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Thursday, 27 February 2014

Sfiorando il Muro: A Russian reading of an Italian film

It's rare that I write about foreign films shown in Russia and their reception here but this time I have decided to make an exception. It was very interesting for me to observe how a Russian audience watching a foreign film (in this case an Italian film by Silvia Giralucci entitled Sfiorando il Muro) reacted to this film. Since I have been at two distinct showings of the film,I think that it is right to point out that the reception of the film was very different at the two showings. The film was first shown at a small festival of Italian cinema (devoted to Italian films shown at the Venice Film Festival) at the Khudozhestvenniy cinema near the Arbat in Moscow. Here the director was present and the question and answer session generated a very lively discussion. This first showing took place last March. Almost a year later Moscow's Museum of Cinema decided to represent this film at the offices of Memorial. This showing led to a very passionate discussion. In many ways the Russian audience highlighted and were curious about certain scenes whose meaning to an Italian might seem obvious. It was also a film that showed how connected Italian events in the 1970s were to events in Russian history as well as to what is now happening in contemporary Russia. But connected in complicated ways.

To give a brief description of the film. It is both an intensely personal film about the tragic death of Silvia Giralucci's father, Graziano, at the hands of the Red Brigades on June 17th 1974. Her father- a militant in the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement- was one of the first victims of the Red Brigades.Yet as well as a reflection on this personal history it is also a film about political violence in Padua in the 1970s. There is a narrative which is focused not so much on the Red Brigades but on the autonomists who were an influential radical force in the Padua of the 1970s. Padua in the 1970s was the epicentre of much political violence on what seemed an almost daily level. The narrative begins with graffiti on the wall and footage of Toni Negri at a meeting. Negri is heard stating that professors at Padua were given a 'few slaps' like in the rest of the world in 1968. (At this point it is important to note that Toni Negri refused to be interviewed or take part in the film as did many others in the Paduan autonomous movement). Then a series of accounts are given by actors in the events. First, one of the Professors attacked, Guido Petter, gives his account and this leads on to other accounts by Antonio Romito (the first person to denounce his former comrades in Autonomia and Potere Operaio) and Pietro Calogero as well as a member of Autonomia, Raul Franceschi, who now lives in France (leaving Padua to escape the wave of arrests ordered by Calogero which broke the back of the autonomia movement). Finally towards the end of the film Stefania Paterno'- a former 'camerata' of Silvia Giralucci's father- gives her account of the 1970s as a time when a brutal game was played which should never happen again. These interviews are interspersed with further scenes. For example, a demonstration in memory of a worker from Genoa, Guido Rossa, who had denounced the Red Brigades cell in his factory and was himself to become a fatal victim of the Red Brigades as a reprisal. Another scene in the film is the final one of Giralucci looking on at young fascist 'camerati' paying 'homage' to her father and the other missino shot in June 1974. She looks alienated from this group of neo-fascists intent on renewing this brutal game.

I hope to write about this film elsewhere though what was interesting was how it was received by those who watched it at the offices of Мемориал (Memorial). Those on the panel were Adriano dell'Asta of the Italian Cultural Institute; Olga Gurievich, a Russian Italianist; Vlad Tupikin, a Russian anti-fascist and libertarian anarchist; and Alexander Cherkasov, the chairman of Memorial. Moreover, there were some others in the room such as Yaroslav Leontiev who made an important contribution to the debate about the film.

The film was introduced by the director of the Italian Cultural Institute, Adriano dell'Asta, who wished to make some introductory remarks. He talked about the biography of the director and the fact that Italy wasn't living through a period of civil war at the time although the amount of violence was unprecedented. He emphasised what in his view was the essential point of the film: that some people looked upon others as non-people.

The discussion brought up a number of themes. A long part of the discussion was devoted to whether the Italian 1970s represented something like the Moscow of today. There has definitely been violence between fascists and anti-fa in Russia. Though in Russia the violence is mainly carried out by one side (that of the neo nazis) though there have been two cases where anti-fa killed, both times it was clear that this was self defence when their own lives were at stake. Of course, there were different emphases on how much this was also an 'ugly game',as Stefania Paterno' described it. Other periods of history were brought up and compared. For Yaroslav Leontiev, the pre-revolutionary period in Russia was of similar ferocity: he recalled the atmosphere that surrounded the assassination during the time of Nikolay Bauman.

Olga Gurievich, an Italianist, attempted to explain to the audience the historical context of the film. She tried to explain the paradox of how these events could happen between Italians who she characterised as a completely non-belligerent people. She drew attention to the hidden civil war of the 1940s  and how the wounds of this civil war always smouldered and then exploded once again during the 1970s. She talks about the symbolism of the final scene where the neo-fascists meet to honour their dead shouting out "Presente" at the names of Graziano Giralucci and Giuseppe Mazzola. This fascist ceremony was indicative, for Gurievich, about the significance of memory and how to construct a memory in which the wounds and traumas can be healed and not renewed with a new spiral of violence. Interestingly she quoted Silvia Giralucci about how in Padua 'everyone in our city see themselves as victims' contrasting it to Russia where "we all see ourselves as victors." Adding the question: "Which is worse?". Here, I think, Gurievich's paradoxical assertion is important in realizing how this film for a Russian audience is both close to, and yet distant from, their own experience.

Adriano del Asta emphasised how for an Italian to watch such a film is a painful experience for an Italian. He stated that this is not a political film and if we watch this film as a political film we understood almost nothing about the film. The film tries to answer a personal question for the director: what does this murder, what does this violence mean for me. Del Asta then talked about the moment when Silvia Giralucci asks herself the question: what would have happened if they hadn't killed my father. Who would my father have become? So for Del Asta the central axis of the film is not about comparing the situation in Italy in the 1970s to other situations but to answer the question: "What would I have done myself in such a situation?". For this reason the film touches such a sensitive point.

During the discussion among members of the audience the final scene was discussed a lot. For the first speaker this scene didn't bring out the same feelings of revulsion that Gurievich spoke out. All members of the panel explained in their own way why this scene did produce revulsion. Cherkasov stated that the final scene was about a ceremony in which neo-fascists mobilized their forces and Tupikin contrasted the scene with the demonstrations in memory of Stas Markelov and Nastya Baburova which take place every January 19th in which there are no militarized gestures. Yaroslav Leontiev in a long replica tried to find more exact comparisons with the film. He also remembered the young children of Stas Markelov and how their perspective (as probably the true victims of Markelov's assassination) differed from his own (Leontiev was a friend of the murdered Markelov's: they volunteered together, for example, for the Voloshin Medical Brigade which saved the lives of people on both sides of the clashes in October 1993). Alexander Cherkasov mentioned that there is a novel which gives some idea of the clashes between fascists and anti-fa in Russia in recent years. This novel by 'DJ Stalingrad' (now a political exile) has,in fact, been translated into Italian by Enzo Striano under the title Esodo (Exodus). Alexander Cherkasov then went on to contrast the role of the state in Russia and Italy. For Cherkasov the state in Russia is a strong one whereas in the Padua of the 1970s it was a weak one in which two opposing groups could literally control sectors of a city. Instead in Russia there is a strong state which in many ways uses Neo-Nazi groups to establish greater control over the territory. Again he emphasizes how nationalist groups have two types of groups - illegal groups carrying out terror and legal groups infiltrating opposition centres and mentalities. In this sense it is the Russian nationalists who replace the Red Brigades and ultra leftists of autonomia that Giralucci's film talks about.

Gurievich didn't accept the historical parallels stating that if there are to be comparisons with Italian history then Russia is now living in a period of 'developed fascism' where squadristi etc are used by power to attack the state's enemeies. For Gurievich there was another point regarding how the years of lead (or blood as she put it) turned in to the years of mud in the 1980s. She emphasized the role of the trade unions and others on the Left in revolting against the terror of the Red Brigades. For Gurievich there is almost no hope that even this will happen in Russia. Adriano del Asta emphasized the repulsion that most Italians would have about the final scene (but he compared the torches of the neo-fascists as symbolic equivalents to the so-called Stalin bars described in the film).

The discussion moved on to people involved in these groups. Why asked one were they depicted as pure fanatics and monsters (was this a reference to Toni Negri? it seemed to me that Raul Franceschi in the film at least showed some attempt to avoid this). This led to a discussion of terrorist in pre -revolutionary times. Cherkasov stating that films in Russia do take a tack of completely demonising those involved in the terror campaigns. It is necessary to read the literature, though, to get a better picture.

Olga Gurievich then fixed people's attention to the plaque and how there was resistance for many years to the idea that such a plaque in memory of these victims of terror could be placed on the wall of the apartment. Gurievich stated that for Giralucci this was a moment when she could become reconciled with her own city. Gurievich talked about how there is a certain parallel with the campaign by the Memorial to put up plaques in Russia to all the victims of political terror and repression (even for those executioners who then fell victim to the same terror). Another questioner wondered where 'civil society' was in all this and why there was no real civil society which reacted. (Again in the film there are scenes of demonstrations against the assassination of Guido Rossa, and Olga Gurievich mentioned the case of someone like Romito who denounced the violence of his former comrades to Calogero).

My own concern regarded what I would say was the fact that the state itself in the 1970s didn't play a neutral role. The role of figures like Calogero weren't not undisputed at the time and arguably overplayed their hand (and I think here the film watched by an Italian and a Russian audience differs precisely because there are different levels of background knowledge making this lack of background problematic for a reading of the political context of the film). The facts of Brescia were, of course, mentioned in passing in the film but these allusions would not have meant much to a Russian audience (whereas to an educated Italian audience they would already be part of their historical memory). The film had, I thought, much to offer a Russian regarding the personal story of Silvia Giralucci and her reaction as a victim of the history of political violence. As to the history of Italian in the 1970s, the political context and so on the film would perhaps give a Russian unacquainted with the Italian 70s a reading of the political situation which also needed some more contextualisation.

There was another discussion as to why a democratic government put up with this violence and that a democratic government has the right to repress such violence (he gave further examples of Northern Ireland and the hard stance of Thatcher against Irish hunger strikers which he thought justified. Alexander Cherkasov explained the origin of western democracies after the second world war and how, while there was a kind of democratic superstructure, the elites had remained the same as they were during periods of fascist and authoritarian rule and that this was very important to take into account. So that there was a similar situation here with Russia where Russia had turned from Soviet to Post Soviet -the elites had not changed and one could see that transformations and transitions were not as real as they appeared. Cherkasov in a wonderful way of characterizing this film talked of how the film had not only sound and visuals but also a smell of its own. Just as according to Cherkasov there is an unbearable reek in contemporary Russia, there was some similar reek to the whole social order of 1970s Padua.

Yaroslav Leontiev returned to the question of the difference in the typology of terror. Stating that there are surely differences between the assassination of Aldo Moro and the placing of the bomb in Bologna stationand how certain terrorists in pre-revolutionary Russia avoided throwing bombs if women and children were nearby or more recent examples in the 1990s when bombs at symbolic objects and buildings were detonated with the 'terrorists' making sure that there would be no human victims.  

Another intervention from the floor regarded the kind of role that the state had in all this. For example, the woman in question explained how in the case of Germany the origin of Left radicals who would then become part of the Rote Armee Fraktion. It was in many ways through government repression (the assassination of a peaceful demonstrator) and the prevalence of violence in international politics (the speaker spoke of the fact that the Vietnam War played a large part in forming the mentality of left terror groups) which must be seen as the context for the emergence of such groups (but obviously not to justify them). She saw far Right terror emerging in a different optic in which whole groups of categories of citizens are excluded whereas Left terror groups are an answer to the frustrations and blocking of collective action.

After a polemic regarding an intervention from a woman who said that she didn't understand any positions or any differences between left and right (who led to Vlad Tupikin suggesting that people who didn't think or remember anything were the reason why people end up killing each other), Alexander Cherkasov explained that Russians, perhaps, see the film from different perspectives from Italians because of their own history as a nation. Russians with their history of the 20th century where state terror in the name of social justice left millions of victims and then many more millions lost their lives in an invasion by those with an opposite ideology (one could also add the Russian experience of World War One which arguably set off the tragic concatenation of events in 20th century Russia) meant that is truly difficult for Russians to grasp the political facts and context in the film. Apologizing for the fact that people on the whole wanted to speak about Russian history and Russian contemporary reality, he said that, at least, it showed how the film conjured up for Russians such passionate emotions.

This discussion, and the reaction to the film, demonstrated the multiple readings and misreadings that a film may have in it coming to another country. It is certainly the case that Russians (and this was also the case in the discussion generated at the first showing of the film in Moscow last year) felt this to be a film that spoke directly to them. What it said, of course, was complex. Certain scenes (and especially the final one) were read in diametrically opposed ways among different people in the audience. Many of the more political moments were emphasized over the more personal ones (although some interventions did emphasize these aspects too). The roles played by Left and Right in Russia were in very many ways subtly and not subtly different to those played in Italy, at least in recent times (where right wing, neo Nazi terror is, along with Chechen groups, the single most important threat today). The role of the state once more, like in Italy in the 60s and 70s complicates things - playing not a neutral role of judgement but often making situations grow more radicalised and even conniving in terror (a factor that was long argued over in 1970s Italy). 

It is harder to gauge the personal reaction to the film. I believe that many had their beliefs challenged in some ways. For me I'd add that it was indeed in many ways a film I am still in dialogue with. Not having lived in 1970s Italy it was, however, a strong part of my political imagination. My previous reading of the situation of autonomia, the April 7th case and even the role of Toni Negri etc didn't fit with those of the film (and so I felt a certain resistance at some of the historical judgments) but I'd argue that whatever one's political judgment of the 1970s, the kind of journey in self-understanding as well as the ethical rigour of the director full of doubt and lacking rancour point to one of the very rare films in which politics is overcome by a deep personal reflection. 

My final consideration here is the strange absence of any reference to a period in Russian history which, I personally, feel left has a similar wound on the Russian political psyche. This is the mini Civil War in Moscow in October 1993. While the clashes were much more restricted in time (and they were clashes between Red-Brown demonstrators supporting the legislative power and, mainly, organs of the Presidential executive power), the trauma of the many hundreds of deaths was never really felt in the body politic. A similar silence has fallen over these events (and the rather bloody decade of the 1990s while often referred to as a trauma to escape from discussion is all too often replaced by dogma). Maybe this film also was a contribution to an unconscious reflection on this period too.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Repression & the Russian Film World.

The film director Pavel Bardin arrested at a demonstration outside the court of where the verdict of the Bolotnaya Case was being read out.

It seems rather difficult to talk or even think about Russian cinema in the past few days. Writing becomes a hopeless task before the spectacle of the tsuanmi of the present moment. Thoughts have been on the events in Ukraine and now the verdict of the Bolotnaya Case, but thoughts don't seem able to turn into the clarity of language. Here in Russia, adding up all the arrests at the court and in further actions in downtown Moscow and St Petersburg maybe we'll arrive at the figure of about a thousand. I was standing on Friday outside the courthouse for the Bolotnaya verdict and the spectacle of arrests- most of the time completely random in which stormtroopers often broke into some part of the rather amorphous crowd picking someone standing at the back playing no active part- was one clearly designed to strike a certain fear in people.

Russia with this verdict (and with the Ukrainian events) seems to be on the brink once again. How this will effect culture as a whole (and cinema in particular) is unclear. Yet the photo above of the well-known film director, Pavel Bardin, being dragged away by two riot police seems to point to the fact that culture and politics are likely to be inextricably linked in the near future in Russia. The policing of film and theatre are no longer a mere metaphor. Along with respected mathematicians, well-known journalists and artists, history professors, the Russian автозак (police wagon) now is a temporary home for film directors too.

As John Freedman has pointed out in a post about recent events in Russia, not all representatives of culture are necessarily on the same side and the film world has never lacked its yes men. Yet it seems that the conclusion at the end of Freemdan's article is looking increasingly accurate in a foreboding way:

We find ourselves once again standing with Nikolai Gogol who, in his great novel 'Dead Souls' asked "Rus, whither do you race?"
I hesitate to do it, but as the biographer of Nikolai Erdman, I cannot fail to add the answer that Erdman provided to Gogol's question in his classic tragicomedy 'The Suicide'
In that play the revolutionary writer Viktor Viktorovich quotes Gogol's famous query and recieves an immediate response from a mailman named Yegor: "Straight to the police, mark my word." Yegor snaps.

The police have already shown little compunction in who it arrests (and given the completely random methods it uses ) who knows how many more figures like Bardin will end up in the avtozak). It seems that as one of those on trial for Bolotnaya put it, Russia is looking increasingly similar to the Gianni Rodari story Cipollino (here adapted in animated version):

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Sokurov's Open Letter to Putin.

Away from the highlight of Sochi where foreign correspondents appear to spend their time checking out their toilet facilities or harassing the local gay community, the situation in Russia as a whole can't be said to be a very rosy one. Clouds do seem to be gathering and what seems to be a landmark moment- the judgment on the Bolotnaya Case- seems to be coming soon. Moreover while the Winter Olympics took place there was the absurd spectacle of people being arrested for opening their umbrellas in the centre of Moscow. Another group of demonstrators who sang the Russian hymn in Red Square (with rainbow flags) were also arrested and reportedly beaten and humiliated at the police station. It is facts like these as well as a ratcheting up of the aggressive rhetoric by the, at times, hysterical mouthpieces of the regime on state television which lead Sokurov to write an open letter to President Putin.

The letter centres around the closure of the liberal television station Дождь (meaning Rain, hence people demonstratively opening their umbrellas in the centre of Moscow and being bundled into police vans for the temerity) but sets it in the context of a general situation of rapid degeneration into a search for internal enemies and an increasingly aggressive atmosphere. He talks about the despair that grips one when one watches TV channels stating that

"Establishment figures have called for people to be burned, discriminated against, expelled, killed. Diversity is officially deemed a crime. In the words and faces of our politicians there is a war-like madness".

He then goes on to talk about the younger generation excluded from a creative life and in the grips of either a sense of bewildered powerlessness and disorientation, or worse, of some holding the kind of Nazi ideology fighting against which a previous generation had lost their lives, or others who have thrown themselves into an active struggle against the powers that be. Sokurov suggests there is a need to grow wiser.

He then goes on to tell Putin that the wiser ones in the past were the dissidents who stood up to the deceit of power and for human rights while millions were silent.

It is at this point where Sokurov launches into his attack on those who have closed the Liberal television 'Rain'. Characterising those who have served in the state run media as little more than lackeys, Sokurov suggests that they should be 'given a tongue lashing'.

"Each day for decades now they assiduously translate vulgarity, deliver violence to the screens of millions as well as the crushing of those who think differently." These television bureaucrats, Sokurov calls them cynics with 'small eyes and large ears'.

He then goes on to describe the television channel 'Rain' stating that they have the right to make mistakes- that it is a channel searching its own language and strongly in touch with the society of the new Russia. He talks of a meeting with the Culture channel where he couldn't be assured that his own words wouldn't be subject to censorship. Sokurov then went on to ask what it was coming to when an apolitical person like himself is subject to censorship.

In a way this is a traditional ploy of complaining to the 'tsar' about the bad decisions made by his subordinates. Maybe Sokurov genuinely believes that he has the ear of Putin (he did receive funding for his film Faust after a meeting with Putin). This is Sokurov's own account of his meeting and his relation to Putin in an interview with a Guardian journalist:

He was preparing Faust, his most expensive film, just when the economic downturn struck, and couldn't find funding. But a surprise saviour stepped in: Vladimir Putin. Sokurov met Putin at the Russian PM's country residence. "I told him, if I don't have this opportunity to make this film, it will never happen. A few days later, I was told that the amount I needed was going to be allocated. How and why it happened I don't know. Maybe because he has a very clear idea of German culture and history. I don't think it was because of me. I've never demonstrated my loyalty to his party."
Wouldn't Putin himself make a good subject? "I'll never make films about people like Putin because they're not of interest to me." Does his association with Putin compromise him? "When I met him recently, he asked if I was going to dub Faust into Russian. Reading between the lines, you could see these words as a sort of order. But I wasn't afraid to say no to him. The money allocated by him was the state's, not his own. I don't know whether he has any money. According to his official salary, he shouldn't have any money. I can only be responsible to my audience, that's all."   

It will be interesting to see if this letter does have some effect. Will it change the vector of discourse in an increasingly repressive Russia. Sokurov, after all, is a figure of some cultural stature in Russia.Yet it is hard to see any sea change. There are few signs that the Bolotnaya prisoners are about to be released and that, in many ways, is the litmus test. Repression will only necessitate the Mamontovs and Kiselevs to continue their hysterical transmissions. Mobilization in society against repression is at a very low ebb. Will Sokurov's words gain nothing more than a murmur of approval or will be they be a spur to a more active resistance to the trends that Sokurov pinpoints is a matter for some debate.

In many ways perhaps it will be in the reaction (or lack of reaction) to this open letter that one will be able to view how much the intellighentsia still counts as a check on the state's overbearing role.

Here is the link to the original article written in Russian :
Interestingly in a blog for the radio station Ekho Moskvy where he calls the surpression of the Rain Tv channel 'outrageous', Sokurov stated that he was hoping to print the article in a state-run newspaper (probably the Rossiskaya Gazeta). Instead it was published by Snob.