Uzicka republika/The Republic of Uzhitse (Yugoslavia, 1974, dir. Zika Mitrovic)

May 26, 2010 at 11:24 am

Uzicka republika (1974) is one of several Yugoslav super-productions of the late 1960s and early 1970s that tackle WWII resistance through unqualified glorification to the leftist partisans and Tito in particular. The film is a typical representative of the genre: an epic panorama of people struggling for freedom and equality, zooming in on selected characters for rough individualization; it comes down to interweaving human interest stories within the context of a struggle that is depicted in idealistic and often exaggerated tones.

The actual historical episode in the focus, the short-lived Repulic of Uzice in Western Serbia existed for less than three months in the Fall of 1941, still in the early phase of the war. Its defenders were defeated in an extended battle in November 1941, which is also shown in at the end of the film. The historical material which confirms the leftist leanings of the population early on in the war has clearly been suitable for turning into a movie; the direction of the project entrusted to veteran Zika Mitrovic, a director favored by the powers-that-be who had already made several important partisan/WWII features as well as other historical films, such as the Macedonia-themed Mis Ston (1958) and The Salonika Terrorists (1961).

The part which I am embedding here includes the scene that is perhaps the highest manifestation of socialist realist adjustment of historical material (starting somewhere around the middle of the clip; the first half represents the arrival of Soviet comrades who come to assist the republic). It represents an improvised concert staged for the supporters of the republic, all red stars and unity. The culmination is the performance of a song glorifying Tito, sung by one of the young girls (Neda Arneric) and gradually picked up by everybody in the audience, who join into the plea for comrade Tito to take them along for the struggle. Then they all dance to the tune of a well-known Soviet tango Serdtse, tebe ne hochetsya pokoya, a popular song first featured in one of the Grigoriy Aleksandrov’s films of the 1930s.* It is an example of the way in which Soviet culture was quietly imported on the side of the import of revolutionary ideas and military assistance.

Uzicka republka is a good example of the aesthetics of communist propaganda film. Based on a real story, the narrative is of unreserved and supportive togetherness, of clear strategy in the struggle, of clear-cut feelings and allegiances. The leadership narrative gives Tito and the Soviet comrades (who are seen arriving by submarine in the clip) a key role. Displaying allegiance to the Soviets is of primary importance; everybody is in a hurry to erect slogans praising the anniversary of the October revolution and portraits of comrade Stalin. The slogans written on the walls read as if taken directly out of a history textbook – Power to the People!, All for the Victory! — professionally executed and politically correct. There is no trace of the ambiguities nor the uncertainties found in films like Praznik, which are attempting a critical examination of the complexities of the conflict. The good partisans are all nice and humane, their adversaries are all bad. The bourgeois collaborators soon quit the union, disgruntled with the communists’ efforts to push for economic reforms rather than only focusing on the current German threat. The Germans, represented stereotypically, conspire and close the circle around the rebel republic. The Cetniks are horrible, killing and indiscriminately abusing the peaceful population; they mercilessly destroy one of the female protagonists as she is propagating to local women trying to persuade them to become more actively involved in the revolution. The Cetniks also massacre a group of ordinary villagers by burning them in their own church. (A curious appearance in this film is a young Rade Serbedzija, now one of the most successful East European immigrants in Hollywood, as a Cetnik officer who is shocked by the atrocities his own people commit yet indirectly endorses it all with his compliant silence). Media reports from the period that are brought into the texture of the film suggest that the Yugoslav public opinion has been grossly misinformed about the situation with the breakaway territory.

While there isn’t a main protagonist (the protagonist is the ‘struggle’ itself), several human interest stories evolve as important subplots. The heavily idealized love between partisan leaders Nada and Boro, both thoroughly committed to the cause and who both perish in the struggle, is one of the key stories. They manage to make their vows to each other yet it so happens that they will never be together; still, they are both conscious that the freedom is more important, they are thoroughly far-sighted and forward-looking; in addition, Nada is an emancipated feminist.This is the typical way in which cinema of the East Block tackled love stories set in war time — the ideal lovers are proud, focused, dedicated; the struggle is at the foreground and takes precedence over personal feelings.

Another human interest story is the subplot featuring a young teenager who is shaving for a first time and receiving loving glances from his mum and dad at home, to only hours later be brought back to town as a corpse; he had gone on failed mission to secure bread for the town and his parents are left mourning in shock. Yet another is the story of Pero, the old lonely baker, who adopts an orphan boy and teaches him bread making. The boy grows attached to him and begs him not to go to the battle but Pero feels he should bring bread to the fighters, and is killed. One by one, most of the protagonists are killed in the protracted bloody battle shown at the end of the film, leaving the ending on a sad yet optimistic note.

The film, which does not have an official distribution in the West (I only have an old not subtitled VHS copy) has been made available on YouTube, and can be watched with English subtitles in what I would describe in a pristine quality copy. The posting of this film may not be precisely legal, yet it is an instance where excellent public service is performed by making available an interesting and rare example of cinematic history. The film is cut into 18 parts for this posting; below each clip one can trace some interesting discussions which are suggestive of the political temperature (and concerns) of the likely audiences. It gives a fascinating glimpse into the way current concerns relate to historical film.

©Dina Iordanova
26 May 2010

* The tango Serdtse was created by the team Isaak Dunayevski/Vassiliy Lebedev-Kumach in 1934 for the film Vesyolie rebyata/Jolly Fellows and first performed here by Leonid Utesov. It has since become extremely popular, performed by legendary Russian singer Piotr Leshcenko. More recently, it was used as the main musical motive in Ulrich Seidl’s film Import/Export.

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

The Only Popular Tax Ever Known: The UK Robin Hood Tax Campaign

April 13, 2010 at 2:59 am

The proposal to tax banking profits for the benefit of a variety of not-for-profit causes came to prominence with this short video, released in the UK in early February 2010, starring the ever popular Bill Nighy and directed by Richard Curtis, whose name is usually linked to feel-good British rom-coms like Four Weddings and a Funeral (which he wrote) and Love Actually (which he wrote and directed).

The argument in favour of the tax, an apparently grass-roots initiative, has now proliferated into a wider scale campaign (reportedly supported by more than a million activists) which is headquartered at an own web-site that represents a consortium of various activists and other non-profits (or ‘charities’, as they are called in the UK). It has been gaining momentum last week since the announcement of the coming elections on 6 May 2010. Supported by influential American economist Jeffrey Sachs (a man revered and loathed in different circles), the proposal is for a variation of the so-called Tobin tax, which makes provision for imposing a very small ‘spot’ levy on large financial transactions of the type that investment banks are regularly involved with.

Supporters of the tax were involved in events around Hyde Park’s Speakers corner last weekend. It all happens as Swiss-owned bank UBS is reporting a first-quarter pretax profit of 2.5 billion Swiss francs ($2.4 billion), compared with a loss of around 1.5 billion francs a year earlier. The campaign have just released a new video, starring Ben Kngsley as a banker (as well as a bunch of up and coming ethnic minority actors as the hooded boys who rob him in the ‘bank directors only’ car park).

In addition, here is a short video, again featuring Bill Nighy explaining why is this a good idea (as ‘no one is targeted, no individual is being punished’, and ‘it could be the only popular tax ever known’) and asking that people keep an eye on the campaign that appears to be gathering pace.

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

Nie sme na vseki kilometar: A personal memoir

January 7, 2009 at 1:04 am

During a recent visit to my native city of Sofia, Bulgaria, I heard that the Socialist Party (formerly Communist Party) which had just held its 47th or so Congress, has been in the media with a clip using motives of the famous TV series Na vseki kilometar (1969). As this film is associated with a host of memories for me, I could not help it but searching for the clip on YouTube. Here is what emerged:

The man who jumps on the tram is actor Stefan Danailov, who played the lead role of Sergei/Major Deyanov in Na vseki kilometar. (The protagonist was an underground anti-fascist conspirator who always managed to outwit the police and pull off whatever he had planned to do.) There was a well-known episode in the original series where Sergei jumps on a tram, like in this present clip. Using the reconstruction of this familiar visual trope and casting the same actor, who is now nearly forty years older, is a good approach to the clip’s target audience, which consists of die-hard former communists and by those younger Bulgarians who, supposedly, believe in the continuity of the socialist tradition. Actor Danailov himself is now part of the governing coalition, and has enjoyed a relatively good reputation during his mandate as culture minister (prior to entering politics he was mostly busy appearing in various Italian productions, most notably as a bad guy in the seventh installment of Italian mafia TV series La Piovra). In the clip featured here, he talks to the ‘tram driver’ who is, in fact, Sergey Stanichev, the current socialist PM of Bulgaria, a guy of whom I have got no personal views as he has appeared on the country’s political scene in a period over which I have no immediate observations (my understanding is that he is some sort of typical aparatchik). Stanishev turns to Danailov, who is breathing heavily after having jumped on the tram in a well-familiar Sofia setting (‘tramvaycheto v gorichkata na Pionerskiya dvorets’), and comments: “Things are not like before, eh?” Danailov replies: “Well, they are not. Yet the ideas and the dreams remain the same!” An elderly man who is riding on the tram approaches, calls him ‘Sergei’ (the name from the TV series), and, hand on heart, confirms that he is all up for these same ideas and dreams. Inspiring indeed!

Now, I am still significantly younger than the two old men appearing in this video, yet I am old enough to have a host of memories triggered by the viewing of this clip. So maybe in a move of nostalgia, I went on checking if there was anything from the actual Na vseki kilometar on YouTube. And there was, to my surprise: a two-minute long clip featuring the opening scene and credits of the series (where also the well-known tune sounds). It is posted on YouTube by someone from Vietnam, who testifies as to the film’s popularity there (a theme in which I have persistent interest, namely the wide international exposure of some of the East European productions in the specific transnational context of the so-called Second and Third world, see comments in my piece on Estonian Viimne Reliikvia on these matters). Here it is:

Kosta Karageorgiev, the actor who appears here as the young shooter who is killed at the beginning, is also singing the song (a well-recognizable tune in the Bulgarian context; most folks of my generation would know the lyrics by heart). A Woody Allan look-alike, this bespectacled nondescript charmer enjoyed real popularity when I was a child (He was in many childrens’ programmes, known as ‘bate Kosta’; I see from the imdb he has died in 1998, which means that he has not lived beyond his mid-50s).

Karageorgiev was mostly a singer, and one of my earliest memories involves him. My mother was working in the childrens’ department of Radio Sofia at the time (must have been around 1965), and one day she took me to the studio with her; she was to be recording some songs for a radio show she was preparing. The singer she was working this day happened to be Kosta Karageorgiev (who was already a well known TV personality alongside the ubiquitous bat’ Climbo, Kliment Denchev, who was painting on glass in the show and later disappeared by emigrating to Canada, where he also largely disappeared for the artistic profession).

I must have been about 6 years old. The actor approached me and asked me what was my name, and I replied ‘Kostadina’ (my full name). To which he said: ‘Hm, how is it possible then that we have not known each other so far if we have the same name (‘adashi’), all people by the same given name must know each other.’ I was smitten and extremely pleased at the same time. I had never heard anything like this until then, so I took what he said by face value: it would be, indeed, great, if all people by the same given name knew each other. It was only a few years later that I realized this was not really the case. Still, even today I sometimes hear myself producing the same comment when I see children who share the same name — maybe because the friendly comment of the actor back in my childhood is so deeply entrenched in my early memories.

The other personal memory linked to Na vseki kilometar must be from around 1968. We lived in Lozenetz; the house was at the bottom of a hill-street on which a tram runs. One day the traffic was blocked for the same of a film shoot. I was all happening opposite our house, so I was able to look on as much as I wanted. This is the first time I had the chance to see how films are made and to realize how many takes one does for a single sequence in a film. The scene represented a tram descending the steep street, and a young man jumping out of it while the tram is in full motion. They shot probably more than twenty times the same thing: the tram would ascend the hill and then head down down, and the actor would jump out of it at one point, and run parallel to the tram until the acceleration of the tram’s motion wore off. And then all over again and again. I cannot say who was the young man jumping out of the tram. It might have been Stefan Danailov himself (he was an unknown young actor at the time, so I could not have possibly recognize him; he only became a well-known face after the huge popularity of the series), or it might have been a double. I was, of course, looking to see the scene when the film aired on TV, but I do not think I ever saw it. They may have removed it, thus deleting the celluloid equivalent to this memorable day of my life altogether. In any case, I will always remember the sweet feeling I had on that day while looking on, of being part of something in the making that was to come on later, of witnessing the process of creating a film. Who knows, it might have been experiences like this that have led me to become who I am today: an on-looker, a critic.

As to the series itself, I do not remember many details. In my mind, it links with the Romanian films by Sergiu Nicolaescu on Inspector Moldovan — not because the plot or protagonists were the same, but the spirit, the exploitation of the policier genre (and also because I have seen these more recently than Na vseki kilometar). There was this good looking, sleek and superior Sergei/Deyanov, who always outsmarted the cops. There was the unforgettably popular peasant-partisan Mitko Bombata, played by beloved comedian Grigor Vachkov, some of whose lines in the series would then enter into wide for popular circulation. And, of course, there was the intelligent cerebral policeman Velinski, played by respected theatre actor Georgi Cherkelov (this was such a superb performance that the actor, who was mostly known in the capital as he was playing in theatre, and not across the country, was regularly being referred to not by his real name, but by the name of the protagonist whom he played in the series, so high was the degree to which audiences were identifying him with the role). Otherwise, the film was a typical historical propaganda fare, painting the resistance pretty much in black and white and remaining silent on all the awkward issues related to the period of WWII and its aftermath. What else can one expect from the Sixteenth Soviet republic in 1969? (I hear that this is a period where all the countries in the East of Europe have lived through ideological stagnation which reflected their reaction of well-grounded fear from the iron grip of the Soviets in the aftermath of the Prague invasion). In any case, back then this would not have been my assessment as I had no clue of any of these contextual aspects; I have become aware of them at a much later point. As far my personal recollection for back then is concerned, I was a child enjoying the entertainment that was on offer. And it was fun.

© Dina Iordanova
7 January 2009

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

December 2, 2008 at 11:50 pm

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

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

© Dina Iordanova
3 December 2008

Buy at Amazon

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

Breaking and Entering (2006, UK/USA, dir. Anthony Minghella)

November 3, 2008 at 12:47 am

Even though this film does not seem to deal directly with migration, it reveals the hierarchy of belonging in post-Cold War Europe. Written and directed by Anthony Minghella, Breaking and Entering (UK/USA 2006) offers a revealing panorama of the symbolic hierarchical standing of different social groups in London. Its prosperous protagonist Will, an architect, is the owner of a beautiful home with a SW postcode; his partner is an attractive Swedish blonde whose daughter, Bea, suffers from autism. A gang of migrants from former Yugoslavia repeatedly breaks into Will’s studio at Kings Cross. Determined to prevent further break-ins, Will takes on night shifts to watch the studio; here he meets and befriends Oana, a streetwise prostitute from Romania. Will also meets the mother of one of the teenage robbers, the Bosnian migrant Amira, who ekes out a living by repairing clothes in her flat in the nearby housing project. Will falls in love with Amira and has several sexual encounters that leave him truly infatuated.Soon, however, he becomes paranoid and begins to suspect that Amira might have entered the relationship in order to protect her felonious offspring; he imagines she may try to blackmail him. Even though he is ready to forget the burglaries, he ‘sobers up’ and takes some radical steps to put an end to the relationship with Amira. While making the generous gesture to forgive the aberrant son at the cost of his own public embarrassment, Will regains the respect of his beautiful Swedish partner. The passion for the Bosnian woman fades away, only occasionally haunting him as a bad dream.

The plot configuration is representative of what has been aptly described as ‘nesting Orientalism’ (Bakic-Hayden). On the surface, Breaking and Entering focuses on the midlife crisis of a white upper middle-class Briton, while below the surface it reveals a hierarchical reality of a Western metropolis where ‘clean’, ‘elevated’ (‘white’) Europeans (an Englishman, a Swedish woman) are forced to co-exist and interact with ‘untidy’ (‘dark’) migrants (a Romanian prostitute, a Bosnian delinquent and his jobbing mother), but soon regain control and distance themselves from these low-grade contacts. A variety of details in the film efficiently restate Europe’s hierarchies: The British protagonist is an educated professional, an architect, who is responsible for a regeneration project in central London’s Kings Cross where the film’s migrant characters live. The Eastern European characters, by contrast, may have had professional lives at some point, but now inhabit the murky spaces of the metropolis and earn a living in menial jobs or moonlight as petty criminals. The daughter of the blond Swede is autistic, but has exceptional talents; she is treated by considerate psychologists. By comparison, the son of the Bosnian brunette is on skid row and in the ‘care’ of tough-talking policemen and overworked social workers. The Swedish woman has difficulties coping with her child’s disability; hence she needs all of Will’s love (and financial support), which she demands and accepts with an air of noble superiority. The Bosnian woman has difficulties coping with her son’s law-breaking, and the revelation of her relationship with Will is tainted with the references to a lowly blackmail-driven affair that should preferably not be mentioned in public.

All that Breaking and Entering purports to do is to show the private predicament of a middle-aged man in need of love. In charting his dilemmas, however, the film reveals a background panorama of racial and class disparities and dependencies, which provide insights into understanding the dynamism of postcolonial Europe and ultimately bring up issues of identity and ideology that are also raised in other of European films – from Lukas Moodyson’s Lilja 4-Ever (Sweden/Denmark 2002) to Ken Loach’s It’s A Free World ((UK/Italy/Germany/Spain/Poland 2007) – that look at further aspects of the post-1989 migrations and make powerful statements on the postcolonial condition as it plays out in Europe today.

© Dina Iordanova
3 November 2008

Film that created the most wealth?

October 30, 2008 at 12:27 am

Writing in Financial Times, on 16 May 2008, John Authers reported on the Film that Crated the Most Wealth. According to Nobel Prize in economics winner Prof. Robert Mundell (pictured here receiving his award from from King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden in 1999), this is supposed to be Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976).

According to Mundell:

” Taxi Driver is the most important movie ever made from the standpoint of creating GDP. It’s the movie that made the Reagan revolution possible. That movie was indirectly responsible for adding between $5trn and $15trn of output to the US economy.”

How did it do it? Reporting from the annual gathering of the CFA Institute of chartered financial analysts in Vancouver, Authers describes the line of thought that Mundell follows in making this claim.

John Hinckley, the deranged would-be assassin who attempted to kill US president Ronald Reagan in 1981, claimed that he was inspired by it. He said that his action was an attempt to impress Foster. (The movie features a scene in which a mohawked De Niro attempts to assassinate a politician.) According to Mundell, the wave of sympathy for Reagan that was engendered by the assassination attempt deterred Democrats in Congress from voting against his proposed tax cuts. Because of this accident of history, the US administered a big fiscal stimulus at the same time that Paul Volcker at the Federal Reserve was administering tight money. This, for Mundell, was vital in creating the era of prosperity that followed.

I wish I had been in attendance in order to find out more on the cognitive method that underlines this line of reasoning. On the one hand, it sounds like a fascinating deduction (or maybe induction?), and it is constructed so neatly that it could be turned to a movie. It has certainly impressed me sufficiently to make me keep Authers’ articles on file for months until I got the chance to come round and write on it today. On the other hand, I wonder how stable are the assumptions on which the argument is based? Don’t we tell students in our teaching that most of the studies on influencing through the media have shown that there is no conclusive evidence that someone can be influenced one way or another by the novies? Haven’t barristers fought over the years against the use of such presumptive judgment on the actions of their clients in court? I remember a controversy involving a ban on The Godfather in some country, as it had allegedly inspired a mafia-style assassination; the move triggered serious objections that argued no direct causation between the workings of the criminal mind and the cinematic narrative to which it has been exposed could ever be established with full certainty. Why is it then that an even more daring construction like this one (involving a number of assumptions related to the film, the killer, the victim, the sympathy, the Congress, and at the end the tax policy and wealth) would be acceptable and newsworthy?

Prof. Mundell is a top league economist and I am sure he has got much better evidence on how things have evolved back in the 1980s regarding tax policies and wealth accumulation. But I admit feeling somewhat uneasy seeing an increasing number of writing from economists who use material from the realms of popular culture in a way in which they would not use material from within their own disciplines. In the area of economy of culture there is a Tyler Cowen, who has made a name for himself with statements that appear knowledgeable but are often fairly speculative. Most of all, however, I experience these doubts and unease when reading the witty but ultimately contrived arguments offered by writers such as Tim Hartford in the UK and Steven Levitt in the USA.

© Dina Iordanova
30 October 2008