Ron Holloway (1933-2009)

December 19, 2009 at 4:35 am

It was less than a year ago, in February 2009, that I saw Ron Holloway and his wife Dorothea, at the FEST in Belgrade, where Ron and Slobodan Sijan had organised a round table on women-filmmakers in Eastern Europe. I knew that he was not well, but did not expect that he only had months left to live. He seemed as busy and as active as always, passing around copies of his ubiquitous publication KINO: German Cinema, which he had been publishing for many years (since 1979, as it seems) and which highlighted German and East European cinema and festivals. I just received the publication that resulted out of this project about ten days ago; one feels like life continues and that Ron has not left us.

My first encounter with Ron was through a book of his, Bulgarian Cinema (1986), which I read in the early 1990s. It strikes me that, like the cinema to which it is dedicated, this book is now being almost forgotten. It is not mentioned in the obituaries I read, and yet it is one of Ron’s most serious academic efforts. It is a systematic and deep study, in which he introduces the concept of Poetic Cinema, a key term that was adopted later on by Daniel Goulding and other academics and gained currency through its wider application to the cinema of Eastern Europe at large. This study remains probably the most academic study of Ron’s. I am deeply grateful for it as it greatly influenced and shaped my own scholarly interests.

I had several opportunities to work with Ron over the years. One of the projects was special issue on Bulgarian cinema which I edited for the on-line journal Kinokultura in 2006. Here is a link to the article we co-authored, entitled Hoping for a Bulgarian Film Revival.

There were several occasions over the years that Ron shared with me his dismay with Bulgaria’s film bureaucrats who had invited him in the early 1980s and had helped him to view all the films he needed in order to write his book. Later on, however, he felt ignored by them as, in the 1990s, they seemed to have had completely forgotten his existence and commitment to the cinema of this country. I tried to explain that governments had changed, that the new people were most likely considering everything done by their predecessors as worthy of destruction, and so on — yet, I can see very well why he was feeling so bitter. I would feel the same in his place. His death is not being reported in the Bulgarian newspapers as far as I can tell, writing this from Sofia where I am visiting at the moment.

During our encounter in Belgrade in February 2009 I kept pestering Ron with questions about his long life as a festival goer, to me he is probably the prototypical individual who I describe in my writing on the ‘Festival Circuit’ when I talk about ‘the festival treadmill’. He was a man living for an at film festivals. I very much wanted to learn, in particular, about the film festival of non-aligned nations, mostly from the Third World that the Soviet Union was trying to rally culturally, that had been taking place in Tashkent, Uzbekistan (USSR), during the 1970s and the early 1980s, a festival that no longer exists but which he had visited many times. He did not manage to tell me as much as I wanted to know, and promised to talk to me about it at a later point. With Ron now gone, the feeling is that a whole era has disappeared.

It is only now, from his obituary issued by Interfilm, that I learn about Ron Holloway’s involvement with the Cuernavaca (Mexico) centre for intercultural learning, run by de-schooling ideologue Ivan Illich, another person who has had a shaping influence over my thinking over the years.

© Dina Iordanova
19 December 2009

Post-Communist Visual Culture and Cinema, PG conference at St. Andrews, March 2009

March 30, 2009 at 11:35 pm

When we begun planning for this AHRC-sponsored conference with the main organiser, Lars Kristensen, we never expected that the call for papers will meet with such a wide ranging response from among the postgraduate community. We had thought that there would be about twenty or so PhD students who would be interested in attending, but it was more like sixty who sent in abstracts; there were many more who got in touch via the Facebook group and who will now be members of the network that was launched as part of the event. Well done!

Academics involved in the event posed for this picture (except the keynote speaker, Prof. Andrew Wachtel of Northwestern University, who was present only for the opening night). From left to right here one can see John Cunningham (Sheffield Hallam), Ib Bondebjerg (Copenhagen), Ewa Mazierska (Central Lancashire), Brian McNair (Strathclyde), John Orr (Edinburgh), Dina Iordanova (St. Andrews), Fiona Bjorling (Lund), and Lars Kristensen (St. Andrews).

Students had traveled from as far as Latvia, Estonia, Albania, and the USA, as well as from many other countries, to present at the conference. At the end of the beautiful sunny spring day, which they all opted to voluntarily spend in seminar rooms listening to presentations rather than taking a walk on the breezy seaside, the participants posed for this picture. The programme of talks given during the day can be found at this link.

It was encouraging to realise that there is such a wide variety of people working on matters related to the cinema and the visual culture of post-communism. Presentation I attended covered themes from Baltic film industry to Croatian heraldry and Gay and Lesbian Film Festivals in former Yugoslavia, from cinematic representations of Russian migrant women in Turkish cinema to post-communist Czech comedies and Prague as a cinematic global city. Hopefully, we will see more published writing on these matters soon.

© Dina Iordanova
28 March 2009

Severino: The Secret of Condor Pass (GDR, 1978) Claus Dobberke

January 10, 2009 at 12:34 am

This Gojko Mitic vehicle from his later period is interesting to mostly as it represents yet another good example of the transnational filmmaking that was in full swing in the area of popular cinema in the Soviet bloc countries of the period. The actor is past his prime here, and even though he does pull some of his traditional stints of horseback riding and shows off his sculpted upper body on several occasions, it is more by way of giving fans a treat in a routine effort to maintain an established star image rather than an attempt to impress new audiences. (In a way, it is a film that can be compared to the fare that Tom Cruise is involved in these days — mostly relying on past glory rather than radical reinvention.)

The film is set in Argentina and is based on a novel by Eduard Klein. A mature and balanced man, Severino is a Manazanero Indian who has been away for ten years and now comes back to his village, ridden by conflict between the locals and the settlers, all evolving around the secret of a certain Condor pass (a climb to which provides one of the nicest moments in the film, with awe-inspiring views over the highest parts of the Andes). Severino does his best to settle the disputes and manages to do so, but only to some extent; he is also involved in a love affair, but it is an added subplot that lacks sparkle and does not engage. In the overall, the film feels tired and overlong, even for its short 78 minutes. There is very little character development, almost no gripping action, and the conflicts are not persuasive nor deep enough to engage. There is surprisingly little effort to propagate the cause of proletarian struggle (which is a feature of earlier films like Osceola); the advancing age of the actor and the early decline of socialism are both felt in the film.

Thus, as I said, the most interesting aspect for me remains the information that the film brings on the matter of international socialist co-productions. The cast of the film includes the titan of Polish cinema Leon Niemczyk, as well as a host of Romanian actors such as Constantin Fugasin or Violeta Andrei, as well as many more. The film is made by DEFA in collaboration with the Romanian Buftea Studio (and it is places in the Carpathian mountains that seem to stand in for the Andes). What is particularly important, however, is that it appears there is no consistent pattern in the co-production dimension in these DEFA projects. In other cases there is usually one co-production set-up that is put in place and then exploited all over again for as long as it is possible; it is simply not economic to have a new co-production configuration put in place on a per-project basis, especially if one already has got a set-up that is working. Yet, in the case of these productions, the films are shot in a different production configuration each time — Osceola is made in co-production with Cuba and Bulgaria, this one — with Romania, The Scout — with Mongolia, Ulzana — with Russia and Romania, The Sons of Great Bear — with Bosna film. It reads like a list of socialist international cultural collaborations. What is specific here is that the driving force behind many of these projects seems to be not so much economic convenience (nor financial considerations of pulling together budgets or resources) but rather the desire to be involved in joint projects with the group of ‘brotherly’ countries. This was the underlying motive of many of the cross-border cultural initiatives of the period, and it worked. It is important not to lose it out of sight today.

© Dina Iordanova
10 January 2009

Ceský sen/ Czech Dream (Czech Republic, 2004, dir. Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda)

December 2, 2008 at 11:50 pm

What does the European future hold for people in the ‘new’ Europe? Two film students from Prague’s FAMU, Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda, raise this question in their diploma project, the documentary film Czech Dream (2004). A clever renunciation of the overblown media hype over Europe in the run up to EU’s accession, the film chronicles an outrageous hoax that the filmmakers pulled on their fellow-citizens. As the film unravels, Klusák and Remunda put in motion a massive advertising campaign for a non-existent hyper-market which they call Czech Dream and for which they erect a fake façade in the middle of an empty field outside the capital. On the appointed day, thousands of enthusiastic Prague consumers flock to the place, in anticipation of finding great promotional bargains. Their eagerness, however, soon turns into bitter consternation.

The scenes of outrage at the end of Czech Dream come accompanied with the filmmakers’ commentary, which compares their despicable prank to the way in which East Europeans sheepishly bought into unsubstantiated propaganda and flocked toward joining the European Union. Czechs and other ‘new’ Europeans knew well that they were not the most esteemed partners Europe wanted; they also suspected that Europe would not be as generous as it seemed. Yet, they hushed whatever hesitations they had and rushed into the accession. But what if the pledge of prosperity turned out an empty promise? Czech Dream is a documentary with a point.

© Dina Iordanova
3 December 2008

Buy at Amazon

Transnational/migrant actors: A certain case of invisibility I

November 6, 2008 at 12:51 am

There is a scene in István Szabó’s Mephisto (1981), a film which tackles the case of actor Hendrik Hoefgen (based on famous German actor Gustaf Gründgens), where his friend, the actress Nicoletta von Niebuhr is shown pondering on the advantages and disadvantages of emigrating. She is clearly aware that her career would face decline once abroad, and articulates her concerns over her chances to master a foreign accent or over other types of marginalization she would be likely to face. It is a fateful conversation, which proves decisive not only for her but for the protagonist as well, who decides to stay in Nazi Germany (and returns there even when he has got the chance to emigrate easily). By staying in his native country he enjoys a high profile career indeed, but also becomes a Nazi collaborator. In any case, by committing to a national culture, even if to a problematic one, he avoids the danger of becoming invisible.

This was back in the 1930s, or more than seventy years ago. Things have changed, and the migrations of actors over the years have increased. Yet, scrutinizing the creative paths of those actors who go into emigration today and build transnational careers is most instructive, especially as one traditionally believes that for actors, faced with the challenge of mastering new languages and accents, emigration often spells the end to a career. Having looked closely in the cases of many actors who emigrated out of various Eastern European contexts over the past decade or so, I can clearly establish that it is only singular actors who are able to sustain meaningfully visible careers abroad, and it is a mixture of resilience and luck that proves decisive in the process. Many vanish, or even worse, make appearances in films that are of a much lower quality than the ones in which they have launched their careers, and, having moved over to the nearly invisible periphery, keep working but are never noticed.

Migrant actresses remain invisible even when cast in key roles. For example, international critics nearly unanimously destroyed Bruno Dumont’s Twenty-nine Palms (France/ Germany/ USA 2003), featuring Russian-Lithuanian-French Actress Katia (Yekaterina) Golubeva (pictured here in Claire Denis’ L’Intrus, 2004). Their criticisms of the film were directed elsewhere, yet most of them spoke of the actress as a completely unknown face dug out by Dumont from who knows where. In fact, Golubeva has been a more or less permanent presence in films by Sharunas Bartas since the late 1980s, so these same critics are likely to have not only watched her but also to have praised her for performances in a range of films at the festivals they frequent. In addition, she played significant parts in well-known French art house films such as Claire Denis’s J’ai pas sommeil/I Cannot Sleep (France/Switzerland 1994) and L’Intrus/The Intruder (France 2004) and the lead in Leos Carax’s Pola X (France/Switzerland/Germany/Japan 1999), all extensively covered by these same international critics. Yet, in her new reincarnation in the Californian desert, Katia Golubeva remained unrecognized and was treated as a newcomer (or, rather, not particularly welcomed outsider). Similar examples can be discovered in the case of many other migrant actresses (e.g. Croatian star Mira Furlan, Russian Chulpan Khamatova, Polish veteran Grazyna Szapolowska, the Lithuanian-Russian Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Serbian Branka Katić and Mirjana Joković), all stars of award-winning films by directors such as Kieslowski or Kusturica, yet unrecognized in the Western productions they have appeared in lately. One discovers that these actresses have managed to keep themselves employed by appearing in perfectly respectable Western European or American films even after changing countries. In reality, however, they remain known only in the context of their original national cinema; their transnational work remains invisible.

The situation with migrant male actors is similar. The most successful among the East Europeans are those who, while abroad, are happy to embrace the limitations of typecasting and play the roles of Eastern European villains or migrant patriarchs. This fully applies, for example, to former DEFA star Armin Mueller-Stahl and to Yugoslav Rade Serbedzija, who enjoy high-profile international careers today. Both actors maintain a remarkable transatlantic schedule by regularly taking on roles in Hollywood, in American art-house and indie films, as well as in films made in a range of European or other countries (New Zealand, Canada, Australia), and in their countries of origin. They both are well-known for roles that link them to their Eastern European heritage and tradition: Armin Mueller-Stahl recently played a London-based Russian Godfather in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (2007) while Serbedzija (pictured), who, to his credit, has persisted in retaining his difficult name unchanged even under the temptation to Westernize it by making it somewhat easier to spell or pronounce, has readily embraced the roles of an Eastern European mafioso, Russian gangster or underground trader, in a range of international productions since the mid 1990s.

© Dina Iordanova
6 November 2008

IMDb Recommendations, Critical Contexts and Historiography: Reception of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days

September 20, 2008 at 12:30 am

In the process of writing an essay on the Cannes-winning Romanian 4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile/ 4 Weeks, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) I could not help registering the variety of contexts in which the film was discussed. Some were more or less predictable, whereas others – quite arbitrary, largely defined by the concurrent release of other films that happened to play in theatres at the same time in various countries.

American critics were compelled to review it in relation to recent US releases, such as Ivan Reitman’s Juno (2007), but also other 2007 American films on sexual politics like Knocked Up and Waitress. Because it was clear this is a film about the communist period, many cross-referenced it to German The Lives of Others (2006), even though the tone and the premise are so different. Others made linkages to Andrea Arnold surveillance film Red Road (2006) and Carlos Reygadas’s Japón (2002)and Silent Light (2007). Russian reviewers made references to Gruz 200/ Cargo 200 (2007), pictured, a film by Alexei Balabanov that has not been widely distributed, whereas Asian critics linked it to Tsai Ming-Liang’s Kuala Lumpur-set Hey yan quan/I Do Not Want to Sleep Alone (2006). Those writing on Phillippine cinema compared it to Ishmael Bernal’s abortion film Hinugot sa Langit/Snatched from Heaven (1985). If I am to contribute to this line of referencing, as someone who knows Bulgarian cinema well, I would be inclined to compare it to Milena Andonova’s recent Maimuni prez zimata/Monkeys in Winter (2006), which partially covers the issue of female ambition and abortion from roughly the same period.

As far as thematic frameworks are concerned, one has been the abortion theme. Another one has been its contextualisation in the context of recent Romanian socially critical filmmaking, the best known of which are set in the post-communist period (such as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu or 12:08 East of Bucharest) and are thus of questionable immediate relevance. Then there is the social film framework, which places it in the company of films by Ken Loach (Ladybird Ladybird, 1994) and Dardenne brothers.

For those who do not have the time to read the critics, however, there is the ‘recommendations’ feature of the IMDb, a recently refurbished and currently absurdly functioning referencing system that uses ‘a complex formula to suggest titles that fit along with the selected’ (IMDb’s explanation on the way recommendations are picked by their automated system). Even though the IMDb is owned by Amazon, its recommendation system functions quite differently from the Amazon system for picking recommendations. In this case, IMDB’s ‘automated matchmaker’ has suggested that those who liked 4 Months might also be interested in seeing the manga Denei shoujo Ai (1992) or Basic Instinct (1992) with Sharon Stone.

Thus, we can come up with a rough classification of the types of referencing in which a film is assessed: On the one hand, there is the automated formula of the IMDb which, they believe, ‘produces excellent results most of the time’ and of which I cannot help being terrified (because what I have seen so far by way of recommendations in regard to the films I am interested in is a serious failure). Then there are the critics who review films in the context of a ‘current releases’ setting who are in possession of the special skill of inventing correlations between films that have ended up in the same week of release completely by accident. A third framework is the framework of critics who write for periodical publications of lower frequency – they can have a more relaxed approach and contextualise the film more widely; still they usually try to stick to current releases in their referencing.

Unlike IMDb’s recommendations automate (which will clearly need to be improved), and unlike the critics to who inevitably comply with the specific framework of the publication for which they write, I flatter myself that, as an academic film historian I appear to have more freedom in my referencing. Yet, it is clear that in my assessment I also contextualise a film within a specifically limited range of other films which I pick guided by what I see as the social contexts and films more relevant to the true message of the film. While I would probably agree with the contextualization through the socially-committed cinema of Loach-Dardenne lineage, as a film historian I would also look for more referencing from within Eastern Europe, and could end up cross-referencing it in the tradition of Romanian cinema going as far back as Mircea Daneliuk’s Proba de microfon/ Microphone Test (1980) or Lucian Pintilie’s Balanta/The Oak (1992) and Stere Gulea’s Stare de fapt/ State of Things (1996), all films that show women whose decisions and actions are controlled by the restricting social environment in which they exist. My second framework also Polish films like Kieslowski’s Decalog II (which features issues related to abortion in communist context, focusing on moral dilemmas), and, most of all, Agnieszka Holland’s Kobieta Samotna/ A Woman Alone (1981). Even if not an obvious comparison, I also thought of references to Ryszard Bugajski’s Przesluchanie/The Interrogation (1982), maybe because it features a protagonist who is forced to become strong in adverse circumstances, like Otilia in 4 Months.

© Dina Iordanova
20 September 2008

Osceola (GDR, 1971) Konrad Petzold

August 3, 2008 at 11:00 am

Osceola was one of the great films of my childhood, a prime example of the action-adventure cinema that was produced for the needs of viewers within the communist East bloc and of the specific transnational set-up of film production of the period.

Starring Yugoslavia-born Gojko Mitic, who showcases the best abs east of the Iron Curtain, the film’s story is loosely based on the real historical figure of 19th century Seminole leader Osceola and features the resistance that his followers, comprising of Seminoles and Black slaves, put against their White masters in Florida. The film’s politically correct ‘socialist realist’ plot is fully in line with the ideology of the time: the suppressed proletarian classes (which in this case are represented by the suppressed racial and ethnic minorities) manage to see their shared interests, identify their common enemy, and put up resistance in united fashion. A secondary, less overt, message of the film is to keep alive the consciousness of the wide-spread racism and discrimination that supposedly still prevail in disguised form in the South of the United States. Most importantly, in contrast to the traditional Western where the protagonists are usually low-class white settlers, the film positions Indians and the Blacks in the core of the action.

Osceola is entertaining and engaging, even if it appears somewhat slow if judged by today’s standards for an action-adventure, as it lacks the fast pacing and dynamic cutting that characterize the Hollywood action films of the same era. The film, however, manifests an extremely important feature of the cinema of the communist period: Productions that were perceived as having a wider audience potential and that could be marketed across the shared market of the East bloc were made in transnational fashion (thus transnationalism in production was as prevalent here as it was in the West, even if not a more persistent feature). How is this illustrated in the specific case of Osceola, a co-production between the GDR, Cuba and Bulgaria? First of all, in the range of shooting locations, which are chosen and showcased in a way that successfully replicates the approach of classical Westerns, featuring breathtaking vistas and spectacular landscapes. Scenes requiring lush valleys punctuated by tall palm trees are shot in Cuba while the scenes showing village life are made at the Boyana Studios in in Bulgaria (most likely using already existing sets that were adapted from other productions). Similarly, other Gojko Mitic native Indian-themed films have been made in co-production as well and shot in Romania, Yugoslavia, Mongolia, and so on.

The cast of the film illustrates the transnational approach particularly well. Gojko Mitic in the lead role of Osceola is a transplanted Serbian; the actor still lives and works in Germany, where he enjoys a significant cult following. Besides the German actors, key roles are assigned to Romanian Iurie Darie and to Bulgarian actresses Pepa Nikolova and Iskra Radeva. The two black men are played by Almamy Soumare and Boubakar Toure (who, credited as Touré Beubacar, also played in the 1970 DEFA production Signale, a film that featured an even wider transnational cast of actors from over ten different countries, mostly from the Second and the Third world). The performance of Toure is competent and comelling, but I have not been able to establish any further information on his career path. Maybe he was one of the young people from the Third world who were sent to the East bloc to get subsidized higher education? He may have played in Osceola but may have been pursuing a different career path and may have become a doctor or an engineer later in life. Or maybe he was educated as a film professional and, having returned to his African country, may have become a filmmaker in his own right. If this is the case, information about him is still to emerge on the IMDb.

© Dina Iordanova
3 August 2008

Vedreba (The Entreaty/Mol’ba, Georgia, 1967), Tengiz Abuladze

July 25, 2008 at 4:32 am

Based on the work of Georgia’s national poet Vazha Pshavella (1961-1915), Vedreba is a loosely structured visual poem that follows the plots of Pshavella’s epics and talks about pride, honor, revenge, and mourning. Set amidst the mighty swipe of the Caucasus mountains and making full use of the inconceivable natural imagery of geological forms and unusual architecture, of strong facial features and costumes, of sounds and winds, this is a truly memorable cinema of image creation.

Watching the film I felt I was missing a vast array cultural references that could have helped a better understanding (the same feeling of cultural inadequacy one experiences when watching films like Sergo Parajanov’s Color of Pomegranates). Evidently, the people in the film were Muslim, whereas I know Georgia as a Christian stronghold, so I cannot say to what specific part of this truly multicultural land the setting referred to. Many other details remained out of grasp, but this only enhanced the attraction to the powerful imagery.

The most important realization that came to me in the course of watching this film is that this type of highly artistic cinema seems to be more or less exclusive to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. It is possible to point at singular Western films that have undoubtedly had influence over the development of the style (like Bergman’s 1957 Seventh Seal, for example). However, there is no movement and no strand of filmmaking in Western Europe that could be identified as corresponding to the phenomenon that is almost entirely restricted to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Because, it is important to understand, that making this type of films here was not a matter of singular breakthroughs of individual visionaries like Tarkovsky and Parajanov. There is an array of other directors, whose names are little known today beyond the borders of their own countries, who created similarly powerful visual poetry. One would need to uncover the works of these people and reconsider it in a context that would show that they really worked in creative dialog with each other.

Over the years, due to the isolation of the Cold War period and the turbulent changes in the years that followed it, many of the films that belong to the corpus of poetic cinema’s strand have fallen through the cracks of international distribution and remain unknown. Checking them out one by one at the IMDb leads to the realization that they are almost non-existent in the public mind today. I am talking of remarkable films such as Yuri Ilyenko’s A Spring for the Thirsty (1965) from the Ukraine, Binka Zhelyazkova’s Attached Balloon (1967) from Bulgaria, or Zdravko Velmirovich’s Dervish and Death (1971), all based on important literary sources from their respective countries. I do not know how to explain why it is that at least cinema historians from these countries have not bothered to make more information available. And why it is that so many years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, films from Georgia, Ukraine or Kazakhstan are still listed on the IMDb solely with their Russian titles (and not with the ones in the original language they were made), and as films in the Russian language (which is not really the case). Aren’ t there people in these newly emancipated countries (scholars, critics, film bureaucrats) that would take up the project of making at least some information of their cinematic heritage available to the world via this most frequently accessed source?

I obtained the Vedreba DVD at a seedy shop in Hong Kong, located on the ground floor of the infamous Star Arcade, but was nicely surprised to see that it is also listed on Amazon (even if difficult to find). The DVD is a RUSCICO release, the company that makes former Soviet films available internationally (I wonder how they cover for the copyrights of those creative personnel who are no longer part of Russia; in this case we are talking of a Georgian film, made almost entirely by Georgian contributors within Georgia). The film is featured both in its Georgian and Russian version, and has subtitles in English, French, Spanish, and Italian.

© Dina Iordanova
24 July 2008

Kolya (1996) Ján Sverák

July 10, 2008 at 11:22 pm

Ján Sverák’s foreign-language Oscar-winning film Kolya (Czech Republic, 1996) is central to understanding the tensions marking Europe’s migratory dynamics of the post-Cold War period.

The film is set just before the Velvet Revolution of 1989. The protagonist, Louka, is a middle-aged cellist based in Prague. His career has been adversely affected by the defection of his brother to the West, and he is relegated to playing at funerals and trying to make ends meet in various other industrious ways. He genuinely hates the Russians, who have been occupying the country since 1968, but agrees to a marriage of convenience to a Russian woman who seeks to migrate (especially as he will be able to get a car out of the deal). Soon after the wedding, however, the new wife continues migrating westward on to Germany, leaving behind her five year old son. Louka is stuck with Kolya, of whom he must reluctantly take care.

In the key sequence of the film, Louka arrives home with the boy and is intercepted on the staircase by his landlady who insists that he displays the Czech and Soviet flags to mark the anniversary of the Soviet victory in WWII, a request with which Louka grudgingly complies.

The hanging of the flags triggers a discussion between Louka and Kolya (conducted in Czech and Russian and relying on word-play mischief) about which one of the flags they prefer, the Soviet or the Czechoslovak one, with Kolya referring to the red flag as ‘ours’ and the Czech one as ‘yours’. The exchange takes place while Louka is kneeling down to untie the boy’s shoes and pull up his socks – symbolically, bending in front of the little Russian (a symbolic bow in front of the colonizer) — while simultaneously mumbling disparaging comments over the Soviet empire-type presence in the Czech Republic and deploring the his fellow-Czechs, whose lives are controlled by the Soviets.

Normally, all exchanges on topics related to Soviets, flags, and loyalties would be heavily ideologically charged and therefore dangerous. Given the fact that Louka’s dissident statements are made in front of an innocuous boy, however, one cannot take them seriously. For this scene, the fearsome Homo Sovieticus is turned into a diminutive boy whose socks need pulling up. In a way, Kolya is as much a Russian invader as the Soviet military in Prague. Yet in the film this presence is no longer dreaded and not even mocked, but related to in a condescendingly friendly and even fatherly manner.

Up until then, Louka’s anti-Soviet remarks would only be whispered and could badly endanger him. In Kolya, however, the daunting colonizing shadow of the Soviets has vanished, and Louka is faced with a diminutive innocuous lad in need of assistance. The trepidation with which people in the Soviet Bloc lived for decades is derided. The condescending friendly gesture of Louka’s fixing Kolya’s socks allegorically celebrates the emancipation of those oppressed by the Soviets. In the context of 1989, the overbearing Soviet presence has evaporated, the (Soviet) occupier is substituted by a fragile (Russian) human being, and liberated East Central Europeans can finally behave as themselves and act as generous and friendly people.

The underlying postcolonial dynamism may not be overtly manifested, yet can easily be revealed in the process of closer analysis, especially in films featuring migrants that have been set on the move as a consequence of the radical social shifts of 1989. Kolya, for one, discloses subtle postcolonial tensions by modifying yesterday’s Soviet coloniser into a youngster who simply cannot be loathed or defied but should instead be taken care of. On the other hand, yesterday’s exploited colonial subjects, one of which is the Czech Louka, can no longer stand proudly against the coloniser. They are expected to take up the unsolicited opportunity to make dependable fatherly decisions to ensure the coloniser’s wellbeing, a newly acquired authority that they do not even know what to do with.

© Dina Iordanova
11 July 2008