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Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The Film Theatre of War by Mikhail Trofimenkov: The Revolutionary story of Post-War Cinema.

Mikhail Trofimenkov's book The Film Theatre of War was born about four years ago when he was asked to write an article of about 1,500 words on Cinema and the Algerian War of Independence. Researching into the subject more and more he discovered that this was a subject that couldn't be confined to an article. Instead of the 1,500 words, Trofimenkov discovered that his 'article' had grown fifteen times the length and had become unprintable. The journals loss is our gain now that we have the 650 page book published by the St Petersburg film journal Seance  to read. Trofimenkov had wanted to entitle his book Episodes of the Revolutionary War but, alas, Che Guevara had already picked that title up years before. This will give the potential reader a clue as to why this book by one of Russia's leading film journalists and scholars (thankfully, in Russia at least, the two roles are not always mutually exclusive) is a rather unique contribution to film history. Trofimenkov's achievement lies precisely in uncovering and revealing cinematic history in a way few scholars have managed to previously.

Film history has been the preserve of the academic who is used to think in certain well-defined categories but is rarely given the opportunity to really draw together correlations in the way that Trofimenkov does. So it is easy to imagine a title published in the UK or US entitled Cinema and Imperialism by a respected film academic, but it is almost inconceivable that anything similar to the book in question would have come from the pen of one other than Mikhail Trofimenkov. His book begins in Algeria in 1954 and ends at the end of the 1970s. Indochina, Algeria and French colonialism does take up the whole of Part One of the book but it then travels from land to land and continent to continent revealing a whole Atlantis-like continent of facts and characters in cinema and politics which (and who) have never been in the forefront of any historical account of cinema before. Who knew that in 1970 practically the whole Canadian film industry was arrested on charges of collaborating with terrorists as tanks rolled into Montreal? Historical events like this are on nearly every page of the book and one can't quite believe how the historians of cinema have for so long ignored the angle from which Trofimenkov writes.

Trofimenkov's book is not subsumable under any particular category or genre. He sets the record clear that the history of cinema and the history of imperialism have been parallel histories and that the history of cinema is part and parcel of the history of imperialism yet the heroes and protagonists of the book are those involved resisting these links to create a new cinema and to make cinema politically (rather than to make political cinema). Even if his book doesn't offer strong theoretical viewpoints, it does offer revelations given Trofimenkov's encylopaedic account of the films and characters hitherto hidden from our view by more conventional film historians. One can only surely say that after reading this book our view of Gillo Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers will never seem the same again (as it represented the tip of an iceberg in the actual story of cinema and the Algerian anti-colonial struggle). The film, surely, could not have existed or become a classic of world cinema outside the context which Trofimenkov reveals in such painstaking detail. One ends up wanting to track down literally hundreds of films never previously mentioned in world cinema histories but which taken as a whole means that a cinematic history describing the decades of the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s can never be written in the same way ever again.

It is this aspect (as well as uncovering the names of those often martyred in pursuit of their attempt to both document and combat colonialism and post-colonialism) which makes the book such a revealing one as well as a passionate one. Trofimenkov explicitly makes this point in an interview for the journal Afisha:

И, конечно, у меня кроме академического пафоса, когда я ее писал, был и политический азарт. Подогреваемый слышанными со всех сторон либеральными восторгами по поводу Пиночета, Франко, Маннергейма, Хорти

And, of course, for me there was apart from the academic enthusiasm I had when I wrote the book, a certain political fervour. A fervour stoked up when I began to hear all the liberal ecstasy over figures like Pinochet, Franco, Mannerheim and Horty which was so prevalent from all sides.

Trofimenkov's account of how the Pinochet's of this world (so beloved by a certain Russian 'liberal' of the 1990s) not only wreaked repression on a massive scale but also destroyed a whole nations cinematic hopes and heritage (and eventually destroyed the very hope of a liberational cinema by the end of the 1970s) is, arguably, Trofimenkov's unique contribution to world cinema history. His is also a homage to the many figures whose lives were often cut short alongside their hope for this revolutionary third cinema in countries from Algeria to Palestine and from Chile to Canada, from France to Indonesia and Japan and from Italy to Argentina.

Trofimenkov's account is a political history of cinema (rather than a history of political cinema) the likes of which haven't been written before, even by the likes of politicised historians in the vein of Georges Sadoul. As Trofimenkov put it in an interview published in the St Petersburg Times:

“It’s a claim for the future,” Trofimenkov said.

“I see this book as a sketch of several chapters of the yet unwritten political history of cinema. There are many histories of the art of cinema in the world and there are many books about the business of cinema, but a political history does not exist. There are books about single episodes of the interaction between film and politics, say, about the occupation of France or about Nazi propaganda, and a bit about the political cinema of Latin America, but a universal political history of cinema does not exist.”

The 'Guevarian moment' of Trofimenkov's account is that he recounts film not as an historical event and neither does he recount film from the viewpoint of a scholar interested in purely cinematic terms but rather because film becomes the event itself. He writes about film as war and cinema as revolution. As the St Petersburg columnist notes just about all the most courageous and talented protagonists of Trofimekov's book are communists (very often dissident ones- Trotskyist or Anarcho-Communists) and revolutionaries. Trofimenkov's book is, in many ways, a much-needed encomium for revolutionary cinema as well as a lament for the times when revolutionary cinema was still possible before political cinema mutated into the 'humanitarian cinema' of Costa Gavras or Margaret von Trotta.  

Hopefully, it is also a pointer to a future resurrection or rebirth of revolutionary cinema. But in any case it is, perhaps, the most important book on cinema that has been written for some time and not just in Russia. For it not to be translated in many languages as possible would be an oversight of the gravest order.  

Finally, in the interview for the St. Petersburg Times Trofimenkov indicates the direction that he would like to see cinema in Russia take giving the example of Svetlana Baskova's For Marx as a possible pointer:

I have a dream that political film will finally emerge in Russia,” Trofimenkov said. “That’s why I love and support Svetlana Baskova so much. She’s a great director and her most recent film ... is called ‘For Marx…’ It’s an absolutely remarkable film which takes a political stance.

“Repeating the same trajectory of most other political directors, she also shoots an ongoing film without an end by filming workers’ protests. This is cinema, but it’s absolutely the same thing they did in Mexico and Argentina a while ago.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Kira Muratova on Maidan and Ukrainian cinema (interview with Anton Dolin- extracts).

In a recent interview for Afisha magazine with the Russian film critic Anton Dolin, the Odessa film-maker Kira Muratova made some statements about her perspective on recent events in Ukraine as well as her view of Ukrainian cinema. 

The recent Odessa International Film Festival was a fine chance to observe the atmosphere in Odessa as well as get an overview of recent Ukrainian films. A viewing of the national competition doesn't suggest that Ukrainian cinema has necessarily been revitalized and the words of Muratova below are surely right. There were too many films like Oleg Sanin's The Guide attempting to be blockbusters even though falling hopelessly in the credibility stakes. Other light romantic comedies (relating an unlikely love tryst between a venerologist and cosmonaut) such as Dmitry Tomashpolsky's and Alyona Demianenko's F63.9 Love's Malady also seemed to be a deliberate and rather cynical exercise in producing mass marketed trash. The only true sign of hope in the competition programme at Odessa was Vasily Vasyanovich's documentary-style Twilight. Of course, other Ukrainian films have been making waves, most notably Myroslav Slaboshpitskiy's The Tribe and Sergei Loznitsa's Maidan which was shown in the Ways to Freedom programme during the festival point to the fact that the competition doesn't reflect the real potential of Ukrainian cinema. Another name to look out for in the near future is that of Maryna Vroda. Victoria Trofimenko's film Brothers: A Final Confession entered in the main competition of the Moscow Film Festival also seemed more impressive than many of those shown at Odessa. British film critic Neil Young got it about right when he tweeted at Odessa (and made a related point to that by Muratova in the extract of her interview below):

film-makers grumbling that they can't raise the funds to make their expensive fiction film when they have more than enough for several docs

The showing of Loznitsa's Maidan at the Odessa Film Festival was to include Kira Muratova as one of the audience. In many ways the showings (one in the morning and one in the evening) were extraordinary given the reaction of the audience. The vast majority of the hall stood twice during the film during scenes of the national anthem being played at the Maidan (though Kira Muratova herself didn't join in at this moment of unrestrained pathos), even though during the Q&A session Loznitsa was mercilessly criticised for not showing the Maidan that the public wanted. I think Muratova's measured words during the interview are an interesting contribution which merit a post. In the early moments of the escalation of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine over the Crimea, Kira Muratova was one of the signatories of an appeal calling upon their Russian colleagues to prevent the blackening of the original impulse behind the Maidan. A large number of their Russian colleagues did reply (although many others signed a declaration of support for Putin). Now Kira Muratova's reflections on Maidan and the tragic turn that events have taken suggest a sobriety of judgement that is sorely needed. In the interview she also talks of many other themes including her film Asthenic Syndome (shown at the Langeron Steps on the final day of the festival), Soviet censorship and for her affection for the cinema of Hanneke as well as her disenchantment with film festivals.

Here in any case are small extracts from her interview which can be found in Russian here:

There seems to be a general feeling that a large of number of people from the creative professions that the events taking place in Ukraine have become a kind of impulse to create something new. Has this been the case with you?

 - No, for me it hasn’t been so. I was wildly in favour of Maidan until the moment when the shootings and killings began. Originally there was something poetic about the events. There were, of course, all kinds of people there: undesirables and rabble but there were also many idealists. Then either they despaired, or began to hate, or were simply starved out…but they were idealists and dreamed of realizing their ideas. They believed in a wonderful future which they were bringing to realization in the present in a bloodless way. Then like in every revolution, Maidan started to swing in another direction. Very possibly they were pulled and pushed in that direction. But then the killings began. Before we killed other animals and now we are killing each other. I can find no justification for this. No territory- be it called a motherland- is worth killing each other for. I am a pacifist. This is not so much my position, it is more of a biological emotion.

I continue out of a kind of inertia to empathize with Ukrainians, I continue through inertia to condemn Putin but the fact that people are killing each other shatters me. Therefore I simply have not felt any creative impulse whatsoever. There simply can not be any. I can give an example from my own life. Once a tragic event occurred in my life. My young child died. After that I was in such a condition that I simply could not appreciate poetry, music, any form of art. It all felt abhorrent, all felt false. Some kind of neurosis- it continued for quite some time and then I got over it. Now I feel something similar. It’s abhorrent to me when people are killing each other. Whether Ukraine will become part of Europe or not is of no interest to me. At that price nothing is interesting anymore.

Are you making a new film after “Eternal Homecoming?”

As a matter of fact I believe I will no longer shoot films. More for my own personal reasons than for any political ones. I am no longer in good health and I can’t devote myself in the same way to this kind of work in these conditions. I love this profession but it is extremely hard physical labour… this subject has now become closed for me, especially after Melody for a Barrel Organ which we shot at night in the winter with child actors. This was devastating for my health so I had already decided at that time not to film anymore.

Is there, in your opinion, a future for Ukrainian cinema?
Only if people get used to the fact that things must be done cheaply. Some people manage to make masterpieces on the cheap. It’s all a question of improvisation and imagination. This is necessary for Ukraine and not to be copying Hollywood all the time. They all want to be making blockbusters. Necessity is the mother of invention. And one should be learning from everyone, from Dovzhenko and from the Americans.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

A Feast in time of Plague?: Reflections on some political aspects of the Odessa Film Festival.

This is a short overview of my immediate after-impressions on the Odessa Film Festival. I hope to be writing a longer and more detailed article for Bright Lights Film Journal in the near future. 

The Muzkomedia building - the central festival palace this year.
It would be impossible to write about this year's Fifth Odessa International Film Festival neglect to reflect upon the context in which it took place. The dramatic and historic events of the past year in Ukraine made their mark in so many ways upon the event that simply reviewing the films presented would ignore the historic significance of this festival compared with those of previous years. It is, perhaps, especially significant that the centre of the festival's activities (including its opening and closing ceremonies) took place at the Muzkomedia- a building not far from the House of Trade Unions -the building where after clashes between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian demonstrators over forty people lost their lives on May 2nd of this year. This tragic event for Odessa this year cast a long shadow over the festival itself as did recent events in the South East of the country. With the downing of the Malaysian airline coming towards the end of the festival this only made the atmosphere surrounding the festival all the more troubling. Bernard Besserglick, one of the FIPRESCI jury members noted that after the air tragedy the atmosphere at the festival grew decidedly more nationalistic. The Red Carpet event on the final day was thankfully abandoned and the closing ceremony itself was a rather somber affair with many reminders that this was a festival taking place in trying times. 

The question of whether to hold a film festival at such a grim and gloomy time for Ukraine was an ongoing issue of debate in the city and among cultural representatives. This was complicated by a number of other issues which led a few to boycott the festival. Earlier in the year one of the festivals main translators - Irina Zaytseva  - stated on her Facebook page that she would no longer work for a festival in which people previously linked to the Yanokovich regime (such as the Tigipko's) would continue to be the festival's figurehead. Others, however, held the viewpoint that the festival could provide a much-needed fillip for the pride and sense of well-being of the city. Whether there was any justification for keeping a red carpet atmosphere was certainly debateable. After all, the festival had gone public with a crowd funding plan earlier when it was clear that funds would be tight and keeping up the pomp hardly seemed justifiable in either moral and financial terms. It is true that there were no big Hollywood names this year but it still seemed rather too fixated (like the Moscow Film Festival) on a certain idea of glamour.

All the same the Odessa Film Festival did offer some more serious 'interventions', even directly political ones, along with the glitz. Its showing of Oleg Sentsov's film Gamer as an act of solidarity and vocally and constantly speaking out for Sentsov's release was one way in which the festival proved it could play a small role in the highly necessary campaign of international solidarity which Sentsov merits.  

The other way in which the festival tried to prove its contemporary relevance in this time of conflict was the Way to Freedom programme in which a number of films dealt with very strong contemporary political issues. However, it reflected badly on the festival when a pro-Femen activist turned up for the showing of Alain Margot's Je Suis Femen and attempted a Femen-type action outside the Rodina movie theatre and was badly beaten for his pains. Security guards either from the cinema or from the festival itself violently over-reacted by banging the activists head on the car bonnet several times, an action witnessed by the Ukrainian journalist Olha Vesnianka. Hardly impressive behaviour for a festival (or a cinema) showing a collection of radical and anti-authoritarian films. The other two films of this programme which attracted most attention were the Gogol's Wives film Pussy versus Putin and Sergei Loznitsa's Maidan. Both of these films were accompanied by a very lively Q & A session afterwards. While the Gogol's Wives duo explained the extremely difficult background between the shooting of the film:

The shooting could last literally for a couple of seconds, we couldn’t put the camera on the tripod or take it with us. Many of the shootings ended with a pursuit so that we had to eject the memory card and hide it on the run,

many in the enthusiastic audience discussed the time frame in which Russia would become free (the slogan of the demonstrators in the demonstration filmed with Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Katia Samusevitch). Some suggested that it was a case of decades rather than years (and one voice in the audience shouted out 'a thousand years') whereas another member of the audience stated that when Russia would have its second revolution in 2017 Ukrainians would come to their aid.

In any case at least Odessans were given a chance to watch at least one film denied to those in Russia and one could argue that the Gogol's Wives' duo contributed to the kind of Russian-Ukrainian dialogue taken hostage by the actions of the power elites. I have reviewed the film in detail elsewhere noting that for all its roughness it is far more impressive than the polished Lerner and Pozdorovkin film. It is a great shame that this film hasn't seen a better distribution in festivals Europe and world-wide. Especially given that with growing authoritarianism in Russia this type of underground chronicle could well augur the birth of a new trend of film-making

Loznitsa's Maidan film showing at the festival seemed a hostage to forces beyond the film. Most strangely of all, during both showings of Loznitsa's film the huge majority of the audience stood at the beginning and middle of the film when the national anthem was being sung. It was quite clear that the powerful sentiments that the Maidan engendered would make an 'objective' reading of the film almost impossible. As well as the unusual practice of standing for a national anthem, some of the audience would also shout the same slogans in the movie theatre that were heard behind the screen. This audience participation does seemingly express a sincere national mood, yet the slogans shouted out by members of the audience as they left the first screening including a Hail to the Nation sounded incongruous in terms of Loznitsa's clear intent to avoid any overt propagandistic points. The sometimes hostile Q & A suggest that much of the audience were irritated by Loznitsa's lack of pathos and his dispassionate defence of the film didn't satisfy some who turned up to the evening Q & A. Loznitsa was given a rather rough time at the Odessa Film Festival two years ago by the audience after a showing of In the Fog which was received rather coolly here too, in contrast to the Trieste Film Festival where it gained the main audience award.

There was also a certain dissonance between the films most loved by the audience and those awarded by the jury. Nowhere was this more evident than with the film that won the Golden Duke (an award chosen by the public and not by the jury): Zero Motivation. A feel-good movie about life in the Israeli army awarding this film would be almost inconceivable in any other major European festival during a time when the same army were bombing Gaza with major civilian casualties. Indeed a prominent jury member did voice his deep concern and unease that the public had awarded this film with the major prize and clearly wanted emphasis placed on the fact that the jury itself had not awarded it with any prizes.

It was clear that cultural links between Russia and Ukraine haven't been entirely abandoned. Apart from the Pussy versus Putin film there was also a film and a masterclass by Vitaliy Mansky (he also headed the national competition jury) and Anna Melikian's Russian-produced film The Star (Russian trailer below) was in the international competition (though it was a Russian film with a film crew from all parts of the former Soviet Union). Olga Dykhovnichnaya was also in the International Jury and had a film of hers shown. Olga Bychkova's film Another Year (a Russian film by a Ukrainian born director) also starred in the Festival of Festivals programme having won the Big screen Award in Rotterdam. Vitaliy Mansky's speech (half of which was in Ukrainian) at the awards ceremony was also well-received by the audience as was his apology for the actions of the Russian government during his Masterclass. In this sense there was at least some hope that some seeds of hope could grow into future cooperation at least on a cultural level. Mansky himself was in Odessa not just for the festival but also for the purpose of shooting a future film.

At other festival events- especially at the evening events at the Caleton bar by the Black Sea shore- it was possible to hear of many stories regarding the recent conflict. The viewpoints could often be diametrically opposed. A group from Mariupol explained how while they once felt a strong affinity with Russia now felt 100% Ukrainian because of the stance taken by the Russian governments and the separatist fighters. However, their opinion of the Ukrainian President Peter Poroshenko was as negative as their opinion of Yanukovich. Others expressed either a general Ukrainian patriotism though not all. One person from the Odessan film Industry stated that living in Ukraine today was like living as an anti-fascist in Nazi Germany. Certainly a radically different viewpoint from those heard as a whole but it does show the polarisation of views that recent events have engendered. In terms of film imbalances and injustices one film director Nikolai Sednev complained of the dismissive attitude that Kiev film authorities had in regard to Russian-language film from Odessa, stating that they had rejected all 48 film projects submitted to them for funding from Odessa Film Studios in recent years (it has been hard so far to verify this information).

Overall the need for a film festival in troubling times was clear but it could be argued that the kind of festival that the city needed may have somewhat differed from the one that was on offer even though this year it moved towards a more civically-focused festival with the Sentsov showing and the Way to Freedom programme. Unease on money spent on some more lavish parts of the festival as well as an attempt to cater to popular tastes at the entertainment end of the film industry need to be set against the prominence given to Ukrainian film which, not reaching the heights of its heyday, desperately requires the kind of international attention and interest which a festival like Odessa's can offer. The national programme competition was rather disappointing and the audience favourite The Guide, to my mind, signified one of the worst possible directions for Ukrainian cinema- a faux Hollywood pathos-driven cinema with an obvious nationalistic subtext. Ukrainian film deserves better and, hopefully, can contribute more names to world cinema- beyond those of Muratova and Loznitsa- in future years.

Friday, 11 July 2014

On a small, polemical 'twitter storm' over British cultural isolationism: Comparing Russian and British Film Journalism.

An article I wrote for another blog when tweeted by Ian McDonald earned a series of hissy fits from the Observer and BBC film journalist, Mark Kermode. My post was not directed at the film journalism of Mark Kermode in particular (he may indeed write more reviews about foreign language films than many other UK film journalists) but it seems as though he took my points about British 'cultural isolationism' rather personally. Even demanding an apology that while I had written that "probably less than 10% of his film reviews were foreign-language films" the actual percentage of his Films of the Week column devoted to foreign language films stands at just 10.52% (ie four out of 38). Hardly impressive. One tweeter remarked Kermode's tweets in reply "reek(ed) of horribly snarky London Film Mafia talk" given the rather splenetic tones and his refusal to discuss any substantive points about cultural isolationism in Britain.

Much of my original post related to a comparison between the work of British film journalists and Russian film journalists. Film criticism in The Guardian newspaper which I took as an example of a liberal newspaper with a history of fairly strong film critics including the one-man institution that once was Derek Malcolm has, I believe, declined in recent years in terms of its film coverage. Even if Guardian journalists go to film festivals abroad (though not many of them are covered) they will generally seek out English-language films, actors and directors and rarely inquire into what is going on beyond that.

Here is the extract from my post where I wrote specifically comparing The Guardian's film journalists to those of the Russian Kommersant daily:

One may like to compare the English-language film journalist with a Russian film journalist. Yes, there are a number of film journalists in Russia mainly interested in Russian-language titles but let’s take the newspaper Kommersant as an appropriate comparison to the Guardian. Its film pages boast the names of Andrei Plakhov, Lidia Maslova and Mikhail Trofimenkov. Both Plakhov and Trofimenkov have written various books on world cinema and their knowledge of other cinema’s is truly impressive. I’d guess that at least 50% of their reviews are related to non-Russian titles. It’s not as though Russia lacks its own isolationist and even xenophobic tendencies. Indeed its Minister of Culture is well-known for his belief that European Culture is alien to Russia. Yet, thankfully, in Russia film journalists are not lackeys of their authoritarian and isolationist government. Here many film journalists are still people with an culture open to other worlds, nations and tongues (Trofimenkov, for example, was to teach in a French university). Not something you could imagine in the CV of a Guardian film journalist.

This surely is the crux of the matter: while Kermode might be writing the odd hundred word review of a foreign language film, Trofimenkov or Plakhov (given their far superior and far more universal cultural knowledge) will devote major articles to foreign language films or curate fine themed-programmes at a Russian film festival where all the films included are foreign language films (and not just the token odd one or two). This is rarely the case for a British journalist (and certainly not for one writing for a national newspaper and working for the BBC).
Mikhail Trofimenkov Kommersant columnist and prolific author, former professor at the University of Metz.

This abyss between a British film journalist and a Russian film journalist is something I've been reflecting on as I slowly read through Mikhail Trofimenkov's excellent history of political cinema in the context of decolonisation The Film Theatre of War . One is delighted, astounded, enthused on each and every page of this book uncovering so many hidden moments of film history. One realizes that somewhere at least there are film journalists capable of expanding cultural horizons rather than limiting them and guarding the gates from foreign influence. This can, of course, be done in two ways ignoring foreign-language films altogether or by belittling them and talking about them in cliche-ridden language. Thankfully in Russia one can find still film journalists who write with the gravitas, erudition and universality of a Georges Sadoul in spite of the course of cultural isolationism that its politicians want to steer it on. Sadly, though, the same can not be said to be true about Britain.

Parajanov's Venetian Links to be Explored in new Exhibition by Tatiana Daniliyants.

The School of Visual Arts invites people to the presentation of a new project of the well-known film director, photo artist and sculptor Tatiana Daniliyants “Venetian Gifts to Sergei Parajanov”.

In the programme are clips from Tatiana Daniliyants documentary films “Venice Afloat” (2012) and the “Hidden Garden”. Photographic documents of her exhibition “Anima Russa”(2011) and the presentation of the project “Venetian Gifts to Sergei Parajanov” which will be supported by a crowdfunding resource on It begins at 3.30pm.

Parajanov was well-known in Europe- especially in Italy. In 1988 the films of Sergei Parajanov were shown at a special “edition” of the Venice Biennale. There are still people alive in this city who remember Parajanov and honour his memory. Sergei Iosefich stated several times in conversations and interviews that he a felt a special aesthetic affinity with Venice. One could also state that materials which he used in his collages and films – mirrors, lace, beads, objects from glass, masks, plumage- could be said to be typical for this city. 

Tatiana Daniliyants' exhibition “Venetian Gifts to Sergei Parajanov” is planned for September 2014 at the Yerevan Museum of Contemporary Art and will include video art, sculptures from Murano glass and collages. At the end of 2014 this exhibition should be shown in Moscow. It is a tribute to a Maestro who this year would have celebrated his 90th birthday and also a kind of bridge between two worlds: the ‘cosmos’ of Sergei Parajanov and the ‘cosmos’ of Venice – a cosmos to which Tatiana Daniliyants has been linked for around 20 years.

Tatiana Daniliyants: “Since my youth the creations of Sergei Parajanov are like a magical lantern, a lamp full of wonders. There is no doubt in my mind that Venice and Parajanov are intimately linked: the infinitely distant and infinitely intimate Byzantine light; a love of golden brocade fabrics, silk and velvet; a certain super abundance and excess, solemnity and  ‘multi-layeredness’. My exhibition is a gift from Venice- its historians, theologians, musicians and many others who knew Parajanov. And from the followers of the Maestro, me and all of you, those who can, in some form, help to realise this project. The very title of the project is imbued with the idea of giving: Venetian philosophers, thinkers, musicians and the city itself present Parajanov with its memory, its love and admiration. It is precisely because of this that the idea of crowdfunding- a collective giving of funds for the realization of a project- seems here to be most appropriate”   
“ Through crowdfunding the author is looking for moment which with in the next few months will be used to produce the exhibits: sculptures from Murano glass, collages and two films in which Venetians will speak about Parajanov”

Tatiana Daniliyants is a film director, photo artist and sculptor. She studied at the Surikov Art Institute in Moscow and the Higher Courses for Film Directors. She studied with Andrzej Wajda in Krakow. She was also trained at the Guggenheim Institute in Venice. She is the author of about ten documentaries and shorts. As an artist she has participated in more than 60 personal and group exhibitions including in the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, the Moscow Photo Biennale and exhibitions at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, the Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg, RosFoto (Saint Petersburg) and others. She teaches at the School of Visual Arts (in the Atelier of Short Films)   

The presentation will take place at the Vinzavod Centre of Contemporary Art on the 12th July between 3.30 and 6.30pm. Free entrance but please confirm attendance  at the event Register here: Contact telephones: +79191390541, Natalia and +7 916 562-29-44, Olga.

original from:

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Odessa Film Festival.

In spite of the volatile situation in Ukraine, thanks to a crowd-funding campaign through Indiegogo earlier this year the Fifth Odessa International Film Festival is going ahead. In many ways previous years editions have suggested that though it may be much smaller than the Moscow Film Festival in terms of films and events its smaller size is no handicap to inviting some of the more interesting figures from the world of cinema to its splendid summer school. This years Summer School includes master classes from Aidan Turner, Angelina Nikhonova and Olga Dykhovychnaya, Darren Aronofsky, David Puttnam, Jean-Philippe Tesse', Stephen Frears, Vitaly Mansky and Sergei Loznitsa amongst others. There is also a national workshop working alongside this event.

While there are some overlaps with the programme of the Moscow Film Festival in terms of its programme this is there is one programme unthinkable at a Russian festival. Entitled Ways to Freedom, it presents what it calls films about "revolutions of different nations (with) one common goal: freedom, truth and dignity". It includes two films on the Maidan uprising- one Sergei Loznitsa's film shown at Cannes and another collective film entitled The Black Book of Maidan. As well as this there are two films of Russia's and Ukraine's most radical feminist groups of recent years: Alain Margot's I am Femen will be shown along with Gogol's Wives film Pussy Versus Putin on Pussy Riot. An article of mine on the latter film (comparing it to Lerner and Pozdorovkin's film on the same subject) will hopefully be published elsewhere in the not too distant future. Other films on Tahrir as well on Czechoslovakian rebels and Bucharest uprisings will complete this programme.

Oleg Sentsov's Gamer is also being given a special screening at the festival as a gesture of solidarity with the imprisoned film director. A showing of forgotten masterpieces from the history of Ukrainian cinema includes Abram Room's extraordinary banned 1935 film A Strict Young Man  as well as films by Mark Donskoy, a 1927 classic Two Days by Georgiy Stabovy as well as films by lesser-known directors Artur Voytetsky and Villen Novak. The national Ukrainian competition will have seven films in competition including a self-portrait of Larissa Kadochnikova (an actress in Parajanov's Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and a daughter of Valentin Kadochnikov, an artist, animated filmmaker and one of Eisenstein's favourite students). One of the other films in competition, Oleg Sanin's The Guide will also appear in the international competition as will Nana Djordjaze's My Mermaid, My Lorelei. Other films in the international competition includes Anna Melikian's Star shown at this year's Kinotavr. Lech Majewski's fascinating Field of Dogs will also be in the international competition. In what is also becoming a tradition a film by an Italian director (this time Livorno's Paolo Virzi) is opening the festival and live music orchestra will accompany showings of Hitchcock's 1929 silent film Blackmail (at the Potemkin Stairs, the most spectacular moment of the festival) and Feuillade's 1913 film Fantomas at the Lanzheron Steps. Kira Muratova's Asthenic Syndrome will also be shown on the last night of the festival in the same location.

Once again a British film-maker gets a full retrospective - this time it is Stephen Frears's retrospective and the Festivals of Festivals programme also promises to include a few gems. Including Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Winter Sleep which won both the Palme d'Or and the prestigious FIPRESCI prize. A programme of shorts, a pitching forum and the unveiling of works in progress should give this film festival a renewed significance.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Franciska Gaal - Foreign movie star who took Stalin's Soviet Union by storm

While imports of foreign films in the 1920s Soviet Union were commonplace, the 1930s saw a relative dearth of foreign films shown on Soviet screens. Mary Pickford may have become so well known to have earned a Soviet film devoted to her recounting how a theatre check-taker earns a kiss from Mary Pickford in Sergei Komarov's 1927 film of that title but Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich were barely known in Stalin's Soviet Union. Dietrich's first visit to the Soviet Union would be in 1964.

However, there was one foreign movie star who was a household name in the Stalinist period- that was Franciska Gaal. Moscow's Bakhrushkin Museum devoted an exhibition to her which has just closed. In many ways it is surprising that the main foreign diva would star in Hungarian films given the fiercely anti-Soviet Horthy regime and there is some suggestion that, at least one of the films through which she was most well-known, Romance in Budapest(1933) which was retitled Pet'ka in the Soviet Union (and released some years later), may have come "through the back door". As the Hungarian curator of the exhibition, Anna Gereb, told me her fame in Russia even today far outweighs that in her native Hungary and DVDs are available in Russia but not in Hungary. Of the available footage from youtube much of it comes with old Soviet subtitles:

Pet'ka especially is an interesting film from a gender perspective as the main character Eva is robbed of her woman's clothes and is transformed into the character of Peter. Other films for which she was famous in the Soviet Union included Little Mother. It is even said that the film chief at the time had hoped to get Gaal  to star in a Soviet adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. Interestingly Shumiatsky was thinking of a transgenderal change in the main protagonist and Jim Hawkins would become Jenny. Shumiatsky as a 'Gaalophile', though was replaced (and repressed) in 1938 after which no more films starring Gaal would be released in the Soviet Union (apart from any trophy films after 1945 which were, of course, made before 1938).

Soviet record of the Gaal's Tango from the film Peter.

Not only was Gaal to become famous in the late 1930s but her life was linked to the country even after the Second World War. Given her Jewish origins she was forced to emigrate to Hollywood in 1938 with her producer Joe Pasternak. Nonetheless, in 1941 she made an ill-fated decision to return to Budapest (so as to remain near her mother who was in poor  health). With from the worsening situation in Hungary she couldn't hope to return to her film career and with the full occupation of the country by the Nazis in 1944, she was forced to hide from the fascists at friend houses and in cellars. One account suggests that she was forced to hide in up to 300 different places. In the final days before the liberation of Budapest by Soviet troops her predicament was especially nightmarish as an active search for her by was undertaken and with Hungarian fascists making radio broadcasts demanding that people hunt her down. Many of her family members were killed by the Nazis. Her mother was taken and tortured, her sister eliminated in a concentration camp, her brother's son was killed when Nazi's tricked him and his comrades into believing that the Soviet soldiers had arrived.

Gaal wa, in fact, freed from her predicament by Soviet troops. There are many accounts of how it happened - some of these legendary and even fantastic ones. Her own account, however, is just as fascinating. Her husband did delivery her to safety to a Soviet officer who, in fact, presented himself as a film director from Leningrad (though researchers haven't discovered who this director might have been). At first sceptical and unwilling, when eventually taken to Gaal the Soviet officer and former film director did recognise her as the 'Little Mother' of the pre-war film.

Franciska Gaal with some of the Soviet film establishment

Gaal was soon in the Soviet Union on a two and a half month tour as guest of the Soviet government visiting Moscow, Leningrad and Odessa among other places. A guest of Orlova and Alexandrov. There was even talk of her starring in Soviet films (there is actually documentary footage of her at the All Union Parade of Fizkulturniky in a documentary film with the famous poet, translator and children's writer Samuil Marshak). She also met a whole host of Soviet film figures including Sergei Yutkevich, Sergei Gerasimov and Sergei Eisenstein among others and was taken to see the shooting of Небесный Пароход (Heavenly Slug) where she would meet Nikolai Kryuchkov. She would also meet Pavel Kadochnikov who was had just finished working on Barnet's Подвиг Разведчика (Exploits of a Scout). Kadochhnikov would show her some clips from the film (whether Boris Barnet ever met Gaal
is unclear- given that Kriuchkov was a major Barnet actor too, it seems not too improbable).
For Gaal her two and a half months in the Soviet Union would be her last and would signal perhaps one of the last moments of fame. Returning to her native Hungary but all attempts to return to cinema were to fail. In the late forties she would return to America, to New York and live in relative obscurity and even poverty until her death in New York in 1973. The great Russian film critic on Hungarian cinema, Alexander Troshin, at one point planned a film project (to be shot like a documentary novel and a socio-psychological study on celluloid) which would be based on an attempt to understand the phenomenon of Gaal and what made her image so powerful for many in those countries like the Soviet Union which saw her as the ultimate film diva. Even though her films can't be considered masterpieces her film presence was enough to bewitch generations of Soviet viewers. Her destiny could have been different: in the late twenties Georg Willhelm Pabst offered her the lead role in Pabst's Pandora's Box. Unfortunately, she turned it down because she wanted to concentrate on her work in the theatre. If only...

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Re-imagining Soviet popular culture: On 'Soviet Groove' & other films.

Trying to imagine what the Soviet Union was really like is a rather testing pastime. The Cold War images were so deeply engraved in many imaginations that even the idea of there being a youth culture in Soviet times is probably new for many westerners. That, then, slowly a more realistic or fuller picture is unearthed is, in many ways, thanks to film. Of course, between the visions of Vyacheslav Sorokin's 1998 film Тоталитарный Роман (A Totalitarian Romance) and Valery Todorovsky's film Стиляги (Hipsters) a decade later there is much in common. It was for both these films the rare individual who would stand out from Soviet conformism. Nonetheless at least Todorkovsky's film began to remind us of an alternative milieu (in its overblown way). It also brought to light the material ways in which underground/banned music was reproduced and listened to in the form, at first, of X-ray disks. And yet these films never highlighted the home grown music scene relying instead on the idea that it was imported music which challenged the system. So the story went it was the Beatles which rocked the Kremlin:

Only that it wasn't really. That story never took into account the reality that the Soviet Union was never as monolithic as that nor the fact that the Beatles were not the only western musicians to play an important role. Marco Raffaini's fine film Italiani Veri shows that the role of Italian light music played. It wasn't music banned or inveighed against but still probably had just as significant an effect in different ways over a longer period of time. It may have been, for the most case, a music that even the cultural bureaucrats permitted but, nonetheless the indirect influence it played in opening up new spaces and imaginations is undoubted.

Soviet cultural bureaucrats inveighed against western music but no, jazz wasn't quite banned in the Soviet period. After all we would never have got S. Frederick Starr's history of Soviet jazz if it were.

Just as the statement there was 'no sex in the Soviet Union' belies a rather more complicated reality in which erotica and prostitution existed but public discourse about sex was absent, so the Soviet Union played host to a greater variety of musical genres than most people imagined.

This will be the subject of two documentaries - one general and likely to gain an international audience and another more specifically devoted to the Siberian punk scene. The latter is Vladimir Kozlov's Следы на снег (Traces in the Snow). A teaser is available here on VimeoKozlov is interviewed here about the Siberian punk rock scene during the 80s and 90s and how it has developed since then.

Nonetheless, it seems as though it will be Alexei Gittelson's and Louis Beaudemont's Soviet Groove which will give people an idea about the story of Soviet rock as a whole and promises to gain a large international audience. The director and producer (a French son of a communist mother and an American of Russian origins) both became fascinated with the actual variety of music (often, but not exclusively, underground) in the Soviet period and aim to paint on a broader canvas than Kozlov. Their documentary project which has meant working in the archives as well as working with Lendoc will hopefully be on track for release in April 2015 and the last news is that they are hoping to work with a German production company. Their approach seems to be one of cutting through the stereotypes of the Soviet period and surely there is much that can astound a western audience and even delight a Russian one (the initial reaction to the teasers and trailers has been very positive in Russia).

Arguably it won't be the first film to uncover new forms of knowledge about music in the Soviet period. Elena Tikhonov and Domonik Spritzendorfer's fine essayistic documentary Elektro Moskva. However, in their case they took the history back to Theremin exploring both electronic music and the creative way in which instruments were created and assembled. Not exploring just the sounds themselves but the instruments too. It made for very enjoyable viewing displaying so many rarely known facts about Soviet culture.

The hope is that Gittelson and Beaudemont will show how Soviet music was not just a reaction to western trends but, being often unique, would be one eventually influencing music elsewhere. This is one point that the pair highlighted when I spoke to them at the Moscow Business Square (some music produced today seems as though it can only have been influenced by these underground or semi-underground Soviet groups). If so one will begin to understand that there is, indeed, a strange double influence happening. Just as the Soviet art of the 1920s only gradually influenced and had an effect on the life blood of western art, so arguably aspects of Soviet groove can, in retrospect, be seen as ahead of their time (as well as a reaction to trends abroad). A re-reading and re-imagining of Soviet culture that in a way goes hand-in-hand with the work of some who have posited a more complex understanding of Eastern European post-war culture history. A kind of counter-history is surely emerging in filmic accounts not too dissimilar from that proposed by Agata Pyzik and others in their books.

So in many ways the films of Kozlov, Raffaini, Tikhonova & Spritzendorfer, and Gittelson & Beaudemont are timely films. Unearthing a lost Atlantis- a story as yet untold in film. At least for those unaware of Aleksei Uchitel's fascinating documentary Рок (Rock) made in 1990 as the Soviet Union was itself disappearing.