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Sunday, 29 September 2013

No Russian Culture, please, we're British.

The history of the British authorities and Russian cinema has been, it must be said, a rather shameful one. To detail, perhaps, the most obvious example, Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin was not only banned for almost three decades it then remained as X-rated for another three. In many ways Britain has never been one of the countries most open to Russian cinema.Outside narrow academic circles, Russian films rarely get noticed and even more rarely get shown. An anecdotal example was that of my local 'independent' cinema in the city of Brighton (the Duke of Yorks). An example sufficient to highlight the kind of difficulty one has in bringing Russian film to the UK. Brighotn's International Film Society after a few months decided that it was high time to show a Russian film and after consulting me drew up a list of ten films that the cinema could choose from to be shown at the society's monthly screening. Instead of picking from this ten it insisted on showing the only Russian film (Sokurov's Russian Ark) that had previously passed through its screens in its previous years. Russian film was still, in the early 2000s, practically unavailable outside the two or three films that would be shown at, say, the London Film Festival.

The Russian diaspora which has descended on the UK in recent years has led to some improvement. A Russian Film Festival now runs annually in London and under the previous London mayor, Ken Livingstone, a Russian Winter Festival involving cultural events and occasional film showings took place. Yet the UK still is a country whose reception of Russian cinema is far behind that of other cultures. Only last year a UK guest (and former director of the Edinburgh Film Festival) at the Odessa Film Festival was asked to name a Russian-language film that had impressed her recently. Yet the questioner was left unsatisfied because not one name came to mind to this British film critic. A rather similar scene greated the press conference of the very first Russian Film Festival in London. Pavel Lungin was practically begging the journalists at the press conference to ask the Russian panel about the films on show. Not one UK journalist could oblige him.

The Russian Film Festival seems, at least to have survived and thrived and Russian book fairs appear to have some kind of success in London (though whether the main pundits are British russophiles is doubtful- at least judging from the first Russian Film Festival 90% of atendees were Russian emigres). The odd Russian cultural centre like, for example, Pushkin House does some valuable work and the recent appearance of the Calvert Journal finally provides some detailed coverage of Russian culture to a larger audience. However, it now seems that the Britain embassy in Russia is stepping in to return Britain back to the 'good old days' of the Iron Curtain.

One of Russia's most respected documentary film-makers has felt the full bureaucratic force of Britain's visa clampdown making Russia's system seem much liberal in comparison. While the UK hasn't, it seems, stooped to deny Vitaly Mansky a visa in practice, it seems to wish to force him to cancel all other travel plans in order to visit the London Film Festival. In the case of Mansky an unrealistic choice given the fact that he is one of Europe's top documentary film-makers and will, of course, be invited to many festivals. This may be a rather insignificant detail on the UK's steady path to cultural isolationism and yet an indicative one. Mansky is not alone in terms of significant cultural figures from Russia being subjected to humiliation at the hands of British philistines at Smolenskaya Naberezhnaya. A number of respected Russian cultural figures have commented on the UK's arcane and insulting visa process in which passports are surrendered to the British embassy for up to a month. Vitaly Mansky appears to be in good company though. According to Claire Kitson's book on Yuri Norstein the worldwide acclaimed  animated film-maker was subjected to a long search and interrogation by British customs on his trip to the UK.  

The question has already been posed whether as a protest Mansky should not withdraw his film from the London Film Festival. It seems as though it's the Brits who look just like the officious, bureaucratic boors that they so like to portray Russians as. A case of Welcome Russian Culture, or No Unauthorized Access?

Coming film reviews and new Books on Russian/Soviet Film.

For the past months I have been digesting the large number of films seen at Kinotavr, Moscow and Odessa film festivals and I hope to produce a steady stream of reviews of many of the films watched as they appear here in Russia to general release. Hopefully, too, my longer reviews of the festivals will appear in the Bright Lights Film Journal at some point. In short, many films from and about Russia deserve mentions and there are probably too many highlights to mention. Nonetheless, I certainly hope to write about what has been dubbed Russia's first sex comedy Интимные Места (Intimate Parts), Kira Muratova's latest film (and as to be expected from yet another masterpiece that improves at each viewing Вечное Возвращение (Eternal Return), Lopushansky's new film Роль  (Role) as well as Razykov's Стыд (Shame) and a share of documentaries including a major new film by the godfather of Russian documentary Vitaly Mansky with his film Труба (Pipeline).

One of the most intriguing foreign films of the Moscow film festival was the Spanish film El Efecto K: El Montador de Stalin by Valencian film director Valentí Figueres - a rather unique exploration of Soviet film history from the standpoint of an imagined friend of Eisenstein's it is one of the few attempts to explore the romance of the Soviet film experiment from a fictional mock documentary perspective so I am hoping to explore this film too in a separate post. If  the films to write about are manifold then so are the new books that have or about to come out on Russian and Soviet film. And there is a lot to cheer about for both readers in Russian and in English.

Books in Russian
For Russian readers Evgeni Margolit´s magnus opus on Soviet cinema history is surely one of the film books of the decade and the need for an English translation (and not just English translation)  of one of Russia´s greatest living film scholars is urgent. Few have had the ability or the skill to explore Soviet film history in such depth magnificently overturning every prejudice and every stereotype that has been fixed to Soviet film. The attempts by foreign scholars in the field have rarely produced masterpieces on a large canvas. Jay Leyda still remains unique in handling a broad swathe of Soviet cinema history. Academics have produced much more staid copies of these histories given their general need to produce their works for the all too narrow category of undergraduate students. Some manage to write outside of this tradition but few in the Anglo saxon world are able to do so while transmitting genuine passion for their subject. Therefore all the more need for translations of those who have produced those masterpieces unproduceable in the Anglo Saxon world.  Margolit's book is not a systematic study (for all its well over 500 pages) but takes on individual films and little studied phenomena with an erudition that astounds in each and every paragraph. I have given myself a year to read the book in and hopefully will produce a much more detailed review of this book.

Elena Stishova remains one of the most interesting film critics writing in Russia today. Her latest book analyses the movement from Soviet to post-Soviet cinema and from Tarkovsky, Shepitko, German she movesthrough Muratova and Abdrashitov on to Loznitsa and Zvyagintsev. Tracking a period beyond the confines of Margolit's book (his story finishes in 1968), Stishova is one of the essential voices helping us to understand the labyrinths and mental complexity of contemporary Russian film.

Having written late last year a small blog piece on Genadii Shpalikov and named him the Soviet Vigo little was I expecting to find Shpalikov´s own confirmation of the influence that Vigo had on him. The publication of a selection of Shpalikov´s writings demonstrate what a loss to Soviet cinema his suicide was after having written various film scripts and directed alas only one film. It seems that his contribution will rarely be fully acknowledged in any English-language study of  Soviet cinema and yet his contribution like manydirectors of single film who played their main parts elsewhere- notably in scripwriting  (Petr Lutsik being his 1990s equivalent) deserves some much fuller acknowledgment. I'll try to translate a few pieces in the near future to give some indication of Shpalikov's immense talent).

Books in English:

If the new books in Russian deal with broader swathes of cinematic history or the writings of a singular figure in Soviet film, recent books in English have begun to look into the work of two fundamentally important figures in Russian and Soviet cinema. Two figures who, in some ways, couldn't be more different but nonetheless two figures who were significant outsiders both managing to change the entire perception and direction of Russian and Soviet cinema. 

Alexei Balabanov who died this year has been described by Anna Neiman as Trofim-like in his relentless pursuit of leaving a trace on cinematic history and all too many Russian critics have been content on playing the Lumiere-like director in shunning him from the picture. Thankfully there have been scholars and writers who have shunned this ostracism like Anna Nieman herself in her superb essay for Kino Kultura on what was to be Balabanov's final film earlier this year (and hopefully more will come from her superb pen on Balabanov) and like Florian Weinhold who spent years studying  the Balabanov oeuvre and specifically what he calls his zeitgeist films to publish the first major book on Balabanov to appear. Weinhold gives a fine description of these films and places them in a far wider and more international context than many film scholars are apt to do. Describing how Balabanov bends, distorts and subverts some Hollywood genres and how the misinterpretation of Balabanov has mislabelled the director for many years now, Weinhold's book is a heartfelt plea for Balabanov to be given his due not only in his native Russia but also far and wide. Florian supplied a fine introduction to this work on this blog in June but now the book is widely available and I hope to be able to review it in more depth at some point both here and elsewhere.

The second figure who finally is getting a major study is Sergei Parajanov. The author James Steffen is surely the person best placed to undertake this study and the title should be eagerly awaited by all. The sheer fact that so many books have been dedicated to Tarkovsky and none of note in the Anglo-Saxon world to Paradjanov means that a book to Paradjanov is long overdue. A Russian language biography of Paradjanov has been reviewed here but little justice has been done to Paradjanov's real contribution to world cinema. This book by James Steffen promises to be one of the major film books of the year and I hope to review it both here and on at least one other site.

Finally one of the most important translations for some time. Eisenstein's notes for a general history of cinema edited by that great Eisenstein scholar Naum Kleiman along with Antonio Somaini is also one of those dreams come true for those who haven't lost sight of the time when Soviet cinema really was full of Renaissance-like figures. To fail to note this book would be criminal. Yet another book that is likely to revolutionise one's image of this towering figure. A review of this book too will be forthcoming soon.

In short, both films and books that will be reviewed here and elsewhere in far more detail in the coming weeks and months. And wait for some possible announcement of a new website to be devoted to Russian and Soviet film in the coming months. If time and resources permit this blog will be transformed into a more significant and flexible source of news, information and analysis and reserach into Russian and Soviet film.    

Saturday, 21 September 2013

The Tchaikovsky film scandal in context.

A number of news items around Russian film recently have suggested that Russian film and art in general is feeling the effects of the recent 'morality' laws on even if the consequnces may not be as direct as some have suggested. The anti-gay law, in particular, has been at the centre of attention in a number of  Russian film stories and it is worth trying to consider these in order to work out what the possible consequences of the Mizulina and Milonov decrees may be. In many ways, these issues have been brewing for some time. Last year there seemed to be (what in retrospective appears as) a kind of prologue of the return of censorship in Russia with the attempt to keep the Serbian film Clip off of Russian cinema screen. The idea of a Hays Code for the Russian film industry was first mooted by Vladimir Putin back in 2011 but this summer this proposal seemed to take on new flesh with the establishment of a working group charged with developing 'a code of ethics' for the Russian film industry. This, of course, is only one of the contexts in which Russian film has found itself operating in more constraining circumstances. Another is the 'patriotic agenda' which the government seems intent on foisting on the Russian public with only occasional successes. Of course, cinema as a tool for state goals is nothing new in Russia but in the new post-Soviet Russia it has certain aspects which are make it more pernicious idea than in the Soviet Union. Partyl this is because the Russian film world has rarely been as divided as it is now- events have led to the formation of two separate film-makers unions  and a poisoned atmosphere which will take long to heal. This schism is both personal, political and ideological and has led to a situation where Russian film world no longer speaks with one voice on barely anything which makes it well-nigh impossible for it confront the instrumentalisation of it by the power elite. For all the faults of someone like Ivan Pyryev may have had as Chairman of the Film-makers Union just after it was set up in the late 1950s, he at least acted as a counterweight to the demands of  the Soviet nomenklatura and not as the voice of the post-Soviet power structures like Nikita Mikhalkov with his goal of creating a cinemenklatura acting in parallel with the political elite. Yet the Mikhalkov curse now may be becoming less relevant: Mikhalkov seems to have become a spent force who has wreaked his havoc. Now new forces are coming into play.

One of these is a rather interventionist Culture Minister in the guise of Vladimir Medinsky. An author of rather popular books designed to debunk myths about Russia, Medinsky has taken a much more ideological stance than many of his predecessors at the Ministry. While some reacted positively to his initial nomination as minister, Medinsky seems to have remained driven more by an interventionist vision of his own than by the much more laissez-faire approach of the Culture Minister of the early noughties, Mikhail Shvydkoi.

The Tchaikovsky biopic scandal. 

It was, in fact, Medinsky who has recently intervened in one of the main 'scandals' which have touched on the question of homosexuality and Russian film: namely the proposed biopic on Tchaikovsky which will be filmed by Kirill Serebrennikov and scripted by Yuri Arabov.

Medinsky ostensibly backed up what Yuri Arabov is reported to have said in an interview with Izvestia which led him to denying that Tchaikovsky's homosexuality was an incontrovertible fact, stated that those who insisted on the need for a film to portray Tchaikovsky as gay were philistines stating that he had no desire to 'promote homosexuality'. There was a hint that intimations of Tchaikovsky's homosexuality had been purged in rewriting of the script. Arabov is no newcomer to making controversial remarks but usually he is seen as someone highly critical of the state of things in both the Russian film-world and Russian society as a whole. It was just this April that Arabov made a speech at the NIKA ceremony that was excised from a television broadcast of the ceremony because of a striking denunciation  of the states of things in the Russian film world. The journalist Natalia Antonova  said of Arabov's speech that  "those of us in attendance – and those of us with access to YouTube – will remember Arabov’s speech for a long time." Alas, it seems that Yuri Arabov will now be remembered outside of Russia for his part in spouting what appears to be the 'government line' on 'homosexual propaganda'. To my mind unfairly.

Alec Luhn's article in the Guardian about this story seemed to take little account of the context and the tone of the interview. If one reads the interview trying to imagine the situation of a journalist from a broadly pro-government newspaper interviewing you about a film which is yet to receive an important second batch of state funding, Arabov appears jesuitical. He seems sincere in saying that this is not a film about homosexuality (and he surely has the right and the ability to script this film about much more than this) but he probably said a lot that didn't reflect much more than a will to get the tiresome interview over with as quickly as possible. At the back of his mind Arabov may have been thinking that by his casuistry it would have had an easier journey through the funding hurdles that it still had to jump through. Maybe an ill-advised move in retrospect but it's a pity that Arabov's words are quoted once again by Shaun Walker and others without the gloss that Larisa Malyukova gives in her comment cited by Alec Luhn where she states that "You know what kind of ministry of culture we have. Everyone is being careful, and he's (Arabov) being careful, and rightly so".  The ease with which foreign correspondents ignore context all too easily leads to the simple-minded trashing of reputations- in this case of one of Russia's most accomplished living script-writers.

In any case the Tchaikovsky saga had its sequels. If Yuri Arabov played a game of 'soft cop' to the authorities, Kirill Serebrennikov has been intent on taking on the role of 'hard cop' (the metaphor may not be entirely appropriate given the real power relations, of course). Even so Serebrennikov has not spared any words at what is clearly the idiocy of the cultural bureaucrats. He has mocked, cajoled and damned them in equal measure. First up was a short synopsis of his 'proposed film' on his Facebook page. In it the composer meets his first love at a ball only to discover that she is already married. When she leaves her husband, Tchaikovsky dies of cholera with his love by his side. His ruse to mock was soon uncovered. He had shared the synopsis of Carl Froelich decidedly heterosexual 1939 Nazi movie Es War eine Rauschende Ballnacht (which ironically went under the English-language title It was a gay ballnight)

The news just recently that the film had been denied a second amount of national funding through the Cinema Fund because the latter did not find any potential of winning much of an audience infuriated Serebrennikov (and justly so). His Facebook status of September 19th announced that he was fed up with the philistine preoccupation about the question of Tchaikovsky's homosexuality (that has been stirred up in the Russian press) and the deliberately humiliating and insulting comments made by the Cinema Fund regarding the proposed film. So angry was he that he announced that he would be return the 30milion roubles given by the Ministry of Culture and seeking all the finances for the film abroad reminding people of the sour reviews and poisonous gossip that Tchaikovsky had been subjected to in his own lifetime in Russia itself. Since then Serebrennikov has added a post that while not concerning the film directly is a reminder of what Russia has to lose if it goes further along the road of moral fanaticism that powerful forces such as the Orthodox Church hierarchy and the Milonov's and Mizulina's of the country seem to be pushing it towards. Speaking of the various waves of emigration that Russia suffered in the past century, Serebrennikov brought people's attention to the strange case of Olga Tobreluts and her exhibition in Rome which was denied any support by the embassy there on account of its possible contravention of the anti gay propganda laws.  Tobreluts' decsion to remain in Budapest instead of returning to saint Petersburg lead to Serebrennikov arguing that these new laws were leading to a new wave of emigration from Russia to escape not wars, revolutions, famines or repressions but rather to get away from what the directors refers to as Мудаки (a very strong term of abuse that would have something of similar force as the swearword  'cunt' in the English language without the possible misoygyny that the English word implies). Whether the 'mudakrats' following the lead of the Milonov's and Mizullina's of this world will take notice is unlikely but Serebrennikov surely deserves to be supported by the entire Russian cultural world. His is a rather clear call to put a stop to the games of the moral fanatics who seem intent on launching a sacred war on secular Russian culture. He and his scriptwriter also need to be 'given a break' by certain Western journalists who know all too little about the Russian film context and draw rather stupid conclusions like this spectacularly ill-informed piece by Claire Brigg for Radio Free Europe which states that Serebrennikov has questioned Tchaikovsky's homosexuality. He has not. He stated that is not necessarily the theme that the film will centre around. As an artist (and a very fine film director) he has that right. 


 The scandal over the Tchaikovsky biopic (a genre which reached its apex and dominated Russian film in the late Stalinist years of the малокартинье (the film famine) has developed into an almost international case. Paul Rudnick's witty post in the New Yorker suggested some further creative re-adaptations of biopics that could be added to a hetero Tchaikovsky. Yet it seems that the Tchaikovsky affaire is not the only angle against which one may see the deleterious effects of recent developments. A further post will discuss other developments also related to the new 'morality' laws.