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

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

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