Natvris khe/ Drevo zhelaniy/ The Wishing Tree (Georgia/USSR, 1976), dir. Tengiz Abuladze

March 28, 2009 at 1:00 am

The IMDb does not list any DVD details, but a nicely produced DVD of this Georgian classic does exist with subtitles in several Western languages. I bought it from a stall at Hong Kong’s Star Computer Arcade, alongside the DVD of the other earlier Abuladze film on which I wrote here some months ago, Verdreba. I remember having seen the film first on its release in my teenage years; it had left a great feeling of cinematic poetic and a memory of fabulous colours. On this viewing, the memory of colours was confirmed, and the feeling of poetic superiority — to some extent as well.

Natvris Khe/Drevo zhelaniy/ Wishing Tree (Tengiz Abuladze, 1976) is based on the work of a Georgian classic, Georgi Leonidze, and the subtitle of the film is marked as ‘Pictures from the Life of a pre-Revolutionary Georgian village’ (in case one may think that the patriarchal mores depicted here could have continued existing after the socialist revolution). By its very nature, most of the film’s humour and stories remain best understood by Georgians, and thus, even though one can grasp some of its charm, it remains of a somewhat limited local appeal. While viewers like myself would probably be able to appreciate many of the jokes and gather that there should be even more endearing qualities to these village stories (as it becomes clear from reading the user’s postings on the IMDb), these are mostly of interest to people who are really familiar with the culture of the region. And as I am not one of them, I must admit that many of the episodes came across as straightforward self-exoticism to me, a quality that makes films from smaller cultures travel among international audiences but ultimately, in my view, operate on the principle of voluntary self-denigration. The humor is occasionally too specific to be appreciated by those who are not in the know.

There is, however, one story of universal appeal: the account of the tragic love between the young Marita and Gedya (reminiscent in many aspects to the love story between Ivan and Marichka in Sergo Paradjanov’s amazing Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors). As soon as Gedya hears that Marita is promised to someone else, he runs to fight the contender, and is killed in the squabble. Marita is promptly married, as planned, a stupefied numb bride who soon grows totally alienated from her husband (once again we see the image of the sad bride, prevalent in the cinema of the Balkans, Asia Minor, and the Caucasus).* It does not take long before, at the end of the film, Marita is forced to mount a mule (seated backwards) and then taken to her death, an act of local popular justice which is meant to punish her for ‘shaming’ the village. The inhabitants of the village are shown as good-hearted idiots for most part of the film, but now things have changed and they show a different violent and rough side in practicing their patriarchal justice. It is an exercise in destroying love and beauty, and ultimately, in the context of this film, an indictment of patriarchal society. Some dare objecting, but the community is stronger in naming the victim a villain, as it has been consolidating during all these long ‘pre-revolutionary’ years.

Sofiko Chiaureli, one of the greatest actresses of the region who is also known from her roles in Paradjanov’s Color of Pomegranate and Abuladze’s Repentance, appears here as Pupala, an aging bag lady of picturesque appearance, who keeps telling stories of her great romance with Shiola, a man who loved her so much that it was a matter of life and death. She would sit among a group of black clad village women and entertain them for hours, her exotic rags and heavily made up face in contrast with their austere appearance. In the course of the film Pupala, frequently an unwanted stranger, is revealed as a gentle soul who subtly combats the patriarchy and injustice that are shown to ultimately dominate the lives of local women.

Apparently, all films by Tengiz Abuladze (1924-1994) have had a huge influence and can be considered as stages in the development of Georgian cinema. His Monanieba/Pokayanie/Repentance(1984) was one of the most important films of the perestroika times, and probably the first film to make direct indictment of the totalitarianism of the Stalin/Beria era, a critique which soon thereafter was to become commonplace. Yet another classic of the director is Me, bebia, Iliko da Ilarioni/ Me, Grandma, Iliko and Ilarion (1962), a comedy based on Nodar Dumbadze’s work which again focuses on village life and the endearing aspects of patriarchy.

Ultimately, to me, the achievement of The Wishing Tree is that is represents an exquisit study in the use of colour. I would compare it to the more recent film by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Gabbeh (1996), which is openly focused on studying colour and carries the name of the specific tapestry from the region. The mountainous landscapes, the blossom of flowers, the picturesque valleys and villages, and some of the scenes are as if taken directly from great masters like Pieter Breughel (a painter whose work Tarkovsky sought to recreate in Andrey Rublev) or like naivist painters from the region. Thirty-odd years after its original release, The Wishing Tree remains an amazingly beautiful film with its vivid colours and its ability to create mode through the tonality of the landscale.

* See my text “Balkan Wedding Revisited: Multiple Meanings of Filmed Nuptials.” October 1998. Working Papers Series of the Centre for Austrian Studies Available on-line: , Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

© Dina Iordanova
28 March 2009

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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

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Kevade/ Spring (USSR – Estonia, 1969) Arvo Kruusement

September 8, 2008 at 5:19 am

Kevade/ Spring is clearly a classic of Estonian cinema, and is probably the best film to see for whoever wants to get acquainted with this cinematic tradition. Shot in 1969 parallel with the great hit Viimne Reliikvia, the film cost about 300,000 roubles to make (just about a third of the other film’s budget). Director Kruusement really wanted to shoot in color but all the resources at Tallinnfilm at the time were directed to The Last Relic, so he could only afford the usage of a black and white stock. Cameraman Harry Rehe intervened and persuaded the director that a black and white film would certainly be closer to the spirit of the work, set around the turn of the the 20th century. In addition, the black and white photography would give the film a more timeless feel.

Based on the work of Oscar Luts (1887-1953), the novel Kevade dates from 1912-1913. It had also been turned into a stage play that had often been part of the repertoire of various theatrical companies across the country. Usually, however, it were adult actors that were playing the teenage protagonists. It is for the film that director Arvo Kruusement insisted on casting young people of the same age, a move that was considered particularly progressive at the time. The actors were recruited as a result of a nation-wide search, which allegedly also increased the anticipation of the film across this small country. It was also the director’s decision to change the focus of the novel from the more comical characters such as Toots and Kiir (who still dominate the later films) to a scrutiny of the fragile relationship of Arvo and Teele, and make this lyrical tone dominant for the film.

The story evolves in the region of the town Paunvere; all the protagonists are in one way or another related to the small community and the center of action takes place at a mixed-gender half-boarding school where a wise Teacher, a Church Master, a drink-loving servant (Lieble), and a range of teenage pupils spend most of their days. It is a close-knit community where most interactions evolve around daily events of formative importance and where simple situations and exchanges can lead to serous ethical conclusions. Like in other coming-of-age films situations like first attractions, jealousies and disappointments are in the centre of attention, and so are funny and mischievous friendships. One of the protagonists covers up for a friend just to realize very soon that someone else is punished unjustly because of his false testimony; it is all resolved in an emotional confession from the culprit. All in all, the teenagers at the school form an interesting bunch of endearing characters — the funny Kiir, the phantasist Toots, the bear-like Tonisson, the dreamer Arvo, the musical wonder Imelik. It is mostly the boys, however, who remain in the centre of attention, with only one female character, Teele, developed to some extent and all the other girls remaining indistinguishable from each other on the background (the fact that they are all blond certainly does not help characterisation).

The centrality of this film for the Estonian legacy is remarkable also because it is typical for Central and West European literary traditions to have such coming-of-age novels (and films respectively) as cornerstone of their identity discourse at the onset of the 20th century (I am thinking here of German-language novels by Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse, Robert Musil, for example).

Even though every national cinema tradition probably has a film of this type, Kevade‘s superb artistry makes it stand out. The biggest achievement in my view is the superbly paced action — many various events are crammed in the 84 minutes of the film, many requiring detailed complex characterization, yet it is all balanced neatly in the space of the film. The performances are excellent, most likely due to the well thought-over casting and competent work of the director with the teenage actors, both the music and the camerawork are memorable.

The two further parts of the trilogy Suvi/ Summer (1976) and Sügis/ Autumn (1990) were made seven and twenty one years later, respectively. By casting the same actors, the director is able to capitalize on the natural process of aging and thus enhance the familial feeling that the trilogy leaves. Margus Lepa (as Kiir), Riina Hein (as Teele), and Rein Aedma (as Imelik) and Arno Liiver (as Arno) have only played in the trilogy and have never been engaged as actors in other films, thus leaving the viewer with the feeling that, by appearing in the three installments, they have shared part of their real lives. Director Kruusement is responsible also for other important Estonian films, most notably the cheerful musical Don Juan of Tallinn (1971).

Here is a non-subtitled clip from the film, a scene usually referred to as The Sauna, featuring characters like Tonisson and Toots.

Along with the two other parts of the trilogy, Kevade is restored and released on DVD. I saw the trilogy out of a box set where the three films are available with English and Russian subtitles. There is also a separate DVD edition of Kevade only, which comes with a 50-minute long documentary about the production history of the film (featuring interviews with the director, members of the crew, and the actors), and with a variety of subtitling options in English, German, Russian, Finnish, Swedish and Estonian.

© Dina Iordanova
8 September 2008

Viimne reliikvia/ The Last Relic (USSR – Estonia, 1969) Grigori Kromanov

September 5, 2008 at 6:50 am

The Last Relic is seen by many as the best Estonian film. It is, undoubtedly, the most popular Estonian film as well, a prime example of the attempts of the Soviet Union to produce appealing mass entertainment (other classical illustrations of this endeavor were films like Neulovymie mstiteli, a truly entertaining gem from 1966). The film has all elements of a good romantic adventure: love affair between two extremely good looking protagonists, who manage to be together against all odds and by overcoming all sorts of difficulties that an assortment of disguised enemies (clergy, ambitious suitors, envious rivals) put on their way. There are gorgeous horses, chases through lovely forests, exciting river passages, night scenes at burning castles, treacherous cloister underground corridors, funny jokes, and memorable songs.

The film is based on a classical Estonian book for children, which was substantially changed in the process of adaptation. One of the important new aspects was the introduction of dynamic songs which are still popular today (and which are performed by different singers and in different musical arrangements for the Estonian and the Russian versions of the film). In the documentary that is appended to the DVD, the makers of the film openly acknowledge that they were influenced directly by films like the French Fanfan la Tulipe (1952) and the classical version of Robin Hood (1938, with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland). But they also indicate they had in mind many other adventure films of the time as well. The cameraman spoke of being influenced by Antonioni, but it seems to me there were influences also from the East European school of filmmaking with their long shots (mostly Miklos Jancso) — one scene that is reminiscent of a Pieter Bruegel painting includes a two-minute long uninterrupted take including over 200 extras in a complexly choreographed traveling shot.

The Last Relic was made for about one million roubles, a truly sizable budget for the time. At the time of its release it was seen by nearly 45 million people within the Soviet Union alone, and it was exported to 63 countries. Most of these countries, notably, are located in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe — a glance at the list of these gives a very interesting outline of the geopolitical distribution of the cultural sphere of influence of the Second World at the time. These also happen to be precisely those territories that we know very little about in terms of cinematc exposure.

One of the remarkable features of The Last Relic is that it puts the love affair in the center of the plot, and tackles it quite openly, by including erotic scenes of a type that has not normally been seen in Soviet cinema; in one instance Ingrid Andrina, the lead actress, is shown naked — the scene looks like out of a Scandinavian film of that time. The role of the nun Ursula, a young woman permanently attracted to men, is played by the well-known Eve Kivi (who enjoyed somewhat of a similar reputation in real life). Even though for an outsider like me Ursula’s presence appears to be a minor supporting role without any particular significance, it seems that due to the actrress’ special reputation the character acquires a much bigger importance, is given tremendous attention in the discussions of the film that I have come across and is credited as nearly key personage in the context of the film.

Even though billed as Estonian (as it is made in Estonia and based on Estonian material), the film is a true example of the Soviet dimension in filmmaking. Alongside beautiful Ingrid Andrina (as Agnes) and feisty Eve Kivi (as Ursula), several of the most important roles are played by Russian actors – Aleksandr Goloborodko (Gabriel) and famous Rolan Bykov (as Brother Johannes)*. Elza Radzina (best known from her roles in Grigoriy Kozintsev’s Shakespeare adaptations, here as the Abtiss of the Monastery), also has an important role. The role of Ivo Schenkenberg, a real historical personality, was initially planned for Lithuanian star Juozas Budraitis (but then went to Estonian Peeter Jacobi, who delivers a fully competent performance).

Here is one of the musical numbers, a song about fighting for one’s freedom. In the ‘making of’ documentary, the author of the lyrics said he worked on these precisely at the time when Soviet tanks were rolling into Prague in 1968, thus he truly embraced the chance to create a song about liberty and rebellion.

The entire film is available to view on YouTube , cut into ten minute-long segments, but these are only in an Estonian version. It is interesting that from over twenty videos that have been posted here, none has subtitles nor any explanation in English. Evidently, those who posted did not imagine that anyone beyond Estonians would be interested in it.

The Last Relic was restored with the assistance of Finnish collaborators and re-released in 2002, 33 years after its original premiere. It is available to purchase on DVD with English, German, Russian, Finnish, Latvian and Estonian subtitles.

* At the time of the shooting Bykov was simultaneously working on his own directorial Vnimanie, cherepakha!/Attention, turtle!, a great childrens’ movie of the time released in 1970.

© Dina Iordanova
5 September 2008

Don Juan of Tallinn/ Don Juan Tallinnas (Estonia/USSR, 1972), Arvo Kruusement

September 2, 2008 at 12:48 am

Don Juan of Tallinn is a light-hearted romantic musical by established Estonian director Arvo Kruusement (b. 1928) whose other best-known films include the trilogy Kevade/ Spring (1969), Suvi/ Summer (1976) and Sügis (1990). On the surface, the film looks pretty much like yet another European offering from the 1970s, with the bright solid colors of the costumes, fencing routines on fortress walls, and a lavish display of narrow steep cobblestone streets and other examples of heritage architecture (precisely in the taste of Jess Franco’s films of the period, who also likes to set his films in places which have forests of sorts). What I found striking in this 66-minute long piece of entertainment, however, is that this is actually a Soviet made film, a production of Tallinnfilm. But it certainly did not look one tiny bit like what we are used to seeing out of the Soviet Union at the time. First of all, the jeans, the bright colors of the clothes that the protagonists wear, the smiling faces and excellent white teeth, the modern dancing, it all looks fully in line with any West European culture of the time, not a trace of the frumpy Soviet fashions that dominated the country for decades. The second aspect is the fact that this film is entirely in Estonian language (I am not closely familiar with the intricacies of the Soviet linguistic policy of the time, but I know that most films that were made in the republics had to also have a Russian language version, and this has probably been the case with Don Juan of Tallinn as well; in any case, the DVD I have is only subtitled in Russian but not dubbed; it also has got English subtitles).

The plot is simple: Don Juan and his servant Florestino arrive in Tallinn and soon everything is disarray. Local women realize that this is ‘that’ Don Juan and all begin lining up to be seduced, while the local men decide to defend their honour and challenge the intruder for a duel, which he effortlessly wins. Most of these situations develop into dance and song routines and give opportunity to showcase lovely seaside landscapes or the fortress walls of old Tallinn. At the end Don Juan (who is actually a woman disguised as a man) departs the town with a smile.

The film reveals avant garde inclinations in yet one more respect — it touches on issues of gender identity, even if only probing them. As Don Juan is actually a cross-dressing woman who lives off the reputation of the famous seducer. One of the men in town realizes that he is attracted to him and declares his love (to soon thereafter correct himself, of course, by saying that he would have certainly be in love with Don Juan if he were a woman).

In any case, the film is full of music and good mood; it is unusually light and breezy for a Soviet film, not a whiff of the heavy ideological or moral conundrums that dominate other films of the time. The music is by Olav Elhala, just twenty one at the time, who later on became a prolific film composer, mostly working in Estonia. One of the young blond women who fall in love with Don Juan is famous Estonian actress Eve Kivi (she is best known as one of the few women of the period who openly discussed their sexuality and love affairs; her main claim to fame is her relationship with Soviet-bloc heartthrob, American maverick Dean Reed).

A copy of this film on DVD came to me courtesy of Karlo Funk of the Estonian Film Foundation , after I visited Tallinn in 2007 to talk at the conference on forgotten dimensions on East European Cinema.

© Dina Iordanova
2 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

© Dina Iordanova
29 August 2008

Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn (1999, Russia) Aleksandr Sokurov

August 12, 2008 at 11:09 pm

I had purchased this DVD in Paris earlier in the year, but only watched it now, probably prompted by the news of the death of the author who, even spending years in the Gulag, lived to be 89.

This is yet another one of Sokurov’s pensive and masterful documentaries that manage to come really close to the person that is being interviewed. At moments one really wonders how does Sokurov manage to make his subjects behave in a way as if there is no camera nearby. The silent observation of the writer working in his study, the close ups of his hands while editing, the quiet light of his home, it all looks as lived, not filmed. The most remarkable part of the film, however, is the one shot outdoors, during a walk Sokurov and Solzhenitsyn take outside of the writer’s datcha near Moscow, through the woods, visiting the site where a lighting recently stroke, split and burned a giant old tree.

The film, commissioned by a Russian TV channel and shot in 1999 consists of two parts of about 90 minutes each, thus the total comes to slightly over three hours. The first part s called The Knot (Uzel) while the second is entitled simply Dialogues. At the time of these interviews Solzhenitsyn is about eighty years of age, but his mind is remarkably agile and his judgement is swift; he has strong opinions on many issues. He talks a lot about writing and literature, about aspects of the Russian language, and about many of the most important Russian writers, from Gogol and Dostoyevski through Plekhanov and Karamzin, to present-day Valentin Rasputin or emigre Nabokov. Themes of politics are touched only in passing, but there is lots of convesation about religion, historical fate, national identity, guided by the director’s subtle questioning. Sokurov pays exquisite attention to the writer’s working environment, his need of quiet and light, his love of nature. The writer’s wife is also interviewed about their three sons, life in America and the activities of the foundation they run to help victims of the Gulag. Solzhenitsyn talks about his own origins, his parents and grandparents and his early life and beliefs, war time experience, surviving the Gulag, the exile in Kazakhstan.

It is all placed in a framework of a voiceover narrative that the director provides himself, on the background of various photographs related to stages in Solzhenitsyn’s life. The film is richly textured also because the director interweaves references to his own work, like his breakthrough The Lonely Human Voice (1987), clearly revealing to what significant extent Solzhenitsyn’s work has influenced his own formation. Even though there is no footage from his remarkable Days of Eclipse (1988), a film about existential displacement that, accidentally, is shot in Kazakhstan (the place of Solzhenitsyn’s internment), things that were said in reference to the writer’s time in the Kazakh steppe fully resonated with the haunting imagery found in this most memorable work of Sourov.

Dina Iordanova
13 August 2008

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