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Friday, 26 July 2013

An update on Naum Kleiman and the Cinema Museum: Reasons for Pessimism.

Further to my previous post regarding the refusal of the Ministry of Culture to prolong Naum Kleiman's contract as director of the Cinema Museum a few things have moved. The open letter  translated in my previous post led to an apparent demarche on the part of the Culture Ministry who first denied that Naum Kleiman would be sacked and then was informed that his contract was being prolonged by a year. Also there was a promise to seriously start work on finding a permanent building for the Cinema Museum in both Moscow and St Petersburg. Some of the Russian cinematic community seemed to greet this with joy. Yet looking at things more soberly there seems much less to rejoice about than at first sight.

The idea that Naum Kleiman's contract has been prolonged for a year (and not longer) seems an utter insult. It only confirms that the Ministry of Culture do want him to be rid of him and that they seem to be happy to play a waiting game. Promises of seriously 'looking into' the idea of a new building for the Cinema Museum were made a decade ago when international names like Quentin Tarantino, Bernardo Bertolucci, the brothers Dardenne publicly supported the call to keep the museum open. The German Chancellor of the time Gerhard Schroeder was supposed to have even brought up this with Putin. The Cinema Museum was not saved and no serious projects to build a new Cinema Museum have ever been allowed to get off the ground. The criminal raider-like theft of the old building near Krasnopresnenskaya went ahead and Naum Kleiman and his cinema museum was left roaming from one small cinema hall to another in the peripheries of Moscow over the past decade. There seems little real hope that a government willing to destroy its Academy of Sciences is half-interested in preserving its own radical cinematic history, little hope that a government insistent on force-feeding its population an ideological diet of religious nationalism is willing to genuinely allow and foster the return of a centre where revolutionary visions - often atheist and anarchist visions but nearly always transgressive visions- of global cinematic excellence can be readily available.

Another important moment of yesterday's agreement was the nomination of Konstantin Ernst as head of the Supervisory Council of the Cinema Museum. The General Director of Russia's First television Channel and producer of many rather tasteless films in the last decade and a half, there seems little encouraging in this fact either. The signature of Konstantin Ernst (along with that of Fedor Bondarchuk) looked rather incongruous in the open letter in defence of Naum Kleiman, but the fact that Ernst has wangled himself into a position of great importance bodes rather ill. The logic, I suppose, is that unless one can get people like this on your side there would be no hope for the Museum idea to be revived. And yet along with the prolonging of only one year of Naum Kleiman's contract and the manouevring of a person close to power into a position of great importance in this structure could soon prove to become the worst of all possible worlds.

What shouldn't be forgotten is that the Museum of Cinema also holds priceless exhibits often donated to the Cinema Museum precisely because Naum Kleiman was director and could be fully trusted. For this reason alone the Cinema Museum should be fully under the control of Kleiman and people who he personally nominates not for a further year but for perpetuity. This issue hasn't been broached at all in the past day or two and yet given the raider-like grab of the Cinema Museum building eight years old and the absolute inertia of the past decade, deep pessimism over this issue often proves to be the most realistic outlook.

As for the euphoria of today amongst the cinematic community in Russia I remember how in late 2005 a picket outside Dom Kino was staged in the hope of a last minute reprieve for the Cinema Museum. Up popped an actor-politician by the name of Yevgeni Gerasimov (a member of the Moscow Duma for United Russia) telling the demonstrators that everything was fine, the Museum of Cinema had been saved. A wave of euphoria seized the crowd. It wasn't to last very long- by the evening it was discovered that he had simply uttered a bare-faced lie - the cinema museum had instead been doomed.

As the film critic Anton Dolin in an excellent post for today stated:

"We, already without a cinemateque for a decade, are now rejoicing that the Minister of Culture has made such a fine agreement with our Langlois (the mythical director of Paris's Cinemateque who Kleiman has often been compared to), and no one is going to be sacked- at least, not yet, and the Museum will certainly exist. Sooner or later it will be built! Like in the old Soviet joke about a swimming pool in a lunatic asylum: we are diving so well that they've promised to add the water soon."

It seems that until the asylum's walls are broken down the promises are there to be broken. As for swimming pools we all know what happened to Moscow's finest open-air one.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Naum Kleiman: sacked as director of the Cinema Museum?

If today's media reports are to be believed one of the crassest and appalling decisions has been made with regard to Russian film in the past decade: the Ministry of Culture has informed Naum Kleiman that it will not be renewing his contract after August 12th, thereby effectively sacking him. The Cinema Museum story is one that has been running for some time now- ever since the Museum was unceremoniously kicked out of its premises in 2005 spelling the death-knell for hopes of a renaissance in Russian film and the emergence of a Russian New Wave given the splendid educational role that it was carrying out. The Cinema Museum has since limped on with roaming events in a variety of locations in Moscow, most recently occasional showings at the Mossovet cinema. If the Ministry of Culture now believes that it can completely do without the scholarly expertise and genius of Naum Kleiman (a figure who has, correctly in my mind, been compared with the legendary Henri Langlois of the French cinemateque) it will be a sign of the total cultural bankruptcy of this government and its Ministry of Culture. Such a decision to remove a cultural authority of such global stature as Naum Kleiman smacks of cultural illiteracy at its most suicidal. Marginalizing Naum Kleiman has echoes of some very sinister historical antecedents. The film community in Russia has reacted quickly with an open letter appearing immediately in the Seance film journal. One can only hope that the whole world cinema community will follow suit should the reports be confirmed. My rough and rather quick translation of the Seance open letter appears here:

Open letter to the Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky.

Respected Valdimir Rostislavovich!

We have heard from the mass media that from August 12th the permanent director and founder of the Museum of Cinema Naum Kleiman will be removed from his post. This decision, if it is to be final, would have the most serious and negative effects on the future of Russian cinema.

We fully understand that the Cinema Museum may be in need of a professional manager who could resolve day-today administrative and financial issues working alongside Naum Kleiman who was and is the leading artistic director. The Cinema Museum for many years now has been roaming the capital without its own premises. But if as a result of the arrival of this manager at the Museum, Naum Kleiman were to leave we would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

There are institutes which at different times are led by charismatic and talented or not very charismatic and not very talented people. These people can be changed because with a change of personnel at the top of the institution, the body is more important than the person who leads it. But Naum Kleiman created the Cinema Museum. He is not only its’ director, he is its parent, its founding father. And parents aren’t kicked out of their own home.

 Naum Kleiman is a figure of global significance and the Museum created by him is known far beyond Russian borders.  In 2005 when the Cinema Museum was deprived of its building, wise people warned that this would be a catastrophe not only for film education but above all for the film industry. 8-10 years ago the then rising young directors all announced that they were formed by the Cinema Museum.

Vladimir Rostislavovich we ask you personally to go out of your way so that Naum Kleiman as a leading scholar, a researcher who has helped to foster more than one generation of directors and finding himself at the height of his creative powers, should be assured 100% artistic independence from any manager in terms of programming, decisions regarding the fate of the Museum’s collection as well as in terms of the selection of his creative team. If he no longer remains among the acting directors of the Museum, if he leaves, then there would, in reality, be nothing left for a new director to manage, whoever that manager is.

We assure you that in our film community, and in the world film community, there is not a single serious cinematographer who would not relate to Naum Kleiman and his work other than with immense respect and boundless attachment.

It was signed by Liubov Arkus, Fyodor Bondarchuk, Georgii Daneliya, Sergei Selyanov, Alexander Sokurov, Sergei Solovivev and Konstantin Ernst.

Signatures are being added all the time. Here is the link in Russian: Open letter in support of Naum Kleiman

Monday, 15 July 2013

Fourth Odessa Film Festival Underway.

The fourth Odessa International Film festival is underway- already into its fourth day- and appears to have kept the format that it had in previous years. Though a little smaller and, it seems, like well-financed this year than in previous years. One or two big stars- Kusturica in particular have come- and the attempt to retain the 'glamorous' side of the festival has remained. There are still some joys for the film enthusiast who isn't too keen on either the glamour aspect or the film industry aspect of the festival.

Yesterday, for example, Ulrich Seidl gave a master class on his Paradise trilogy and today will be Jiri Menzel's turn. Roger Corman and Jos Stelling will also be visiting. The Seidl event yesterday was a fine introduction to his working methods but it is a pity that not all the questions from the floor were from genuine film enthusiasts. Last year's master classes by Peter Greenaway and Sergei Loznitsa went much further in developing an idea of all sides to cinematic practice or ideas of the directors. Unfortunately, one member of the audience took the master class as a press conference (and an odd one at that) and started to ask Seidl about the moral decline of Europe demonstrated by its gay marriages and drug problems!!! Alas, the 'moral brigade' at film festivals in Russia and the Ukraine is starting to become a real plague. At last year's press conference one member of the press started to hysterically attack the director and cast of the Serbian film Parade launching into a vile homophobic rant. Tomorrow's press conference of Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin for the film Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer is unlikely to go very smoothly either.

Odessa, while having far fewer films than the Moscow Film Festival, often overlaps in terms of the type of programme. So its competition programme might have, at times, the same film as the Moscow competition (this is the case this year with Wojtech Smarzowski's Traffic Department). By all accounts last year's Ukrainian competition was said to be less than good although this year's hopefully will be noticeably better.

A full retrospective of Paradjanov as well as films about Paradjanov and the opening of an exhibition of Paradjanov's collages is also another 'Ukrainian' feature to the festival. A Michael Winterbottom retrospective is yet another British component to the festival (Odessa had already shown its affection for British film with the Monty Python retrospective two years ago). Unfortunately, the lecture given by Mark Cousins was one of the cancelled events - although his film A Story of Children and Film is showing.

Kira Muratova, the Odessa director absurdly overlooked by previous festivals, will be here to present her film Вечное Возвращение (Eternal Homecoming). Though the fact that Muratova could not even get her previous film to be shown at the first Odessan International Film Festival casts an enormous shadow over some of the choices made by the selectors at that time. That this festival still hasn't deemed to show a full Muratova retrospective in the first four years is, also, rather strange. Given that the film scholar Ian Christie has called Kira Muratova the greatest woman film director in the world today, the only marginal appearance of her films in festival events in the past four years speaks ill of the festival's pretension to promote the cinematic excellence of its own city.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Elem Klimov. On the 80th anniversary of his birth.

Eighty years ago today in what was then Stalingrad, the film director Elem Klimov was born. Part of one of the most talented generations of Soviet film-makers, Klimov's contributions to cinema have still not really been fully acknowledged. For, in spite of living to the age of 70, Klimov's career as a film maker was only to last two full decades (from the early sixties to the mid eighties). Elem Klimov was stifled at every step of the way. Stifled by the Soviet film bureaucrats who made his life almost intolerable (and yet it was only during this period he managed to shoot films) and then stifled by his role as head of the Film Makers Union to which he was elected as revolutionary harbinger of perestroika but his role proved to be an almost intolerable burden given the excessive and contradictory demands and responsibilities that film-makers would put on his shoulders. During the final ten to fifteen years of his life lived in a collapsing Soviet and then post-Soviet Russia, he was stifled by a system of commercial dictatorship and his vision proved to have even less chance of being expressed then than it had during the Soviet period.  A vision far too sincere and professional, far too deeply serious for the 1990s which succumbed to the desperate logic of either commercialism or facile and superficial experiments that would rarely stand the test of time. Klimov's path was another one and on that didn't fit in with the feverish post-modern reaction of the 1990s. His work in film was, as his brother German stated in an interview, was to fulfill a mission rather like 19th century writers and that was unimaginable in post-Soviet Russia. Perhaps one of the greatest films never to be filmed was his version of Master and Margherita. The fact that we still can't know how he envisaged this film because of the refusal of the Bulgakov to allow publication of Klimov's screenplay is a further tragedy. Certainly it would have been a Master and Margherita like no other.

What has been published in a fine book entitled Неснятое Кино (Unfilmed Cinema) - and here are included scripts, interviews, articles and reminiscences by others of Elem but far from all that is available or archived about him (he also wrote poetry none of which has, hitherto, seen the light of day)- can only make the reader more wistful.  One would be hard put to find a film-maker more mistreated by his time than Elem Klimov. The years following his death still haven't done much to rectify this either. Apart from some very fine words from Andrey Plakhov on the Seance blog (The Last Idealist) far too few have remembered the real contribution that he made.

Plakhov's concluding words deserve to be cited (my translation):

He was the only film-maker not to receive any dividends from perestroika- neither a film studio, nor a house, nor a position. And he was the only one who genuinely suffered as an artist-not those who were cast down from their pedestals like Bondarchuk and Rostotsky. The latter feeling themselves to be like victims of some kind of Jacobin Terror continued to work. The sacrifice of Klimov who was at the very apex of his career... was completely voluntary, a free choice. Being at the apex of the pyramid during perestroika he was the first to sense the rottenness in its foundation. And he did not wish to take part in its precipitous slide towards consumerism. He remained an idealist who in the reign of pragmatists could do nothing.

What Klimov did manage to create for prosperity is, surely of great importance. His versatility throughout his career of forging a vision almost every time in a completely new genre should also not be forgotten and should be celebrated more often. Of course, his last film Иди и Смотри (Come and See) is the film most well-known internationally. And it certainly is one of the great (anti)war films of all time. No one else was ever able to capture war in quite the same way and no one else was able to describe this as well as Klimov whose late childhood was spent in the inferno that was Stalingrad. That the film was proposed in 1977 and only came to fruition in 1985 is indicative of the many conflicts that Klimov would have throughout his life with film bureaucrats. In an interview, Klimov talked about some of the impetus behind the film:

I thought: the world doesn't know about Khatyn! They know about Katyn about the massacre of the Polish officers there. But they don't know about Belorussia. Even though more than 600 villages were burned there!
And I decided to make a film about this tragedy. I perfectly understood that the film would end up a harsh one. I decided that the central role of the village lad Flyora would not be played by a professional actor, who upon immersion into a difficult role could have protected himself psychologically with his accumulated acting experience, technique and skill. I wanted to find a simple boy fourteen years of age. We had to prepare him for the most difficult experiences, then capture them on film. And at the same time, we had to protect him from the stresses so that he wasn't left in the loony bin after filming was over, but was returned to his mother alive and healthy. Fortunately, with Lyosha Kravchenko, who played Flyora and who later became a good actor, everything went smoothly.
I understood that this would be a very brutal film and that it was unlikely that people would be able to watch it. I told this to my screenplay coauthor, the writer Ales Adamovich. But he replied: "Let them not watch it, then. This is something we must leave after us. As evidence of war, and as a plea for peace."
Many film critics from outside Russia see this film as the ultimate statement on war and British writer Tim Lott wrote that it was his top film of all time and made Apocalypse Now "look lightweight". Other critics have noted how Klimov merged intense lyricism with expressionist nightmare in a way hitherto impossible. Klimov talks about the film here:

Yet, Klimov did not start off exploring the worst depths of the human character. Instead his most well-known film for many Russians was a diploma film that then went on to become a national favourite - many of the phrases from the film becoming national catchphrases. Entitled Добро пожаловать, или Посторонним вход воспрещён (Welcome, or No Unathorized Entrance) even this film frightened the bureaucrats and in many ways there did lie a biting satire underneath. There was also something of the semi-anarchic view of childhood that this film would share with Jean Vigo's banned film Zéro de conduite. But Klimov was also to recapture something of the anarchic gags of the eccentric comedies of the 1920s whether those of Kuleshov or the FEKS (Factory of the Eccentric Actor) school of Kozintsev, Trauberg and Gerasimov.

If this film was saved by Khruschev from the film bureaucrats wrath, then his next film  Похождения зубного врача (Adventures of a Dentist), based on a script by one of the best playwrights of post-war Soviet Union, was to be given only extremely limited release and far less widely known. Klimov moved from comedy to parable highlighting some of the subversive undertones of his first film. His earlier attempt to adapt a Brechtian play (Mr Puntila and his Man Matti) for the screen and his employment of Boris Blank (a man who had designed the sets for a Soviet production of Brecht's Arturo Ui) meant that there was certainly something distinctively Brechtian about some of the artistic choices including irregular choice of songs at certain seemingly 'unjustified' points in the film- a choice which Milos Forman was also to make in his Loves of a Blonde at around the same time.

It is often the case that commentators when discussing Klimov's career forget about the next film (and this was the case of most recent articles linked with Elem Klimov's 80th anniversary including that by Andrei Plakhov). Yet this is perhaps one of the great injustices for Спорт, Спорт,Спорт (Sport,Sport,Sport) which certainly deserves more than a few lines. Elem Klimov may occasionally have been dismissive of this film in interviews yet it is, arguably, one of the great sport films ever made. If also one of the most unusual. Merging documentary and some poetic fantasy scenes it succeeds in giving an overview of sport and describing the world of sport as a whole in a way that no other film quite succeeded. It is a film that the director Alexander Sokurov rates extremely highly. Using documentary footage from such a wide range of sources as well as the extraordinary poetry of Bella Akhmadulina and music of Alfred Schnittke (both specially composed for the film) it has still yet to be fully acknowledged for the masterpiece that it is:

After having been subjected to Depardieu's Rasputin as this year's closing film of the Moscow Film Festival one is left wondering why anyone who had seen Klimov's version personified by Aleksei Petrenko in the film Агония (Agonia) would bother to watch it. Once again a film completed only nine years after it began (Klimov took on the work at the suggestion of Ivan Pyriev) and then long shelved in spite of the acclamation of film-makers like Andrej Wajda and Akira Kurosawa who had managed to see a copy. A film that in some ways kept what Klimov called the "montage-chronical" method of Sport, Sport, Sport and developed this formal experiment which, only later, was to have its adepts. Klimov was here also to develop that movement from comedy (and Klimov, in fact, stated that the first script was a satrical one) to tragic expressionism that would be inherent in his final film.


Much more should be said of his completion of his wife's (Larisa Shepitko's) film Проща́ние (Farewell) who tragically died after the first day of shooting as well as his extraordinary short film portrait of his wife which he stated to be the hardest film he had ever made.

Much, much more remains to be said of this director who united that which could not be united, who could have been the voice of renewal of a great film culture that plunged almost into self-destruct in post perestroika Russia. His silence from this time speaks volumes (just as the silence of Norshtein or the relative silence of German) about the plunge that Russian film and culture took after the end of the Soviet Union.

And yet one of my favourite anecdotes about Elem Klimov highlights us his light-hearted and impish origins in cinema and was told me by his brother German at a meeting earlier this year. Elem Klimov was asked by the General Secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev to draw up a list of cultural figures to invite to the Kremlin. This being in the very early days of perestroika Klimov knew that Milos Forman had to be on the list (he was still prevented from returning to his native Czeechoslovakia and an invite to the Kremlin would make the prohibition to return to Czechoslovakia untenable). Klimov got his way and finally managed to meet his old friend at the Kremlin reception. Alas, Forman was chased around by every press photographer imaginable at this reception and there was no chance that Klimov and he could have a quiet word. That is until they hit upon the idea of disappearing until the wide Kremlin tables and have their conversation hiding under them quasi incognito a little like the main child hero of Klimov's first film, Kostya Inochkin. They were apparently noticed by a waiter who would periodically lift up the tablecloth and offer them some food and drink.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

The 35th Moscow International Film Festival - (Russian and former Soviet Republic films in competition).

After almost two weeks of watching four or five films a day attempting to summarize and even remember the impressions gained by this gluttony is rather difficult. Moscow is an easy film festival to criticize because of its keeping its 'A' status. The biggest mistake someone with accreditation does is to go and see the competition films neglecting some of the other films that the festival offers. Competition programmes at the MIFF are all too often a gross disappointment and the hope that one might just to watch another 8 1/2 is an utterly forlorn one.Sometimes the competition films offer some consolation (in both documentary and feature competition sections) but all too often they disappoint. This year little seemed to inspire and a few days after the feature competition I can barely remember more than a scene or two that genuinely impressed. I'll try to write a few words on these films in another blog but one or two of the Russian films in competition are worth dwelling on.

Perhaps the most impressive film was Konstantin Lopushansky's film Роль (The Role). Recounting the tale of an actor who gets the chance in post-Revolutionary Russia to take on a completely new identity and to 'act' another person's entire life throughout until an inevitable tragic denouement, some critics were wondering why Lopushansky's film had been rejected by Berlin or Cannes whereas others believed that the film had been made two decades too late. In fact it was a Lopushansky project that had been a very long time in the making and his first film for six years. Set in the world of Russian symbolists and attempting to give a portrait of this world, it is a strangely alluring film that was set completely apart from the rest of the competition in terms of theme or atmosphere. Lopushansky is one of those film-makers who, if known by film critics, will always be talked about in terms of their work with Tarkovsky and who, along with Sokurov, have been given the title of Tarkovsky's successor. Yet this aura didn;t seem to bring Lopushanksy any luck in the competition. No major awards were given to the film - not even that of best actor for one of Russia's most versatile contemporary actors Maksim Sukhanov.

The best actor prize was picked up by Alexei Shevchenkov in his title role for the film Иуда (Judas). A very fine performance in this adaptation of Leonid Andreev's novel and yet the film as a whole didn't convince. Andrei Bogatyrev is undoubtedly a young director who will have a lot more to say in future but this portrait and adaptation (which the director suggested owed as much to Nietzsche as to Andreev) seem less than convincing.

The third Russian film to be included in the main competition was Anton Rozenberg's debut film Скольжение (Slide). Rozenberg, coming from the world of advertising, made this criminal feature debut from a 30 minute short film and, unfortunately, it does tell. Attempting to experiment with film forms jarred with the story of a narcotics policeman chased and almost constantly being shot by his own men (but never managing to die). What may have been interested was flogged too heavily and so lost its narrative tightness way before the end.

One film that did seem to find something to say through the criminal/thriller genre this year was the Georgian film by Archil Kavtaradze Беспредел (Disorder).
 A tale of a driver who gets sent to prison for running over two distracted pedestrians and whose experiences in prison and eventually a psychiatric institute live up to the title. Here the director more skilfully integrates formalist devices (such as animated sequences) into the story and his nightmare world is more believable than in Rozenberg's film.

The buzz surrounding the documentary film by Mumin Shakirov Холокост – клей для обоев? (Holocaust- Is it a glue for wallpaper?) failed to live up to expectations. A didactic documentary about a shocking case of ignorance displayed during a TV quiz show by two sisters, the film didn't seem to ask further questions. Shakirov's decision to take the two sisters on a tour to Auschwitz didn't seem to offer much more than a filming of a re-education process. One can have sympathy for the intent, shock at the ignorance but as regards documentary depth this film was lacking. An account of the case can be found here . Alas not much more was said during the film itself.

Genocide and mass murder based on political and ethnic murder was a theme of some other non-Russian  films in the festival outside of the competition - Joshua Oppenheimer's extraordinary The Act of Killing will be reviewed elsewhere- but it was a sign of the abyss between the Documentary Competition and the Free Thought section of the festival that two such qualitatively diverse films can turn up at the same festival.

In short Russian participation in the main feature and documentary competition programmes singularly failed to inspire. With, to my mind (but this point of view was not shared by many), the single exception of Lopushansky's film.