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Tuesday, 22 July 2014

A Feast in time of Plague?: Reflections on some political aspects of the Odessa Film Festival.

This is a short overview of my immediate after-impressions on the Odessa Film Festival. I hope to be writing a longer and more detailed article for Bright Lights Film Journal in the near future. 

The Muzkomedia building - the central festival palace this year.
It would be impossible to write about this year's Fifth Odessa International Film Festival neglect to reflect upon the context in which it took place. The dramatic and historic events of the past year in Ukraine made their mark in so many ways upon the event that simply reviewing the films presented would ignore the historic significance of this festival compared with those of previous years. It is, perhaps, especially significant that the centre of the festival's activities (including its opening and closing ceremonies) took place at the Muzkomedia- a building not far from the House of Trade Unions -the building where after clashes between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian demonstrators over forty people lost their lives on May 2nd of this year. This tragic event for Odessa this year cast a long shadow over the festival itself as did recent events in the South East of the country. With the downing of the Malaysian airline coming towards the end of the festival this only made the atmosphere surrounding the festival all the more troubling. Bernard Besserglick, one of the FIPRESCI jury members noted that after the air tragedy the atmosphere at the festival grew decidedly more nationalistic. The Red Carpet event on the final day was thankfully abandoned and the closing ceremony itself was a rather somber affair with many reminders that this was a festival taking place in trying times. 

The question of whether to hold a film festival at such a grim and gloomy time for Ukraine was an ongoing issue of debate in the city and among cultural representatives. This was complicated by a number of other issues which led a few to boycott the festival. Earlier in the year one of the festivals main translators - Irina Zaytseva  - stated on her Facebook page that she would no longer work for a festival in which people previously linked to the Yanokovich regime (such as the Tigipko's) would continue to be the festival's figurehead. Others, however, held the viewpoint that the festival could provide a much-needed fillip for the pride and sense of well-being of the city. Whether there was any justification for keeping a red carpet atmosphere was certainly debateable. After all, the festival had gone public with a crowd funding plan earlier when it was clear that funds would be tight and keeping up the pomp hardly seemed justifiable in either moral and financial terms. It is true that there were no big Hollywood names this year but it still seemed rather too fixated (like the Moscow Film Festival) on a certain idea of glamour.

All the same the Odessa Film Festival did offer some more serious 'interventions', even directly political ones, along with the glitz. Its showing of Oleg Sentsov's film Gamer as an act of solidarity and vocally and constantly speaking out for Sentsov's release was one way in which the festival proved it could play a small role in the highly necessary campaign of international solidarity which Sentsov merits.  

The other way in which the festival tried to prove its contemporary relevance in this time of conflict was the Way to Freedom programme in which a number of films dealt with very strong contemporary political issues. However, it reflected badly on the festival when a pro-Femen activist turned up for the showing of Alain Margot's Je Suis Femen and attempted a Femen-type action outside the Rodina movie theatre and was badly beaten for his pains. Security guards either from the cinema or from the festival itself violently over-reacted by banging the activists head on the car bonnet several times, an action witnessed by the Ukrainian journalist Olha Vesnianka. Hardly impressive behaviour for a festival (or a cinema) showing a collection of radical and anti-authoritarian films. The other two films of this programme which attracted most attention were the Gogol's Wives film Pussy versus Putin and Sergei Loznitsa's Maidan. Both of these films were accompanied by a very lively Q & A session afterwards. While the Gogol's Wives duo explained the extremely difficult background between the shooting of the film:

The shooting could last literally for a couple of seconds, we couldn’t put the camera on the tripod or take it with us. Many of the shootings ended with a pursuit so that we had to eject the memory card and hide it on the run,

many in the enthusiastic audience discussed the time frame in which Russia would become free (the slogan of the demonstrators in the demonstration filmed with Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Katia Samusevitch). Some suggested that it was a case of decades rather than years (and one voice in the audience shouted out 'a thousand years') whereas another member of the audience stated that when Russia would have its second revolution in 2017 Ukrainians would come to their aid.

In any case at least Odessans were given a chance to watch at least one film denied to those in Russia and one could argue that the Gogol's Wives' duo contributed to the kind of Russian-Ukrainian dialogue taken hostage by the actions of the power elites. I have reviewed the film in detail elsewhere noting that for all its roughness it is far more impressive than the polished Lerner and Pozdorovkin film. It is a great shame that this film hasn't seen a better distribution in festivals Europe and world-wide. Especially given that with growing authoritarianism in Russia this type of underground chronicle could well augur the birth of a new trend of film-making

Loznitsa's Maidan film showing at the festival seemed a hostage to forces beyond the film. Most strangely of all, during both showings of Loznitsa's film the huge majority of the audience stood at the beginning and middle of the film when the national anthem was being sung. It was quite clear that the powerful sentiments that the Maidan engendered would make an 'objective' reading of the film almost impossible. As well as the unusual practice of standing for a national anthem, some of the audience would also shout the same slogans in the movie theatre that were heard behind the screen. This audience participation does seemingly express a sincere national mood, yet the slogans shouted out by members of the audience as they left the first screening including a Hail to the Nation sounded incongruous in terms of Loznitsa's clear intent to avoid any overt propagandistic points. The sometimes hostile Q & A suggest that much of the audience were irritated by Loznitsa's lack of pathos and his dispassionate defence of the film didn't satisfy some who turned up to the evening Q & A. Loznitsa was given a rather rough time at the Odessa Film Festival two years ago by the audience after a showing of In the Fog which was received rather coolly here too, in contrast to the Trieste Film Festival where it gained the main audience award.

There was also a certain dissonance between the films most loved by the audience and those awarded by the jury. Nowhere was this more evident than with the film that won the Golden Duke (an award chosen by the public and not by the jury): Zero Motivation. A feel-good movie about life in the Israeli army awarding this film would be almost inconceivable in any other major European festival during a time when the same army were bombing Gaza with major civilian casualties. Indeed a prominent jury member did voice his deep concern and unease that the public had awarded this film with the major prize and clearly wanted emphasis placed on the fact that the jury itself had not awarded it with any prizes.

It was clear that cultural links between Russia and Ukraine haven't been entirely abandoned. Apart from the Pussy versus Putin film there was also a film and a masterclass by Vitaliy Mansky (he also headed the national competition jury) and Anna Melikian's Russian-produced film The Star (Russian trailer below) was in the international competition (though it was a Russian film with a film crew from all parts of the former Soviet Union). Olga Dykhovnichnaya was also in the International Jury and had a film of hers shown. Olga Bychkova's film Another Year (a Russian film by a Ukrainian born director) also starred in the Festival of Festivals programme having won the Big screen Award in Rotterdam. Vitaliy Mansky's speech (half of which was in Ukrainian) at the awards ceremony was also well-received by the audience as was his apology for the actions of the Russian government during his Masterclass. In this sense there was at least some hope that some seeds of hope could grow into future cooperation at least on a cultural level. Mansky himself was in Odessa not just for the festival but also for the purpose of shooting a future film.

At other festival events- especially at the evening events at the Caleton bar by the Black Sea shore- it was possible to hear of many stories regarding the recent conflict. The viewpoints could often be diametrically opposed. A group from Mariupol explained how while they once felt a strong affinity with Russia now felt 100% Ukrainian because of the stance taken by the Russian governments and the separatist fighters. However, their opinion of the Ukrainian President Peter Poroshenko was as negative as their opinion of Yanukovich. Others expressed either a general Ukrainian patriotism though not all. One person from the Odessan film Industry stated that living in Ukraine today was like living as an anti-fascist in Nazi Germany. Certainly a radically different viewpoint from those heard as a whole but it does show the polarisation of views that recent events have engendered. In terms of film imbalances and injustices one film director Nikolai Sednev complained of the dismissive attitude that Kiev film authorities had in regard to Russian-language film from Odessa, stating that they had rejected all 48 film projects submitted to them for funding from Odessa Film Studios in recent years (it has been hard so far to verify this information).

Overall the need for a film festival in troubling times was clear but it could be argued that the kind of festival that the city needed may have somewhat differed from the one that was on offer even though this year it moved towards a more civically-focused festival with the Sentsov showing and the Way to Freedom programme. Unease on money spent on some more lavish parts of the festival as well as an attempt to cater to popular tastes at the entertainment end of the film industry need to be set against the prominence given to Ukrainian film which, not reaching the heights of its heyday, desperately requires the kind of international attention and interest which a festival like Odessa's can offer. The national programme competition was rather disappointing and the audience favourite The Guide, to my mind, signified one of the worst possible directions for Ukrainian cinema- a faux Hollywood pathos-driven cinema with an obvious nationalistic subtext. Ukrainian film deserves better and, hopefully, can contribute more names to world cinema- beyond those of Muratova and Loznitsa- in future years.

Friday, 11 July 2014

On a small, polemical 'twitter storm' over British cultural isolationism: Comparing Russian and British Film Journalism.

An article I wrote for another blog when tweeted by Ian McDonald earned a series of hissy fits from the Observer and BBC film journalist, Mark Kermode. My post was not directed at the film journalism of Mark Kermode in particular (he may indeed write more reviews about foreign language films than many other UK film journalists) but it seems as though he took my points about British 'cultural isolationism' rather personally. Even demanding an apology that while I had written that "probably less than 10% of his film reviews were foreign-language films" the actual percentage of his Films of the Week column devoted to foreign language films stands at just 10.52% (ie four out of 38). Hardly impressive. One tweeter remarked Kermode's tweets in reply "reek(ed) of horribly snarky London Film Mafia talk" given the rather splenetic tones and his refusal to discuss any substantive points about cultural isolationism in Britain.

Much of my original post related to a comparison between the work of British film journalists and Russian film journalists. Film criticism in The Guardian newspaper which I took as an example of a liberal newspaper with a history of fairly strong film critics including the one-man institution that once was Derek Malcolm has, I believe, declined in recent years in terms of its film coverage. Even if Guardian journalists go to film festivals abroad (though not many of them are covered) they will generally seek out English-language films, actors and directors and rarely inquire into what is going on beyond that.
Andrey Plakhov, Kommersant columnist and author of several books on world cinema.

Here is the extract from my post where I wrote specifically comparing The Guardian's film journalists to those of the Russian Kommersant daily:

One may like to compare the English-language film journalist with a Russian film journalist. Yes, there are a number of film journalists in Russia mainly interested in Russian-language titles but let’s take the newspaper Kommersant as an appropriate comparison to the Guardian. Its film pages boast the names of Andrei Plakhov, Lidia Maslova and Mikhail Trofimenkov. Both Plakhov and Trofimenkov have written various books on world cinema and their knowledge of other cinema’s is truly impressive. I’d guess that at least 50% of their reviews are related to non-Russian titles. It’s not as though Russia lacks its own isolationist and even xenophobic tendencies. Indeed its Minister of Culture is well-known for his belief that European Culture is alien to Russia. Yet, thankfully, in Russia film journalists are not lackeys of their authoritarian and isolationist government. Here many film journalists are still people with an culture open to other worlds, nations and tongues (Trofimenkov, for example, was to teach in a French university). Not something you could imagine in the CV of a Guardian film journalist.

This surely is the crux of the matter: while Kermode might be writing the odd hundred word review of a foreign language film, Trofimenkov or Plakhov (given their far superior and far more universal cultural knowledge) will devote major articles to foreign language films or curate fine themed-programmes at a Russian film festival where all the films included are foreign language films (and not just the token odd one or two). This is rarely the case for a British journalist (and certainly not for one writing for a national newspaper and working for the BBC).

Mikhail Trofimenkov Kommersant columnist and prolific author, former professor at the University of Metz.
This abyss between a British film journalist and a Russian film journalist is something I've been reflecting on as I slowly read through Mikhail Trofimenkov's excellent history of political cinema in the context of decolonisation The Film Theatre of War . One is delighted, astounded, enthused on each and every page of this book uncovering so many hidden moments of film history. One realizes that somewhere at least there are film journalists capable of expanding cultural horizons rather than limiting them and guarding the gates from foreign influence. This can, of course, be done in two ways ignoring foreign-language films altogether or by belittling them and talking about them in cliche-ridden language. Thankfully in Russia one can find still film journalists who write with the gravitas, erudition and universality of a Georges Sadoul in spite of the course of cultural isolationism that its politicians want to steer it on. Sadly, though, the same can not be said to be true about Britain.

Parajanov's Venetian Links to be Explored in new Exhibition by Tatiana Daniliyants.

The School of Visual Arts invites people to the presentation of a new project of the well-known film director, photo artist and sculptor Tatiana Daniliyants “Venetian Gifts to Sergei Parajanov”.

In the programme are clips from Tatiana Daniliyants documentary films “Venice Afloat” (2012) and the “Hidden Garden”. Photographic documents of her exhibition “Anima Russa”(2011) and the presentation of the project “Venetian Gifts to Sergei Parajanov” which will be supported by a crowdfunding resource on It begins at 3.30pm.

Parajanov was well-known in Europe- especially in Italy. In 1988 the films of Sergei Parajanov were shown at a special “edition” of the Venice Biennale. There are still people alive in this city who remember Parajanov and honour his memory. Sergei Iosefich stated several times in conversations and interviews that he a felt a special aesthetic affinity with Venice. One could also state that materials which he used in his collages and films – mirrors, lace, beads, objects from glass, masks, plumage- could be said to be typical for this city. 

Tatiana Daniliyants' exhibition “Venetian Gifts to Sergei Parajanov” is planned for September 2014 at the Yerevan Museum of Contemporary Art and will include video art, sculptures from Murano glass and collages. At the end of 2014 this exhibition should be shown in Moscow. It is a tribute to a Maestro who this year would have celebrated his 90th birthday and also a kind of bridge between two worlds: the ‘cosmos’ of Sergei Parajanov and the ‘cosmos’ of Venice – a cosmos to which Tatiana Daniliyants has been linked for around 20 years.

Tatiana Daniliyants: “Since my youth the creations of Sergei Parajanov are like a magical lantern, a lamp full of wonders. There is no doubt in my mind that Venice and Parajanov are intimately linked: the infinitely distant and infinitely intimate Byzantine light; a love of golden brocade fabrics, silk and velvet; a certain super abundance and excess, solemnity and  ‘multi-layeredness’. My exhibition is a gift from Venice- its historians, theologians, musicians and many others who knew Parajanov. And from the followers of the Maestro, me and all of you, those who can, in some form, help to realise this project. The very title of the project is imbued with the idea of giving: Venetian philosophers, thinkers, musicians and the city itself present Parajanov with its memory, its love and admiration. It is precisely because of this that the idea of crowdfunding- a collective giving of funds for the realization of a project- seems here to be most appropriate”   
“ Through crowdfunding the author is looking for moment which with in the next few months will be used to produce the exhibits: sculptures from Murano glass, collages and two films in which Venetians will speak about Parajanov”

Tatiana Daniliyants is a film director, photo artist and sculptor. She studied at the Surikov Art Institute in Moscow and the Higher Courses for Film Directors. She studied with Andrzej Wajda in Krakow. She was also trained at the Guggenheim Institute in Venice. She is the author of about ten documentaries and shorts. As an artist she has participated in more than 60 personal and group exhibitions including in the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, the Moscow Photo Biennale and exhibitions at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, the Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg, RosFoto (Saint Petersburg) and others. She teaches at the School of Visual Arts (in the Atelier of Short Films)   

The presentation will take place at the Vinzavod Centre of Contemporary Art on the 12th July between 3.30 and 6.30pm. Free entrance but please confirm attendance  at the event Register here: Contact telephones: +79191390541, Natalia and +7 916 562-29-44, Olga.

original from:

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Odessa Film Festival.

In spite of the volatile situation in Ukraine, thanks to a crowd-funding campaign through Indiegogo earlier this year the Fifth Odessa International Film Festival is going ahead. In many ways previous years editions have suggested that though it may be much smaller than the Moscow Film Festival in terms of films and events its smaller size is no handicap to inviting some of the more interesting figures from the world of cinema to its splendid summer school. This years Summer School includes master classes from Aidan Turner, Angelina Nikhonova and Olga Dykhovychnaya, Darren Aronofsky, David Puttnam, Jean-Philippe Tesse', Stephen Frears, Vitaly Mansky and Sergei Loznitsa amongst others. There is also a national workshop working alongside this event.

While there are some overlaps with the programme of the Moscow Film Festival in terms of its programme this is there is one programme unthinkable at a Russian festival. Entitled Ways to Freedom, it presents what it calls films about "revolutions of different nations (with) one common goal: freedom, truth and dignity". It includes two films on the Maidan uprising- one Sergei Loznitsa's film shown at Cannes and another collective film entitled The Black Book of Maidan. As well as this there are two films of Russia's and Ukraine's most radical feminist groups of recent years: Alain Margot's I am Femen will be shown along with Gogol's Wives film Pussy Versus Putin on Pussy Riot. An article of mine on the latter film (comparing it to Lerner and Pozdorovkin's film on the same subject will hopefully be published elsewhere) in the not too distant future. Other films on Tahrir as well on Czechoslovakian rebels and Bucharest uprisings will complete this programme.

Oleg Sentsov's Gamer is also being given a special screening at the festival as a gesture of solidarity with the imprisoned film director. A showing of forgotten masterpieces from the history of Ukrainian cinema includes Abram Room's extraordinary banned 1935 film A Strict Young Man  as well as films by Mark Donskoy, a 1927 classic Two Days by Georgiy Stabovy as well as films by lesser-known directors Artur Voytetsky and Villen Novak. The national Ukrainian competition will have seven films in competition including a self-portrait of Larissa Kadochnikova- an actress in Parajanov's Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors as well as the daughter of the great Soviet actor Pavel Kadochnikov who acted for both Eisenstein and Barnet in highly memorable roles. One of the other films in competition, Oleg Sanin's The Guide will also appear in the international competition as will Nana Djordjaze's My Mermaid, My Lorelei. Other films in the international competition includes Anna Melikian's Star shown at this year's Kinotavr. Lech Majewski's fascinating Field of Dogs will also be in the international competition. In what is also becoming a tradition a film by an Italian director (this time Livorno's Paolo Virzi) is opening the festival and live music orchestra will accompany showings of Hitchcock's 1929 silent film Blackmail (at the Potemkin Stairs, the most spectacular moment of the festival) and Feuillade's 1913 film Fantomas at the Lanzheron Steps. Kira Muratova's Asthenic Syndrome will also be shown on the last night of the festival in the same location.

Once again a British film-maker gets a full retrospective - this time it is Stephen Frears's retrospective and the Festivals of Festivals programme also promises to include a few gems. Including Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Winter Sleep which won both the Palme d'Or and the prestigious FIPRESCI prize. A programme of shorts, a pitching forum and the unveiling of works in progress should give this film festival a renewed significance.    

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Franciska Gaal - Foreign movie star who took Stalin's Soviet Union by storm

While imports of foreign films in the 1920s Soviet Union were commonplace, the 1930s saw a relative dearth of foreign films shown on Soviet screens. Mary Pickford may have become so well known to have earned a Soviet film devoted to her recounting how a theatre check-taker earns a kiss from Mary Pickford in Sergei Komarov's 1927 film of that title but Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich were barely known in Stalin's Soviet Union. Dietrich's first visit to the Soviet Union would be in 1964.

However, there was one foreign movie star who was a household name in the Stalinist period- that was Franciska Gaal. Moscow's Bakhrushkin Museum devoted an exhibition to her which has just closed. In many ways it is surprising that the main foreign diva would star in Hungarian films given the fiercely anti-Soviet Horthy regime and there is some suggestion that, at least one of the films through which she was most well-known, Romance in Budapest(1933) which was retitled Pet'ka in the Soviet Union (and released some years later), may have come "through the back door". As the Hungarian curator of the exhibition, Anna Gereb, told me her fame in Russia even today far outweighs that in her native Hungary and DVDs are available in Russia but not in Hungary. Of the available footage from youtube much of it comes with old Soviet subtitles:

Pet'ka especially is an interesting film from a gender perspective as the main character Eva is robbed of her woman's clothes and is transformed into the character of Peter. Other films for which she was famous in the Soviet Union included Little Mother. It is even said that the film chief at the time had hoped to get Gaal  to star in a Soviet adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. Interestingly Shumiatsky was thinking of a transgenderal change in the main protagonist and Jim Hawkins would become Jenny. Shumiatsky as a 'Gaalophile', though was replaced (and repressed) in 1938 after which no more films starring Gaal would be released in the Soviet Union (apart from any trophy films after 1945 which were, of course, made before 1938).

Soviet record of the Gaal's Tango from the film Peter.

Not only was Gaal to become famous in the late 1930s but her life was linked to the country even after the Second World War. Given her Jewish origins she was forced to emigrate to Hollywood in 1938 with her producer Joe Pasternak. Nonetheless, in 1941 she made an ill-fated decision to return to Budapest (so as to remain near her mother who was in poor  health). With from the worsening situation in Hungary she couldn't hope to return to her film career and with the full occupation of the country by the Nazis in 1944, she was forced to hide from the fascists at friend houses and in cellars. One account suggests that she was forced to hide in up to 300 different places. In the final days before the liberation of Budapest by Soviet troops her predicament was especially nightmarish as an active search for her by was undertaken and with Hungarian fascists making radio broadcasts demanding that people hunt her down. Many of her family members were killed by the Nazis. Her mother was taken and tortured, her sister eliminated in a concentration camp, her brother's son was killed when Nazi's tricked him and his comrades into believing that the Soviet soldiers had arrived.

Gaal wa, in fact, freed from her predicament by Soviet troops. There are many accounts of how it happened - some of these legendary and even fantastic ones. Her own account, however, is just as fascinating. Her husband did delivery her to safety to a Soviet officer who, in fact, presented himself as a film director from Leningrad (though researchers haven't discovered who this director might have been). At first sceptical and unwilling, when eventually taken to Gaal the Soviet officer and former film director did recognise her as the 'Little Mother' of the pre-war film.

Gaal with Liubov Orlova and Sergei Eisenstein (among others)

Gaal was soon in the Soviet Union on a two and a half month tour as guest of the Soviet government visiting Moscow, Leningrad and Odessa among other places. A guest of Orlova and Alexandrov. There was even talk of her starring in Soviet films (there is actually documentary footage of her at the All Union Parade of Fizkulturniky in a documentary film with the famous poet, translator and children's writer Samuil Marshak). She also met a whole host of Soviet film figures including Sergei Yutkevich, Sergei Gerasimov and Sergei Eisenstein among others and was taken to see the shooting of Небесный Пароход (Heavenly Slug) where she would meet Nikolai Kryuchkov. She would also meet Pavel Kadochnikov who was had just finished working on Barnet's Подвиг Разведчика (Exploits of a Scout). Kadochhnikov would show her some clips from the film (whether Boris Barnet ever met Gaal
is unclear- given that Kriuchkov was a major Barnet actor too, it seems not too improbable).
Gaal in Moscow 1945.
For Gaal her two and a half months in the Soviet Union would be her last and would signal perhaps one of the last moments of fame. Returning to her native Hungary but all attempts to return to cinema were to fail. In the late forties she would return to America, to New York and live in relative obscurity and even poverty until her death in New York in 1973. The great Russian film critic on Hungarian cinema, Alexander Troshin, at one point planned a film project (to be shot like a documentary novel and a socio-psychological study on celluloid) which would be based on an attempt to understand the phenomenon of Gaal and what made her image so powerful for many in those countries like the Soviet Union which saw her as the ultimate film diva. Even though her films can't be considered masterpieces her film presence was enough to bewitch generations of Soviet viewers. Her destiny could have been different: in the late twenties Georg Willhelm Pabst offered her the lead role in Pabst's Pandora's Box. Unfortunately, she turned it down because she wanted to concentrate on her work in the theatre. If only...

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Re-imagining Soviet popular culture: On 'Soviet Groove' & other films.

Trying to imagine what the Soviet Union was really like is a rather testing pastime. The Cold War images were so deeply engraved in many imaginations that even the idea of there being a youth culture in Soviet times is probably new for many westerners. That, then, slowly a more realistic or fuller picture is unearthed is, in many ways, thanks to film. Of course, between the visions of Vyacheslav Sorokin's 1998 film Тоталитарный Роман (A Totalitarian Romance) and Valery Todorovsky's film Стиляги (Hipsters) a decade later there is much in common. It was for both these films the rare individual who would stand out from Soviet conformism. Nonetheless at least Todorkovsky's film began to remind us of an alternative milieu (in its overblown way). It also brought to light the material ways in which underground/banned music was reproduced and listened to in the form, at first, of X-ray disks. And yet these films never highlighted the home grown music scene relying instead on the idea that it was imported music which challenged the system. So the story went it was the Beatles which rocked the Kremlin:

Only that it wasn't really. That story never took into account the reality that the Soviet Union was never as monolithic as that nor the fact that the Beatles were not the only western musicians to play an important role. Marco Raffaini's fine film Italiani Veri shows that the role of Italian light music played. It wasn't music banned or inveighed against but still probably had just as significant an effect in different ways over a longer period of time. It may have been, for the most case, a music that even the cultural bureaucrats permitted but, nonetheless the indirect influence it played in opening up new spaces and imaginations is undoubted.

Soviet cultural bureaucrats inveighed against western music but no, jazz wasn't quite banned in the Soviet period. After all we would never have got S. Frederick Starr's history of Soviet jazz if it were.

Just as the statement there was 'no sex in the Soviet Union' belies a rather more complicated reality in which erotica and prostitution existed but public discourse about sex was absent, so the Soviet Union played host to a greater variety of musical genres than most people imagined.

This will be the subject of two documentaries - one general and likely to gain an international audience and another more specifically devoted to the Siberian punk scene. The latter is Vladimir Kozlov's Следы на снег (Traces in the Snow). A teaser is available here on VimeoKozlov is interviewed here about the Siberian punk rock scene during the 80s and 90s and how it has developed since then.

Nonetheless, it seems as though it will be Alexei Gittelson's and Louis Beaudemont's Soviet Groove which will give people an idea about the story of Soviet rock as a whole and promises to gain a large international audience. The director and producer (a French son of a communist mother and an American of Russian origins) both became fascinated with the actual variety of music (often, but not exclusively, underground) in the Soviet period and aim to paint on a broader canvas than Kozlov. Their documentary project which has meant working in the archives as well as working with Lendoc will hopefully be on track for release in April 2015 and the last news is that they are hoping to work with a German production company. Their approach seems to be one of cutting through the stereotypes of the Soviet period and surely there is much that can astound a western audience and even delight a Russian one (the initial reaction to the teasers and trailers has been very positive in Russia).

Arguably it won't be the first film to uncover new forms of knowledge about music in the Soviet period. Elena Tikhonov and Domonik Spritzendorfer's fine essayistic documentary Elektro Moskva. However, in their case they took the history back to Theremin exploring both electronic music and the creative way in which instruments were created and assembled. Not exploring just the sounds themselves but the instruments too. It made for very enjoyable viewing displaying so many rarely known facts about Soviet culture.

The hope is that Gittelson and Beaudemont will show how Soviet music was not just a reaction to western trends but, being often unique, would be one eventually influencing music elsewhere. This is one point that the pair highlighted when I spoke to them at the Moscow Business Square (some music produced today seems as though it can only have been influenced by these underground or semi-underground Soviet groups). If so one will begin to understand that there is, indeed, a strange double influence happening. Just as the Soviet art of the 1920s only gradually influenced and had an effect on the life blood of western art, so arguably aspects of Soviet groove can, in retrospect, be seen as ahead of their time (as well as a reaction to trends abroad). A re-reading and re-imagining of Soviet culture that in a way goes hand-in-hand with the work of some who have posited a more complex understanding of Eastern European post-war culture history. A kind of counter-history is surely emerging in filmic accounts not too dissimilar from that proposed by Agata Pyzik and others in their books.

So in many ways the films of Kozlov, Raffaini, Tikhonova & Spritzendorfer, and Gittelson & Beaudemont are timely films. Unearthing a lost Atlantis- a story as yet untold in film. At least for those unaware of Aleksei Uchitel's fascinating documentary Рок (Rock) made in 1990 as the Soviet Union was itself disappearing.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

New Russian Documentaries in the Pipeline.

One of the many events of Moscow Business Square this year during its Day of Documentary Films was the presentation of a number of Russian documentary projects which are in various stages of production. The world of Russian documentary is, in many ways, a very specific one and unjustly neglected one and the projects presented before a jury which included Nick Fraser were films with differing aesthetics and approaches but which all managed to offer insights into Russian reality.

Vlad Ketkovich, one of the most active Russian documentary film producers who is behind two of the most documentary film projects presented at this year's Moscow Business Square.
The entry judged by the jury to be the most successful project was Dmitry Vasyukov's Happy People: Altai. It is part of a documentary cycle devoted to filming different communities of people living in harsh nature but in a harmonious way. The film team has launched a very successful crowd funding scheme and given the fact that a previous film in this cycle was made with the help Werner Herzog, this alone could draw the curiosity of an informed film buff. Here is a clip from one of his previous films in the cycle:

Tatiana Soboleva- the director of Siberia's Floating Hospital- a film which explores a community on the Russian periphery, its way of life and how it interacts with the few outsiders (a group of doctors) with whom it comes into contact.
Another film that explores distant regions in Russia in Tatiana Soboleva's Heralds from the Floating World (Siberia's Floating Hospital). In the Spring as ice melts a group of twenty -mainly female- doctors board a ship to visit outlying villages and treat patients in this zone. The doctors are often the only connection that these villagers have with the outside world and so the film is much more than just an exploration of healthcare in remote areas. It explores the relationships within the medical collective as well as their relationships with their patients. It had been granted funding by Channel 4 and is produced by the Ethnographic Research Foundation and Vlad Ketkovich (one of the most active Russian documentary film producers). A clip of the film can be found on Vimeo.

Elena Demidova, a prolific documentary filmmaker whose ability to discover ever more fascinating subjects for her almost Barnetian documentaries.

Ketkovich is also the producer of Elena Demidova's Men's Choice. An exploration of men who work for Gazprom in the isolated northern outposts of the Yamal Peninsular in Russia and forced to leave their wives and families for long periods of the year in order to earn enough to maintain these families. Demidova has been active in documentary film-making for a number of years and one can ascertain a special style in her accounts of people's lives. She has a special ability in teasing out the special Russian touches of universal stories. Whether it is the story of Lesha who returns to his village destroyed by the flames of summer fires and whose retelling of his life and thoughts is one of the most extraordinary cinematic portraits or Sasha, Lena and the Iron Dragon two elderly people refusing to leave their khruschyovka apartment (five storey buildings first built during the Khruschev period but now seen as poor quality) marked for demolition. In their struggle to resist a transfer to another part of Moscow and the inexorable destruction of their home by the "iron dragon" (the bulldozer and, by extension, bureaucracy) we see all the humour and absurdity which becomes attached and sticks to their dramatic tale. Life, in Demidova's films, often acquires the essential  that Bela Balazs discovered in Boris Barnet whereby explosions of laughter arise in the most dramatic of tales.

Films which have a strongly social and even political theme abound and yet the ways in which they are tackled are very different. The moral purpose behind the film of Olga Arlauskas and Nikita Tikhonov-Rau's film Children of the State on the effects of the notorious Dima-Yakovlev Law makes it appear as a strong expose' of the political games which adult politicians play and their tragic effects on the lives of children and prospective adopting parents. A clip is available here. Irina Vasilieva's project Twice Born, Twice Dead looks at the story of a prisoner previously sentenced to a death sentence but saved by Yeltsin's moratorium and how the life sentence appears nothing less in reality but an ongoing execution. It also looks at the stories of two other people connected to the prisoners story including that of Jimmy Boyle. Another film Spirit in Motion looks at Russian paraolympians and is directed by Sofia Gevelyer, Yulia Byvsheva and Sofia Kucher and produced by the director of Russia's version of Michael Apted's 7-up series, Sergey Miroshnichenko.

Anna Moiseenko, a former student of Marina Razbezhkina,who is proving to be one of the most innovative young documentary film-makers in Russia today. 
Two films have as their subject matter migration or relations between Russians and other ethnic or national group. One is Nikita Sutyrin's beautifuly shot film Adaptation on the experience of nomadic Nenets children in a Russian school questioning what adaptation means in this context. A trailer is available here. Anna Moiseenko's film tries an innovative way of describing A Migrants' Life by having a migrant- Abdumamad Bekmamadov- compose ballads about his life in Moscow. A singer in a former Soviet folk band, his life in Moscow in the fifteen years has since become a much harsher one constrained to low paid jobs to feed his family. He has worked in a show regarding his life and that of migrants and this show won a prestigious theatre prize, the Golden Mask. Interestingly, the producer told the audience at the presentation of the film even his award at the Bolshoy Theatre didn't prevent members of the 'cultured and middle class' audience from making rather racist remarks on seeing a gastarbeiter in their midst proving that this theme is an important one. Moreover, tackling it in such an innovative way, Anna Moiseenko surely has found the right formula giving the voice and the story to the film's protagonist. Moiseenko, a student at the Razbezhkina school, worked on the awarded Winter, Go Away documentary and made a fine portrait of a commune in her S.P.A.R.T.A. The Territory of Happiness (which can be seen here).

The artist and migrant Abdumamad Bekmamadov who, through a series of ballads, retells the tale of a contemporary migrant in Moscow in Anna Moiseenko's forthcoming film 
Finally Sergei Kachkin's Perm 36: A Territory of Freedom is for Russian documentary watchers a long-awaited film. Coming after his debut On the Way Home, which found a way of recounting the routine and even mundane life of a couple in a subtly new way and with a very fine aesthetic, Perm 36 will give us a unique insight into the world of the functioning of the only gulag museum in modern Russia, the stories of three former detainees at the camp as well as the Pilorama event held annually but now in danger of being abandoned, along with the museum. A trailer is available on Vimeo here. Sergei Kachkin's previous film has been shown on television both inside and outside of Russia and the release of his new film certainly looks like it will prove to be a major event in Russian documentary.

Pilorama, the annual event which will be one of the subjects of Sergei Kachkin's long-awaited film Perm 36: A Territory of Freedom. 

Monday, 23 June 2014

Film links between Russia and Latin America: Some projects.

While the Moscow International Film festival may not be so much of a talking shop as many other festivals (most of it taking place at the central multiplex Oktyabr cinema on the Arbat), the Moscow Business Square is a different matter. As I mentioned in my previous post the main focus this year was Latin America and it was an opportunity to explore what kind of topics and what kind of themes might unite the two. In many ways this may be a window of opportunity to link two parts of the world that may not be as distant as they seem. The number of possible projects were sizable and their variety also noticeable. Apart from the prospect of a historical thriller The Chosen produced by Monica Lozano (the producer of some of the most internationally recognised Mexican films including Amores Perros) on the assassination of Leon Trotsky there are a number of other projects linking Latin American and Russian themes (or of Latin Americans who wish to make Russian-based films).

Monica Lozano, producer of Amores perros who is hoping to produce a historical thriller on the assassination of Leon Trotsky.

Another significant project which though being a fairly low budget film is likely to generate interest is an art house science fiction by Andre Arancibia and produced by Felipe Aichele and which aims to be shot both in Chile and in Russia (in Karelia). Aichele worked in the art team of the first HBO production in Chile Profugos and Arancibia has studied in film schools both in his native Chile and in the Czech Republic. Their proposed film Incarnation set in the year 2067 aims to use the backdrop of the global extinction of bees as an exploration of the theme of the deepest insecurities of the human mind and emotions. Karelia has been chosen as the location where a scientist from Chile arrives to discover why bees in this part of the world have not become extinct (it is a fact, as the director told me, that Karelia is the only place in the world where the bee population is growing). The film aims to be aesthetically radical too with the visual narrative as important as the actual story (using techniques of dynamic montage, and creative use of visual components such as space, line, shape, colour, movement and rhythm to create tensions and releases through the story). They aim to recreate a Tarkovskian Stalker- like atmosphere. Linking Chile with Russia in the cinematic imaginary is not new and has been associated with some of the most interesting films of recent years. The great Russian documentary filmmaker Kossakovsky in his !Vivan las antipodas! explored this in his portraits of Baikal Lake and Chilean Patagonia as one of his antipodean pairs and Aleksei Fedorchenko in his mockumentary Первые на Луне (First on the Moon) has the Soviet cosmopilot who travels to the moon in 1938 land back in Chile where the Zelig-like character travels back via the Pacific, China and Mongolia to the Stalinist Soviet Union. The hope that Aichele and Arancibia will be able to produce something of equal power re-conceptualising the Latin American-Russian imaginary makes this one of the most fascinating projects presented here.

One of the projects that producer of the Chilean-Russian film project 'Incarnation', Felipe Aichele, has worked on.

A documentary project on the little known wife of one of the icons of the Brazilian Communist Party Luis Carlos Prestes could also make for a fascinating story. Maria Prestes who spent 10 years living in Moscow near where the present Macdonalds stands at Tverskaya Street. As a portrait of an little known woman who lived at the centre of the most extraordinary historical moments of two very different countries this film has a potential for opening up the many stories of Latin Americans who visited the Soviet Union. Much has been written about the Europeans and North Americans who came to the Soviet Union and their illusions and cruel awakenings.

Maria Prestes- subjected of a new proposed documentary to be shot in Brazil and Russia.

It is surely time that the story of Latin Americans experience of the Soviet experience also came to the fore. Christiano Sensi's (director) and Micelli Crestani's (producer) Oranya -another Brazilian film, this time a feature film - also explores the story of migration and refugees between Russian, Europe and Sao Paolo. Here migration is from Europe and Russia to Brazil and tells the story of a Russian pilot and a Brazilian accountant who help the refugees reach the south American country.

The shot of chess player Carlos Torre from Pudovkin's Chess Fever

Roberto Garza and Juan Obregon also have a project that appears promising. Another documentary which links the world of chess, the two continents and a character who briefly appears in the Pudovkin film Chess Fever. Carlos Torre was also said to be a prototype for Nabokov (who was also discovered in one shot of the Pudovkin film). and was to come to the Soviet Union at Lenin's behest to write a book on chess. His chess career cut short by mental illness this film promises to be one in a long list of recent films proving that chess is strangely becoming one of the most cinematographic of sports.

Moscow Business Square was also the occasion for a pitching of a crop of new Russian documentaries and the occasion for the presentation of other Russian-themes film projects including a potentially fascinating film on the unknown world of alternative Soviet music called Soviet Groove. On these projects I will write separately in my next posts.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Ongoing Account of 36th Moscow International Film Festival (1)

In these and following posts I'll try to give some ongoing impressions and reflections on the daily events of the Moscow Film Festival, giving some more detail to the first post and also I aim to talk about some of the other events of the Festival.  

One of the main other events of the Film Festival is the Moscow Business Square (which is in its sixth edition) Apart from the traditional focus of the CIS countries and Georgia this year its focus is on the film indusries of Latin America and the UK. As well as an attempt to construct film industry links and foster coproduction between the film industry it is an excellent chance to learn of new film projects in the pipeline. The Latin America section is by far the larger part of the programme and it appears (from the events on at this years Moscow Business Square as though there is a boom in Russian-related themes in that continent being proposed for co-production projects. I hope to be able to write in more detail on some of these projects later.

One of the most exciting news for Russian film buffs linked to this event is the news about a new projected Andrey Khrzhanovsky film based on both Gogol's as well as Shostakovich's Nose and to be entitled The Nose, or the Outside Conspiracy. It promises to follow in the footsteps of the polystylism of Khrzhanovsky's previous film mixing animation, documentary scenes, chronicle footage and acted scenes. Also the producer of the Mexican film Amores Perros is coming to Moscow personally to present a new film project on the murder of Leon Trostky. Other projects are a film on Rudolf Nureyev based on the years before he left Russia and a film project about Dovzhenko in Odessa (surely a fascinating prospect for film purists). Other films from post-Soviet countries are also in the line up. And Louis Beaudemont's film Soviet Groove exploring the Soviet music scene looks like it could be a possible successor to Electro Moskva in the rediscovery of aspects of Soviet life little known about elsewhere in the fog of the old cold war. The programme of talks and events can be found here.

What about the events and the atmosphere so far?

Well, the atmosphere is mixed. There are reports of some international filmmakers staying away from the festival because of the situation in Ukraine - although how many it is hard to say. But it is a fact that neither the Programme Director, Kirill Razlogov nor the overall director Nikita Mikhalkov have denied (the number of 700 reported in the article seems a rather wild exaggeration though). That not a single foreign journalist appeared at Mikhalkov's press conference only seemed to give Mikhalkov one more occasion for rallying the many conservative-minded journalists who flock to this festival and can be heard muttering their disapproval at any film which shows innovation and surprise.

However, there are still so many reasons for being here. Yesterday gave two indications of why a visit to the festival was not in vain. In the morning the one Ukrainian film in the main competition Brothers: A Final Confession by the young director Victoria Trofimenko had its press showing. A strong Ukrainian film which drew some comparisons to a Wajda film and Rogozhkin's Кукушка (The Cuckoo) as well as a hope that the heights of the great season of Ukrainian Poetic Cinema of the 1960s and 1970s are reachable once more. The film, based on a novel by the Scandinavian writer Torgny Lindgren , is a work that has taken five years to complete. And yet so many agreed at the Press conference that it seemed to be one of the most powerful commentaries on the present situation between Russian and Ukraine. Of course, a press conference of a Ukrainian film at Moscow is a complicated affair. Most of the questions fortunately were asked in an intelligent way. Though it didn't quite go all smoothly after one questioner asked 'Why do you all hate us Russians in Ukraine?'. Nonetheless, a sizeable congregation applauded the director's heartfelt reply and her refusal to be drawn in by such an ignorant question as well as Razlogov's reprimand to the questioner that we were here to talk about the film and not the present situation.

The evening presented festival goers with one of the most delightfully demential pleasures so far. Sergio Caballero's La Distancia. It seems to have all the madness of a Cine Fantom film laced with a strong dose of David Lynch. An absurdist, madcap tour de force. It was shown in the framework of the Russian Trace programme- the same one that gave us last year's El Efecto K- El Montador de Stalin / The K Effect- Stalin's Editor by Valenti Figueres. Spanish reimaginings of Russia are surely a worthy topic to write about. The Russian public at yesterday's film were divided between those bewildered (and seemed regularly to leave the hall) and those who could hardly repress their sense of hilarity at the film. In many ways it would have been a very worthy addition to the Cine Fantom programme which will begin later today with the Return od De Bile and the first half of a Evgeny Kondratiev retrospective.

A press showing of the excellent Timbuktu by Abderrahmane Sissako (one of the great contemporary film directors of Sub Saharan African) as part of Andrey Plakhov's Divine Euphoria programme was also an unmissable experience.

Today's events have barely got underway. A press conference here and there and the presentation of the Documentary competition which will be headed by one of Britain's most well-known  documentary filmmakers Sean McCallister. Tomorrow morning he will be giving a master class at the Centre of Documentary Cinema.

Of all the press coverage (and I'll try to summarise some of the main Russian film critics top recommendations) there is a historical piece in today's Kommersant newspaper which really should not be missed. It tells of Naum Kleiman's recollections of how Fellini's 8 1/2 ended up winning the main award at the 1963 Moscow Film Festival. A fascinating tale and which can be read here (in Russian).

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The 36th Moscow International Film Festival: A Look at some of the Films.

This year's Moscow International Film Festival (the 36th) - the largest, although not the most loved film festival in Russia. Not because of the lack of good quality films but more because it always seems much more of a prestige project rather than having a real reason or thread running through it. One invariably gets lost in its eclectic morass. So the wealth of individual films here is somewhat set back by an atmosphere of anonymity- there is little real festival spirit that one feels at some of the smaller festivals like Odessa or even at the Kinotavr festival dedicated to Russian cinema alone. Outside a couple of forums the anonymity of the Oktyabr movie theatre means sucks out much of the enjoyment at finding such a sudden embarrassment of riches available for ten days in late June. One film critic Alexey Yusev in spite of suggesting that it has the best competition programme for the past five years has announced that he will not participate in this year's festival detailing a litany of complaints about how it is a festival "with little real authority, (and a) cumbersome, ineffective, expensive event (which exists) purely for the purpose of earmarking the name of and highlighting the prestige of its director Nikita Mikhalkov".

In many ways it is a showcase of that which could be shown throughout the year in Moscow if only the few decently programmed cinemas such as the Khudozhestvenni weren't closing down to be ramped up into expensive multiplexes where art house films will most likely be excluded. Instead Moscovites have ten days in which to gorge on those kind of films which won't come their way for another year.

Some of the competition films certainly do seem as though they could be films worthy of an 'A' film festival (which was certainly not the case last year). Anton Corbijn's A Most Wanted Man; Marc Fitoussi's La Ritournelle starring Isabelle Hupert and Russia's own Valerija Gai Germanika with her film Да и Да (Yes and Yes) are three of the most awaited features (they are for example those chosen by Novaya Gazeta's critic Larisa Maliukova). Another Russian film by Vladimir Yagel' is also in the competition programme.

Valerija Gai Germanika

Of course the most  prestigious out of competition section is the 8 1/2 section where films by the Dardenne brothers (Deux Jours, Une Nuit), the acclaimed Malaysian-born Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang with two of his films being shown here: Stray Dogs and Journey to the West. If one can get into the inevitably packed Godard showing then his Adieu au Langage will be a sure bet. And Robert Le Page's and Pedro Pires's Triptych is surely likely to be another pretty sure bet.

The documentary section is nearly always best served by the Free Thought programme than the competition films but it would be wrong to miss a few of these films too. Jean-Stephane Bron's L'Experience Blocher should be of interest as should Web Junkie by Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam. Russia's only entry in the documentary competition is Svetlana Strelnikova's Кардиополитика (Cardiopolitika).

The Free Thought out of competition documentary section has Errol Morris's The Unknown Known; the 3D film project by six acclaimed filmmakers including Wim Wenders on the soul of buildings and entitled Cathedrals of Culture. A restored version of Robert Flaherty's Moana of the South Seas, Godfrey Reggio's Visitors and Michael Glawogger's Workingman's Death are all also must sees. As is the main Russian film in the section Vitaly Mansky's The Book. The opening film of the festival Red Army by Gabe Polsky is also a documentary film from this excellent programme.

The renowned Russian film critic Andrey Plakhov has his own curated programme and of course there is much to see here. Dietrich Brueggemann's Kreuzweg and films by Lech Majewski and Abderrahmane Sissako are likely to be worth watching but it is Alain Resnais's Aimer, Boire et Chanter (known in English as Life of Riley) which is surely one of the films of the festival. The very fine Russian film critic Boris Nelepo has reviewed it here.

The programme director of the film festival Kirill Razlogov has highly recommended the Beyond Fiction and Non Fiction section and probably the most awaited film there is Tony Gerber's and Maxim Pozdorovkin's The Notorious Mr Bout (Pozdorovkin was, of course, the co-director of Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer which neither got a showing at the Moscow Film Festival nor elsewhere owing to censorship).

There will be some interesting special showings- a mixture of old Soviet films and some Wenders and will apparently include the film on Chechen deportation that has been banned from general release. Chinese, Latin American and a retrospective of Ealing Studio films are further sections. An Ettore Scola film on Federico Fellini and a Russian Trace section only make the impossibility of choosing everything that one would like all the more tormenting.  

Further Russian sections (or films with links to Russia) will include the Russian Trace section (foreign films which have some connection to Russia, however tenuous). Last year it was the Spanish film The K Effect which was the highlight of that section for me. Spain has another film of the nine in this sectiont this year entitled La Distancia by Sergio Caballero. The annual Cine Fantom programme looks very promising with a large Evgeny Kondryatev retrospective which will surely merit a separate post. The Russian programme of the festival is also out and along with an Aleksander Sokurov retrospective should have much to see. However, it appears that the showing of Zvyagintsev's Leviathan is in some doubt. This surely was going to be one of the highlights and unmissable films of the festival for those who had missed it in Sochi.
The Cine Fantom publication- an organisation for two decades producing some fine alternative and underground cinema in Russia. 

A small selection of films loved by that giant of Gosfilmofond Vladimir Dimitriev (who passed away last year) is on show including some fine Soviet classics which it will be a real pleasure to watch if one finds the time in these ten days.

Vladimir Dmitriev