Golyamoto noshtno kapane/The Big Night Bathe (Bulgaria, 1980), dir. Binka Zhelyazkova

March 10, 2009 at 1:01 am

An e-mail from a British colleague prompted me to prioritize the viewing of this DVD, which I recently purchased for 3 Bg leva in the Sofia supermarket near where my parents live. As I promised to lend him the film, I thought I should view it before sending it off, just to refresh my memory of it and see if the feeling of serious reservations that it had left me with on first viewing (now nearly 30 years ago!) would change.

The British colleague is interested in Binka Zhelyazkova’s work in general, and for a good reason: she is one of the major feminist directors from Eastern Europe, but, unlike Vera Chytilova or Marta Meszaros, she remains virtually unknown. The man had tried to approach the cinematheque in Sofia to check if they would consider making Binka’s work available, and had received a polite response written in good English which was informing him that, yes, they could produce copies and DVDs and in general help with availability, only they would do this if he could please make his own arrangements toward presenting them with letters from two other Bulgarian institutions that would give the cinematheque authorisation to go ahead with making the material available. Needless to say, the colleague dropped it all at this point (as most other researchers would); seeing this correspondence gave me an interesting glimpse into the absurdities in treating cinematic heritage that everybody working on these matters is constantly confronted with.

Now about the film itself. I still think i is a really week one; I could not help it being truly annoyed by the cartoonish characters, the slow pace, and lack of dramatic tension. If I remember correctly, the plot of the film is based on a real story. During the shooting of a film set in ancient Thrace, a bunch of friends organise a midnight swimming party on the seaside set. Drunken, they decide to play a game where one of them climbs on a stone with a rope on his neck and a sickle in his hand. The others are dancing in a circle and at one point somebody kicks the stone underneath the hangman; to save himself he is supposed to manage cutting the rope with the sickle. Two of the ‘victims’ make it, but in the third instance the young man does not manage to cut the rope and hangs. This is the culminating event in the film, which is preceded by a long (and tedious) build up of what are supposedly character studies of those involved, and is followed by an equally tedious investigation. It is all supposed to expose the drunken and promiscuous environment and the moral decline (of mature socialism) that leads to the sad loss. One of the subplots is the love affair between young gorgeous Ninel and Sava, a relationship that is seriously tested by their class differences (something that would normally not be supposed to exist under socialism). Another subplot tackles ‘The Little Prince’, the son of a highly placed party apparatchik who has just been demoted (so all speculate how their friend will be affected), yet another story included to expose the moral corruption within socialism. All protagonists are good looking, well-to-do, successful, and sexy; yet their problems are not deeply suffered and there is no dramatic development to build up to the moment of the hanging; the 150 min. length of the film can hardly be justified.

Golyamoto noshtno kapane (1980) is scripted, like Binka Zhelyazkova’s previous film, Baseynat/Swimming Pool (1977) by her husband Hristo Ganev, who is responsible also for the script of A byahme mladi/ We Were Young (1961), a film that won the top award at the Moscow International Film Festival but was nonetheless shelved afterwards and created a number of problems both for the director and the screenwriter.* One should immediately say that the script is probably the film’s biggest liability. It is supposed to have been a daring statement of sort, as Hristo Ganev enjoyed the reputation of a dissident writer, and it is probably not politically correct to declare his work weak (especially, as I can imagine, he has probably seen at least some of his work suppressed by the authorities). However, i simply cannot help it calling the script what it is: a feeble work of screenwriting. While it is clearly intended to critique the moral decline that reigned over mature socialism, as revealed here through the disorientation of this lost generation, the film is heavily dominated by small talk dialogue that should have been cut down in order to allow the director use at least some of her imagination. A pity that she does not appear to have had the strength to resist the weak script and take charge.

The second liability is the poor acting. Not much could have been done there, however, provided the heavy dialogue dominates it all. The actors are selected from among the promising new generation of VITIZ gaduates: Nikolay Sotirov (a Mathew Modine look-alike), Yanina Kasheva, Tania Shahova, Lyuben Chatalov — all actors who showed promise but were then affected by the downturn in cinema that came about at the end of the decade when they had launched their careers. For who knows what reason, there are two foreign actors in the cast (not that their presence is logically required, nor that they contribute anything to the performance, as they are both more than boring): Polish Malgorzata Braunek who plays the jaded masseuse Zhana, and Lithianian heart-throb Juozas Budraitis, whose supporting role barely has more than ten lines. I would speculate that the reason these two were in the film is that they simply wanted to spend a paid vacation on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast. The main ‘acting’ is in the heavy dialogues between Nkolay Sotirov (Sava) and Yanina Kasheva (Ninel) and is meant to expose the rift between profound inherent values of carrying morality that is still intact in the provinces (he is taking care of his ill mother in the beautiful mountain hamlet of Melnik) and the inherently corrupt mores exemplified by English-language-school graduate Ninel and her friends, an urban crowd from the capital (new bourgeoisie, so to speak).

There are moments of greatness in this film, however, remnants of Binka Zhelyazkova’s trademark avantgardist brilliance: the occasional low camera shot, the bird-eye view scenes, the filming of animals (killing of birds and crabs), the drum, the dry tree on the stony seaside. These are, however, too few, to compensate for the overwhelming boredom. With the abundance of close up shots of beautiful semi-naked bodies among sand dunes, this film somehow kept referencing in my mind to a relatively recent Vera Chytilová work, the equally weak Vyhnání z ráje/ Expulsion from Paradise (2001), which, even if made more than twenty years later also evolves around sand dunes and relationships, and looks very similar in its beach stories, aesthetics and concerns.

I must confess to taking a profound dislike to all novels and films that feature a group of similar protagonists, and where the focus is on the group dynamics — be it taking place in a boarding school, a student dorm, in a madhouse or, like here, among a group of young people on their summer holidays. It is a large topic that I am not going to go into and which I am mentioning mostly because, strangely enough, it seems it was this kind of group dynamics films that dominated the early 1980s of Bulgarian cinema. The earliest one seems to be Binka Zhelyazkova and Hristo Ganev’s Baseynat/Swimming Pool (1977), about a bunch of young people confronting issues of moral decline, very similar and equally dialogue-heavy as The Big Night Bathe. Then there were films such as Vulo Radev‘s Adaptatsiya/Adaptation (1981), probably the best of this range (about a bunch of young people belonging to a psychoanalysis group), Lavina/ Avalanche (1982), based on Blaga Dimitrova (a bunch of young people forced to confront their moral foundations when challenged by nature), and Rangel Vulchanov‘s A sega nakade?/And Where Do We Go From Here? (1986), about a bunch of young people searching for a moral compass in life. The cycle probably came to an end with Ivan Andonov‘s Vchera/Yesterday (1988) where the bunch of young people affected by a moral crisis put it all squarely on the vicious socialist system. What is noteworthy is that all these films scrutinizing the moral decline in the young generation were made by members of the older generation, directors and writers born in the 1920s and the early 1930s; members of the generation that was being scrutinised (my generation actually, born in the 1960s) simply never had the chance to make films on these matters as by the time we came to maturity, the end of socialist funding for cinema hit and severely limited the chances to develop robust and prolific filmmaking careers. Thus, we never had the chance to give a cinematic response to the diagnostic that older filmmakers were imposing on us.

When I look back now, I realize that I probably hated these films as my life was not particularly different from what was shown in it. We had all adapted to the socialist system which we were not finding particularly onerous, as long as we could go abroad once a year and spend three weeks by leisurely exposing our naked bodies on the cliffs near the village of Varvara, where, for many years, the dry tree used as a prop for the hanging in The Big Night Bathe was still standing. We were passing by it every day, on our way to the nudist beach, and then also on most nights, on our way to the late night parties that were full of alcohol, locally sourced and prepared food, and heterosexual sex: pretty much the same stuff that is seen in the film.

* See my piece on these matters: Iordanova, Dina. “Binka Zhelyazkova” In: Censorship: A World Encyclopedia (ed. Derek Jones), London/Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publ., 2001, vol 4, pp. 2705/6.

© Dina Iordanova
10 March 2009

Syostry/Sisters (Russia, 2001, Sergei Bodrov Jr.): Invisibility at the Festival Circuit

December 16, 2008 at 12:51 pm

Is it possible that a certain type of circulation through the festival circuit can keep an excellent film away from the eyes of entrepreneurial producers who shop around for re-make material? Evidently yes. Otherwise I cannot imagine how a little gem like this one has not yet been re-made in Hollywood, provided it has everything one takes, and more, for a perfectly shaped tense psychological crime thriller. It seems it is the specific circuit of exposure of this film that pre-determines its relative obscurity: Sisters has been in good international circulation and it has played at the festival circuit, so formally it has been ‘seen’. Yet it has either appeared in those sidebars that remain overlooked at the large festivals, or it has come to the limelight at secondary festivals that are not attended by the players interested in optioning or remakes (and are thus enhancing its ‘invisibility’).

The film premiered in Russia and had a good run domestically in 2001, with awards from the Russian Guild of Film Critics and at the Moscow International Film Festival. It then played at the Venice Film Festival, from where it was picked up for Cottbus Film Festival of Young East European Cinema (October), Vancouver (October), Thessaloniki (mid November), Trieste Film Festival (January), Rotterdam (end of January), Karlovy Vary (July 2002), European Film Week in Hungary (December 2002). It has had a regular run in Russia Estonia, Netherlands, Sweden and Finland, sometimes on television. It received international awards and nominations at Tromsø International Film Festival, Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, Bratislava International Film Festival. And this is, more or less, the circuit that has granted the film its relative invisibility, one that can be accounted to the timing of festival entry, and other circulation factors.

This excellently scripted film relies on a simple premise: the dynamics in the strained yet supportive relationship between two half-sisters. The older one, Sveta (played by Oksana Akinshina of Lilja 4-Ever fame) is 14; her father has abandoned her as a baby and her mother has remarried. The mother’s current husband is Alik, a charismatic gangster who hails from the Caucasus and is linked to Chechen and other mafias. Dina (excellently played by Katya Gorina), the younger sister, is about eight. She is Alik’s daughter. Even though she knows her father has just been released from jail, Dina enjoys her father’s love and care; she feels superior to Sveta and reminds her on every opportunity how much her father cares for her. Soon enough, however, a group of intelligently-looking gangsters are after the girls, especially after the Dina, whose possible abduction they see as a good opportunity to blackmail Alik into paying back some old debts. Even though Alik thinks he can protect the girls, it so happens that they are soon on the run and on their own. It is a perilous period during which the sisters are close to disaster more than one time, and during which they survive mostly thanks to Sveta’s industriousness and dedication. It is an ordeal which makes these otherwise quite estranged sisters finally bond with each other.

There are many ingredients that make this small film particularly charming. The girl’s fascination with dancing dressed as Indian women, to the music from some Bollywood blockbuster is a feature true to reality (Russian women are known to seek escapism in exotic India). The song performed here on several occasions, and at the end of the film where the sisters dance to its tune dressed in saris, is credited as Dekhar hai pehgi bar (referenced to Nadeem Saravan, Sameer, Alka Tagnik, S.P. Bala). Then, there are the numerous references to Russian-Korean singer Victor Tsoi (1962-1990), a cult figure of the Soviet perestroika period, whose music is featured in the clip that I am embedding here from You Tube, as well as in the film.

When the sisters are in trouble, they are accepted by a large Gypsy family from whom they immediately pick some survival tips. The representation of these supportive pragmatic Romanies subverts the stereotypes that are usually in circulation when it comes to depicting this ethnic group. Sveta’s need for a fatherly figure is partially relieved by a brief encounter with an unnamed young gangster (played by the film’s director himself) who takes a friendly interest in her superior marksmanship skills.

Sisters is the only film that Sergei Bodrov Jr. released as director. Son of well-known transnational filmmaker Sergei Bodrov, he had come to early fame in Russia as an actor of cult standing, mostly for his roles as Danila Bagrov in Aleksei Balabanov’s Brat (1997) and Brat 2 (2000). He was working on his second directorial project in the Caucasus, when his crew became a victim of a massive and unexpected mud slide. His life was cut short at the age of 30.

© Dina Iordanova
16 December 2008

Confession/ Povinnost (Russia, Aleksandr Sokurov, 1998): A homoerotic film of cult potential

November 27, 2008 at 1:15 am

Among the films I watched over recent days, Sokurov’s Confession/ Povinnost (1998) impressed me the most. Not so much the film itself, as I admit to not be particularly fond of films that run over 200 minutes at a slow pace. My fascination came more from the two realizations which I made while seeing it, and immediately thereafter. First, Confession (more accurately translated as Service of Duty) is one of the most intensely homoerotc films I have ever seen, yet it does not seem to be a film that is recognized in the context of gay cinema. Secondly, the few reviews of the film downplay the intense homoeroticism or interpret it as a minor feature while foregrounding other aspects, thus raising questions about the underlying reasons of such critical myopia.

The first dimension: Homoerotic motives, have been present in Sokurov’s work from early on, at least since the feature Dni zatmeniya/ Days of Eclipse (1988, pictured) and the five-hour long documentary Spiritual Voices/Dukhovnie golosa (1995), both films evolving around Caucasian and Asian men cast away in some remote Asian locations, Turkmenistan in the first case and Afghanistan in the second. In Confession, which is set on a military ship in Russia’s far north, nothing much happens by way of action. There is a voice-over which reads excerpts from the ship captain’s diary, passages that are not directly linked to what one sees on screen, mostly evolving around matters of commitment, dedication, or endurance. In contrast to the voice-over, the visuals of this meditative film mostly consist of gentle and yet unrelentless scrutiny of the semi-naked bodies of the sailors. The camera endlessly dances around their daily routines on board in Murmansk. In most instances the young men are shown sleeping, scrubbing floors, sorting out their clothes or beds. Usually, they are naked from the waste up, but they occasionally wear horizontally striped T-shirts, as if having come out from a gay comic strip. Their bodies are lean rather than muscular, and nothing explicitly sexual is taking place. Yet, the innuendo is so intense that the constant mutual avoidance of bodies makes the attraction much more convincing than one could have achieved though the display of actual sexual acts.

What is more curious to me is the second aspect, which concerns the critical reviews of the film. In the overall, the reviews that I was able to find, generally evade discussing the homoeroticism of Confession (while I believe this to be the uniquely defining feature of the film). True, reviewers cannot help it but mentioning this aspect, but they usually do it only in passing. The reviewer at PopMatters, for example, talks about ‘suppressed desires’ and is quick to veer away from discussing this aspect of the film by warning that ‘Sokurov has repeatedly warned against any homoerotic interpretation of his films, but speculation remains as to whether such conviction is a necessary concession to a homophobic Russian public.’ He opts to honor the warning of the director and interprets the film in the categories of despair, monotony and oppression (all these supposedly being inherent features of military life — something I would tend to agree with). The reviewer at The Village Voice describes the film as a ‘fictionalized meditation on life aboard an Arctic naval ship, pensively decked out with some of the oddest visions of edge-of-the-map industrialization ever captured’. The reviewer in The Chicago Reader sees it as an exploration of ‘the way human consciousness can become a prison, walling off the self from visual, emotional, or physical contact’. Most reviews declare the film profoundly Russian in its concerns and representation, some mention the references to Chekhov made during a conversation between the Commander and his friend. Yes, all these aspects could be found in the film if one watches it carefully. Yet if one engages in such careful and patient viewing, it would be impossible to not be overwhelmed by the intense homo-eroticism which dominates nearly every shot. There is a deep gap between the voice-over commentary in this film and the imagery. The pensive voice-over commentary based on the Commander’s philosophical diary is in such a drastic contrast with the image on the screen that one could not possibly overlook it.

Had this film been made in Soviet times, I am sure it would have been interpreted along the lines of censorship and the director would have been praised for using smart smokescreen techniques that attach a benign text to a radically subversive imagery. Well, we are now well beyond the times of Soviet censorship, and critics have had to abandon the interpretative tools that the regime’s censorship practices was supplying them with. But then, why would one avoid naming the things one sees on screen, and acknowledging the divergence between commentary and visual representation? Isn’t it more a matter of which one of our (apparently split) critical abilities we would choose to follow — one’s instinct, linked more to what is on display to see and experience through the eyes, or one’s mind trusting mostly what one hears in the commentary, in the spoken or written word. The second, verbal dimension of the film, is rational and meditative, and invited for a Brechtian distant-type reception (and this was the way critics have apparently felt they would or should interpret the film). But then, the first aspect is so overwhelmingly present and yet so unrelated to the verbal commentary (clearly an intentional effect), that the disparity becomes drastic at moments. If I trusted my eyes, this was a film that was speaking of desire and physical attraction, and doing it so powerfully through the use of visuals that everything else just came across as a mockery. The series of images of the film were erotic art of high order, with skinny Russian sailors putting their precious bodies on display — snuggling in their bunk beds, fidgeting with gadgets, looking at books, discussing if they should sleep naked or on their clothes. The monotony was just another opportunity to revisit the view of someone’s torso. The despair, the repetitiveness of military life — an excuse to linger around and gaze more at these amazingly beautiful male species. Why is it that the critics had rejected it to pick up on the discrepancy between the two possible aspects of interpreting the film, when, I believe, it was simply shouting out at the viewer? Not that they would not have seen it. I wonder if this is not more about the way in which one canonizes the interpretation of certain auteurs. Bergman, Tarkovsky, Sokurov…

I see a short piece on the matter of the gay dimension in Sokurov’s work at CinePassion, but the writer only mentions other films and mostly focuses on Father and Son (2003) (pictured). If he were to see Confession, much of his uncertainty would be dispelled.

The two DVD-set containing all five parts of the film has been released by Facets in the US, but it is in fact an import from France, and it is therefore produced to much higher standards than the usual Facets fare. The film is subtitled in all major European languages. The second DVD contains an interesting digital booklet which one can read through the computer and which provides background to the director and the film, once again avoiding the gay theme altogether.

© Dina Iordanova
25 November 2008

Buy from Amazon

René Vautier: Anti-Colonial Filmmaker

November 8, 2008 at 12:32 am

I first heard the name of René Vautier from Erwan Moalic, the powerhouse behind the remarkable film festival in Douarnenez, a true community-based festival dedicated to working class audiences and featuring films on ethnic and other minorities (in existence since the 1970s). I was asking Erwan if he could please identify what was the ideological influence that had informed the establishment of the Douarnenez event, and he named Vautier, whom he described as a hugely important but little known and widely-suppressed Breton filmmaker. The description proved correct, as when I asked around about Vautier at a later point (talking mostly to colleagues in anthropology and French based in the UK and the US), almost no one knew of him (I gather, I did not ask the right people): I was left with the impression that the filmmaker is not as widely known as he apparently should be. Eventually I was nicely surprised to come across a lengthy article on him in the Financial Times (of all places), in which author Tobias Grey described him as ‘the most censored of all French filmmakers’. Luckily, there is the Internet where one can find more on him, from the good French-language Wikpedia article to various write ups on his classic anti-colonialist film Afrique’50 and on his best-known film, the documentary-style feature Avoir 20 ans dans les Aurès (1972).

It is this film,
To be Twenty in the Aures, that prompted me to write on Vautier today, as I finally got round to watching the French language DVD I had purchased in France a few months ago. It is a memorable and certainly extremely brave feature, which can be taken for documentary at moments, especially when featuring extreme scenes such as the rape of a local woman or the torture of detainees (scenes that surpass in intensity similar scenes from such anti-war classics as Brian de Palma’s Casualties of War or recent Iraqi-war themed films like Nick Broomfield’s The Battle for Haditha). A platoon of hesitant French soldiers are fighting the colonial war, being fed daily doses of indoctrination from the radio dispatches and from their own lieutenant Perrin (a remarkable young Philippe Léotard), yet the things that happen on the ground and the local relationships they forge make them more and more disillusioned about the supposedly patriotic mission they are serving. The only French film to be included in the Cannes selection in 1972, the film received the FIPRESCI prize. Aesthetically it is a pre-cursor of Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (1993); at moments I also thought that certain scenes in it may have influenced Bill Douglas’ Comrades (1986) — both films featuring European men who are essentially displaced by being transplanted to a Southern environment. The film is released by Doriane Films, a distributor that carries the work of filmmakers like Peter Watkins and Ousmane Sembene. I see that in the Amazon.fr site, from where it is available for sale, this rare DVD ranks at around 30,000 level of popularity. Sad.

The DVD features various extras, most importantly a 55 minute-long extraction of his earlier work on colonialism in Algeria, called Peuple en marche which presents the anti-colonial stance of the director particularly persuasively and features what I suppose is an extremely rare footage (as Vautier is, reportedly, the only French filmmaker who has filmed the war in Algeria from the point of view of the colonized). The 23 minute documentary called Vautier The Indomitable which chronicles the life of the director, was particularly important to see, especially as it features the sequence of systematic suppression of his work over the years (filming, prison terms, filming again, hunger strike, filming, censorship, and so on) in a light-hearted manner, evidently this being the way in which Vautier prefers to present himself. Born in Bretagne in 1928, he has remained at the periphery of French militant filmmaking. It is sad to see he is so little known, provided that what I saw of his work appears to be so enormously important: after all, he filmed in Algeria at the very same time when Frantz Fanon was writing his seminal The Wretched of the Earth (1961). Yet spending time in Paris earlier this year, I did not come across any mentions of Vautier nor across events that would feature his work (whereas, in conjunction with the commemorations of 1968, there were plenty of discussions of other similarly-motivated groups, such as the Medvedkine collective and others).

© Dina Iordanova
6 November 2008

And End of an Era? Popular cinema, Gordon Gekko’s ‘Greed is Good!’ and the collapse of Wall Street

October 7, 2008 at 6:51 am

Twenty-one years on, Gordon Gekko, the stockbroker that preached ‘Greed is good!’ in this famous speech from Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987), is topical again.

This time around he pops up in The New York Times columnists Tim Arango and Julie Creswell’s article entitled Goodbye to All That: The Wall St. Lifestyle (October 5, 2008) in which they cover what they have wishfully termed an ‘end of an era’. The article abounds with stories of the lifestyle of excess and exclusivity, illustrated with pictures of pop culture financial abuse legends such as Michael Milken and Ivan O. Boesky, linked to the crash of 1987. Most of all, however, the authors are trying to make references to today’s situation. As the more recent names to name and pictures to come along for those leading the financial extravananza are still not really ‘short-listed’ as of yet, there is a photograph of a fleet of glossy black S-Class Mercedeses parked in front of the Lehman Brothers building on the day of their noisy bankruptcy a few weeks ago (there was an article in the Financial Times on 4 October 2008, on the art collection of Lehman Brothers’ Richard Flud and his wive, which is to fetch millions in a forthcoming sale at Sotheby’s). The main question that Arango and Creswell asked in their article is: in what ways the demise of Wall Street will trickle down into popular culture.

I am also interested in this question. The authors quote from an interview with Oliver Stone, the morality guru, who apparently has been clear about the true essence of Gordon Gekkos throughout. The illumination of the deeply criminal nature of the Wall Street ethos apparently has come to him long before he made the film, in the context of researching for his script for Brian de Palma’s Scarface in Miami in the early 1980s. ‘What shocked me,’ Stone reiterates, ‘was I met with all these guys who at a young age were making millions and they were acting like these guys in Miami […] There’s not much difference between Gordon Gekko and Tony Montana.’

While I write this, my TV is on, it is morning here in Chicago. CNN just showed Obama saying that the current financial crisis is due to the years of greed that has ruled America (this was almost literally repeated in another clip they played immediately thereafter, featuring McCain). It is an interesting moment to realise to what extent articulations that have first come about in the context of popular culture, in films such as Wall Street and The Bonfire of Vanities, now reemerge to define our understanding of the modern age.

These days I am staying on campus at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park. The waitresses in the nearby Medici cafe wear T-Shirts that say ‘Obama eats here’, and the shops in the vicinity offer Obama merchandise; his house is not far. The TV brings in more and more of gloomy financial news, banks and markets continue collapsing on both sides of the Atlantic (it seems it is RBS’s turn today, 39% further down from the bottom it had hit yesterday). Yet at the same time it is all very relaxed: there is central air conditioning where I am staying. I am the only person staying on this floor with eleven guest rooms and yet the AC keeps working on full speed and it cannot be controlled or stopped. It is October, for God’s sake, it is not really necessary to use up so much energy to cool down an empty place, right? On the street polite and cheerful campaigners are asking you to ‘save the planet’ by separating your rubbish for recycling. It all gives me an interesting feel of a smooth descent into a post-financial apocalypse.

© Dina Iordanova
7 October 2008

Maradona by Kusturica (Spain/France, 2008): A Political Documentary

September 13, 2008 at 1:16 am

Maradona by Kusturica (2008), an updated version of a documentary that was partially released in 2005 or 2006, played at Cannes in May 2008 and was released across France shortly thereafter. The posters advertising the film and featuring a campy-looking disheveled Kusturica in front of a Maradona mural were ubiquitous — all over the Paris metro, all over popular public hang outs like Les Halles or around MK2 Bibliotheque. I saw the film at the MK2 Quai de Loire/Quai de Seine complex in an afternoon screening which was attended by about 15 audience, not bad for a matinee on a weekday. So far the film has only played theatrically in France and Italy where Kusturica still has a strong fan base; an eventual DVD release is likely to give it a better international exposure. It is unlikely, however, to see this film released in the USA or the UK. I would be glad to be proven wrong on this prediction. However, I believe that British and American distributors are likely to find it awkward to make available to their domestic constituencies a film that is full of harsh comments on key politicians and political moves taken by the UK or the USA over the past decades (especially as some of these moves, like the Falklands war or the bombing of Serbia in 1999 enjoyed a degree of popular support here). It is an open question how such not releasing the film should be interpreted, and it is one that is raised in different ways throughout this political documentary, which asks essentially if there is space for opinions and worldviews that dare to differ.

Those who expect to see a portrait of football star Maradona here may be in for some disappointment. Surely, Maradona is present, there is extensive footage of him as a child, of him as the world’s best footballer, of him as a loving family man, of him as a vulnerable ill man in later years, of him as a recovered addict, and so on. The focus of the film, however, is on Maradona’s politics and his view of the imbalances of the world, especially where his politics intersects with Kusturica’s views. At the Cannes press conference on the film Maradona said that ‘we are not all obliged to think as the Americans do’ and pointed out that people living in different countries are entitled to interpret international politics from the point of view of where they stand in the world. It is precisely the combination of this conviction (the right to differ and speak up) and the high visibility of Maradona (and of Kusturica himself) that the director uses to turn the film into a political documentary that accommodates dissenting views that need to be aired.

There is quite a bit in Maradona by Kusturica that is not usually seen widely or positively covered in mainstream media in the West: Maradona’s admiration for Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, his visit to Belgrade in the aftermath of Kosovo, Kusturica’s views on the adverse effects of IMF and G8 policies on countries in Latin America and elsewhere, plenty of animations that caricature American and British politicians. The film is most certainly not ‘politically correct’, an intended effect that the the director clearly seeks to achieve. Having endured all sorts of criticisms of his politics in the aftermath of Underground, Kusturica has clearly resolved to speak up his mind. It is probably this resolve that characterizes his recent work as well as the reason that brings Maradona and Kusturica together stronger than their love for football.

Writing in Screen International from Cannes, Jonathan Romney gave it a reserved review, saying that the film is as much about Maradona as it is about Kusturica. I believe he is right in this observation, but while Romney seemed to mean this in a critical sense, I see this merger between object and author of the documentary as one of its most interesting aspects. What brings the footballer and the director together is not simply Kusturica’s fandom and his admiration for Maradona, and it is not simply the fact that, as Kusturica said at the press conference at Cannes, both he and Maradona are very Dyonisian, in a sense that chaos dominates over rationality. Equally important is the fact that they both belong to peripheral nations that see themselves as having been wronged by America and Britain and that they are both prepared to use their celebrity to bring into the public space a piece of political commentary that is alive but confined to subterranean popular discourse and, if not brought to light by figures of their degree of visibility, would remain fully shut out.

The footage of Maradona’s faithful 1986 World Cup goal in Argentina’s semi-final against England is replayed repeatedly not just for the sake of football lovers, but mostly to reiterate all over again a situation where a weaker nation scores against an imperial power that has just defeated it in a war. In an interview in the French film magazine Split Screen Kusturica explains that the intention was for the film to evolve around the goal that Maradona scored after dribbling seven English players during this legenday match between Argentina and England, an event that is taking place not long after the war between Argentina and the UK over the Falkland islands. Each part of the film returns to a replay of this memorable goal, and each one of the seven English players passed, Kusturica says, is then ‘transformed into some personality that has made our lives difficult, likewise for the Argentinians and for the Serbs: Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, George Bush’ (Split Screen, Autimn, 2007, p. 6). Political personalities that that are featured as adverse figures in the animated sequences of the film include Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, the Queen and even Prince Charles.

The film includes many memorable scenes which Kusturica has opted to leave without much commentary or contextualization as they are sufficiently expressive on their own. One is the specific fan ‘siege’ that Maradona experiences during a visit to Naples, showing the menace of crowds and revealing the downside of celebrity. Another one is a scene in a karaoke bar, apparently in Argentina, where the footballer has come with his wife, daughters and friends. At one point Maradona stands up and delivers a memorable performance at the mike, a seemingly improvised song in which he talks about his life, his ordeals, his mistakes, and his optimism. It is powerful and impressive. The point of the interconnectedness between the two men is clearly articulated throughout the film. At concerts of his rock group No Smoking Orchestra, Kusturica is routinely introduced as “The Diego Armando Maradona of cinema”. In the documentary he goes a step further and continuously uses excerpts of his own films, from Dolly Bell (1981) and When Father Was Away on Business (1985) to recent Life is a Miracle (2004) and Promise Me This (2007), thus cross referencing Maradona’s story with his own life, with his artistic concerns and vision.

Maradona and Kusturica compare in more aspects: they both achieve fame at a relatively early age, they both ‘have it all,’ they both have been exposed to harsh public criticism at one time or another, and they both are resolved to live as they believe they should, in spite controversy or adversity. In that, I believe that Maradona by Kusturica is a film of key importance in the director’s career, an act of soul-searching in the process of portraying someone else.

My favorite moment is the final scene, which is clearly set up by the director and yet has an incredible degree of spontaneity as it seems it came as a surprise to the footballer. Maradona is leaving the site where they just shot an interview just as one of two inconspicuously looking guys with guitars leaning at the graffiti-sprayed wall opposite begin singing a song, it is all very casual. One gradually realizes that the singer is Manu Chao, the famous transnational musician, who is performing his La vida es una tombola, the lyrics of which open with the conditional ‘If I were Maradona…’ and then go on saying how one would live and that one would not regret about anything. Maradona approaches and stands in front of the singer, listening. He is wearing dark glasses, but one can see that, behind the shades, he is crying.

© Dina Iordanova
13 September 2008

Privideniye, kotoroe ne vozvrashchayetsya/ The Ghost That Never Returns (USSR, 1929) Abram Room

August 31, 2008 at 12:56 am

Like his famous Tretya meshchanskaya/ Bed and Sofa (1927), this 66 minute-long silent film by director Abram Room (1894-1976) is an existential drama disguised as a saga about the proletarian struggle. The Ghost That Never Returns (1929) presents a lonely and insecure individual who is challenged to act more heroically than he is prepared to, but who constantly questions his confidence and loyalties.

The film is set in an unnamed South American country. Jose Real is a labor leader who is sentenced to life in jail. But even though he is safely kept behind bars, the guards are not satisfied and look for an opportunity to get rid of him. So they plot to assassinate him by staging an escape. As someone who has already served ten years, Jose is eligible for a day of liberty in order to visit his family. The prison officials plan to send him on this visit and ensure that he is killed during that day. In order to achieve their goal they send an experienced executor to trail Jose. The rest of the film consists of convoluted series of moves and chases amidst impressively rugged landscapes, at the end of which Jose manages to get back home (in spite all obstacles), to see his little son and his wife, and to reconnect with his fellow-communists who are about to begin a strike. Not a single man who has been sent off to such a day of freedom has ever returned to prison, usually because he would have been killed by the guards. But not Jose — he does not return either, but it is because he turns into a phantom of liberty. Protected by his comrades, he comes to lead the looming strike.

The depiction of South American life and landscape in the film appears convincing. There are some avant garde sets representing the prison, reminiscent of sets used by Fritz Lang in Metropolis (I thought of links to Fritz Lang’s aesthetics of the time more than once while watching the film). The film is based on the writing of Henri Barbusse (1873-1935), a French writer who had moved to Russia in 1918 and who closely sympathized with the Bolsheviks (he also authored biopics on Trotsky and Stalin). There is proficient camera work (by Dmitri Feldman who later on worked primarily in the context of Armenian and Georgian cinema), at moments reminiscent to the visual experiments of Vertov just a few years earlier, using multiplication of the image to create psychologically tense effect. The original music score (by A. Shenshin) is truly impressive.

The DVD, by Bach Films, contained an interesting bonus: The 1908 short feature ‘Stenka Razin’ by Vladimir Romashkov, a rare visual treat produced by A. Drankov’s studio. Less than ten minutes long, the film tells the story of a group of freewheeling outlaws and a kidnapped Oriental princess, whom they throw in the Volga at the end of the film. It is shot interesting tableau-like settings and is one of the earliest surviving Russian films.

The film is released with French intertitles only and can be purchased from the French Amazon site.

© Dina Iordanova
31 August 2008

Aerograd (USSR, 1935), Alexandr Dovzhenko

August 29, 2008 at 12:03 am

Yet another rare film I got the chance to see at the Cinematheque in Bercy in Paris earlier this year, Dovzhenko’s Aerograd (1935). It was not full of airplanes and futuristic imagery as the name (Aero City) had led me to expect, and it is most certainly not a ‘futuristic adventure story’ as the Wikipedia article claims, but rather a social film that reflects the situation in the far East of Russia in the mid-1930s and is pretty much in line with the official political line of the Soviet government at the time.

The film is set in the middle of the Siberian forests, where Russian and Chinese ethnicities co-exist side by side and intermarry, and comments on a contemporary political situation. The local community is on the brink of civil war, split between a group of Starovery (Old Believers) who, chased away by the Bolshevik revolution, have migrated to this remote location from more central parts of Russia and the community of other locals, who are loyal to the Bolshevik government. The tensions are fueled by the fact that a group of Japanese-led saboteurs have entered the territory and seek to incite the Old Believers to rebel against Soviet power. Most of the six saboteurs are intercepted and killed, but one of them, a samurai, has managed to hide and is now engaged in subversive activities. He is helped by a local man, Vassiliy, who hides him. Soon thereafter, however, Vassiliy is exposed as traitor. The protagonist of the film, Stepan, who is Vassiliy’s friend since childhood, is charged with the task of executing his best friend. Other difficult decisions need to be made as well; by the end of the film the local men, Russian and Chinese fighting alongside each other, have managed to deal away with the rebels. They have secured the piece that is necessary for the next generation, to enable them fulfilling the dream of proudly building Aerograd, the city of their dreams. The glorious construction will be led by Stepan’s son, the pilot.

Here is a video clip which shows the confrontation between the protagonist’s on (the only pilot in the film), the Japanese saboteur, as well as an interesting Old Believer character, whose loyalties are split.

I found two aspects of this film particularly interesting. First, the clear suggestion that Japanese aggression was expected and depicted as imminent. Secondly, the interesting portrayal of the split within the community of Old Believers. It is known that in the latter part of the 1930s significant parts of the community migrated to Manjuria; after the end of WWII they were again forced to migrate further, ending up on the other side of the Pacific, scattered around localities in South America and the west of Canada.

One of the film’s cinematographers is Eduard Tisse, known from his work with Eisenstein. Many amateurs took part in the shots as extras, local people who otherwise would probably never be in a film. The multi ethnic cast reflects the multicultural nature of the Soviet society, especially of these parts of Russia; it is an aspect that often escapes us and needs to be recognized more centrally, especially in the context of other important films that tackle the Soviet expansion into Asia, as seen in films like Pudovkin’s Potomok Chingis-Khana/Storm over Asia (1928) and Vertov’s Three Songs of Lenin (1935), an important colonization which has been highlighted in numerous post-war films as well (e.g. in Andrey Konchalovsky’s Perviy uchitel/The First Teacher, 1966). Reportedly, Aerograd, which also played in the US at the time, was on the Top Ten list of favorite films of Elia Kazan; it also figures on Jonathan Rosenbaum’s list of 1000 essential films.

Aerograd is a dream city which will be built on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. For the time being, only one of the protagonists is flying, a pilot who is always smiling and who drops home only from time to time (like when his Chinese wife has given birth to a baby boy). A young Chukche man travels hundreds of miles, determined to shed off his nation’s isolation and join the new life. It all ends up with a view of the glorious sun coming out of the sea; the socialist realist ending shows proud dreamers, gathering on the shores of the Pacific from all parts of the vast Soviet Union. They are committed to building Aergorad, which now becomes synonymous with the future of the country. It is only at the end of the film that the depiction of flying takes prominent place, with a spectacular skydiving show and under the accompaniment of glorious music, as seen in this clip.

The film, with no subtitles, is available to view at
http://www.archive.org/details/aerograd.

© Dina Iordanova
29 August 2008

Time of the Gypsies: Punk Rock Opera, Emir Kusturica, 2007

August 24, 2008 at 12:42 am

On arrival in Paris in March earlier this year, I almost immediately came across large posters in the metro, advertising the extended run of Kusturica’s rock opera version of his acclaimed 1989 film Time of the Gypsies. There were only a few days left to go see the spectacle, but when I inquired I realized that I was not really prepared to spend the 75 Euro for the ticket; I did not think it would be worth it. As I did not go to see the live show, I cannot really judge if I was right in my decision to skip it. Eventually, however, I bought the DVD recording of the same show and have now watched it. It is available from FNAC and Amazon in France, in a French subtitled version. There is no evidence that this punk opera has played elsewhere, but this may change.

The forty-five strong team behind the opera is as follows: The music, much of which relies on recycling traditional Romani folk songs (including the famous Ederlezi), is credited to Dejan Sparavalo, Nenad Jankovic (a.k.a. Dr. Nele Karajlic), and Stribor Kusturica (the director’s son who has been authoring the music for most of his father’s recent films). The libretto is by Dr. Karajlic, and the score is performed by The No Smoking Orchestra and by The Garbage Serbian Philharmonics. On the DVD the performance is listed as using the Romani language (‘Tsigane’) but in fact there was singing in a variety of languages, including English and Serbian. Closely following the plot of the film, the show was disappointing in the degree to which it was being pedestrian: the score was more than mundane at moments, the singing mediocre for the most part, the acting overdone, the mise-en-scene crowded, the colours too bright; the cast was exuding forced excitement that lacked in endearment.

I personally believe it is a pity to see the wonderful Time of the Gypsies and its magic realist imagery of recycled into such brash inferiority. But then, it is the director’s right to exploit his material in ways that he sees fit. And the material is all here: Flocks of ducks cross the scene, cardboard boxes move around, flying brides and ascending protagonists abound. All of Kusturica’s trademark iconography is mobilized for the enjoyment of his dedicated French fans who enthuse at the appearance of each one of these familiar images. In case this is not enough, there are also dwarfs and soap bubbles. Occasional scenes from the film (e.g. the magnificent river vista from Perhan’s first dream) are used on the background, projected on the stage with the image of the actor currently playing Perhan, superimposed on it (with his sweet looks, this one is miles removed from the bespectacled charm of the late Davor Dujmovic, who played in the original film).

In the context of viewing the DVD, I could not help thinking yet once again that the continuous close collaboration with Dr. Nele Karajlic is Kusturica’s biggest liability of recent years. The history of the friendship between the two can be traced back to Sarajevo over nearly three decades, and is rooted in the contex of the ‘surrealist’ punk group of which the director was part back in his native town (see Top Lista Nadrealista, 1984). Dr. Karajlic, a rock musician, resurfaced as a pillar of Kusturica’s creative entourage after the director’s much publicized split with acclaimed composer Goran Bregovic (who has since pursued a successful international career with his Orchestra for Weddings and Funerals). Dr. Karajlic, who authored the music for Black Cat,White Cat (1998), is the driving force behind the No Smoking Orchestra and behind many of the noisy and portentious commercial ventures to the marketing of which Kusturica has lent his name over the past several years (concert tours, CD releases, etc.). In the punk opera Dr. Karajlic appears in the role of Ahmed, the Godfather, which he squanders with unconvincing stage presence, obtuse acting, and ghastly singing in heavily accented English — all these skills applied intentionally in an evidently sound effort to sicken and put off.

The accompanying ‘Making of…’ documentary shows Kusturica and Dr. Karajlic bickering over the idea of an ‘opera’, with Kusturica defending it and Dr. Karajlic, a dedicated punk rocker, disputing it. They end up at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem where each one of them leaves a little note with a wish. Kusturica wins and the opera materializes. The rest of the documentary shows various stages of the preparations and the rehearsals. It also includes a shot featuring a long line of people who are queuing in front of the Bastille Opera, allegedly to get themselves tickets to the event. Well, it is a known fact that the French evidently still like Kusturica, even though some comments made by my French acquaintances suggested that his latest feature, Promise Me, has prompted some cooling down even among his most hard-core fans.

© Dina Iordanova
24 August 2008

The film Time of the Gypsies (1989), a largely unavailable masterpiece, has finally been released on a DVD in France (unfortinately, it only has got French subtitles). You can buy it through the link below. See also my book, Emir Kusturica (London: Britsh Film Institute, 2002).

The Steamroller and the Violin/ Katok i skripka (1961, USSR) Andrei Tarkovsky

July 26, 2008 at 2:01 am

Tarkovsky’s diploma film, a 43-minute long novella, is of interest to see from several points of view: first, it allows to trace the formation of Tarkovsky’s future cinematic style; secondly, it allows to see and contextualize the building blocs of the narrative approach in which the director was trained; and third, it reveals a certain degree of homoeroticism.

As far as style is concerned, in this color film one already stumbles upon some of the images that we know as Tarkovsky’s trademark, mostly the the interplay of light and shadow on walls (which can take a wide range of moods, from unsettling to playful) and the close up shots of static or moving water. Many of the stunning crisp black and white imagery of Tarkovsky’s next film, Ivan’s Childhood (1962), already appear here but have lesser impact in color (apples, metal rods, confined cellar-like spaces, shiny water surfaces, and so on). I could not help marveling to what extent one can see the direct influence of Mikhail Kalatozov’s work here. There are shots that appear as if directly borrowed from the image inventory of Cranes are Flying (1957) — shiny puddles of water, prolonged shots tracking the protagonists moving along an iron-cast fence, and so on. Of course, by now it is clear that this generation was vastly influenced by the camerawork of Sergei Urusevsky, the unsung hero of Soviet cinema of the period, so this should not be such an unusual discovery.

When it comes to the plot, I cannot help feeling somewhat cynical, as The Steamroller and Violin ticks all the right boxes for the required/approved narrative of the period. Co-scripted by future director Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovski, himself an offspring of the politically well-heeled Moscow elites, the film features a working class protagonist, an encounter of old and new, and a subtle class conflict which presents the bourgeoisie in critical light.

Seven year old Sasha is one of these tormented children that have to spend three hours a day practicing a musical instrument just to satisfy the sick ambition of their parents. Already alienated and withdrawn as a result of his peculiar routines, Sasha quickly regains his innocuous charm when he accidentally meets and befriends worker Sergei, who works on a steamroller in their upscale Moscow neighborhood. Sasha and Sergei hang out in the courtyard, and then make a date to go to the cinema in the evening to see ‘Chapayev’ (equivalent to an intention to go see Indiana Jones). Once Sasha’s mother returns, however, the plan meets with her disapproval; Sasha is to stay in their bourgeois-style apartment to welcome a set of approved guests. Thus, the meeting of the new generation (Sasha) with the exciting working class (Sergei) is prevented by the stuffy routines of the bourgeoisie (Sasha’s mother). But this status quo will not persist. Old and new are shown meeting and clashing in this film (through images of old buildings destroyed to reveal shiny new architectural gems of the Stalinist skyscrapers variety), and the new always prevails. Sasha may not be going to the cinema tonight and may remain confined to his high-brow violin routines for a while; but in his heart he is already irreversibly seduced by the bold life of proud socialist construction out there.

Watching this film in 2008, in an age when children are not left to walk alone on the street until they are teenagers and when media constantly warn us about pedophiles stalking from all over in real and cyber-space, this film contains scenes that would be every present-day mother’s nightmare. Sasha moves through the city unaccompanied and without any supervision (precisely as I did when I was a child in Sofia in the 1960s); he is free to meet unknown men and to hang out with them in isolated places. It is not possible to see this film today without shudder — which also allows us to judge the extent of moral panic on this particular topic.

But there is also the homoerotic dimension: even though there is a woman who hangs around clearly available and interested, the male protagonist, Sergei, prefers to be in the company of the boy. It is a matter of mutual attraction between superior human beings. When the boy does not materialize, Sergei succumbs going to the cinema with the woman. Similar subtle hints are present throughout Ivan’s Childhood, where, among other subplots tackling the relations between the sexes, the fragile teenager Ivan (who is every bit as attractive as Tadzio of Death in Venice) gains all the attention of the handsome Lt. Galtsev, with the lieutenant droping his pursuit of a female fellow-soldier for the sake of tending to the exhausted boy.

© Dina Iordanova
26 July 2008