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Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Russian Influences in the work of Geetha J & Ian McDonald

Next week a film-making couple from India and the UK will be coming to Moscow as jury members at the Krasnogorski Sports Film Festival which is being held during the first half of April. Ian McDonald and Geetha J. (Geetha Jayaraman) have been involved in a broad number of film projects which in some way or another have touched on Russian themes and have both been heavily influenced by Russian culture as well as Russian film in particular. In fact my first meeting with them was at the showing of the first film of Brighton International Film Society which at Geetha’s insistence was to be Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. The patron of this Film Society was none other than Ken Loach, Britain’s leading film-maker. The society was to win the award for best debut film society at the UK Film Society Awards and many leading film critics and scholars were invited to its screenings.  Screenings that included the greatest classics of world cinema. Both Ian and Geetha were keen to ensure that Russian cinema would be at the very forefront of its repertoire and indeed Russian and Soviet cinema has always been central to their own cinematic paths.

Geetha is the producer and Ian the director of an extraordinary film Algorithms which gained a considerable critical and popular success in India at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) at Goa  (reviewed here by the Indian critic M.K.Raghavendra) and is set to go the rounds of some other international film festivals.

Darpan Inani vs Stanislav Babarykin

Ian has been working for some time now in one genre of film-making – that of sports documentary. This film, his most ambitious project yet, was four years in the making and is about the world of blind chess (a sport in which Russians lead the world). Strikingly different from most sport documentaries as well as films about disability, it is an exploration of touch as well as sight and one scene is surprisingly reminiscent of those experiments in haptic cinema of some 1920s Soviet films by such directors as Yutkevich and Room.

Yutkevich is the author of an elusive sports documentary Молодость нашей страны (The Youth of Our Country, 1946) that will be part of a project Ian and I are hoping to conduct on the hitherto unexplored world of the Soviet sports film. Yutkevich’s film now forgotten even it seems by people who still know his work once fascinated the likes of Henri Matisse and remains one of many of the fascinating possibilities of discovering an angle of Soviet film history still yet to be properly explored even by academics.

As an academic (as well as a film-maker) Ian has written extensively on sport films and it was at his request that I went in search of a film by Elem Klimov that I had no previous knowledge of. Looking through the video stalls in Moscow in the early 2000s no copy of Спорт, Спорт, Спорт (Sport, Sport, Sport) turned up. Fortuitously I stumbled upon an obscure, run down cinema in the outskirts of Moscow which was showing the film one Saturday morning. An audience of three and the rather dilapidated surroundings didn’t dampen my intuitive feeling of having discovered yet another Soviet era masterpiece - a unique film in which documentary sections are merged with the unlikely tales of a Methuselean trainer.

Ian explains the importance of the film for him:

Sport, Sport, Sport was unlike any sport documentary I had seen. Epic in its coverage and essayistic in its analysis, subversive in form and content, it captures the complexities and contradictions, as well as the allure and dangers of sport.

As an academic and lecturer in sport film he further explains that it is a wonderful film to show to his students:

I love showing the film to my sport documentary students: it challenges them to rethink their understanding of sport in the Soviet Union and to reconsider the possibilities of the sports documentary

In terms of how it has influenced his own work in shooting sports documentaries, he states:

Sport, Sport, Sport has had a great influence on my work, not necessarily in a direct sense, but in generating a filmic sensibility that strives to avoid both easy celebrations and lazy condemnations of sport. Elem Klimov has opened the door to the rich and distinctive tradition of Soviet and Russian documentaries that I am eager to explore.

Ian’s enthusiasm for this film infected me to agree to translate the subtitles. It is, even nowadays, a film strangely and sadly neglected even by many Soviet film scholars even though it does have a champion in the celebrated film director Alexander Sokurov who has on at least two occasions singled this film out for special praise. Ian’s interest in the Soviet Sports theme led him to being invited to become a member of the Russian Cinema Research group based at London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies.

Russian and Soviet culture was a part of Geetha’s childhood brought up as she was in the Indian state of Kerala. As she recalls:

Television came only in the 1980s to Kerala. While today’s children are being brought up on American cartoons, we as children grew up on fairy tales and storybooks. And in the 1970s as before, the hegemony of Soviet Union on our social life, let alone political life, was strong. Such beautifully illustrated Russian tales and then such great novels!

One particular Russian song was the basis of a short seventeen minute film called A Short Film About Nostalgia:

The film, while about personal nostalgia, reverberates with a technological and political nostalgia. Visual associations of images of old record players, plastic records, rundown VCRs and a disappearing amateur ham radio along with references to legendary Indian star Raj Kapoor’s popularity in the Soviet Union and beautiful illustrated books of Russian fairy tales such as those by Arkady Gaidar refer to a time gone, a generation gone.

The song around which the film revolves existed on a plastic disk sent by a Russian Ham Operator to her father (Indian Ham VU2JN) from the Soviet Union in the 1970s. Named Дорогой длинною after a gypsy romance was first recorded in the Soviet Union in 1926 and was performed by such Soviet legends in those days as Tamara Tsereteli and Aleksandr Vertinsky. Later in the 1960s it became a hit in the west and was performed by Mary Hopkins as Those were the Days. But unlike the English Geetha associates the song with the Russian version.

Next to the short clip of her film on youtube she stumbled across a clip from a popular Soviet film classic Три тополя на Плющихе (Three Poplar Trees on Pliushchika Street) and its song Нежность (Tenderness) which she admits to being fascinated with:

Without knowing the meaning and without knowing who the characters were or what film this was I was drawn to it. I watch it often for I think it is a perfect piece of cinema. Fantastic acting with every crease on the face expressing the longing of the music. The rain, the cars, the windscreen wipers, but most of all the actors and the song – I would recommend this clip to anyone who wanted to know what great acting was. And great music too. I don’t know if it is a great film or not but I quite envy the director for having had the opportunity to film this sequence. 

While her A Short Film About Nostalgia was her second filmed piece based on those memories of popular Soviet culture present in the Kerala of her youth, her first film was much more directly linked to the experience of an acknowledged Soviet and world cinema classic. In this film Dziga Vertov and is an explicit influence. Geetha says this of her film:

Woman with a Video Camera is inspired by the 1929 kino eye classic Man with a Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov. This complex experiment, a film without sound or words, was for Vertov, a theoretical manifestation on the screen. It not only brought into focus the grammar of cinematic means; it also showed the cameraman as a heroic participant in the currents of Soviet life. Woman with a Video Camera is an attempt to take Vertov’s theories a step further. Now we know that the movie camera is no longer considered an innocent recorder or even constructor of reality, but is part of a highly patriarchal and hierarchical film industry. Man is no longer accepted as a neutral term for we know how certain voices are silenced, certain stories untold, and certain images unmade in his-story. Woman with a Video Camera is conceived of as a yoking together of the outer and the inner world, for the film is also influenced by the use of space and time, violence and dream in the psychodramas or narrative film poems of Maya Deren like Meshes of the Afternoon, the brilliant avant-garde film taken in 1943. Woman with a Video Camera tries to address the social and the psychical realities and understand the dialectics between the structures and the nuances, to understand and to change.

Indeed a Dziga Vertov clip is used in her film as well as clips from two other films and in many ways these represent the three strands of the film (as an attempt to yoke the Vertovian, the Keralan as well as the experimental aesthetics of Kiev-born Eleanora Derenkowskai better known to film buffs as Maya Deren:

the clip of a Russian woman shooting at a Nazi figure in Vertov, the other of Maya Deren taking the knife – the iconic image in Meshes and finally the clip of the Keralite ritual dance Mudiyettu where the ferocious Kali (Dark Mother Goddess) is uncontrollably swinging around with a sickle to kill the demon in a sense, represent the coming together of the three roots of my film – the kino eye, the psychodrama and the rituals of mother goddess from my land.  

Most recently Geetha has worked preparing scripts and her first major script was funded by the Gotheborg Script Development Fund also abounds in Russian references and allusions. A tale of three sisters that alludes to both Chekhov but is also a kind of feminist retelling of Francesco Rosi’s Three Brothers (itself based on a short story by Russian author Andrei Platonov) it weaves in and out of their lives and fates in three decades from the 1970s to the early 1990s looking at their lives through a political prism of leftist and ultra-leftist politics in Kerala (a state where a democratically-elected Communist government held sway for many decades) in the shadow of the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. Geetha, herself, as a journalist in Kerala in 1988 had her first assignment to cover a Soviet mela (fair).

Curiously Geetha and Ian's very first playful experimentation which set them on the path of choosing a creative film career outside of their, then, work in TV documentary and research films was also linked to Russia, to a moment they spent in a Saint Petersburg hotel on their honeymoon where they were sung to by a tired, gaunt old crooner whose song haunted their imagination. The moment was so special that they hunted down the song and made a single-take video clip- their very first creative clip.

As I mentioned in the post, Ian and Geetha's new film Algorithms is in desperate need of funds for upgrading to enter international film festivals (at one of which it has already been chosen). Here is a link to their crowd-sourcing project for anyone who would like to contribute to make this fact a reality.


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