Special issue of Third Text: “Picturing ‘Gypsies’: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Roma Representation” now available

September 29, 2008 at 10:40 pm

In the aftermath of the British Academy-sponsored workshop on Romani representation which took place in St. Andrews in March 2007, Paloma Gay y Blasco and Dina Iordanova edited a special issue of Third Text entitled “Picturing ‘Gypsies’: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Roma Representation”, Volume 22, Number 3, May 2008.

Our colleague Leshu Torchin was among the contributors, who comprised of scholars from across the UK, Europe, and the US. The issue approaches the topic in a truly interdisciplinary matter and looks at representations from across museums, exhibitions, photography, drawing, music and cinema, as can be seen in the table of contents:

Paloma Gay y Blasco (St. Andrews) “Picturing ‘Gypsies’: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Roma Representation”

Dina Iordanova (St. Andrews)”Mimicry and Plagiarism: Reconciling Actual and Metaphoric Gypsies”

Eve Rosenhaft (Liverpool) “Exchanging Glances: Ambivalence in Twentieth-Century Photographs of German Sinti”

Aniko Imre (USC) “Roma Music and Transnational Homelessness”
Caterina Pasqualino (Paris) “The Gypsies, Poor but Happy: A Cinematic Myth”

Iulia Hasdeu (Brussels) “Imagining the Gypsy Woman: Representations of Roma in Romanian Museum”

Peter Vermeersch (Leuven)”Exhibiting Multiculturalism: Politicised
Representations of the Roma in Poland”

Huub van Baar (Amsterdam) “The Way Out of Amnesia?: Europeanisation and the Recognition of the Roma’s Past and Present”

Leshu Torchin
(St. Andrews) “Influencing Representation: Equal Access and Roma Social Inclusion”

Jean-Luc Poueyto (Toulouse) “Out of the Frame: Presence, Representation and Non-Presentability in a Community of Manushes in the South of France”

Daniel Baker (London) The Function of an Exhibition

David Altheer
(London) “The Madonna of the Romanies”

Adina Bradeanu (Westminster) Review essay on two Romanian documentaries on the Roma (‘The Curse of the Hedgehog’ and ‘The Land is Waiting’)

Access to the electronic version of the journal can be purchased at IngentaConnect or at InformaWorld. For subscriptions to Third Text click here.

Dina Iordanova, New Bulgarian Cinema, 2008

September 22, 2008 at 12:38 am

My monograph New Bulgarian Cinema (College Gate, 2008) is now available to purchase either by clicking on the link below (to the web-site of Blurb, the excellent PoD service which produced it), or by clicking the PayPal buttons below, directly ordering to the publishers. NB Blurb site requires registration; when you visit you will be able to view a preview of the first fifteen pages of the book.

Described by Ron Holloway as a ‘poetic cinema,’ since 1989 Bulgaria’s film industry underwent testing times. Dina Iordanova’s comprehensive study discusses the ups and downs of the national film tradition in the post-communist period.

Table of Contents:

Ch. 1 Testing Times:
1.1. Managing Change; 1.2. Generations

Ch. 2 Where Are We Coming From?
2.1. Tackling the Ottoman Legacy; 2.2. Multi-ethnic Conviviality? 2.3. Tackling the Communist Period.

Ch. 3 Where Are We Headed To?
3.1. Drabness; 3.2. Existential Concerns; 3.3. The Road to Europe; 3.4. The Road to the Village.

Ch. 4 Embracing the Balkan
Notes, Bibliography, Web-sites, Filmography

Available in soft cover (£14.95; 978-1-906678-02-9) and hard cover (£29.95; ISBN 978-1-906678-01-2). Square 7×7 inches (18×18 cm) 120 pages.

To purchase the paperback edition

To purchase the hard cover edition

Hard cover

IMDb Recommendations, Critical Contexts and Historiography: Reception of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days

September 20, 2008 at 12:30 am

In the process of writing an essay on the Cannes-winning Romanian 4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile/ 4 Weeks, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) I could not help registering the variety of contexts in which the film was discussed. Some were more or less predictable, whereas others – quite arbitrary, largely defined by the concurrent release of other films that happened to play in theatres at the same time in various countries.

American critics were compelled to review it in relation to recent US releases, such as Ivan Reitman’s Juno (2007), but also other 2007 American films on sexual politics like Knocked Up and Waitress. Because it was clear this is a film about the communist period, many cross-referenced it to German The Lives of Others (2006), even though the tone and the premise are so different. Others made linkages to Andrea Arnold surveillance film Red Road (2006) and Carlos Reygadas’s Japón (2002)and Silent Light (2007). Russian reviewers made references to Gruz 200/ Cargo 200 (2007), pictured, a film by Alexei Balabanov that has not been widely distributed, whereas Asian critics linked it to Tsai Ming-Liang’s Kuala Lumpur-set Hey yan quan/I Do Not Want to Sleep Alone (2006). Those writing on Phillippine cinema compared it to Ishmael Bernal’s abortion film Hinugot sa Langit/Snatched from Heaven (1985). If I am to contribute to this line of referencing, as someone who knows Bulgarian cinema well, I would be inclined to compare it to Milena Andonova’s recent Maimuni prez zimata/Monkeys in Winter (2006), which partially covers the issue of female ambition and abortion from roughly the same period.

As far as thematic frameworks are concerned, one has been the abortion theme. Another one has been its contextualisation in the context of recent Romanian socially critical filmmaking, the best known of which are set in the post-communist period (such as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu or 12:08 East of Bucharest) and are thus of questionable immediate relevance. Then there is the social film framework, which places it in the company of films by Ken Loach (Ladybird Ladybird, 1994) and Dardenne brothers.

For those who do not have the time to read the critics, however, there is the ‘recommendations’ feature of the IMDb, a recently refurbished and currently absurdly functioning referencing system that uses ‘a complex formula to suggest titles that fit along with the selected’ (IMDb’s explanation on the way recommendations are picked by their automated system). Even though the IMDb is owned by Amazon, its recommendation system functions quite differently from the Amazon system for picking recommendations. In this case, IMDB’s ‘automated matchmaker’ has suggested that those who liked 4 Months might also be interested in seeing the manga Denei shoujo Ai (1992) or Basic Instinct (1992) with Sharon Stone.

Thus, we can come up with a rough classification of the types of referencing in which a film is assessed: On the one hand, there is the automated formula of the IMDb which, they believe, ‘produces excellent results most of the time’ and of which I cannot help being terrified (because what I have seen so far by way of recommendations in regard to the films I am interested in is a serious failure). Then there are the critics who review films in the context of a ‘current releases’ setting who are in possession of the special skill of inventing correlations between films that have ended up in the same week of release completely by accident. A third framework is the framework of critics who write for periodical publications of lower frequency – they can have a more relaxed approach and contextualise the film more widely; still they usually try to stick to current releases in their referencing.

Unlike IMDb’s recommendations automate (which will clearly need to be improved), and unlike the critics to who inevitably comply with the specific framework of the publication for which they write, I flatter myself that, as an academic film historian I appear to have more freedom in my referencing. Yet, it is clear that in my assessment I also contextualise a film within a specifically limited range of other films which I pick guided by what I see as the social contexts and films more relevant to the true message of the film. While I would probably agree with the contextualization through the socially-committed cinema of Loach-Dardenne lineage, as a film historian I would also look for more referencing from within Eastern Europe, and could end up cross-referencing it in the tradition of Romanian cinema going as far back as Mircea Daneliuk’s Proba de microfon/ Microphone Test (1980) or Lucian Pintilie’s Balanta/The Oak (1992) and Stere Gulea’s Stare de fapt/ State of Things (1996), all films that show women whose decisions and actions are controlled by the restricting social environment in which they exist. My second framework also Polish films like Kieslowski’s Decalog II (which features issues related to abortion in communist context, focusing on moral dilemmas), and, most of all, Agnieszka Holland’s Kobieta Samotna/ A Woman Alone (1981). Even if not an obvious comparison, I also thought of references to Ryszard Bugajski’s Przesluchanie/The Interrogation (1982), maybe because it features a protagonist who is forced to become strong in adverse circumstances, like Otilia in 4 Months.

© Dina Iordanova
20 September 2008

Baltic Cinema Conference: Riga, September 2008

September 17, 2008 at 12:51 am

The conference, organized by Prof. Irina Novikova of Latvia’s National University with the participation of several Latvian organizations, took place at the intimate premises of Riga’s Film Museum, tucked away at the end of winding cobblestoned pedestrian alleys, among the lovely buildings of Riga’s Old Town. The conference coincided with the museum’s exhibition on Riga’s famous son, director Sergei Eisenstein, who spent here the first seventeen years of his life (one-third of the directors’ short life). This imaginatively organized exhibit was impressively curated by the Museum’s Elina Reitere; it came along with the publication of the booklet Riga’s Boy (pictured).

The conference brought together scholars involved in the study of film from the three Baltic republics and the United States. There were sociologists, as well as film, cultural, and media studies people, who gave presentations highlighting different aspects of cinema in the region. Some looked into the work of the Baltic documentary school, analyzing the work of such important directors like Juris Podnieks (Maruta Vitols) as well as various films related to memory representations (Violeta Davoliute, Olga Proskurova, Aune Unt). Others explored the cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, looking at issues of memory, nationalism, narrative and space in these cinemas (Aija Rozensteine, Eva Naripea, Irina Novikova). Pritt Parn, the highly esteemed Estonian animator, was the subject of Mari Laaniste’s wonderful presentation on his masterpiece, Eine murul/Luncheon on the Grass (1987). Some of the talks were dedicated to the most recent cinema from the region — e.g. Viktors Freibergs’ talk on the Latvian Vogelfrei (2007), a project by four directors, or Arturas Tereshkinas’ on Lithuanian commercial hit Zero. Lilak Lithuania (2006). Documentary filmmaker Jonas Ohman, a Swede who works in Lithuania, showed an excerpt of his new film The Hitmen (2008), featuring interviews with Soviet collaborators from the late 1940s. Critic Dita Rietuma presented a detailed talk on the work of Laila Pakalnina. Alina Zvinkliene (Vilnius) explored the matters of stereotyping and cross cultural representations. Industry and audience conscious scholars like myself and American Bjorn Ingvoldstadt kept bringing the discussion back to issues of audience research, relevance, and distribution.

In the post-Soviet period the film production in the region initially dwindled but then previous output levels were restored. Nowadays each one of the three republics releases several features every year, as well as animations and documentaries (and, of course, the national film centers are working hard to attract international runaway productions). We had the chance to see two recent Latvian films. The first one was Monotony (2007) by Juris Poskus, a drama about young people from the Latvian periphery, who have difficulties communicating and who, as a result, end up making moves that they would probably not take if they were able to talk properly to each other; the film has won several awards at festivals in the former Soviet sphere, touching on issues of lack of direction in life, outmigration, and so on. The other one was a recent absurdist short by Latvia’s leading avant-garde filmmaker Laila Pakalnina, called Stones (still to be released), a film picturing the weird way in which a local oligarch is building his stone garden but in fact a treatise on human exploitation and inertia revealilng the director’s idiosyncratic sense of humor.

© Dina Iordanova
17 September 2008

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

September 13, 2008 at 1:16 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Dina Iordanova
13 September 2008

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