence was unprecedented. He emphasised what in his view was the essential point of the film: that some people looked upon others as non-people.

The discussion brought up a number of themes. A long part of the discussion was devoted to whether the Italian 1970s represented something like the Moscow of today. There has definitely been violence between fascists and anti-fa in Russia. Though in Russia the violence is mainly carried out by one side (that of the neo nazis) though there have been two cases where anti-fa killed, both times it was clear that this was self defence when their own lives were at stake. Of course, there were different emphases on how much this was also an 'ugly game',as Stefania Paterno' described it. Other periods of history were brought up and compared. For Yaroslav Leontiev, the pre-revolutionary period in Russia was of similar ferocity: he recalled the atmosphere that surrounded the assassination during the time of Nikolay Bauman.

Olga Gurievich, an Italianist, attempted to explain to the audience the historical context of the film. She tried to explain the paradox of how these events could happen between Italians who she characterised as a completely non-belligerent people. She drew attention to the hidden civil war of the 1940s  and how the wounds of this civil war always smouldered and then exploded once again during the 1970s. She talks about the symbolism of the final scene where the neo-fascists meet to honour their dead shouting out "Presente" at the names of Graziano Giralucci and Giuseppe Mazzola. This fascist ceremony was indicative, for Gurievich, about the significance of memory and how to construct a memory in which the wounds and traumas can be healed and not renewed with a new spiral of violence. Interestingly she quoted Silvia Giralucci about how in Padua 'everyone in our city see themselves as victims' contrasting it to Russia where "we all see ourselves as victors." Adding the question: "Which is worse?". Here, I think, Gurievich's paradoxical assertion is important in realizing how this film for a Russian audience is both close to, and yet distant from, their own experience.

Adriano del Asta emphasised how for an Italian to watch such a film is a painful experience for an Italian. He stated that this is not a political film and if we watch this film as a political film we understood almost nothing about the film. The film tries to answer a personal question for the director: what does this murder, what does this violence mean for me. Del Asta then talked about the moment when Silvia Giralucci asks herself the question: what would have happened if they hadn't killed my father. Who would my father have become? So for Del Asta the central axis of the film is not about comparing the situation in Italy in the 1970s to other situations but to answer the question: "What would I have done myself in such a situation?". For this reason the film touches such a sensitive point.

During the discussion among members of the audience the final scene was discussed a lot. For the first speaker this scene didn't bring out the same feelings of revulsion that Gurievich spoke out. All members of the panel explained in their own way why this scene did produce revulsion. Cherkasov stated that the final scene was about a ceremony in which neo-fascists mobilized their forces and Tupikin contrasted the scene with the demonstrations in memory of Stas Markelov and Nastya Baburova which take place every January 19th in which there are no militarized gestures. Yaroslav Leontiev in a long replica tried to find more exact comparisons with the film. He also remembered the young children of Stas Markelov and how their perspective (as probably the true victims of Markelov's assassination) differed from his own (Leontiev was a friend of the murdered Markelov's: they volunteered together, for example, for the Voloshin Medical Brigade which saved the lives of people on both sides of the clashes in October 1993). Alexander Cherkasov mentioned that there is a novel which gives some idea of the clashes between fascists and anti-fa in Russia in recent years. This novel by 'DJ Stalingrad' (now a political exile) has,in fact, been translated into Italian by Enzo Striano under the title Esodo (Exodus). Alexander Cherkasov then went on to contrast the role of the state in Russia and Italy. For Cherkasov the state in Russia is a strong one whereas in the Padua of the 1970s it was a weak one in which two opposing groups could literally control sectors of a city. Instead in Russia there is a strong state which in many ways uses Neo-Nazi groups to establish greater control over the territory. Again he emphasizes how nationalist groups have two types of groups - illegal groups carrying out terror and legal groups infiltrating opposition centres and mentalities. In this sense it is the Russian nationalists who replace the Red Brigades and ultra leftists of autonomia that Giralucci's film talks about.

Gurievich didn't accept the historical parallels stating that if there are to be comparisons with Italian history then Russia is now living in a period of 'developed fascism' where squadristi etc are used by power to attack the state's enemeies. For Gurievich there was another point regarding how the years of lead (or blood as she put it) turned in to the years of mud in the 1980s. She emphasized the role of the trade unions and others on the Left in revolting against the terror of the Red Brigades. For Gurievich there is almost no hope that even this will happen in Russia. Adriano del Asta emphasized the repulsion that most Italians would have about the final scene (but he compared the torches of the neo-fascists as symbolic equivalents to the so-called Stalin bars described in the film).

The discussion moved on to people involved in these groups. Why asked one were they depicted as pure fanatics and monsters (was this a reference to Toni Negri? it seemed to me that Raul Franceschi in the film at least showed some attempt to avoid this). This led to a discussion of terrorist in pre -revolutionary times. Cherkasov stating that films in Russia do take a tack of completely demonising those involved in the terror campaigns. It is necessary to read the literature, though, to get a better picture.

Olga Gurievich then fixed people's attention to the plaque and how there was resistance for many years to the idea that such a plaque in memory of these victims of terror could be placed on the wall of the apartment. Gurievich stated that for Giralucci this was a moment when she could become reconciled with her own city. Gurievich talked about how there is a certain parallel with the campaign by the Memorial to put up plaques in Russia to all the victims of political terror and repression (even for those executioners who then fell victim to the same terror). Another questioner wondered where 'civil society' was in all this and why there was no real civil society which reacted. (Again in the film there are scenes of demonstrations against the assassination of Guido Rossa, and Olga Gurievich mentioned the case of someone like Romito who denounced the violence of his former comrades to Calogero).

My own concern regarded what I would say was the fact that the state itself in the 1970s didn't play a neutral role. The role of figures like Calogero weren't not undisputed at the time and arguably overplayed their hand (and I think here the film watched by an Italian and a Russian audience differs precisely because there are different levels of background knowledge making this lack of background problematic for a reading of the political context of the film). The facts of Brescia were, of course, mentioned in passing in the film but these allusions would not have meant much to a Russian audience (whereas to an educated Italian audience they would already be part of their historical memory). The film had, I thought, much to offer a Russian regarding the personal story of Silvia Giralucci and her reaction as a victim of the history of political violence. As to the history of Italian in the 1970s, the political context and so on the film would perhaps give a Russian unacquainted with the Italian 70s a reading of the political situation which also needed some more contextualisation.

There was another discussion as to why a democratic government put up with this violence and that a democratic government has the right to repress such violence (he gave further examples of Northern Ireland and the hard stance of Thatcher against Irish hunger strikers which he thought justified. Alexander Cherkasov explained the origin of western democracies after the second world war and how, while there was a kind of democratic superstructure, the elites had remained the same as they were during periods of fascist and authoritarian rule and that this was very important to take into account. So that there was a similar situation here with Russia where Russia had turned from Soviet to Post Soviet -the elites had not changed and one could see that transformations and transitions were not as real as they appeared. Cherkasov in a wonderful way of characterizing this film talked of how the film had not only sound and visuals but also a smell of its own. Just as according to Cherkasov there is an unbearable reek in contemporary Russia, there was some similar reek to the whole social order of 1970s Padua.

Yaroslav Leontiev returned to the question of the difference in the typology of terror. Stating that there are surely differences between the assassination of Aldo Moro and the placing of the bomb in Bologna stationand how certain terrorists in pre-revolutionary Russia avoided throwing bombs if women and children were nearby or more recent examples in the 1990s when bombs at symbolic objects and buildings were detonated with the 'terrorists' making sure that there would be no human victims.  

Another intervention from the floor regarded the kind of role that the state had in all this. For example, the woman in question explained how in the case of Germany the origin of Left radicals who would then become part of the Rote Armee Fraktion. It was in many ways through government repression (the assassination of a peaceful demonstrator) and the prevalence of violence in international politics (the speaker spoke of the fact that the Vietnam War played a large part in forming the mentality of left terror groups) which must be seen as the context for the emergence of such groups (but obviously not to justify them). She saw far Right terror emerging in a different optic in which whole groups of categories of citizens are excluded whereas Left terror groups are an answer to the frustrations and blocking of collective action.

After a polemic regarding an intervention from a woman who said that she didn't understand any positions or any differences between left and right (who led to Vlad Tupikin suggesting that people who didn't think or remember anything were the reason why people end up killing each other), Alexander Cherkasov explained that Russians, perhaps, see the film from different perspectives from Italians because of their own history as a nation. Russians with their history of the 20th century where state terror in the name of social justice left millions of victims and then many more millions lost their lives in an invasion by those with an opposite ideology (one could also add the Russian experience of World War One which arguably set off the tragic concatenation of events in 20th century Russia) meant that is truly difficult for Russians to grasp the political facts and context in the film. Apologizing for the fact that people on the whole wanted to speak about Russian history and Russian contemporary reality, he said that, at least, it showed how the film conjured up for Russians such passionate emotions.

This discussion, and the reaction to the film, demonstrated the multiple readings and misreadings that a film may have in it coming to another country. It is certainly the case that Russians (and this was also the case in the discussion generated at the first showing of the film in Moscow last year) felt this to be a film that spoke directly to them. What it said, of course, was complex. Certain scenes (and especially the final one) were read in diametrically opposed ways among different people in the audience. Many of the more political moments were emphasized over the more personal ones (although some interventions did emphasize these aspects too). The roles played by Left and Right in Russia were in very many ways subtly and not subtly different to those played in Italy, at least in recent times (where right wing, neo Nazi terror is, along with Chechen groups, the single most important threat today). The role of the state once more, like in Italy in the 60s and 70s complicates things - playing not a neutral role of judgement but often making situations grow more radicalised and even conniving in terror (a factor that was long argued over in 1970s Italy). 

It is harder to gauge the personal reaction to the film. I believe that many had their beliefs challenged in some ways. For me I'd add that it was indeed in many ways a film I am still in dialogue with. Not having lived in 1970s Italy it was, however, a strong part of my political imagination. My previous reading of the situation of autonomia, the April 7th case and even the role of Toni Negri etc didn't fit with those of the film (and so I felt a certain resistance at some of the historical judgments) but I'd argue that whatever one's political judgment of the 1970s, the kind of journey in self-understanding as well as the ethical rigour of the director full of doubt and lacking rancour point to one of the very rare films in which politics is overcome by a deep personal reflection. 

My final consideration here is the strange absence of any reference to a period in Russian history which, I personally, feel left has a similar wound on the Russian political psyche. This is the mini Civil War in Moscow in October 1993. While the clashes were much more restricted in time (and they were clashes between Red-Brown demonstrators supporting the legislative power and, mainly, organs of the Presidential executive power), the trauma of the many hundreds of deaths was never really heald in the body politic. A similar silence has fallen over these events (and the rather bloody decade of the 1990s while often referred to as a trauma to escape from discussion is all too often replaced by dogma). Maybe this film also was a contribution to an unconscious reflection on this period too.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Repression & the Russian Film World.

It seems rather difficult to talk or even think about Russian cinema in the past few days. Writing becomes a hopeless task before the spectacle of the tsuanmi of the present moment. Thoughts have been on the events in Ukraine and now the verdict of the Bolotnaya Case, but thoughts don't seemable to turn into the clarity of language. Here in Russia, adding up all the arrests at the court and in further actions in downtown Moscow and St Petersburg maybe we'll arrive at the figure of about a thousand. I was standing on Friday outside the courthouse for the Bolotnaya verdict and the spectacle of arrests- most of the time completely random in which stormtroopers often broke into some part of the rather amorphous crowd picking someone standing at the back playing no active part- was one clearly designed to strike a certain fear in people.

Russia with this verdict (and with the Ukrainian events) seems to be on the brink once again. How this will effect culture as a whole (and cinema in particular) is unclear. Yet the photo above of the well-known film director, Pavel Bardin, being dragged away by two riot police seems to point to the fact that culture and politics are likely to be inextricably linked in the near future in Russia. The policing of film and theatre are no longer a mere metaphor. Along with respected mathematicians, well-known journalists and artists, history professors, the Russian автозак (police wagon) now is a temporary home for film directors too.

As John Freedman has pointed out in a post about recent events in Russia, not all representatives of culture are necessarily on the same side and the film world has never lacked its yes men. Yet it seems that the conclusion at the end of Freemdan's article is looking increasingly accurate in a foreboding way:

We find ourselves once again standing with Nikolai Gogol who, in his great novel 'Dead Souls' asked "Rus, whither do you race?"
I hesitate to do it, but as the biographer of Nikolai Erdman, I cannot fail to add the answer that Erdman provided to Gogol's question in his classic tragicomedy 'The Suicide'
In that play the revolutionary writer Viktor Viktorovich quotes Gogol's famous query and recieves an immediate response from a mailman named Yegor: "Straight to the police, mark my word." Yegor snaps.

The police have already shown little compunction in who it arrests (and given the completely random methods it uses ) who knows how many more figures like Bardin will end up in the avtozak). It seems that as one of those on trial for Bolotnaya put it, Russia is looking increasingly similar to the Gianni Rodari story Cipollino (here adapted in animated version):

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Sokurov's Open Letter to Putin.

Away from the highlight of Sochi where foreign correspondents appear to spend their time checking out their toilet facilities or harassing the local gay community, the situation in Russia as a whole can't be said to be a very rosy one. Clouds do seem to be gathering and what seems to be a landmark moment- the judgment on the Bolotnaya Case- seems to be coming soon. Moreover while the Winter Olympics took place there was the absurd spectacle of people being arrested for opening their umbrellas in the centre of Moscow. Another group of demonstrators who sang the Russian hymn in Red Square (with rainbow flags) were also arrested and reportedly beaten and humiliated at the police station. It is facts like these as well as a ratcheting up of the aggressive rhetoric by the, at times, hysterical mouthpieces of the regime on state television which lead Sokurov to write an open letter to President Putin.

The letter centres around the closure of the liberal television station Дождь (meaning Rain, hence people demonstratively opening their umbrellas in the centre of Moscow and being bundled into police vans for the temerity) but sets it in the context of a general situation of rapid degeneration into a search for internal enemies and an increasingly aggressive atmosphere. He talks about the despair that grips one when one watches TV channels stating that

"Establishment figures have called for people to be burned, discriminated against, expelled, killed. Diversity is officially deemed a crime. In the words and faces of our politicians there is a war-like madness".

He then goes on to talk about the younger generation excluded from a creative life and in the grips of either a sense of bewildered powerlessness and disorientation, or worse, of some holding the kind of Nazi ideology fighting against which a previous generation had lost their lives, or others who have thrown themselves into an active struggle against the powers that be. Sokurov suggests there is a need to grow wiser.

He then goes on to tell Putin that the wiser ones in the past were the dissidents who stood up to the deceit of power and for human rights while millions were silent.

It is at this point where Sokurov launches into his attack on those who have closed the Liberal television 'Rain'. Characterising those who have served in the state run media as little more than lackeys, Sokurov suggests that they should be 'given a tongue lashing'.

"Each day for decades now they assiduously translate vulgarity, deliver violence to the screens of millions as well as the crushing of those who think differently." These television bureaucrats, Sokurov calls them cynics with 'small eyes and large ears'.

He then goes on to describe the television channel 'Rain' stating that they have the right to make mistakes- that it is a channel searching its own language and strongly in touch with the society of the new Russia. He talks of a meeting with the Culture channel where he couldn't be assured that his own words wouldn't be subject to censorship. Sokurov then went on to ask what it was coming to when an apolitical person like himself is subject to censorship.

In a way this is a traditional ploy of complaining to the 'tsar' about the bad decisions made by his subordinates. Maybe Sokurov genuinely believes that he has the ear of Putin (he did receive funding for his film Faust after a meeting with Putin). This is Sokurov's own account of his meeting and his relation to Putin in an interview with a Guardian journalist:

He was preparing Faust, his most expensive film, just when the economic downturn struck, and couldn't find funding. But a surprise saviour stepped in: Vladimir Putin. Sokurov met Putin at the Russian PM's country residence. "I told him, if I don't have this opportunity to make this film, it will never happen. A few days later, I was told that the amount I needed was going to be allocated. How and why it happened I don't know. Maybe because he has a very clear idea of German culture and history. I don't think it was because of me. I've never demonstrated my loyalty to his party."
Wouldn't Putin himself make a good subject? "I'll never make films about people like Putin because they're not of interest to me." Does his association with Putin compromise him? "When I met him recently, he asked if I was going to dub Faust into Russian. Reading between the lines, you could see these words as a sort of order. But I wasn't afraid to say no to him. The money allocated by him was the state's, not his own. I don't know whether he has any money. According to his official salary, he shouldn't have any money. I can only be responsible to my audience, that's all."   

It will be interesting to see if this letter does have some effect. Will it change the vector of discourse in an increasingly repressive Russia. Sokurov, after all, is a figure of some cultural stature in Russia.Yet it is hard to see any sea change. There are few signs that the Bolotnaya prisoners are about to be released and that, in many ways, is the litmus test. Repression will only necessitate the Mamontovs and Kiselevs to continue their hysterical transmissions. Mobilization in society against repression is at a very low ebb. Will Sokurov's words gain nothing more than a murmur of approval or will be they be a spur to a more active resistance to the trends that Sokurov pinpoints is a matter for some debate.

In many ways perhaps it will be in the reaction (or lack of reaction) to this open letter that one will be able to view how much the intellighentsia still counts as a check on the state's overbearing role.

Here is the link to the original article written in Russian :
Interestingly in a blog for the radio station Ekho Moskvy where he calls the surpression of the Rain Tv channel 'outrageous', Sokurov stated that he was hoping to print the article in a state-run newspaper (probably the Rossiskaya Gazeta). Instead it was published by Snob.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Musei Kino: The Latest Deception

The increasingly depressing saga of the Cinema Museum seems set to continue. Late last December there seemed to be a breakthrough with an agreement regarding a building that would temporarily house the Museum. Indeed it was bureaucrats from the Ministry of Culture who insisted that Naum Kleiman and his team should agree to use this building telling Kleiman in person (according to his interview in "stop 'playing up', and accept this building as this is your last chance". It was then revealed on January 13th, the same Minister of Culture, has since decided that the building that they previously insisted on, is totally unsuitable. 

For those who have followed the story of the Cinema Museum it is clear that this pattern of deception and false hopes has been going on for a whole decade and looks like a  slow, tormenting wilfull destruction of cinematic memory. The recent round of news about the Cinema Museum started off with the 13th January Press Conference where the Culture Minister stated that not only was the Cinematic Scientific Research Institute (NIKFI)  unsuitable for housing the Cinema Museum temporarily for five years, but also the proposed permanent site proposed for the Cinema Museum was not acceptable to the Ministry of Culture. Naum Kleiman, as he stated in his interview in the government-owned 'Rossiskaya Gazeta", was not informed at all of the fact that Medinsky had decided against both projects. Medinsky stated at the press conference that the current film theatre Illuzion would be a good alternative. Yet this suggestion seems to be an absurd suggestion. Illuzion has only one screen and this would mean that the Museum's massive archive would still not have any suitable and permanent location. As Kleiman notes in this interview if this were a "shopping centre" a location would have been found. The situation with the huge and priceless archive is, of course, ever more tragic as this sorry saga continues. 

Should it prove that there was never any real political will to create this Museum, then it will become clear that the destruction of historical and cultural memory that the likes of Medinsky and his cabal ended up perpetrating, and the way in which they have gone about this, can only be justifiably be described as cultural vandalism of the most obscene order. Upon first hearing of the Ministry of Culture's new rejection, Naum Kleiman stated: "I am personally ashamed that we have such a Minister (of Culture). Now nothing else has been proposed so the question of discussing a Cinema Museum is off the agenda" and that the events have shown yet again that the people who believe that they run culture are complete incompetents. This will surely be Medinsky's epitaph in years to come- as one of the most shamefully destructive cultural bureaucrats that Russia has known- if the archive is laid to waste and no Museum is built. 

The latest facts- including Medinsky's arrogance in scuppering all agreements reached last December without even informing the most interested parties-  are yet another low and mean attempt at humiliating of one of most respected figures in the Russian film world. It feels watching this saga unfold that the Ministry of Culture is launching a war on culture, and a vicious, grotesque assault on cultural memory. Observing Russian cultural bureaucrats hacking away and destroying any hope of parading the very best of its prized cinematic heritage while at the same time promoting an ersatz national pride based on myths and xenophobic hysteria, with a parade of cheap blockbusters and nationalist costume dramas is a truly ugly and unbearable spectacle. To which there seems little end. One feels that even if Kleiman was slightly more upbeat in the Gazeta interview (and reported by Kinote) one has been here before.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

On Pussy Riot and two censored films.

Writing in my last post about the absence of the two Pussy Riot films at Art Doc fest, I wrote:

The two films on Pussy Riot were conspicuous by their absence - both the Lerner and Pozdorovkin film which attempts to provide a certain 'objective' glance and the much more 'subjective' (but in my view more interesting) film produced by the film collective Gogol's Wives (the failure to show the Lerner and Pozdorovkin film probably reflects some circumstances beyond the control of the directors of the festival given that the film had been planned to appear at the festival). 

This evening the planned premiere at the Gogol Centre in Moscow of Michael Lerner's and Maxim Pozdorvkin's film Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer has been openly blocked by Sergei Kapkov (who heads culture in Moscow and was seen as a bit of a liberal). In a letter printed on Kirill Serebrennikov's (who has been in conflict with the Culture bureaucrats before over the funding of his Tchaikovsky film) Facebook page, Kapkov writes that he was surprised to learn that the film had been announced along with the participation of the former Pussy Riot detainees. He stated that a government funded organization should not associate itself with people who have such an ambivalent reputation in society and whose activity is based on provoking society. He then went on to say that while he had no right to interfere in the repertoire of the centre this showing was not part of the agreed repertoire and so he demanded that this event be pulled. Finally he added a few words about the fact that their common purpose was one of mending the world and not that of "shocking the public with scandalous stories which have no relation to culture". Serebrennikov's facebook comment, filled with expletives - which should make it unprintable in the media under new anti-swearing laws- set out the situation as he sees it. A clear act of censorship and pointing his finger at those in the film world who have agreed to the 'Ethical Charter' (a kind of Hays Code) to be implemented in cinema. The comment began, as quoted in an article for Buzzfeed:

Until recently, in all interviews, I would declare like a mantra: ‘There’s no censorship at the theater, there’s no censorship at the theater.’ That’s it, fuck, there’s censorship at the theater! Cynical, pointless and stupid,” 

He concluded with what appeared to be a resounding fuck you to the government and those people in the film world who have been supporting greater restrictions in film and those in society who favour a tightening of the screws:

Now any freedom, any desire to find meaning, any desire to speak up disintegrates into hopeless gloom and darkness, which fills all the air around us and rules us. It seemed to us that somewhere — at the theater, in fashionable cafes, at home, with friends — there was still some free air…That’s it! Fuck! There’s no air!”
“It’s unfortunate we had to cancel this event. It’s really vile and gross to me. I never thought, to use the words of the classics, that I’d ‘fall into this shit.’ I call on all people, for whom still lives an understanding of honor and freedom, dignity and the right of an artist to create and speak freely, to unite and resist this darkness. With words, with art, in any way that helps.”
“And I hope that when all this shameful shit ends we, remembering it all, will laugh at ourselves and write the truth about this petty little time. Experienced people tell me that because of our cowardice and laziness, this shit will never end.”

It seems that the Russian culture wars that Natalia Antonova hoped would end are unlikely to go away. Even though, it is very true that in Russia liberals tend to let off a lot of steam, huff and haw, but show little backbone about really resisting the blows of the conservative onslaught.

Regarding the story since the release of Pussy Riot, delusion has set in among some of their former supporters upon hearing of Nadezhda's Tolokonnikova's apparent support for the formerly jailed oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkosvky, who was released almost at the same time as the Pussy Riot duo. There have always been critical voices even among artists of a seemingly similar political background to the Pussy Riot collective. The artist Avdei Ter-Oganian has had a more critical view of their action (even though he himself left Russia following the reaction to his anti-clerical art). Today another artist, Anatoly Osmolovsky, has written an Open Letter to the Pussy Riot duo that while not critical of them, has "put them on their guard" about the mistakes that he thinks they are making. A detailed letter of five points arguing where they have gone wrong (from the fact of being unaware that the mass media spotlight is as much a jail as a real, physical jail; the mistake of attempting to abjure the action itself, even of refusing the Pussy Riot brand (simply because other greedy capitalists will take it from them); he also warns them of taking up 'human rights activity' rather than continuing in the artistic sphere. He links this to the experience of 1968 in Western Europe where it was counter-cultural forces which won the day for re-founding Western European democracy. Believing that they need a more anarchic strategy and that Russia is standing on the threshold of a 'carnivalistic transition', in short, a Russian 1968 is on its way, according to Osmolovsky who worked with his wife, Svetlana Baskova on the film For Marx. In this sense, Osmolovsky believes that Pussy Riot should play a more integral role in this coming carnivalistic revolution (rather than setting up another NGO). 

So, Pussy Riot is already at the centre of another scandal and more arguments about its direction and use. It is still early to discover what the fallout (if any) of this more open attempt at censorship will be. Facebook and twitter are, alas, no indication of what will go on out of these spheres. Moreover as far as cinema is concerned, the silence about the other film Pussy versus Putin which has a much more inside look at the Pussy Riot actions as they took place is a shame for in a way its insights into the phenomenon of Pussy Riot is, in some ways, of more historical importance. What the story of Pussy Riot will look like in a number of years time is also, of course, an uncertainty given the tendency at least during the press conference of Tolokonnikova to half-abandon previous positions and even to try to take on a more explicit political role. Nonetheless, things are moving once again in uncertain directions.


Friday, 13 December 2013

Art Doc Fest 2013- A look at the Films Awarded.

To summarize a festival like Art Doc Fest is rather complicated. As one of the most important (if not the main) documentary film festival in Russia (and devoted almost entirely to the subject of Russian themes,or at least shot in Russia or in the Russian language) it is the main showcase of Russian documentary cinema. It is also a genuinely popular film festival with the Moscow film-going public (a number of films were packed full and in the case of some almost overfilling) and yet it receives far less public funds than certain film festivals where audiences are bussed in to fill up empty seats (known to happen at certain festivals where cinematic excellence is less important than ties to cultural and political bureaucrats). So in spite of the miserly financial support it receives from the authorities it punches well above its weight in film festival ratings. Its lack of public funding may be explained by the fact that it is willing to show films on more controversial subjects (so, for example, it has shown in the past controversial films on Khodorkovsky, on Politkovskaya and this year showed the Russian-German co-production Putin's Games on the preparations for the Sochi Winter Olympics , a film highlighting the almost unbelievable levels of corruption as well as the severe unease and disruption that the games have caused the local population. These controversial films are often the most fully-packed sessions in the festival, given the unlikelihood that other major movie theatres will show these films after the festival.

However, politically-controversial films at this festival prove to be more an exception than a rule. In fact, this year one was hard put to find any directly political film apart from the film just mentioned. The two films on Pussy Riot were conspicuous by their absence - both the Lerner and Pozdorovkin film which attempts to provide a certain 'objective' glance and the much more 'subjective' (but in my view more interesting) film produced by the film collective Gogol's Wives (the failure to show the Lerner and Pozdorovkin film probably reflects some circumstances beyond the control of the directors of the festival given that the film had been planned to appear at the festival). 

What are quite common, though, are socially-sharp commentaries on life in Russia and the Gran Prix award winner was no exception. Alina Rodnitskaya's film Кровь (Blood) tells the story of a mobile team of nurses who worked for the Russian blood donor service. Unlike in many other countries, in Russia giving blood comes with a monetary reward. While not large in many people's terms, in provincial Russia the 850 roubles doled out to donors (equivalent to about $26 US) may not be an insignificant sum. Rudnitskaya follows the team around exploring both their own lifestyle and observing the donors themselves as well as their interactions with the team. It is a strong film precisely because it serves as a metaphor for society at large. Watching it on the same day as Putin's Games one felt even more the scandalous inequalities between the corrupt businessmen defrauding billions and the desperate provincial inhabitants forced to sell their blood to survive. Rudnitskaya, moreover, is a superb observer of social institutions and the minutiae of everyday life embedded in people's interaction with them. Previously films of hers have been about a marriage and divorce registrar office in her film Гражданское Состояние (Civil Status)

or her more bleak masterpiece Я забуду этот день (I will forget this day) filmed in an institution that we only find out towards the end it is being shot in. Again her filming of this abortion clinic and the social anxiety brings to the fore the realities of social and sexual inequalities. The award of the main prize to Rodnitskaya was a sign of confidence in her mastery of her surgically brilliant dissection of the social body of Russian society through these portraits of institutions and the individuals linked to them.

The best full-length film of the festival award as well as the best film of the year award went to a debutante. Daria Khlestkina's Последний лимузин (The Last Limousine) was a fine portrait of a once-elite car factory in decline. The factory,after  having received an order for three classic ZIL limousines for a Red Square parade at the Kremlin, appears to have been given a new lease of life. This, however, at the last moment proves illusory when a call from the Kremlin administration informs them that the Limousines that they have spent so much effort in building will not appear in the parade after all. This tragi-farcical finale serves as a Kotlovan-like tale of the absurdity of Russian life in general and that of the Russian working classes in particular. The film is a sincere and genuinely warm portrait of workers brought up in the Soviet epoch and genuinely dedicated to the factory and their work. It is also a portrait of the world of migrant workers in the factory and their relationship to the surrounding environment. Two worlds which according to the director practically don't communicate. Khlestkina explained how the subject matter was given as a task set by Marina Razbezhkina in her school for documentary film-making (a school which has engendered a whole generation of documentary film-makers) and, although the suggestion was that there was little point searching for this environment in Moscow itself, Khlestkina came across the Likhachev factory: one of the few examples left in the city of a still working factory. In many ways she has made an extraordinary portrait of this environment. The Post-Soviet return to the figure of the worker was anticipated in Svetlana Baskova's recent documentary and feature films and in this festival another film was devoted to the subject in Svetlana Bychenko's film Нити Никала (Lamp Filament) about the demise of a factory making the old 'Lenin lamp'. Once again one gets the same melancholic portrait of a workforce dedicated but doomed. 

A Special Jury Prize was awarded to the film by Inna Lesina Морфолгия (Morphology - one of those extraordinary explorations of the world of an individual. In this case the universe explored was that of a forensic pathologist and the world of the morgue. What makes this short 35 minute film special is that it is a portrait of someone whose philosophy about life has extraordinary depth. His citations of Chekhov, Tom Waits and interest in art along with a deep sense of humour makes this one of the uplifting films of the festival in spite of the subject matter.


A Jury special mention was given to Madina Mustafina's film Еще Чуток, Мрази (A Little More, Scumbags). This film about the life of a transsexual has come on the trail of her much discussed previous film Милана (Milana)- which had both its champions as well as detractors. The earlier film was shot with what, Masha Karp has called an 'invisible camera', contrasting it almost entirely with Liubov Arkus's activist intervention. In Mustafina's latest film she once again manages to enter almost entirely into the life of its protagonist in a fairly invisible way. The film is set in Kazakhstan but the protagonists are Russian speakers. Highlighting the LGBT community and the main protagonists, Zhenya's, decision to opt for a sex change, it is the kind of film that is likely to garner interest outside Russia for its subject matter alone (giving the new homophobic laws in place). Yet it is much more than a simple exploration of this environment. The film has a very different aesthetic to many of the others on show and many in the documentary community in Russia are skeptical and unaccepting of Mustafina's way of filming. It must also be said that even the protagonist of the film had issues with the director which led to the rift and the abandonment of the shooting after nine months. However, in many ways the award seemed more than justified in encouraging Mustafina's rather unique style of film-making in the Russian documentary world. Mustafina is yet one more of the former students of Razbezhkina who have been scooping up prizes here at Art Doc Fest as well as elsewhere.

Other awards included the Лавровая Ветвь (Laurel Branch) awards. Of these were the film Катя (Katia) which was to win the Best Art Film award. A film on a journey to India by a marginalised Russian from the Moscow region, it has gained both critical plaudits as well as attention because of the later notoriety of its cameraman, Sergei Pchelintsev, suspected of murdering a dissident Russian priest Pavel Adelgheim. This gruesome fate of one of its team (and a very competent cameraman Pchelintsev was said to be) will obviously distract from a dispassionate review of the film itself. A fine Russian language review of the film has, however, been written by the film critic Zara Abdullaeva in a  blog for the journal Искусство Кино .

Other awards of note went to the cameraman for the best in his profession to Mikhail Gorobchuk for his part in two films - one by Rodion Ismailov entitled Моя Родня (My Kith and Kin), an intimate exploration of his daughter's journey to native Azerbaijan and the other a film entitled Дыхание Тундры (Breath of the Tundra). The film by Ismailov has won a number of international awards and I will write about it in a further post.

Daria Vedritskaite won a 'Laurel Branch' for best debut film for her За Рекой...Последние - her slow moving but at times highly poetic exploration of a community of Old Believers.

These prize winners were just a few of the many significant films shown at the festival. Over the comings weeks I'm hoping to add some more posts. Disputes over prizes never go away but, to my mind, the jury of Art Doc Fest did chose some of the stronger films in competition.

As a postscript to this post, the presence of so many award winners from Marina Razbezhkina's school of documentary film, it would be wrong not to mention that one of her own films was in the competition. Оптическая Ось (Optical Axis) gave a general overview of societal changes in its comparison between the photographs of a century ago taken by Maxim Dmitriev. A portrayal of societal groups, it doesn't go in for sharp social observation like many of her students but nonetheless one can only welcome a return by the pedagogical master of documentary to documentary practice.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Art Doc Fest 2013: the first days.

Well over a hundred films are being shown at this year's Art Doc Fest and the last for some time to be held in Moscow's Khudozhestvenni cinema (which after the festival will be closed for rebuilding). Art Doc Fest prides itself on getting even the politically controversial documentaries to the screen and this year it is Putin's Games which promises to be its flagship controversial film of the year) as well as Alina Rudnitskaya's socially sharp film Blood  (in which Rudnitskaya once again looks at a social institution - this time blood banks- with a critical eye) which will serve to bolster its reputation of it being one of the freer 'mainstream' festivals on Russian soil. However, neither of the two films on Pussy Riot (the Lerner and Pozdorovkin film which has just been shortlisted for an Oscar award and the film by the collective Gogol's Wives, Pussy versus Putin which won the IDFA Competition for Best Mid-Length Documentary) are getting a showing at the festival. I'll review these films in a separate post for their absence is significant (Lerner and Pozdorovkin's film had been expected at Art Doc Fest) even though one's reading of this absence can't be put down to a straight issue of censorship.

That which is on offer at Art Doc Fest is hard to categorise even though a number of themes have already crystallized. Of competition films shown so far revolt and revolution are on the agenda but not in the way one normally expects them. Here Kossakovsky (with 32 documentary students of  the IDEU Pompeu-Fabra University in Barcelona) have attempted a portrait of revolt as ballet in their film DEMONStration whereas Alyona Polunina in her film Nepal Forever has added clear farcical elements to her portrait of two St Petersburg revolutionaries on a trip to Nepal to conciliate between revolutionaries. (Her previous film also shown here The revolution that wasn't gave a more rather tragic portrait of Limonov's National Bolsheviks). Whereas Polunina's new film generated a lot of laughs among the audience last night it seemed to lack the gravitas of her earlier film.  Anna Moiseenko's S.P.A.R.T.A. Territory of Happiness, a portrait of a commune trying to rebuild local communism in the Post-Soviet space (and shown first at last year's festival but reshown again this year) gives a much more balanced view of utopian dreams and realities.

Marina Razhbezkina has made a return to directing after concentrating on her pedagogical career at her School of Documentary Films and Theatre with a new film Optical Axis which attempts to look at contemporary reality through a comparison with the photographs of Maxim Dmitriev taken a century ago. It is a gentle social portrait which includes an extraordinary moment of filming the process of a man carving out a wooden spoon in real time. Filmed in natural light, the film offers little sharp social commentary but regards its protagonists generally with a certain warmth.

Sergei Loznitsa's return to documentary with Letter after his two feature films is another look at the rural, peasant countryside. Shot through a pre-World War Two, the halo-like figures in the blurred film give appearances of almost ghost-like beauty. An extraordinary twenty minutes which makes much else watched on the same day seem far too conventional even when they recount exceptional stories of hardship.

Another competition film  Darya Verditskaite's The last one's ... beyond the river (За рекой... последние) also looks at rural Russia through an optic of a dying world. Not as radical as Loznitsa's poetic arthouse, the films feels overdone and doesn't quite know when to end. But as a debut film it still suggests that the director will have much to say in the future.

It was a great pleasure to watch Kossakovsky's early film The Belovs (Беловы) -a film that gets better at every viewing. A retrospective of festival director Vitaly Mansky has also been without doubt another important part of the festival (if one could have only drawn oneself away from the main location of the festival). Every now and again one stumbles into films that one didn't even suspect were on show such as the portrait of one of Russia's greatest untold secrets, Shavkat Abdusalamov: art director of Tarkovsky and Klimov, artist, author , actor, director in his own right and friend of Antonioni, Tonino Guerra and Yuri Norstein. The film portrait The Eternal Wanderer (Вечный Странник) may not, in itself have been innovative in technique, but it was a joy that someone has made a portrait of this unackowledged but great artist. A shame, though, that only three people came to view this film during its single showing at the festival.

Coming days promise much more including many of the long awaited competition films.   

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

On Magic - Gennady Shpalikov's letter to Vigo

A year ago I published a post entitled Gennadi Shpalikov- The Soviet Vigo?. I wrote "it is, perhaps, not too great an exaggeration to call him a kind of Russian Vigo ".
More recently I discovered a text in Shpalikov's volume of writings which includes his scripts, his letters, his poetry, stories and just one off diary pieces. One of these is written as though addressed to Vigo. In this piece (a kind of stream of consciousness piece with only dashes and no full stops) Shpalikov explains his debt to Vigo and poignantly speaks about Vigo's early death (a fate that Shpalikov would, unfortunately, share). This is one of the many small pieces from Shpalikov's writings - writings including some still unaccountably unadapted scenarios. All in all after reading Shpalikov one can only state, that like with Vigo, what a tragedy it was for cinema that his life was cut so short. Here, then is the text - it is, of course, impossible to imitate his style - but hopefully something will come across of the kind of figure that Vigo was for Shpalikov and the reverence that he had for Vigo (and that any contemporary filmmaker should have for the figure of Shpalikov). 

This is dedicated to the memory of Vigo, my teacher in film, and yes even in life, even though I can not imagine him alive.

Once some time ago, it was a very long time ago, when I had just started in film - and not even very much aware of the masters of film, since I was basically drinking in the morning, and falling in love with every girl I met- even those who thwarted my every advance - but - what can be done? - what? - if it's like that - and it was at that time when in someone's conversation I heard - about Atalante, I was afraid to watch it - for a long time I was afraid, because at that point I was writing things in the same vein- maybe worse, maybe better - that's not important - no - it's not important - I wept - later on, at that great picture- yes, and not even because of the film - but because you, Vigo, died so young - and no one made such films anymore, and I - in your memory- shot a long crazy final scene to my first film- in your memory,Vigo, in your memory, Vigo and once again in your memory - it's terrifying me that we are the same age now- yes - and we need each others friendship- but what could I do? - I could only shoot a long - crazily long shots- of a barge crossing the water, water, a girl with a harmonica - what more could I do? - this was my declaration of love to you, Vigo, - where are you now, Vigo? - where are you? - dear Vigo- where are you,Vigo? - I know where you are - but because I know - what anguish I feel!