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Friday, 18 October 2013

Chiaroscuro of the Revolution : The K Effect: Soviet Cinema Through Spanish Eyes

This is both a comment on a film which attempts to reimagine Soviet cinema and its role in the Twentieth Century as well as an interview/dialogue conducted with the director of the film. Being shown at many film festivals throughout the world but will soon be out on general release throughout Spain in early November. It is only to be hoped that as well as a Spanish release, it will gain an international release of some sort. Imagining Soviet cinema and the cultural and artistic revolution accompanying the Russian Revolution has rarely been attempted before by a non-Russian film. That Valenti Figueres has attempted this and found a way to reflect on the Twentieth Century merging cinema and utopia and brooding on the century’s light and shadows is an achievement that deserves to be celebrated.       

Being able to watch  El Efecto K (The K Effect) in Russia- a film that has been shown at over 50 film festivals worldwide and gained more than twenty festival awards- seemed like a special treat. For this is a film designed to evoke a Russia at the very centre of world cinema- a Russia that seems painfully distant from the present day Russia of religious conservative nationalism but not altogether forgotten. At the Moscow Film Festival it was presented by one of Russia’s foremost film critics as well as the Festival’s Programme Director, Kirill Razlogov, and shown as part of the ‘Russian trace’ programme (a programme of films related, at times tenuously, at times directly, to Russia).

The foreign film about Russia

Films about Russia or with Russian characters or set in Russia tend to get a rather rough ride with the Russian viewer. This may be because there are just too many implausibles or false notes which make the film unacceptable for a Russian audience and this was, for example, the case  with another film in the programme: A Siberian Education by Gabriele Salvatores. Yet El efecto K disoriented this type of easy dismissive reaction amongst the Russian audience because it had other claims, mainly that of representing a highly stylized, re-imagining of history. The 'implausibles' in this film are there for a reason (a stylistic one). In some ways it would be wrong to emphasize any comparison between Maxime Stransky and Forrest Gump (as one critic suggested) or with Zelig (as I was first inclined to think).  Rather, I would make some comparison to a Russian film which imagined an unknown Soviet space programme launching its first man on the moon in 1938. In Fedorchenko’s film First on the Moon the character returns to earth in Chile and travels back to the Soviet Union only to be captured by the NKVD and be interned in a psychiatric ward from which he escapes  and is forced to assume a series of different identities  in order to survive in the Soviet environment.  In Valenti’s film the mockumentary form allows us to follow the life of a childhood friend of Sergei Eisenstein recruited into the Soviet intelligent agencies as a spy acting as Stalin’s agent in decisively important moments of twentieth century history but also as his eventual unmasker. When given orders to make a film he decides to tell the tyrant the unpalatable truth.  In a way Valenti’s  film (like Fedorchenko’s) through the mockumentary form seeks a way to return to that moment when cinema had the ludic spirit it had in the Soviet 20s. 

One of the reasons why Figueres has avoided falling into the trap of trying to recreate Russia realistically is that he has had the opportunity of living in many of the cities of the former Soviet Union. He reels off the names of places he has been to or lived in: Moscow, Leningrad (Saint Petersburg), Novgorod, Tashkent, Bukhara, Samarkand, Almaty ... This acquaintance with these places didn't push him towards a greater realism but prompted him to try and recapture the dreams of a time and a place through stylization.

The dawn of Soviet Cinema

When I asked Valenti to comment on what attracted him to a story about Soviet cinema in the first place he had this to say:

The dawn of Soviet cinema[was a time] full of instinct, creativity, research, investigation… They had an eagerness to represent the reality they were living in a different way.

For me [early Soviet cinema] was an outbreak of creativity, intense, like a light that illuminates the shadows. This lasted only a few years, 7 or 8, but those years were a gift for humanity.

I see this cinema like a tool, like a fist, a plough, a finger that points out. Or just as mere eye that looks through the artists’ subjectivity, the creators that made it possible.

There was also a fusion and mixing of different arts: performing arts, painting, theatre, architecture, and the new art that started getting ground: the cinema, the seventh art-continent.

In the very moment where constructivism, Dadaism, surrealism, social utopia like anarchism, socialism and communism came together, an exceptional breeding ground was created: the years from 1921 till 1929. An exploding magma of creativity and social change that marked global cinema forever.

Valenti’s film wanted to show both the dreams and nightmares of the Soviet period and indeed the film starts with the protagonist Maxime Stransky on a mission in Madrid 1937 to assassinate the Spanish anarchist and civil war hero, Cipriano Mera (the protagonist of Figueres’s previous documentary film) Living on Your Feet. In many ways this is indcative of how the film aims to  set the scene of the Revolution plunging from light into darkness which is the central leitmotif of the film. Maxime Stransky’s odyssey through the twentieth century (from Russia to the US, China, Australia, Spain etc) is the odyssey of the Revolution itself. So that Maxime Stransky becomes a high Symbolic figure as well as a figure who portrays all the demons as well as the hopes of the Revolution. He is there, too, to give voice to the great debate in Soviet Cinema between the Cine Fist (of Eisenstein) and the Cine Eye of Vertov. The manipulator of images and attractions versus the searcher and manipulator of reality. Yet there is also a sense that they were finally searching for what the other represented.

Valenti Figueres: Cine-Eye (documentary) becomes Cine-finger (fiction). The film represents the moment in which these two paths separate, both in the personal friendship between Eisenstein and Stransky ( here representing Vertov) and in filmmaking. Both schools – documentary vs. fiction – will move apart to get to these days as a common field: storytelling through images which of course tell their meaning. This is the great discovery: how the meaning is built in the mind of the spectator. How it is possible to change that meaning and its consequences in the immediate future. Stalin knew that memory was fragile and the past is a gun loaded with future.

The Critical Roots of Transformative Cinema

Valenti Figueres and his co-scriptwriter Helena Sanchez are both philosophers by training and being close to critical theory for them cinema always aims at some kind of transformative effect. In this way it is not difficult to understand why the Soviet 20s were chosen being the time when cinema was at its most transformative. Moreover, the list of names that Figueres’ mentions when asked to comment on possible influences are not contemporary but show a broader historical sweep speaking to us of a time when cinema really did seem to be on a mission of some sort:

VF: Tarkovski, Eisenstein, German expressionism, a Brechtian approach to acting, epic cinema, adventures of solitary heroes, social cinema…

The fascination with the artistic explosion of the 1920s is palpable in the film and the fact that it was at this very moment that artistic transformation was to appear indivisible from a social (and civilisational) transformation of reality. So, in the words of the director, the Soviet Union becomes a unique breeding ground, where both artistic and social utopias live together; they interlink and feed each other. They will shape the way people look and see, which will then change their way of being.

It is what Figueres calls a blinding moment that will enlighten future generations of filmmakers and social change-makers… an endless moment where people believed that the future had yet to come. It is a pristine and eternal present with no past.

This is the moment of Vertov, Kuleshov, Eisenstein, Maiakovski, Lili Brik, Pasternak, Pudovkin, Meyerhold, of the Proletkult and so many others whose names deserve recording. That so many are forgotten or were eventually eliminated under Stalin makes the character of Maxime Stransky a kind of collective portrait of those hundreds and thousands of figures, that history has, in some way or other, consigned to oblivion being at the same time a portrait of those who consigned this dream to oblivion.   

Stransky as a collective hero

Stransky is, then, in the words  of Valenti: a fictional character that lives the life of hundreds, thousands of people who existed and were wiped away. People with no face and no memory. The forgotten of history, the ones who died in the transit camps of Valdivostok and Magadan. This is the hidden history. The consequences of the great social K effect.

What Figueres calls the social K effect is how the images were not simply merged amongst themselves on film but that life itself was contaminating (and contaminated by) these images. A K experiment was being carried on in both cinema and in society so that new worlds and new meanings were created. While in cinema this was a creative process, in social reality this had more sinister undertones given the character of the editor.

Stalin, the Cannibal-God, the Great Vulture of Memory, the creator of a vast social K Effect.

The Chiaroscuro of the Revolution, Memory and Resistance

It was the past which would soon become unpredictable and Comrade Stalin using the fragility of the past would drown the blinding light out with his own dark shadows. In many ways this is close to the central theme of this film: the chiaroscuro of the Revolution and the issue of how memories can be manipulated and distorted to give a new meaning to events lived along with the hope that there will arise some resistance against this.
Figueres gives what seems to be a rather optimistic vision of Stransky trying to resist Stalin at a final moment. Optimistic ? Or perhaps not- for wasn’t Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible Part Two just such a moment of resistance whereby cinema tried to resist and throw back everything that the arch manipulator had done to imprison the original dream? While Eisenstein’s meeting with Stalin about his incorrect picture was eventually to lead to Eisenstein’s premature death by heart attack (The K Effect has a scene where Eisenstein celebrates his 50th and final birthday with Stransky), Stransky’s truth-telling film gets him sent to the camps from which (implausibly) he escapes and lives out
Maxime was to say at the beginning that: ‘Reality was our testing ground. Filled with a radiant spirit of justice and humanity, we were going to change the world. We were the innocence with no past.’ Yet years later Stransky by trying to alter reality under the order of the great Editor was to find that he had become the past with little innocence left.

The Making of The K Effect.

In terms of how the film was made, Valenti Figueres had this to say:

We made it was quite quickly: fundraising for one year (2010) our principal photography started in 2011. During the year we shot, edited and finalized post-production. It was quite a complex film to make in terms of shooting fragments of scenes with the actors which later would be included in a bigger editing.
The actors were prepared for each scene of with a different mind set and needed to perform a different kind of movement. Later we had to coordinate all the home movies in order to fit them within the story as a whole, so that they shared the overall aura and worldview adding to the sense of this story as a kind of wonderful fairytale, an epic odyssey and an historical road movie.

The editing was quite easy for me and the editor (Carles Candela) as we got to know each other in my last film, Living on your Feet. The Struggles of Cipriano Mera  where we edited 3 movies at the same time. Everybody thinks that it was hard, but it wasn’t. We acquired around 500 home movies in 16mm and 8mm a year before. We selected scenes with kids, planes, boats, tanks that we thought could be included. We had a list of different cars divided by years and makes, typical Hollywood and Moscow dressing codes. We 
managed to find amateur videos from Russia from the 20s and 30s, and with a great deal of visual memory and instinct we managed to square it.

I even edited an extra 30 minutes, but my friends and the film team rose up to put an end to the film. It was great fun to edit more than 5.000 shots and remember each and every one of the first and final takes of each shot. As well as the emotions that the shooting bring with it. Wonderful.

As well as a chronological editing evidenced in the films chronological movement, the film also tried to capture the successive styles of the periods in question. So while recounting the 1920s it was done in a Dadaist – Constructivist style. The shadowy spirit of Stalinism would be captured with an expressionist tinge that gives way to socialist realism. The 1940s would then be captured using film noir techniques with the 1950s portrayed in the more open shots of cinemascope. Equally the broken Black and White film of the 1920s shots would be turn to contrasted Black and White in the next decade with the first colour images being used at the time of the Spanish Civil War and World War Two.  In this way the interplay between styles, techniques and the vicissitudes of the social utopia comment upon each other.

The Significance of the Film

Valenti Figueres’s film is a rare attempt to return to that period of bright explosions of the mind and of victories over the sun when a whole generation seemed ready to storm paradise and remind us that, however, far it plunged into the darkness of disapparance and the nightmare of terror, the dreams of the utopians and the artists in their grandeur (those Eisenstein’s, Vertov’s, Dovzhenko’s and Meyerhold’s) seem like towering giants of a new Renaissaince and whose time seems irrevocably lost. That Valenti has attempted to recapture the best minds of another generation prefiguring and towering above others of the twentieth century, is testimony to the significance of this film. We should be even more grateful that he has done it so valiantly with such passion returning us with the memory of those dreams lost to that nightmarish machine symbolised by the Lyubyanka’s and Magadan’s of Stalin’s infernal gambit.
Valenti, himself, should be given the final word:

The Effect K is an odyssey of those who dared to dream and were swollen by their dreams. An adventure in the origins of cinema and utopias, but at the same time a story of adventures, a mythic tale about cinema, the legend of a friendship, the myth of an hero and his descent into hell…

It is a fiction film made of fragments of reality. With this film, we go through a tumultuous XX Century with beautiful utopias that engendered nice dreams and terrible nightmares. Lights and shadows. The great metaphor of Cinema.

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