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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.

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