Isaac Passy (1928-2010)

August 19, 2010 at 5:16 am

A few days ago, early in the morning, my mother called from her summer house in a Bulgarin village a to tell me that my one time professor, the venerable Isaac Passy, had passed away the previous day. He had been born on a Friday, the 13th, back in 1928, and it was again on a Friday, 13th that he had passed away. His life spanned over 82 years. Born in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second city, in 1928, he came from a family of Sephardic Jews and was one of those Jewish Bulgarian intellectuals who opted to stay in Bulgaria rather than emigrate to Israel, even though they had the chance to do so. Had he emigrated, Passy would have been much better known today in international academic circles. However, for whatever reason, he chose to stay on and worked most of his life as Professor of Aesthetics at the University of Sofia. People like me undoubtedly benefited enormously from his presence on the faculty as he largely set the tone for our academic futures.

He was Chair of the Aesthetic section but I understand he resigned from the University in 1993 in order to protest the blanket lustration measures taken against all those who had previously been members of the Communist party. As a principled man, he thought that the approach was inconsiderate and rude.

At the time when I arrived as a freshman in  Philosophy at Kliment Okhridsky University (my B.A. studies spanned over the normal course of five years, 1978-1983), he must have been 50 years old. To the students, Isaac Passy always looked the same, precisely the same as in the picture above: always wearing a turtleneck sweater, glassess, a reddish beard, his red hair brushed to the back. This ‘informal uniform’ of Passy encoded an intended message of non-conformity: most of the other professors wore nondescript suit and ties. Attending his lectures in the large 63rd auditorium of the University had some ceremonial nature to it and made everyone feel special. We all sat there quietly in anticipation of his arrival; he would be always punctual to the second, would speak slowly (reading from notes, of I remember correctly), disbursing of aesthetic wisdom with controlled elegance. There was little improvisation, everything was professionally rehearsed and his presentation style, which I would judge as somewhat stiff today, nonetheless relied on impeccable delivery carried out to highest standard. He spoke in official tone, slowly, occasionally interjecting measured jokes that were delivered in an accessible way, and were always of a kind memorable enough as to ensure they would be repeated by members of the audience later on. He knew how to control our admiration all the time.

Whatever he did, Isaac Passy was one of these academics who knew how to create incessant esteem. He managed to maintain the high level of appreciation to whatever he would be engaged with steady over the years. Everything that he put out was immediately celebrated as a great contribution to aesthetic scholarship (not a small achievement for a country where the cultural sphere is markedly skeptical and nihilistic to any intellectual achievement). There was, of course, quite a bit of posing and showing off in all this. But it was all for the purposes of building respect to intellectual inquiry and lofty ethical principles. Thus, it is all natural that the tone of perpetual admiration that accompanied this man’s life would not recede after his death. The obituaries compete in bestowing praise, and speak of him as a ‘brilliant’ philosopher whose ‘works blazed pioneer paths’.

Trying to assess Passy’s work objectively, one should say that he was producing regularly lucid and elegant writing, even if on subject matters that appeared quite traditionalist, preoccupied with explorations of classical thinkers mostly in the area of aesthetic (and, like in the case of Nikolay Berdyaev, spirituality). His works included treatises on “The Tragic” (1963), “The Comic” (1972), “The Aesthetics of Kant” (1976), “German Classical Aesthetics” (1982), “The Metaphor” (1983), “Friedrich Nietzsche” (1996), “Arthur Schopenhauer” (1998), “Contemporary Spanish Philosophy” (1999), “Russian Thinkers” (2000), and so on. For a more detailed listing, see the Wikipedia entry on Passy, which contains a reliable account on his published work. His most original writing, in my view, was to be found in the studies that he produced in the 1980s in order to resurrect somewhat forgotten Spanish philosophers like Jose Ortega-y-Gasset or Miguel Unamuno (Passy was a polyglot and in command of Russian, French and German; in this case, however, he was clearly benefiting of his fluency of Ladino, a variant of Spanish which is spoken by Sephardic Jews in Bulgaria, and which was also the maternal tongue of writers like Elias Kanetti). As Head of his department, he was not dictatorial and was not trying to impose his own view of things — he was letting others work on the material and in the manner they wanted. It created a good creative atmosphere that allowed younger people develop in the way they felt it was right for them.

After the end of communism and well into his 17 year long period of retirement, Isaac Passy did not retire. He maintained an active programme of publication in Bulgarian media over all these years; it was great to see him persevere in placing his sober intellectual texts in a variety of newspapers that had in the meantime gone down in the world and now bordered on vulgarity and profanity for the most part of their content. Evidently, Passy had belief in the intellectual capacity of the nation even during periods of intellectual impoverishment and decline. He was one of the people who would persistently water in a place in hope to see green sprouts come out some day.

I had not seen Passy in person for a number of years. During a visit to Sofia last year I called him on the phone and talked to him briefly, for about ten-fifteen minutes. One felt I was talking to an old man, who reacted slowly and kept the conversation to basics. I am not sure he recognised me, yet he was polite and encouraging in response to the brief report I gave him on the phone about my own career advancements. It was yet another encounter when I was reminded of the benevolent paternalism that permeated all interactions with Bulgarian academics. Passy was the best of them all, but inevitably they were all behaving as well-wishing mentors who were making a conscious effort to encourage women like me to persevere in intellectual endeavors (not that they really believed it was possible or desirable for us to do so). Back at the time I worked on my PhD (1983-1986) there was much less informal talking to the professors than there is now. I cannot recall ever receiving very detailed feedback from him, nor do I remember sitting in lengthy meetings, let alone being taken out for coffee or lunch (as I regularly do now with my PhD students). We would always meet in his office, the exchange was stiff and official. Professors back then did not befriend students, the distance was kept. Thus, the respect was bigger. Ultimately, it was a good experience, and I am forever grateful for Professor Passy’s unswerving support to my work.

Having worked in the context of North American and British academia for nearly two decades now, I have had many opportunities to appreciate the high quality of the education that we received in the context of my studies at the Philosophy department of Sofia University. With the exception of modern day philosophy (which was taught to us as a discipline called ‘critique of contemporary bourgeois thought’), we received a really excellent grounding in theory, studying the philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome in detail, as well as engaging in extensive studies of continental philosophy and German classical philosophy in particular. My own doctoral thesis, on Schleiermacher and the Iena Romantics, was inspired by work that was going on at the time within the department, linked to scholars such as Ivan Stefanov and Iskra Tsoneva, and, most of all, by the collaboration with a friend fellow-student, Kalin Yanakiev, who went on to become a well-known academic intellectual and is now a Professor of cultural studies at the same University. Still, it was Isaac Passy, in his capacity of Head of Aesthetics, that made it all possible for us. It was his encouragement and his guidance that kept me going. Many of the choices I made for myself back in those years were influenced by remarks that he would have uttered somehow fleetingly but that would stick in my mind.

Isaac Passy was married to a beautiful white-haired woman who, if I remember correctly, was a scientist. His son, Moni (Solomon) Passy, was a friend from my high school and student years. He was a few years older and studying for a PhD in mathematical logic, a degree he obtained at some point in the 1980s. Later on, when many of us emigrated, Moni stayed in Bulgaria and got involved in politics. At one point he even served as a foreign minister, a suitable job for him as he always had a penchant to flamboyancy and liked to be in the limelight. There was also a daughter, Sophia (Lyocheto), who I believe lives in emigration somewhere in the States.

Dina Iordanova

19 August 2010

Praznik (1967, Yugoslavia, Djordje Kadijevic)

May 14, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Praznik (1967) was one of several films on the list which director Zelimir Zilnik gave me a few years back; he was making recommendations which films I should make sure to see in order to come to know the most important works dealing with Yugoslavia’s complex historical past. Having now finally seen it out of a DVD which I got courtesy of another director, Slobodan Sijan, I can confirm that this is yet another one of the Yigoslav masterpieces that are largely absent from European film history, as it is currently written about in the West.

Director Djordje Kadijevic (born 1933 in Croatia) made this debut feature at the age of 34; I have not had the chance to see his other films, perhaps because he mostly worked in television. The script was authored by Kadijevic and Aleksandar Petkovic, who is the film’s cinematographer (and the man who shot a wide range of Yugoslavia’s best-known films over several decades). Set in the mountains of Yugoslavia during World War II, the film takes place during the festivities for Božić (Christmas) 1943. Its snowy aesthetics made me think of another East European masterpiece dealing with memories of WWII, Hungarian Cold Days. A group of Cetnics (Nazi supporters) are stationed in the village where they dispense self-styled horrifying justice (there is a difficult to watch violent scene where they instigate violence against a young widow). The main line of the plot evolves around the way in which the leader of the Cetniks opts to deal with two American pilots who crash in the mountain nearby. Initially welcomed, the Americans believe they have found allies who will get them to the Partisans and with comrade Tito very soon; it does not work out this way, and while they are dined and wined at first, later on they are detained. During the night, however, the two captives escape; the leader of the Cetniks gets worried that he may be blamed for letting them free, so he promptly puts arrangements in place for two of his own men to be restrained and slaughtered, their dead bodies are then dressed up in the uniforms of the Americans. Alas, the superiors who are meant to be fooled this way do not buy into the trick as they have captured the two American fugitives meanwhile; the villagers who silently watched the slaughter of the two men (by an expert killer, a handsome and introverted young man pictured below, who spends most of his time looking over the snowy landscape and nibbling apples) now finally burst out in rage; but it is too little too late. Toward the end of the day, a group of Gypsy musicians walk down the deserted streets of the village; they find the Americans’ parachute and take it away with them, it will be of use.

The uncontrollable volatility of the context, the constantly changing mood of the wild and whimsical leader of the Cetniks, the lawlessness, the coldblooded efficiently-executed murders, the extreme violence and the endless reversals of power make this film a difficult viewing. In a subplot, a man is killed for daring to speak up, his killer (Bata Zivojnovic) is assassinated within minutes and his body dumped into a well. It is a place that harbors multiple secrets of a vicious cycle of past and future blood lettings and violence. It is difficult to tell who is who, there are so many changes of mood and allegiances. The only constant feature is the fear in the air, and in this respect the film is directly reminiscent to Miklos Jancso’s most prominent film, The Red and the White, also made in 1967, where the balance of power constantly shifts between the hordes of the revolutionaries and Whites from the time of the short-lives Hungarian Soviet Republic. At moments Praznik looks pretty much like scenes from films by Tarkovsky (Andrei Rublev, Mirror, most notably), perhaps because in all cases there are identifiable influences of Pieter Bruegel.

The more films dealing with the memory of WWII I see from this part of the world, the more I realize what great treasures of cinema remain forgotten. Films like Praznik, or the much-referenced Herrenpartie/ Stag Party (1964), by director Wolfgang Staudte, are not in distribution. Neither are other WWII masterpieces from around the same period, films such as Aleksandar Petrovic’s Three or Zivojn Pavlovic Zaseda. It is about time to do something to bring these films properly into the annals of cinema history.

© Dina Iordanova
14 May 2010

New Book Announcement: Moving People, Moving Images

March 12, 2010 at 4:50 am

Co-written with my colleagues William Brown and Leshu Torchin, Moving People, Moving Images: Cinema and Trafficking in the New Europe is the first title in our new series on Cinema and Transnational Discourse (St Andrews Film Studies, 2010). The next title planned for the series will look into the wide range of cinematic representations of international terrorism in cinema.

We hope to find a wide exposure for this volume, far beyond the narrow film studies field (it is no accident that this was also the best-selling title of all the books we introduced at the recent multiple book launch event at the BFI Filmstore on Southbank in London). It is a volume on the representation of human trafficking in international cinema, and even though it is a ‘film studies’ work, we believe it is really of interest to much wider circles as these are matters of immediate concern to social workers, migration specialists and activists. The book discusses a range of films, both feature and documentary, reflecting the situation with human trafficking in a great variety of countries — from Turkey to Sweden, from Sri Lanka to Greece, from Serbia to Italy, from North Africa to Spain, and so on.

ISBN (13): 978-1-9066-7803-6 (paperback)
180pp.
Price £17.99 (UK), $29.00 (US)
Available for purchase by clicking through to St. Andrews Film Studies bookshop

The volume is divided in three parts, which include respectively general essays; close analysis of fifteen important international films on trafficking; commentary on the political aspects of the usage of these films in the context of activism.

Here is a more detailed Table of Contents

PART ONE. Landscapes
William Brown – Negotiating the Invisible
Leshu Torchin – Foreign Exchange
Dina Iordanova – Making Traffic Visible, Adjusting the Narrative

PART TWO: Close-Ups

In-depth analyses of The Bus (Turkey/Sweden, Tunc Okan), The Guardian Angel (Yugoslavia, Goran Paskaljevic), When Mother Comes Home for Christmas(Greece/India/Germany, Nilita Vachani), Wesh wesh, qu’est-ce qui se passe? (France, rabah Ameur-Zaimeche), Poniente (Spain, Chus Gutierrez), Spare Parts (Slovenia, Damjan Kozole), Promised Land (Israel/France, Amos Gitai), Ghosts (UK, Nick Broomfield), It’s a Free World… (UK, Ken Loach), Import/Export (Austria, Ulrich Seidl), Love on Delivery and Ticket to Paradise (Denmark), The Silence of Lorna (Belgium, Dardenne Brothers) and Taken (France, Pierre Morel).

Part THREE: Traffic Jam
Film, Activism, and Human Trafficking

Excerpts of reviews:

Moving People, Moving Images tackles human trafficking, one of the most serious consequences of the massive movement of people enabled by post-Wall processes of economic and cultural globalization in Europe. While immigration, migration, exile, and the illegal movement of people have been the subject of much work in film and media studies recently, few volumes would take such a bold stand in favour of the possibility of filmic activism. One of the attractions of this book is precisely that it refuses to tread lightly and tentatively across the well-established divide between cinematic representations and socio-political issues. It makes a provocative argument for the political effect of films and proposes that human trafficking should not be the rightful, let alone the exclusive, domain of governments, NGOs, activist organizations and the social sciences.
— Aniko Imre, University of Southern California

Moving People, Moving Images is a groundbreaking and much-needed study of the intersections between film and human trafficking. Through a sophisticated and versatile approach, and against the backdrop of theories of economic globalisation, transnationalism, post-colonialism, identity and modernity, it offers a theorisation of human trafficking that engages with a range of published work on social and critical theory as well as on film studies…. This volume is both a complete and valuable teaching tool, and a precious resource for future research, and sets the agenda for more work in this all-important area.
— Laura Rascaroli, University College Cork, Ireland

Available for purchase by clicking through to St. Andrews Film Studies bookshop

Blurred Memory, Responsibility, War Film: Ordinary People (2009), Waltz with Bashir (2008)

January 31, 2010 at 4:18 am

Ordinary People is a Serbian film, which is a co-production of France, Switzerland, Serbia and the Netherlands and does not seem to have a title in Serbian. As France is a co-producer, no wonder it screened in the context of Cannes IFF in 2009; it won awards at Sarajevo and at the specialist East European film festival in Cottbus, Germany.

Perhaps the most impressive recent film from the region, this almost silent, slow moving, and seemingly dull story chronicles one day in the life of soldiers whose work is killing people all day long while staring at the blue sky and smoking cigarettes in the breaks in-between work. It is mid summer, and groups or men are brought in and executed in groups of five or six, shot at the back of the head on the premises of what appears to be a disused vacation camp. The victims are passive, there are no interactions between prisoners and executors, and only in one instance a captive shows signs of resistance. Another one attempts to initiate something like an investigation into why he is here, hoping he may get out, and only gains an extra few minutes of hope – he is still executed along the others.

The protagonist is a young man, Dzoni, just out of high school. There were no jobs when he graduated, he explains, so he joined the army. One learns little of him: he is clearly a most average young man who likes to sleep in, and in his free time smokes cigarettes and stares at the clouds in the sunny sky. That is, when he is not busy killing. At the first group of prisoners he tries to opt out, but then joins in and does his work along the others, he does not want to be ostracized. At the end of the day the soldiers are asked to do some more but he leads something like an improvised protest and says the work been enough and they should now call it a day. The lieutenant, pictured here as he is training the soldiers for the job, is a kind of a father figure. So much so that at some point I thought it may be revealed he is the protagonist’s real father. At the end of the day he catches up with Dzoni in the men’s toilet where he issues a brief technical remark on how to aim better the next day.

Clearly, it is in former Yugoslavia during one of the several wars of the 1990s. As the film is Serbian the soldiers are presumably Serbian as well, executing prisoners from the other nations that sought secession during the wars of Yugoslavia’s break up. But there is very little to identify the place and the time, and indeed, the action of the film could take place in almost any historical period and geographical place. It is a war film about killing in the context of a war that is not of the soldiers’, one in which they take part almost mechanically by doing their little part. It is about how guilt and responsibility is devolved by dismantling the operation into small parts where no one is ultimately responsible.
Reportedly, the film is partially based on some personal experiences of the director who served in the Serbian army in the 1990s. It is probably this fact that has made a number of reviewers to accuse it in trying to exonerate the Serbs for the troubles they have been charged with in the context of the wars of Yugoslavia’s succession. There is no mercy in these critics – the director is said to seek to excuse the killings by showing that individual soldiers cannot be held responsible.

But is this really the case? Ari Folman’s oneiric animation Waltz With Bashir (Israel, 2008), one of the most impressive films I saw last year, was not subjected to such criticism, even though it speaks of largely the same issues. Like Ordinary People, Waltz with Bashir evolved around a young protagonist and his buddies, all involved in an atrocity in a way that similarly dismantles the operation into small parts and creates a context where no individual can be vested with responsibility over the reprehensible results of their collective actions. I cannot recall any critics claiming that Folman was trying to exonerate his protagonists. In both cases the films make a powerful statement that raises above concrete wars and contexts: personal memory becomes blurred and reminiscences uncertain when confronted with the master narrative of the big picture that emerges in the aftermath of the atrocity. Once the focus zooms in on the atrocity for a close scrutiny, personal responsibility becomes increasingly difficult to pin down on to an individual, as singular people have been just parts of an operation that now seems to lack the mastermind that would take responsibility for the whole. Thus, in these two films, war cinema charts out new areas for investigation into the realm of guilt and remembrance.

© Dina Iordanova
31 January 2010

Berlin, December 2009: Highlights 2

December 15, 2009 at 1:39 am

The conference for which I had been invited was organized by the Institute for Cultural Studies and took place at Humbold University’s Graduate School at Luisenstrasse in Berlin (pictured), a building next door to the ugly massive of the Charite hospital.

Yet another event dedicated to ‘memory work’ and predominantly focused on the Third Reich period with little references to later developments or other strands of thinking, Whichever Stone You Lift offered quality scholarship of the ‘deja vu’ variety. The event concluded a month-long extremely interesting programme of screenings at the cinema of Hackesche Hofe which featured films that I would very much like to see in wider distribution, from the post-war last Polish Yiddish-language production, Unzere Kinder/Our Children (1948), to Katryn Seybold and Melanie Spitta’s seminal documentary on the persecution of Romanies, Das falsche Wort/The False Word (1987).

The film programme can be viewed here while the programme of the symposium is available at the site of RitesInstitute in Vienna, the owners of which were involved in moderating the panel I took part in. It was a conference like most other events I have attended in Germany, a European model to which I developed an allergy some time ago: speakers have about an hour at their disposal and present lengthy (and often monotonously delivered) papers that run for 40-50 at a time; there is little eye contact with the audience, and very few visual stimuli to keep the attention. This is then followed by a question period which normally runs over the time slot as the moderators believe it is impolite to pressure the speakers for shortness. Having grown used to the 20 min maximum paper format that is the norm in the Anglo-Saxon world (and with the ubiquitous paper note reminders ‘5 min’, ‘2 min’ or ‘stop now’ that the moderators show to the speakers as they go), I really could not help it but feel challenged by the length of presentations. A paper on black actors in the third Reich was presented by Viennese (and now London, Ontario) researcher Tobias Nagl. It was well illustrated and argued (even if it also run for unbearably long time in my view), and was thus the highlight of the event for me.

The discussion of our panel, dedicated to matters of representing Romani persecution in the context of popular culture, evolved around the need of a specific and more considerate history framework that should be applied to understanding Roma history, one that differs from the historical milestones linked to other groups. Once again, Roma issues resurfaced for consideration as related to other aspects of historical memory, the Jewish Holocaust in his case. Yet while the history of Roma and Jews overlap in the context of this particular historical experience, there are many aspects of memory and remembrance related to Romanies that cannot be exhausted only by such cross-referencing, which inevitably limits the multidimensionality of Romani memory. To me, this was one of the important messages that emerged from the debate.

It was great to be in the company of two extremely beautiful women for this panel. One was Katrin Seybold (pictured above), the veteran documentary filmmaker, who has worked with Sinteza Melanie Spitta over the years and has made a number of films that feature the plight of Roma and Sinti in Germany, was one of the guests.

The other one, Timea Junghaus (left), a Romni from Hungary, who works with the rich but still largely unknown material created by Romani artists across Europe. She spoke of her highly original curating work and of the various contexts that dominate curatorial practices and that, for a variety of reasons, routinely shut the work of Romani artists away from the public eye.

Timea is telling me that in her view the best film about the Romani experience is the puppet animation by Finnish director Katariina Lillqvist, a pupil of Jiri Trnka’s, which I am looking forward to seeing (here is a still from one of her animations).

The panel was moderated by Viennese filmmaker and curator Friedemann Derschmidt, who, alongside his partner, is involved mainly in curating film programmes linked to cultural exchanges with Israel and in maintaining an interesting web-site, in part entitled Israelstine.

© Dina Iordanova
15 December 2009