The Tenth Forum for National Cinematographies of the CIS and the Baltic States: "However, a tendency…"

By Eugenie Zvonkine (Paris)

An Eskimo sits at an abyss and smokes a pipe. A reindeer runs past him and falls into the abyss. The Eskimo smokes his pipe. Another reindeer runs by and also falls into the abyss. The Eskimo smokes his pipe. A third reindeer runs by and falls into the abyss. The Eskimo takes the pipe from his mouth and says thoughtfully: “However, a tendency.”

A special feature of the Tenth Forum of National Cinematographies of the CIS and the Baltic States, which took place in Moscow from 21-27 April 2006, was the celebration of its tenth anniversary. Thus, apart from new films, the festival offered a retrospective of the most significant films that were discovered at the forum over the last decade. The totality of the screenings, both of films already “part of film history,” as Andrei Shemiakin put it, and quite recent films, created a curious reaction in the audience. In the discussions that were held every evening, film scholars and critics attempted to deduce a general, historical tendency in modern, post-Soviet cinema.

On the whole, this approach posed a latent problem for film analysis and its method. For me, a product of the meticulous French school, the specificity of the method of Russian film scholars drew my particular attention. In the discussions, the themes and narration of a film always prevailed strongly over questions of form. The first comments that included a concrete analysis of frames were made only on the fourth day of the discussions.

Of course, the mechanism of extracting tendencies did not work for all films and across the board. So, for example, Herz Frank’s documentary film Good Friday (Latvia, 2005) was hardly discussed at all. The director shot a religious procession on the Italian island of Procida. The montage, arranged in accordance with the persuasive rhythm of the music of the religious procession, and the visual opposition between moving statues (such as the remarkable episode of the statue where the lash is shaking in the motionless hand of the executioner standing near Christ) and the frozen spectators of the procession, whose faces are shown in periodic close-ups. Nothing of any of this was mentioned, as the film did not fit into the general pattern of issues raised by other films of post-Soviet space.

Perhaps the most accurate historical hypothesis was expressed by Gulnara Abikeyeva during the final discussion, when she divided the historical evolution of post-Soviet cinema into three periods. The first period was the resolution of “post-colonial issues,” the elucidation of one’s relationship to the formation of Soviet power and Soviet reality. The second was a return (in some cases) to ethnic-folkloric creativity―for example, Oles' Sanin’s Mamai (Ukraine, 2003) or Kamara Kamalova’s The Road under the Skies (Uzbekistan, 2005), films that are highly decorative. And finally, the third period, which began in the last year or two, is marked by national pride, especially obvious in such examples of Sergei Bodrov’s, Ivan Passer’s, and Talgat Temenov’s The Nomads (Kazakhstan, 2005) or Zul'fikar Musakov’s Native Land (Uzbekistan, 2006). When looking successively at the films of the retrospective and the new films, it was actually possible to see quite clearly the directors’ desires to return once more to the historical questions of the 20th century. For example, the number of films about the Second World War, both in the retrospective and among new films, was surprising.

But it is even more interesting to observe how the return to themes of the Soviet period willy-nilly forces directors to define not only their attitude to Soviet reality, but also to the main attribute of Soviet art: socialist realism. Thus, Iusup Razykov’s The Orator (Uzbekistan, 1999) deliberately represents the agit-propaganda scenes frontally, with wide angles reminiscent of Soviet posters, while the hero’s intimate domestic life passes in the closed interior of a house and frequently relies on close-ups (as, for example, the unforgettable scene when the feet of the hero’s wives softly and slowly cross, massaging his back). Ernest Abdyzhaparov’s Village Authorities (Saratan, Kyrgyzstan, 2004) approaches this matter a little differently, quoting socialist-realist devices with a light-handed irony (such as in the enthusiastic monologue about the native land, recited in the socialist-realist spirit by the drunkards). Musakov raises the same issue in Native Land, as can be seen, for example, in the deliberately artificial sets and lighting for the hero’s memories, which are shot à la Pyr'ev. The director, however, leaves the matter unresolved and stages the film as if the sets and the level of stylization (prisoners in German camps wear carefully striped pajamas) did not refer to an entire cinematic era.

In hindsight, the most memorable aspect of the Forum were those films that did not readily fit into any clearly marked new tendency. Sabit Kurmanbekov’s short film The Road (Kazakhstan, 2005) is the feature debut of an already well-known Kazakh artist and actor (he played the lead in Serik Aprymov’s Aksuat [Kazakhstan, 1997]). But Kurmanbekov does not invent any new directions. A tiny piece of a meteorite falls onto the ground and wakes a man, who is sleeping in a car parked on the roadside in the middle of the steppe. The man is going nowhere and just observes how different people—an old shepherdess, a newly-married couple—pass by. The device of a film without words is already well-known, as is the device of waiting aimlessly by the roadside. Therefore, we immediately remember Bus Stop (Beket, Kyrgyzstan, 1995/2000), the remarkable short film by Aktan Abdykalykov and Ernest Abdyzhaparov, where waiting for a bus at a wintry bus stop gradually developed into an allegory for the whole of Kyrgyzstan, vainly awaiting political and historical changes. This film was in many ways prophetic, especially when taking into account that it was made before the Tulip Revolution of 2005. Kurmanbekov, by contrast, reduces a legible plot almost to nothing, thanks to a very everyday and ironic conclusion. The director’s sense of form is borne out well in the very last episode of the film: the tiny meteorite, which seemed to be merely a comic device necessary to draw the spectator into the film, nevertheless has a plot-line that is brought to an elegant and intelligent conclusion: in the last frame the meteorite suddenly comes to life.

Andis Mizishs’ documentary The Worm (Latvia, 2005) is, as Alexander Lipkov correctly noted in the discussion, a film about “little people.” The film’s heroes are an elderly married couple living in a village. For over an hour we watch their everyday life, examine the clutter and disorder of their small house, and witness their more or less gentle altercations and quarrels. During the discussion critics talked a lot about the ugliness of the main characters, which forces us to look at them somewhat differently. But here, probably, lies the film’s mission: the couple’s rather unusual qualities and their behavior reveals both their profound humanity and the everyday cruelty of life. One of the film’s most memorable moments is the scene where the cat, only just rescued from a rooftop, drinks water from a partially covered bucket. The cat moves away when the hero approaches. He lifts the lid and pulls a half-dead kitten out of the water. “You don’t want to torture them, but this one just won’t drown.” During the course of the film it becomes clear how much this episode says about the proximity of life and death in the heroes’ house.

Iurii Shiller’s In the Backwaters (V zatone, Russia, 2005) is one of those documentaries that almost completely rely on the protagonist’s charisma. The main character is a blacksmith, who—it gradually emerges—looks after a group of apprentices who have all been in prison. He observes that some of his charges have to be banished from the workshop when they completely surrender to drugs. But soon we find out that the hero is motivated not only by kindness, but that he comes from the same background. Lightly, as if in passing, the film tells about this small-scale salvation of souls. When the hero suddenly shapes a rose out of metal in front of our eyes, it becomes clear that the issue here is not just work to save people from fatal addictions, but also concerns matters of beauty and creativity. “Not bad, does it not look like cabbage?,” asks the blacksmith, modestly and ironically. Both he and we realize perfectly well that we could not do this.

In closing, a remark by Rustam Ibragimbekov to the film critics springs to mind. The director was unpleasantly struck by the way some film critics inserted comments such as “Here I would have edited the film differently.” Ibragimbekov asked them to speak less subjectively and in more general terms. He could certainly, there and then, have quoted Karel Čapek: “To criticize means to explain to an author that he is doing something in a way that is different from how the critic would have done—had the critic only been able to do so.” Or he could have spoken about how difficult it is to stay on the thin line between hasty generalizations and overly narrow, formalistic remarks in light of such a variety of films, many of which aspire to solve problems that are similar, but offering solutions that are quite different.

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Eugenie Zvonkine, Paris

Eugenie Zvonkine© 2006

Updated: 22 Jul 06