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Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Odessa and Film

To most people's minds to mention Odessa and cinema an image of the massacre at the Potemkin Steps in Eisenstein's 'Battleship Potemkin' comes to mind. Yet the history of cinema in Odessa is a long and fascinating one. In fact some Odessans like to claim that it was Josif Timchenko who shot the first cinematic film at Odessa's Hippodrome. His "Jumping Horseman" was shown on January 24th 1895 during a medical congress (weeks before the Lumiere brothers patented their cinematic machine in France). Whether Odessa is the real birthplace of world cinema or not, it is surely a city that has played a significant but often unacknowledged role in Russian and Soviet cinema history.

One of the few books available on this subject is Vadim Kostromenko's two-volume anecdotal history of the Odessa Film studios. In it he recounts his own memories of the studio after the Second World War and, in less detail, some of the original figures who developed cinema in Odessa including such figures as Peter Chardynin and the great silent move actress Vera Kholodnaya who died young in 1919 of the Spanish influenza and was buried accompanied by a huge crowd of Odessans. The films scripted by Odessa's literary legend Isaac Babel include the magnificent Benya Krik. Mayakovsky was also to write scripts for the Odessa Film Studio- seven in total (of which two were actually shot). Another name linked briefly to Odessa and cinema was Nikolai Erdman (one of the Soviet Union's greatest satirists). Among those who rebuilt cinema in Odessa in the post-revolutionary period of the 1920s was the legendary Mikhail Kapchinsky who, though arrested three times during various waves of repression, was to survive into the 1980s. It was Kapchinsky who brought Eisenstein's film 'Battleship Potemkin' to Odessa from Leningrad in order to save it from the autumnal climate of Leningrad which was making filming impossible and it was this fact that meant that the film would concentrate on the Odessa episode of the 1905 revolution and the fate of the Battleship Potemkin. In the 1920s profits from Italian films starring Lina Cavvallieri and Francesco Bertini would help restore film production in Odessa (rather than the American films popular elsewhere in the Soviet Union at that time).

A film about the Soviet-Polish War shot in Odessa was to star the legendary historical personage Kotovsky who agreed to play himself. This Robin Hood bandit figure turned Bolshevik unfortunately was not to live to become a film star. He was assassinated just before the film was about to go into production and so future generations have been denied this historical curiosity of watching the real Kotovsky act out his own life.

Alexander Dovzhenko was to begin his cinematic career in Odessa and although it was certainly not a successful beginning, it was here that he would develop his style of film-making to become one of the leading directors in the world.

Film-making in Odessa was to enter an uncertain period after 1929 which was to continue into the late Stalin period. In fact between 1929 and 1941 and between 1944 and 1952 the director of the Odessa Film Studios would be replaced almost annually. Many who worked here were to suffer repression and even execution (including many of Dovzhenko's former scriptwriters, co-directors and cameramen). The main task in the immediate post-war years  in Odessa was to restore the film studio to its previous glory given the destruction and theft carried out by the Roumanian occupying forces during the war years.

Cinema in Odessa in post-war years got off to a slow start and it was only with the advent of Alexander Gorsky as head of the film studio that in 1953 film production would be reset on an upward course. Under his direction and that of his successor Gennady Zbandit, Odessa would return to quality film-making. In 1956 one of the most important films of the early Thaw period was to be made in Odessa - Marlen Khutsiev's (and Feliks Mironer's) Весна на Заречной Улице (Spring on Zarechnaya Street). A young cameraman would work with the two directors and would go on to have a long association with Odessa: Peter Todorovsky. The actor (and subsequently one of the Soviet Union's most important post-war directors) Vasily Shukshin would also debut in Odessa in Khutsiev's second film 'The two Fyodor's'.

One of film's most promising but unsuccessful figures Genrikh Gabay (in the photo above) was to have a career dogged by misfortune. His masterpiece Зеленвый Фургон (The Green Truck) shot in Odessa was to be mauled by Kiev officials and made unrecognisable. After shooting films from completely unsuitable scripts, he was to emigrate to Israel invited by Golda Meir. Yet even here he was to be given roles and films that he could not accept - he turned down Golda Meir's offer of post as Minister for Cineamtography as he wanted to shoot films. Then he was given the script of a national patriotic film to shoot- he turned this offer down in disgust affirming that he had too much of fighting in war to incite his then countrymen to fight against their Arab enemies. Gabay would then leave for the United States and find himself equally marginalized. It was not in his nature to shoot commercial cinema. Invited by a priest to shoot a long documentary on the life of Christ his Jewish roots and atheist leanings caused further problems with his producers. Maybe little remains to prove Gabay's talent but his journey through the cinema of three countries surely deserves to be told belonging to the history of cinema's would-have-beens as well as serving as an exemplary tale of one of cinema's more admirable refuseniks.

Another of life's refuseniks - Joseph Brodsky - was to star in the unlikely role of an Odessa party secretary in Vadim Lysenko's Поезд в далекий август (Train for a distant August) in 1970. Lysenko's assistant Leonid Mak noted Brodksy's similarity to Naum Gurevich and given Brodsky's need to find work the future Nobel Laureate jumped at the chance. Unfortunately Brodsky's role in the film came to the notice of party officials in Kiev and all shots of Brodsky were ordered cut from the film. However, unknown to the authorities only the close-ups were reshot and medium and long shots of the character are still those acted by Brodsky himself.

Odessa's major contemporary name is, of course, Kira Muratova who has remained faithful to the city and still uses the studio. Another long-term association with Odessa and the studio was kept by Stanislav Govorukhin who shot many films here. The legendary Vladimir Vysotksy acted in Govorukhin's most popular film series Место Втречи изменить нельзя (the Meeting Place can not be changed) but also in other films shot in or about Odessa. a lesser-known but by no means minor director - Georgy Yungvald-Khilkevich - shot a number of films here including the film 'The art of living in Odessa' based on Isaac Babel's short stories about Odessa.

In short, the history of film in Odessa is in no way a negligible one. If the Odessa Film Studios were not one of the Soviet Union's major film studios, cinematic history in Odessa is, nonetheless, a fascinating and inspirational one and deserving of a major historical work.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Russian Film festivals & a report on Odessa's Film Festival

The season of major Russian film festivals- Sochi, Moscow and the new Saint-Petersburg International Cinema Forum is coming to an end. In a recent article for Moscow News Yuri Gladilshchikov argues that the St Petersburg festival is overtaking that of Moscow in terms of quality and significance. The Moscow Film festival seems to be a victim of Mikhalkov's overbearing need to live on the rhetoric of challenging Cannes and Venice without being able to match its prestige. The absurd inflation of self-importance attributed to it by the Russian cinema elite ignores the fact that it doesn't attract the international attention that other major European festivals do. At the same time it also manages to alienate its own local audience by excessive ticket prices. The modest beginnings of St Petersburg's international film forum (now in its second edition) nonetheless has been based on a solid foundation- Alexei German shadows (or even overshadows) Nikita Mikhalkov, while film critic Andrei Plakhov is its chief selector - a heavyweight counterpart to Moscow's Kirill Razlogov. Moreover, the St Petersburg festival with red carpet guests including Natasha Kinski and Ornella Muti is based on a more solid relationship to the public of St Petersburg given that ticket prices are half the price of those of Moscow.

This week another Russian-language festival of significance has taken place. Smaller in scale to St Petersburg and Moscow's film festivals, the Odessa International Film festival has nonetheless attracted the likes of John Malkovich to the red carpet and visiting directors include Valery Todorovsky, Otar Ioselliani, Sergei Soloviev and the, alas, rather ubiquitous Nikita Mikhalkov. Kira Muratova- an Odessan herself was also present both at the screening of her own film as well as among the audience of Soloviev's Anna Karenina at the Odessa Film Studios. One of the more spectacular events of the festival was the most well-attended as well as free. A large screen projected Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis' with a live orchestra at the botoom of the Potemkin Steps to a crowd of thousands. At the first festival last year Battleship Potemkin was itself projected with live orchestra - a fascinating idea that brings back the magic of great silent cinema to a whole city. Each evening of the festival films are projected on to a screen on the other steps called Lanzheron Steps (not far from the Potemkin steps) for free thus giving at least a democratic veneer to this festival. Ticket prices are also not exorbitant - at the Rodina cinema they are between $3 and $5, at the Odessa film studios between $1 and $3 - far below the Moscow prices of up to $15. The opening ceremony was preceded by the walk along the red carpet towards Odessa's opera house. Odessans are less star-struck than others and people turned up simply out of curiosity - even the stars such as John Malkovich were met with restrined applause at most. A number of single demonstrators turned up to shout 'Down with the Oligarchs' and hold placards but soon they left to have a laugh with the Odessan policemen (maybe their British policing colleagues should be sent to the Ukarine to learn restraint and good- humour).

For me the highlights of the festival have been the screenings of Ioselliani's 'Chantrapas', Kaurismaki's 'Le Havre', Loznitsa's 'My Joy' and of course Kira Muratova's 'Melody for a Barrel Organ'. Soloviev's Ukranian premiere of 'Anna Karenina' was equally significant (but for me somewhat a delusion) and an interesting tale of a mid-life crisis of three band members (a doctor, a policeman and a taxi driver) using Inarritu's narrative trio style to describe Russian realia. Another Ukrainian film called Dvoe (the Two) set in World War Two provided a reflection about friend and enemy not too far apart from Rogozhkin's Кукушка 'Cuckoo'. It also explored the inner dynamics of two groups of two people- one pair pursuing (two Germans one male and one female as well as an army dog and another pair pursued: a Soviet soldier and his captured German soldier who appears willing to change sides). Loznitsa's film was by far one of the darkest films of the festival about a man who finds himself lost in a territory from which there is no escape but death. This film had some critical acclaim at Cannes and Trieste. At one point the possibility that it might win a major award at Cannes Film Festival brought a howl of alarm by the Mikhalkovian national patriots who were to ready to argue that the film would have won because it denigrated Russia and painted it in overly black terms.

Soloviev's 'Anna Karenina' was its first Ukrainian premiere and well-attended by the Odessan public: yet for me it suffered too much from many drawbacks and in spite of some superb acting by the likes of Drubich, Yankovsky, Abdullov and Garmash, it was rather a deluding film even though it attempted to do something new in the genre of literary adaptations. A good piece of criticism has been written by Anindita Banerjee in Kino Kultura here:
Watching Anna Karenina at the Odessa Film studios was Odessa's director Kira Muratova. Her short question and answer session after the showing of her film 'Melody for a barrel organ' was welcome but far too short. However, it was interesting to know that the war veteran excluded from the de luxe waiting room was actualy reciting his own personal history. In an answer to the question as to whether she thought there may be light at the end of the tunnel she cut the questioner short by saying that the light had completely gone out. She then defined herself as a happy pessimist and described the work of a film director to that of a surgeon. Although the surgeon cuts open the human body s/he still thinks of his/her own profession as something of beauty. Muratova insisted on the joy of her own profession defending the necessity of such films. In fact this dialectic between the sheer aesthetic beauty of the film and the absolute horror of the actual subject- a kind of contemporary fairy tale about the Slaughter of the Innocents in which the male orphan freezes to death with a handful of balloons in his hands (a nod to Fritz Lang's 'M') while a group of gastarbeiter's stand around in Gogolian awe while one of their member hiccoughs uncontrollably. The unbearableness of the ending, the sheer beauty of the film, the fairy tale form make this film Muratova's most shocking statement but perhaps also one of her most accessible. Yet she brings us to a point of aesthetic joy and utter madness that Mayakovsky reached with his line about loving watching children die. It is not as first appears a film about our indifference and cruelty to children but something far more uncanny and terrible than that. Its radical scope in going beyond what most directors are capable of made this film the most significant one of the festival. A shame that the film festival organisers cowardly failed to show this film at last year's festival. They, in the words of Muratova, were too concerned at its dark vision and too afraid of its pessimism. European and US distributors probably won't touch it with a barge pole which means that one of the truly great films of the past decade will go unseen until some rediscovery is made some years along the line. During the showing someone had brought their child along with them to watch the film, the child repeated a number of times during the seance "как красиво, как красиво" (how beautiful).

One more film that should be mentioned was Iurii Kara's 'Hamlet of the twenty-first century' - an eclectic film setting the story amongst car races and night club- Hamlet and his rivals between twenty-somethings. The emphasis that Kara gives to the figure of the Osric (played by Sukhorukov) as the venemous benefactor of the chaos and the brilliant acting of Diuzhev, the spectacular Crimea setting of the film (filming was done at the Vorontsov palace, the Sparrows Nest palace and near Balaclava)make it a visually unusual film. However, arguably the stylization goes too far and the eclecticism is too extreme with many roles apart from those of Diuzhev's and Sukhorukov's being less than memorable.

A number of Ukrainian comedies were also shown at the festival including Paradzanov's 'First Lad' and 'The art of living in Odessa' based on Babel's Odessa stories (and included the actor Viktor Avilov). A sparsely attended event but an interesting one nonetheless. Given that Dovzhenko began his career as a director of comedies in Odessa (Love's Berry), the Ukrainian film comedy section merited its place at the film festival.

All in all, a festival which hopefully will grow in future years. A small festival but one which has learnt to balance its obligations to the locals with an attempt to put this festival on the map.