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Monday, 9 March 2015

Sergei Eisenstein and Don Quixote

For readers of this blog who don't read Spanish here is my attempt to summarize an interview with Naum Kleiman by Tatiana Pigiarova published here. Tatiana describes how in the rooms where Eisenstein's widow lived after the death of Russia's greatest film director amid the personal objects of Eisenstein - the Bauhaus furniture and the Mexican carpets can be spotted the figure of Eisenstein dressed up as Don Quijote mounted upon a movie camera which stands in for Rocinante.

Eisenstein's interest in Spain was multi-faceted. In his memoirs he spoke of Meyerhold's production of Calderon de la Barca's play El Principe Constante (The Constant Prince), the Spanish Baroque of Picasso and El Greco which was more of an inspiration to him than Italian Baroque- in fact he would write an article entitled El Greco and Film. Besides all this there was a script for a film entitled Spain set in Spain during the Civil War.

The puppet figure of Eisenstein as Don Quijote which was made by some artists for the Eisenstein Museum to commemorate the fact that Eisenstein was part of a short film where he took on the role of Don Quixote during a Congress of Independent Cinema in September 1929 (the first film festival in history). The avant-garde filmmakers from all of Europe (as well as from America and Japan) met in Switzerland at the Sarraz Castle invited by Helene de Mandrot, the owner of the castle and an art enthusiast. Eisenstein, Alexandrov and Tisse were in Germany at the time waiting for their visas to get to Hollywood and decided to join the other film-makers there. So as well as the future General Line (or The Old and the New) Bunuel's Le Chien d'Andalou were projected. Bunuel himself was expected but didn't turn up. And between jokes and discussions the participants decided to shoot a film at the festival. The idea for the film was inspired by Eisenstein and Hans Richter: the struggle between the independents and the 'great names'. 

They were aided by the French critic and author of a book on Eisenstein, Leon Moussinac (dressed as Artagnan) and Jean-George Auriol, the editor of the Revue du Cinema who, using typewriters at the Congress as machine guns launched an attack behind banners made from journals. These two quickly developed the script of this work which entered cinematic history as The Storming of La Sarraz and was also directed by these critics. Tisse' filmed it with his camera and the castle stuffed with medieval relics acted as the set. Madamoiselle Bouissounouse from the Revue du Cinema with a white dress and reels of film around her bust  and fastened by chains to the castle was to incarnate Independent Cinema. Her defender, the caballero Don Quixote (interpreted by Eisenstein) carried his medieval armour, helmet and lance and mounted upon Rocinante, his trustworthy movie camera.

Independent Cinema was to defeat 'Commercial Cinema' impersonated by the Japanese Moitiro Tsutji who was to commit harakiri. Eisenstein recalled that the castle owner was to remember both him and Tisse with fond memories and would repeat to herself a refrain "Ah those Bolsheviks, those Bolsheviks, the only real gentlemen".

Enough proof suggests that this film did exist at one point with certain images having been preserved by the Cinema Museum. Photograms of Jean-George Auriol with his typewriter-machine guns, of Leon Moussinac dressed up as Artganan and Eisenstein in medieval dress playing Don Quixote still exist. It's thought that the film was taken by Hand Richter to London to develop and edit and that possibly it was lost in the train or was confiscated by customs.

The story of Eisenstein and Don Quixote didn't stop there and in fact Eisenstein had been approached by Feodor Schialapin to make an adaptation of Cervantes novel. However this project was to be realised not by the Soviet director but by Pabst (though still with Schialapin in the main role).

Eisenstein is still present in the film of Don Quixote that was eventually adapted by Grigory Kozintsev in 1957  through the influence of the 19th century caricaturist and painter Honore Daumier. Eisenstein's wife Pera Atasheva was to donate to Kozintsev several books and reproductions of Daumier which had belonged to Eisenstein. One such reproduction was to hang in Kozintsev's office and through Eisenstein would influence the aesthetic of Kozintsev's 1957 film adaptation of Cervantes' novel. (Eisenstein's script Spain also found its way into his film Alexander Nevski). 

Thursday, 22 January 2015

2morrow/Завтра- a rare oasis of hope for the independent Russian film world.

One of Russia's most interesting and original film festivals is being held this week at the Museum of Moscow and the Centre of Documentary Film. Like many of the more creative festivals in Russia it has been deprived of public funding relying instead on a crowdfunding campaign to survive. Founded by the late film director Ivan Dykhovichny in 2007, the festival has been run by his widow Olga Dykhovichnaya since his death in 2009. It is one of the rare chances to watch a wide range of art house films that are rarely shown in Russian cinemas anymore. If the larger festivals in Russia (such as the annual Moscow International Film Festival) attempt to reach an audience for what they call the 'art mainstream', this festival is much more daring in its programming presenting viewers with a chance of seeing more rarely noted films as well as films that have won major prizes in all the major international film festivals but which no longer get distribution in a Russian market steadily closing itself to everything but Hollywood and Russian national blockbusters and with a Russian cultural ministry intent on uprooting and destroying cultural originality in any and every way it can. In this context this film festival is a rare oasis of hope in an increasingly depressing moment for independent film in Russian subject to both political and economic strangulation.

Olga Dykhovichnaya, festival director of 2morrow/Завтра

While 2morrow/Завтра doesn't concentrate on Russian cinema - it does have the occasional programme which do present the festival goer with an opportunity to watch some Russian (or post-Soviet) films that they would not otherwise have the opportunity to see. The Offside programme showcases Russian regional cinema and this year a part of this programme includes films made by students of Alexander Sokurov at the Kabardino-Balkarsky State University.

It has, moreover, a number of other films that should be of interest to readers of this blog including a Latvian documentary film 'Escaping Riga' comparing the fates of two famous figures who 'escaped Riga': the philosopher Isaiah Berlin and the film-maker Sergei Eisenstein and who chose very different paths and ideals. I hope to give some account of this film by David Simanis for this blog.

One of the real highlights of this festival, though, is a programme which while not connected directly to the Post-Soviet space deserves a special mention. One of the most interesting film curators operating in Russia today, Kirill Adibekov, has managed to convince the Dutch Embassy to help out with bringing the films of two extraordinary Dutch filmmakers - Frans van der Staak and Johnan van der Keuken - to the festival. Adibekov was the curator of the excellent parallel retrospective of Artur Aristaskisyan and Pedro Costa- one of the highlights of the 2013 festival and continues to delight in this festival with another highly original and quite brilliant choice. For those able to read Russian here is an interview with Adibekov giving us an insight as to why this occasion to see films by these two Dutch film-makers is such a unique one.

Film curator Kirill Adibekov

(Some reviews of the films at this festival will appear here in coming days).

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Articles published elsewhere: (1) On Lyubov Arkus's Anton's Right Here

This article was originally published for the Calvert Journal on April 30, 2013
A film critic turned director may have been a common feature in the 1960s French New Wave but in contemporary Russia the case of Liubov Arkus is somewhat unique. One of Russia’s most established critics for the leading film journal Séance, Arkus has managed to create a new form of social documentary in Anton’s Right Here and by doing so she brings Dziga Vertov’s vision of the camera as an instrument of liberation one step closer to realization. Arkus explained that she made the film not thinking about it as a documentary and related to the protagonists not as documentary subjects but “as people who were close to me”. Arkus met Anton Kharitonov, a young autistic boy, after reading his text People- part of a compilation of writings by autistic children that she discovered when editing a copy of Séance. Anton and his family were to become close friends of the whole Séance collective. The film would arise more out of chance and necessity than design taking over four years to complete.

Arkus makes no attempt to whitewash the harsh reality for Anton and other autistic children in Russia in the film and her narration of Anton’s Dantesque trip through the hell of institutions all too ready to abandon the weak and vulnerable is as powerful an indictment as there could conceivably be.  In a scene where Anton’s choices become so bleak Arkus is constrained to abduct Anton from one institution thus precariously stepping beyond the boundaries which documentarists normally permit themselves.  Her film, though, is not dominated by this sense of bleakness and indignation and avoids pointing moralistic fingers at anyone in particular. The transformation of his father’s attitude towards Anton inspired by his viewing of footage from this film is a masterly scene in which the film reflects on the cameras powers to transform reality. Arkus also intervenes in the film with her personal tale of suffering abandonment as child of a victim of repression and transforming once again the relations between documentarist and subject once more steps into precarious territory. However, in this way Anton’s condition becomes shared and universalized bringing us back to that central and unresolved theme of 1960s cinema – the theme of communicability present in films of auteur filmmakers such as Antonioni, Herzog and the Soviet filmmaker Khutsiev.

This film, however, does not take the rather well-worn route of the old-style social documentary in which the director observes and retells the life of the protagonist in order simply to generate either indignation or pity. Indeed such a subject matter confronts the documentary film-maker with a highly significant ethical dilemma. Sergei Dvortsevoy, one of the great documentary film-makers of the early 1990s, would eventually move into feature films because, in his words, “the worse it is for the subject of the documentary, the better it is for the film maker”. Arkus, however, resolved this dilemma and directed a film confounding many of the accepted rules of documentary film making.
It was one of Russia’s most innovative documentary helmers, Alexander Rastorguev, who helped Arkus understand the necessity of playing by different rules. In 2008 Arkus published Rastorguev’s “Natural Cinema” manifesto in Séance. Here he claimed that documentary cinema had died and could only regain meaning when film became what he called “ontological action”, “reaching the core of suffering  transforming life”.  The ideas in Rastorguev’s manifesto “impressed me enormously” Arkus told me in an interview in early January. Two other people were instrumental in helping Arkus realize this vision of “natural cinema”:- one was the cameraman, Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev, and the other was Anton himself who, in the words of film scholar Yuri Tsivian, had almost become Arkus’s co-director (an opinion that Arkus shared).

Cameraman Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev

Arkus explained how it was Alisher who took on the role of the helmer at the start of the shooting process while she was “learning from him”, given that it was her first film. At the beginning she “didn’t even look into the viewfinder”, but by the final two shooting periods she was firmly in the director’s seat.  For Arkus, Alisher had the ability to portray “the very core of the human being rather than simply the human face or profile”- an ability which, Khamidkhodzhaev states, was influenced by the cinema of Sokurov and Pasolini.

Arkus explained the unique role of Anton in the film-making process: “it was very much his relationship to the world and to others- to his mother and me – and his strength which defined the film and powerfully drove the plot of the film forward. One should not forget either his very strong charisma as well as his (what Arkus calls) ‘cinegenia’”. His refusal to accept less than genuine love from those around him be they his father or the carers in the, albeit very liberal and westernised, Svetlana institution, surely manifest his extraordinary willpower.

The protagonists, Arkus explained “became documentary subjects only at the editing stage when after shooting an immense amount of material it was necessary to develop a clear plot for the film”. The most difficult stage of the film, for Arkus, was the editing process. Five hundred hours of material had been shot and although it was shot in an ‘observational’ style, it was edited like a novel (according to her “a novel written before the modernist period and in the post-modernist vein”). This divergence between the shooting process and the composition of the storyline comprised the greatest difficulty for her. “Numerous options were made before I came to the difficult decision to tell the story in the first person”.  In many ways, too, the camera had become Anton’s substitute for the pen with which he could write a new text about himself. The last scene where Anton is given the camera to shoot the final shot makes this explicit.

This film has something very rare and powerful to say by tying autism and cinema together as equally being wrapped up in a struggle to communicate the incommunicable. This film has transformed social documentary as a genre here with the aesthetic and the ethical working symbiotically, bringing into question clear distinctions between the observed and observer, the director and protagonist while the camera loses its cold distance becoming an instrument for profound reflection, communication and even liberation. Anton’s Right Here may not be a film that vaunts its formal experimentation in the way that some of the films of Kossakovsky (one of Russia’s most extraordinary documentarists) do but it does manage to display new territories of human nature hitherto only partially revealed. 

Reflections on 2014 in the world of film and Renaming the blog.

A still from Valentyn Vasyanovych's Crepuscule one of the films that captured the potential of a revival of film in the post-Soviet space.
When I first started this blog over five years ago I gave little real thought to the title of the blog but this year I have finally decided to change it. Back in 2009 my blog was nothing more than a jotting down of a personal diary of my film going as well as some things I had been reading on film (and the title was something I had thought up on the spur of the moment). Since so many of my favourite films and filmmakers discovered in Moscow can not in any way be described as Russian- to name but a few Sergei Parajanov, Otar Ioselliani, Kira Muratova, Aleksandr Dovzhenko - I thought it better to extend this blog explicitly to the whole of the former Soviet space (and even occasionally beyond). An oversight in 2009 is much less defensible in 2015. How to write, for example, about Ukrainian films in a blog on 'Russian film' without falling into justifiable accusations of a form of (post) colonial prejudice? One more consideration of this renaming is that I hope to extend the scope of this blog to include articles on other visual arts too (and also to literature, music and even philosophy).It's rather difficult to find an all-encompassing term but post-Soviet tries in as many ways as possible to encompass both history and the present.

2014 hasn't been a particularly active year for me in so far as film-going has been concerned. I only managed the Moscow and Odessa Film Festivals (and missed the Art Doc Fest and much else besides). Living in Russia in the winter and early spring and then in the summer gave me a sense of the atmosphere of this 'infernal year'. Travelling from Moscow to Odessa in July and spending ten days in that city also gave me a very brief chance to attempt to gauge the atmosphere in that city during the period both before and after the downing of the Malaysian airline.

There is no easy way of describing the changes in the Russian cinema world (it would be far more difficult to speak of other cinematic worlds in the post-Soviet space) in 2014.Some of the posts published here in 2014 have spoken of the stances of some of those in the film world with regard to the Ukraine. A mixture of solidarity with Ukrainian colleagues, followed by a pro-Putin stance from others, with even some support for the Russian state from some very unlikely quarters. But then even in Ukraine there was not any simple narrative. Odessa at the time of the film festival was still in the midst of patriotic fervour (with audiences standing to attention twice during scenes where Ukraine's hymn was heard in Sergei Loznitsa's Maidan) and yet the words that Kira Muratova spoke to Anton Dolin were far more measured with a restrained sadness at how things had gone.

Russia really does seem to be experiencing the howling winds of winter. Returning to Moscow last week I learned of the events surrounding a showing of a documentary film 'Stronger than arms'. Although there was an audience of only about fifteen at the premises of teatr.doc (and three or four of this audience reportedly turned out to be from the security services). After about a minute into the showing a whole ensemble of characters from different state and municipal 'services' would turn up including police, bomb disposal officers, fire and other emergency services, plain clothes security personnel, municipal officers and even personnel from the Ministry of Culture. The whole building was to be evacuated only after 45 minutes (it was even rumoured that security and Mincult officials were watching the film in the meantime while they had evicted the film goers to the streets 'cordially inviting' them for a trip to the police station. Organisers were summonsed and interrogated the next day at the Ministry of Culture and the audience after eviction found themselves harassed by a woman journalist from the state NTV channel who had turned up with all the officials asking them what they thought of the film that they were prevented from watching. A tragic farce of what happens when you watch the 'wrong kind of documentary' in Russia at the end of 2014. Here is a sample of that night's events that was captured on camera:

Of the events that I missed were this years Art Doc Fest which is another subject in its own right given that the Minister of Culture stated that this festival - widely seen as the best documentary film festival in the whole of Russia - would no longer be receiving any public funding given the anti-governmental statements of the its director, Vitaly Mansky. Another indication that the tightening of the screws in the Russian cultural sphere is going full speed ahead.

Perhaps the biggest scandal of the year is that which has happened around the Cinema Museum. One of Russia's and the world's most respected film scholars, Naum Kleiman, and his professional team were evicted by Kremlin loyalists in an attempt to finally destroy any remaining hopes of the resurrection of one of the most important institutions in Russian cinema today. Conservative nationalism in this sphere has done its utmost to sever all ties to the outside world in a way that reeks of late Stalinist autarky in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The story of the Scientific Research Institute of Cinematic Art led by Nikolai Izvolov has been less widely reported but is yet another indication that Medinsky and his cronies are launching a full onslaught on cinematic memory to eviscerate anything not fulfilling his ideological (conservative nationalism) goals. In terminology so beloved of these ideologues one feels at times to be confronting some form of cultural genocide (meted out by those very figures intent on proudly acclaiming themselves as defenders of Russian culture. All the Medinskyites seem to want to offer is a trash Hollywood-style version of national cinema with a taste of Russian revanchist ideology.

Of course 2014 has not been only this - the crop of films that have been released or seen at Russian and international film festivals have thankfully been impressive. Films by Zvyagintsev, Konchalovsky, Tverdovsky, Kott, Bychkova, Meshchaninova, Nikonova, and even Gai Germanika and Bykov deserve notice from the international film world. Yet is this the last of Russia's "relatively good years" in film as Andrey Plakhov argued in a recent newspaper article? Time will tell but it certainly feels a rather daring task to utter much optimism. Whether in other countries of the post-Soviet space this picture is a different one is hard to tell. From the little I have seen of Ukrainian cinema the picture is a mixed one but it certainly does have some very promising titles, especially in the guise of Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy's masterpiece The Tribe as well as Sergei Loznitsa's Maidan. Following in the wake of Kira Muratova's 2013 Eternal Homecoming these two and many more less talked about films such as the rural documentary Crespuscule by Valentyn Vasyanovych as well as Viktoria Trofimenko's Brothers: The Final Confession do suggest that Ukrainian film has some kind of hopeful future. One of the Ukrainian film-makers most to look out for- Maryna Vroda- seems to have been relatively silent for some time although she has come back this year with another short film entitled Snails shown at the Molodist Film festival in Kiev.

Coming back, however, to considerations of the present moment of relations between Ukraine and Russia and their respective film worlds there is no symbol more scandalous than the imprisonment of Ukrainian film-maker Oleg Sentsov in a Russian prison. Increasingly forgotten by the media he faces many years in jail. It is on this note I wish to end this article with the wistful conclusion that it is increasingly hard to 'enjoy' film in this part of the world while one of its more promising practitioners is languishing in prison facing what are clearly trumped up charges.

A longer article on reflections on recent events in Russian film will hopefully be published in another venue early in 2015.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Memories of the Cinema Museum: Boris Nelepo on what Naum Kleiman and his team means to us.

Every few months there seems to be a new twist in the story surrounding Russia's Cinema Museum- and yet each time it seems that the obscenity of the story appears to take on a new level. Going through the details of what has been happening brings on a feeling of nausea. There are just too many reasons to list why, when the history of Russian cinema in the post-Soviet period will be written in decades from now, one will wrack one's head with wonder (and for those of us who lived in this time, with shame) at how Russia's cinematic place in the world had been hampered, trampled on by cultural vandals and bureaucrats and those who did their bidding. Also in the cinema history books there will appear the names of those who heroically, almost single-handedly, helped create something in spite of this. That there were glimmers of a new wave in Russian cinema associated with, for example, Zviagintsev amongst others is due to that period prior to 2005 when there was a functioning Cinema Museum near the metro stop of Krasnopresnenskaya (and figures like Zviagintsev were constant visitors). Musei Kino's role of fomenting a cultural revolution in the heads of many was proving risky. One is almost  driven insane with rage upon hearing pundits stating that the Cinema Museum was only for the intelligentsia. I have never experienced crowds in Russian cinemas such as I experienced in Krasnospresnenskaya the years before Musei Kino was closed. Once the main hall was so packed that I was forced to stand a few inches from the screen because there was simply no room elsewhere (and this was to see a film that was shown many times at the Museum). My attention was drawn today to a text by one of Russia's finest young film critics, Boris Nelepo. Nelepo doesn't write so much about the current situation of the Cinema Museum but gives an excellent account of what the Museum and Naum's team really signified for many thousands of Moscovites and visitors to the city. 

Boris Nelepo

A hand reaches out to another hand. A shot from Godard’s Nouvelle Vague. Godard is inseparable in my memory from the place where I first saw this film. When Musei Kino was closed I had only begun to go there, I was sixteen. From that moment, every time I found myself in a new city the first thing I did was try to find the local cinemateque so as to experience once again those same emotions. In many cities there is not any cinemateque but Moscow is the only place in the world where an authentic Cinema Museum worked for many years and then was liquidated.

Naum Kleiman belongs to a special type of person, one can count them on the fingers of one's hand. Henri Langlois, Jonas Mekas, Joao Benard da Costa. Without them there would have been no cinematography. This is no exaggeration: when Henri Langlois founded the Cinemateque Francaise, few people understood that cinematography was an art form and that it requires preserving. Even at that time an immense number of films had been lost which we can only now know from people’s memories or from archival annotations. Ghost films.

Our Museum of Cinema was one of the best in the world. Again I am not exaggerating: the programmes which Naum Kleiman designed in the 1990s are today difficult to imagine even in New York or Paris. Kleiman and Maxim Pavlov (without whose professionalism and erudition a Cinema Museum would be impossible) even after what seemed to be its destruction demonstrated to us an unique lesson in their irreconcialability to this fact. In those nine years in which the Museum has been deprived of its own home it has undertaken more retrospectives than any national institution and these are always the most interesting, unexpected and thrilling programmes. They haven’t given up. And, alas, all of us without exception are guilty because we haven’t shown the solidarity, we haven’t shown any corresponding daring on our part. It has been precisely this experience of solidarity which could have finally been the trigger for that political will which is necessary to avert catastrophe. For in Russia in the noughties each and every year there appeared (and then quickly disappeared) ambitious cultural projects and festivals whose single budget of any of them would have been sufficient to preserve a sheltered life for the Cinema Museum. Precious time has been lost and this means that one must lose no more time. It is necessary to fight.

Art of the present and of the future is impossible without that of the past. A Museum of Cinema is a take-off point for the existence of a national cinema. If there is no museum then not a single festival or movie theatre will have any meaning without it. Without a Cinema Museum Russia simply will no longer be on the cinematic map of the world. It will become a ghost country for film. 
The original Russian can be found here:   

Naum Kleiman with the Dardenne Brothers.

Many thanks to Boris Nelepo for agreeing to the publication of this piece by him and also for sending a link to the photo of Naum Kleiman with the Dardenne Brothers.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

London City Symphony Film to take Vertov and Rodchenko into Twenty First Century

What promises to be a striking new film entitled London Symphony in an 'old genre' (the city symphony film) is the object of another of the crowd funding reports that I'm blogging about this month. While it doesn't have a Russian theme, it certainly is trying to restore some of the stylistic tropes of the great masterpieces of early Soviet cinema  including the film that topped the Sight and Sound poll for Best Documentaries of all Time, namely Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera, and bring them back in the early twenty first century. Of course the city symphony film was never just a Soviet phenomenon and Charles Sheeler's & Paul Strand's 1921 film Manhatta is regarded as one of the earliest examples and Walter Ruttmann's Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis film from 1927 are among the important stages which led to the Vertov masterpiece. However, the kind of mutual transnational influences at play in the forging of such a genre can not be ignored: Ruttmann's film is certainly unthinkable without the developments in Soviet montage and, of course, the influences were never entirely in one direction. This city symphony genre (the denomination inspired by Rutthmann's film title and his idea to "create a symphonic film out of the millions of energies that comprise the life of a big city") while highly regarded by film scholars and historians seemed to have been buried. However, an independent film-maker, Alex Barrett whose films have been shown and awarded at many international film festivals has decided to return to this genre inspired in turn by what seems to have been a revival in interest in aspects of 1920's Soviet culture as a whole. Vertov may be the most notable name but it seems quite clear that Rodchenko whose photographs and other art work have been shown at a number of UK exhibitions in recent years also inspires the look of some of the photographs and stills from an early short film which are set to inspire the film.

Rodchenko, of course, worked as artistic director on one of Boris Barnet's lesser known and lesser seen films Moscow in October and so as well as being probably the most well-known photographer of the Soviet Twenties was a force in Soviet cinema in more ways than one (he also, of course, designed some of the most well-known film posters of the period).

So while the film in question will have a UK theme it will undoubtedly have 'Soviet' roots (how else to describe Vertov, perhaps one of the many transnational artists who can not be reduced to the national denominations of these post-Soviet times). It can only be hoped that like other crowd funding campaigns that I have mentioned in previous posts here and here this particular campaign will gain the attention and support that it deserves. A campaign video is available here which describes many of the intentions.

As well as Alex Barrett whose previous film Life Just Is has been described by a Sight and Sound contributor, Brad Stevens, as "one of the most promising debuts in contemporary cinema" there is a strong team. The producer, Katherine Round, is a founder of a leading documentary organization Doc heads and has established Literally Films to produce documentaries which try to push boundaries. The screenwriter Rahim Moledina has made his own short films  and his script Iqbal's Shoes has been selected for BBC Writersroom scriptroom 2013 from 3000 scripts. James McWilliam is the composer and has had a long career in working in film and has worked with some of the leading film composers. The cinematpgrapher will be Peter Harmer.

Some idea of the film can be glimpsed from a short film that Barrett and Moledina made on Hungerford Bridge and gives a flavour of the inspiring aesthetics of the film:

Once again the crowdfunding link is here and it will be running until the middle of October. and the director can be contacted at

(Like the film The Forest In Me I hope to be reporting on the future development of these projects and, in this case, speaking with the director in more detail on the Russian or Soviet film influences on his film).

Friday, 12 September 2014

Isolation in the Siberian Taiga: The Forest In Me by Rebecca Marshall.

There are a whole crop of crowd funding projects which are linked in some way or other to Russia and Russian themes. I'll be exploring and writing on a number of them this month. Some are filmed by UK film-makers in Russia, others are influenced by aspects of Russian or Soviet film-making and others are Russian film projects. I am hoping to post a series of blogs this month on those films which promise to be some of the most interesting projects.

70-year old Agafya Likova who has spent her whole life in isolation in the taiga of the Kemerovo region
The link to the crowd-funding project for The Forest in Me can be found here:

I'm starting off with Rebecca Marshall's The Forest In Me poroject which promises to explore an extraordinary story of an isolated family (and then of a single survivor) who lived so deep in the Siberian taiga that for decades there was literally no contact with the outside world (and even when contact was made the heroine of the film remained in her isolated location rather than relocate).

Rebecca Marshall, the director of the Forest In Me.

Rebecca Marshall will attempt to follow the story of Agafya Lykofa who was born in 1943. Until 1978 they lived in complete isolation from the outside world and were even unaware of the Second World War. Agafya's parents had taken the extreme step of complete internal exile in 1936 after being persecuted for his religious beliefs as an Old Believer. Agafya and a brother were born later and were condemned to battle the harsh winters on their own in a deeply remote part of the Kemerovo region in Western Siberia. A particularly harsh winter had already taken the life of their mother through starvation when in 1978 on a helicopter sortie, a group of geologists spotted a piece of cultivated land which lead to their first visit from the outside world. Shortly after their visit Agafya's three brothers died and Agafya lived alone with her father who also died a decade later. Nonetheless, Agafya still chose isolation in spite of the minus 65 degrees Fahrenheit winters that are sometimes registered in this part of the Kemerovo region.

Marshall intends to explore the life of Agafya not merely through her circumstances but she also intends to explore Agafya's imagination, her dreams and visions through a collection of drawings that Agafya has made to record her own life. The film-maker compares her own personal need to keep records of all aspects of her life linking her to her own past with Agafya's own efforts in preserving her own memory through drawings that she makes. Interestingly the film aims to use Agafya's drawings as a starting point for sections of charcoal animation which will then appear in the film (the animated sequences will be designed by Ana Caro who is known for her work in The Magnificent Lion Boy . 

Art work by Ana Caro for the film, the animator of The Forest in Me. 

Marshall's film is based on a hope that small details of Agafya's life may lead to an understanding of one another and it also will try to answer the question of why individuals feel the need and desire to be understood as individuals. Also Agafya's rejection of integration with the outside world will be an opportunity to explore how her sense of time, faith and identity in her isolation contrast with the film-maker's own experiences in the world of mass communication.

Rebecca Marshall's unique experimental style has been taken note of at film festivals worldwide including such impressive international festivals as Locarno and Creteil. She allows her stories of female characters to visually unfold. This next film of hers aims to pursue an aesthetic close to that of Bela Tarr's film-making while searching to keep the balance between observation and dialogue that Werner Herzog creates in his films. The film-making team is also very impressive. The collaboration of Ana Caro in animated sequences has been mentioned. The soundtrack promises to be a very impressive one given the inclusion of a Russian choir and the pure and wild violin playing of the godfather of anti-folk and former member of Clash, Tymon Dogg. The production team also includes some well-known names in the documentary film world including Mark Johnston from Nomad Films, Nicole Stott from Passion Pictures and Vasilis Chrysanthopolous (a producer with Plays2Place, a new emerging company in the Greek film industry whose recent projects have included Miss Violence.)

Here is the crowd-funding link:

A fund raising video is available on Vimeo here.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The Film Theatre of War by Mikhail Trofimenkov: The Revolutionary story of Post-War Cinema.

Mikhail Trofimenkov's book The Film Theatre of War was born about four years ago when he was asked to write an article of about 1,500 words on Cinema and the Algerian War of Independence. Researching into the subject more and more he discovered that this was a subject that couldn't be confined to an article. Instead of the 1,500 words, Trofimenkov discovered that his 'article' had grown fifteen times the length and had become unprintable. The journals loss is our gain now that we have the 650 page book published by the St Petersburg film journal Seance  to read. Trofimenkov had wanted to entitle his book Episodes of the Revolutionary War but, alas, Che Guevara had already picked that title up years before. This will give the potential reader a clue as to why this book by one of Russia's leading film journalists and scholars (thankfully, in Russia at least, the two roles are not always mutually exclusive) is a rather unique contribution to film history. Trofimenkov's achievement lies precisely in uncovering and revealing cinematic history in a way few scholars have managed to previously.

Film history has been the preserve of the academic who is used to think in certain well-defined categories but is rarely given the opportunity to really draw together correlations in the way that Trofimenkov does. So it is easy to imagine a title published in the UK or US entitled Cinema and Imperialism by a respected film academic, but it is almost inconceivable that anything similar to the book in question would have come from the pen of one other than Mikhail Trofimenkov. His book begins in Algeria in 1954 and ends at the end of the 1970s. Indochina, Algeria and French colonialism does take up the whole of Part One of the book but it then travels from land to land and continent to continent revealing a whole Atlantis-like continent of facts and characters in cinema and politics which (and who) have never been in the forefront of any historical account of cinema before. Who knew that in 1970 practically the whole Canadian film industry was arrested on charges of collaborating with terrorists as tanks rolled into Montreal? Historical events like this are on nearly every page of the book and one can't quite believe how the historians of cinema have for so long ignored the angle from which Trofimenkov writes.

Trofimenkov's book is not subsumable under any particular category or genre. He sets the record clear that the history of cinema and the history of imperialism have been parallel histories and that the history of cinema is part and parcel of the history of imperialism yet the heroes and protagonists of the book are those involved resisting these links to create a new cinema and to make cinema politically (rather than to make political cinema). Even if his book doesn't offer strong theoretical viewpoints, it does offer revelations given Trofimenkov's encylopaedic account of the films and characters hitherto hidden from our view by more conventional film historians. One can only surely say that after reading this book our view of Gillo Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers will never seem the same again (as it represented the tip of an iceberg in the actual story of cinema and the Algerian anti-colonial struggle). The film, surely, could not have existed or become a classic of world cinema outside the context which Trofimenkov reveals in such painstaking detail. One ends up wanting to track down literally hundreds of films never previously mentioned in world cinema histories but which taken as a whole means that a cinematic history describing the decades of the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s can never be written in the same way ever again.

It is this aspect (as well as uncovering the names of those often martyred in pursuit of their attempt to both document and combat colonialism and post-colonialism) which makes the book such a revealing one as well as a passionate one. Trofimenkov explicitly makes this point in an interview for the journal Afisha:

И, конечно, у меня кроме академического пафоса, когда я ее писал, был и политический азарт. Подогреваемый слышанными со всех сторон либеральными восторгами по поводу Пиночета, Франко, Маннергейма, Хорти

And, of course, for me there was apart from the academic enthusiasm I had when I wrote the book, a certain political fervour. A fervour stoked up when I began to hear all the liberal ecstasy over figures like Pinochet, Franco, Mannerheim and Horty which was so prevalent from all sides.

Trofimenkov's account of how the Pinochet's of this world (so beloved by a certain Russian 'liberal' of the 1990s) not only wreaked repression on a massive scale but also destroyed a whole nations cinematic hopes and heritage (and eventually destroyed the very hope of a liberational cinema by the end of the 1970s) is, arguably, Trofimenkov's unique contribution to world cinema history. His is also a homage to the many figures whose lives were often cut short alongside their hope for this revolutionary third cinema in countries from Algeria to Palestine and from Chile to Canada, from France to Indonesia and Japan and from Italy to Argentina.

Trofimenkov's account is a political history of cinema (rather than a history of political cinema) the likes of which haven't been written before, even by the likes of politicised historians in the vein of Georges Sadoul. As Trofimenkov put it in an interview published in the St Petersburg Times:

“It’s a claim for the future,” Trofimenkov said.

“I see this book as a sketch of several chapters of the yet unwritten political history of cinema. There are many histories of the art of cinema in the world and there are many books about the business of cinema, but a political history does not exist. There are books about single episodes of the interaction between film and politics, say, about the occupation of France or about Nazi propaganda, and a bit about the political cinema of Latin America, but a universal political history of cinema does not exist.”

The 'Guevarian moment' of Trofimenkov's account is that he recounts film not as an historical event and neither does he recount film from the viewpoint of a scholar interested in purely cinematic terms but rather because film becomes the event itself. He writes about film as war and cinema as revolution. As the St Petersburg columnist notes just about all the most courageous and talented protagonists of Trofimekov's book are communists (very often dissident ones- Trotskyist or Anarcho-Communists) and revolutionaries. Trofimenkov's book is, in many ways, a much-needed encomium for revolutionary cinema as well as a lament for the times when revolutionary cinema was still possible before political cinema mutated into the 'humanitarian cinema' of Costa Gavras or Margaret von Trotta.  

Hopefully, it is also a pointer to a future resurrection or rebirth of revolutionary cinema. But in any case it is, perhaps, the most important book on cinema that has been written for some time and not just in Russia. For it not to be translated in many languages as possible would be an oversight of the gravest order.  

Finally, in the interview for the St. Petersburg Times Trofimenkov indicates the direction that he would like to see cinema in Russia take giving the example of Svetlana Baskova's For Marx as a possible pointer:

I have a dream that political film will finally emerge in Russia,” Trofimenkov said. “That’s why I love and support Svetlana Baskova so much. She’s a great director and her most recent film ... is called ‘For Marx…’ It’s an absolutely remarkable film which takes a political stance.

“Repeating the same trajectory of most other political directors, she also shoots an ongoing film without an end by filming workers’ protests. This is cinema, but it’s absolutely the same thing they did in Mexico and Argentina a while ago.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Kira Muratova on Maidan and Ukrainian cinema (interview with Anton Dolin- extracts).

In a recent interview for Afisha magazine with the Russian film critic Anton Dolin, the Odessa film-maker Kira Muratova made some statements about her perspective on recent events in Ukraine as well as her view of Ukrainian cinema. 

The recent Odessa International Film Festival was a fine chance to observe the atmosphere in Odessa as well as get an overview of recent Ukrainian films. A viewing of the national competition doesn't suggest that Ukrainian cinema has necessarily been revitalized and the words of Muratova below are surely right. There were too many films like Oleg Sanin's The Guide attempting to be blockbusters even though falling hopelessly in the credibility stakes. Other light romantic comedies (relating an unlikely love tryst between a venerologist and cosmonaut) such as Dmitry Tomashpolsky's and Alyona Demianenko's F63.9 Love's Malady also seemed to be a deliberate and rather cynical exercise in producing mass marketed trash. The only true sign of hope in the competition programme at Odessa was Vasily Vasyanovich's documentary-style Twilight. Of course, other Ukrainian films have been making waves, most notably Myroslav Slaboshpitskiy's The Tribe and Sergei Loznitsa's Maidan which was shown in the Ways to Freedom programme during the festival point to the fact that the competition doesn't reflect the real potential of Ukrainian cinema. Another name to look out for in the near future is that of Maryna Vroda. Victoria Trofimenko's film Brothers: A Final Confession entered in the main competition of the Moscow Film Festival also seemed more impressive than many of those shown at Odessa. British film critic Neil Young got it about right when he tweeted at Odessa (and made a related point to that by Muratova in the extract of her interview below):

film-makers grumbling that they can't raise the funds to make their expensive fiction film when they have more than enough for several docs

The showing of Loznitsa's Maidan at the Odessa Film Festival was to include Kira Muratova as one of the audience. In many ways the showings (one in the morning and one in the evening) were extraordinary given the reaction of the audience. The vast majority of the hall stood twice during the film during scenes of the national anthem being played at the Maidan (though Kira Muratova herself didn't join in at this moment of unrestrained pathos), even though during the Q&A session Loznitsa was mercilessly criticised for not showing the Maidan that the public wanted. I think Muratova's measured words during the interview are an interesting contribution which merit a post. In the early moments of the escalation of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine over the Crimea, Kira Muratova was one of the signatories of an appeal calling upon their Russian colleagues to prevent the blackening of the original impulse behind the Maidan. A large number of their Russian colleagues did reply (although many others signed a declaration of support for Putin). Now Kira Muratova's reflections on Maidan and the tragic turn that events have taken suggest a sobriety of judgement that is sorely needed. In the interview she also talks of many other themes including her film Asthenic Syndome (shown at the Langeron Steps on the final day of the festival), Soviet censorship and for her affection for the cinema of Hanneke as well as her disenchantment with film festivals.

Here in any case are small extracts from her interview which can be found in Russian here:

There seems to be a general feeling that a large of number of people from the creative professions that the events taking place in Ukraine have become a kind of impulse to create something new. Has this been the case with you?

 - No, for me it hasn’t been so. I was wildly in favour of Maidan until the moment when the shootings and killings began. Originally there was something poetic about the events. There were, of course, all kinds of people there: undesirables and rabble but there were also many idealists. Then either they despaired, or began to hate, or were simply starved out…but they were idealists and dreamed of realizing their ideas. They believed in a wonderful future which they were bringing to realization in the present in a bloodless way. Then like in every revolution, Maidan started to swing in another direction. Very possibly they were pulled and pushed in that direction. But then the killings began. Before we killed other animals and now we are killing each other. I can find no justification for this. No territory- be it called a motherland- is worth killing each other for. I am a pacifist. This is not so much my position, it is more of a biological emotion.

I continue out of a kind of inertia to empathize with Ukrainians, I continue through inertia to condemn Putin but the fact that people are killing each other shatters me. Therefore I simply have not felt any creative impulse whatsoever. There simply can not be any. I can give an example from my own life. Once a tragic event occurred in my life. My young child died. After that I was in such a condition that I simply could not appreciate poetry, music, any form of art. It all felt abhorrent, all felt false. Some kind of neurosis- it continued for quite some time and then I got over it. Now I feel something similar. It’s abhorrent to me when people are killing each other. Whether Ukraine will become part of Europe or not is of no interest to me. At that price nothing is interesting anymore.

Are you making a new film after “Eternal Homecoming?”

As a matter of fact I believe I will no longer shoot films. More for my own personal reasons than for any political ones. I am no longer in good health and I can’t devote myself in the same way to this kind of work in these conditions. I love this profession but it is extremely hard physical labour… this subject has now become closed for me, especially after Melody for a Barrel Organ which we shot at night in the winter with child actors. This was devastating for my health so I had already decided at that time not to film anymore.

Is there, in your opinion, a future for Ukrainian cinema?
Only if people get used to the fact that things must be done cheaply. Some people manage to make masterpieces on the cheap. It’s all a question of improvisation and imagination. This is necessary for Ukraine and not to be copying Hollywood all the time. They all want to be making blockbusters. Necessity is the mother of invention. And one should be learning from everyone, from Dovzhenko and from the Americans.

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.