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

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We Drank the Same Water/ Nous avons bu la même eau (2008), a film tracing the Armenian presence in today’s Turkey by Serge Avédikian

October 9, 2008 at 3:28 am

The documentary Nous avons bu la même eau/We Drunk the Same Water premiered in Paris in May 2008, and had several weeks of continuous run in two early evening slots in Espace Saint-Michel, one of many tiny but well attended art house cinemas (cinema d’art et essay) in the area between the Sorbonne and the Seine. I saw it on one of the fist nights, alongside members of the Armenian community in Paris; the screening was introduced by director Serge Avédikian, a French-Armenian actor and theatre personality (see his web-site), who had also organised discussion with some historians after the screening (I could not attend it).

The director has first taken the opportunity to visit Soloz, the place from where his Armenian ancestors originate, in 1987, while attending a theatre festival in Istanbul. The film features footage of this first visit. The town, located on the south side of Marmara sea about 170 km south of Istanbul, is now populated by ethnic Turks whose families settled there in the 1920s as part of the large-scale ‘population exchanges’ of the period after they have been displaced from their habitual areas of residence near Thessaloniki in today’s Greece. Avedikian’s Armenian grandfather, Avédis, and his family, lived in Soloz early in the 20th century until the time when, threatened by famine, destitution and destruction, they were driven away from the territory of modern-day Turkey. In yet another installment of the effort to bring hushed histories from the region to the limelight, we see the director uncovering traces of ancient Armenian presence: it does not take long to find tombstones that are now used as steps; the foundations of the old church are still in place.

Most part of the film evolves around the director’s second visit to Soloz in 2006. Some of the people he had met during the first visit who still live here; both him and they have aged, a realisation that makes them feel closer to each other. Like before, some of them treat him with suspicion, while others welcome him with open hearts and minds. More people are willing to talk and show him the remnants of Armenian presence that are scattered all over the place. A man uses one of the Armenian stones to press his olives at home. Others take him to a nearby field where more relics are unearthed below the grass. In exchange, he shows them old pale pictures of his family who once lived here.

The most interesting aspect of the film is Avedikian’s interaction with the local men. Rather than generalising, he makes an effort to be fair in revealing the variety of individual reactions he is getting from different people: while the town’s mayor treats him with suspicion on both visits, the local doctor is truly supportive; while some close their doors to him, others welcome him to their homes; while some refuse to talk others are willing to engage in lengthy conversations about the rights and wrongs of history.

Things, however, take a turn for the worse when Avédikian decides to quiz the locals on their knowledge on the Armenian genocide. As one is usually the case in these regions (where adverse facts of history are relegated to oblivion and whre controversy-causing claims are hushed away and not made known to local people as a matter of principle), most of the interviewees react by saying that this is the first time they hear of such a thing; if it happened, they say, it was probably the responsibility of singular individuals and those responsible were probably punished (only in one case the discussion goes in more detail with references to concrete names and historical personalities). The locals clearly distance themselves from the allegations and make an important point to Avedikian: you see, we are not different from yourself; your family has been driven away and has ended up in France, and, likewise, our families have been uprooted from where they used to live and have resettles, ending up here. Both your and our people have all suffered in the course of these forced migrations; and indeed, we drunk the same water. But one cannot hold us responsible for what happened to the people who lived here before, our ancestors came to these places only after the previous inhabitants were no longer here; they never even met face to face.

It is in this part of the film where Avedikian gets to walk the tightrope of a tricky proposition that will ultimately prove untenable. It is one thing to unravel the traces left of one’s ancestors, and the director is really successful at this, winning over the locals and making them re-live the past with him. As the men from Soloz are themselves descendants of displaced ancestors, they are capable to understand and willing to identify with his quest. But when he starts pushing it further, it is clearly not working (and there is no chance that it would work). It is not them who are responsible for what happened to the Armenians who lived here; it may be a relief for Avedikian to be able to share his historical grievances, but where such move comes along with an expectation that contemporary Turks would volunteer to share into this guilt it is a dead end street.

It is the same all over the Balkans, a region that is full of grievances of this type that almost each ethnic group makes against others in relation to one period or another: in order to reconcile and overcome the wounds of the past people often are expected to take a stance against their own, a move that is not easy to make and that most of them are not really ready for just yet.

© Dina Iordanova
9 October 2008

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

September 13, 2008 at 1:16 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Dina Iordanova
13 September 2008

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