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

April 13, 2010 at 2:59 am

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

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

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

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

Krvavi put/ Blodveien/ Blood Road (Yugoslavia/Norway, 1955)

April 3, 2010 at 12:21 am

The Blood Road, a Norwegian-Yugoslav co-production released in February 1955, was co-directed by Rados Novakovic (1915-1979), a director whose name is mostly linked with a variety of resistance-themed films made in the late 1940s and through the 1950s, and Norwegian Kåre Bergstrøm (1911-1976).

I am not familiar with the real historical background of the events depicted in the film, nor have I any detailed knowledge of captured Yugoslav partisans being kept by the Nazis in places as remote as Norway (the geographical distance makes it seem impractical). Yet it seems the film is based on real events from the time of WWII. The focus is mostly on the dynamics between those kept in the camp (a group of captured Yugoslav partisans, who are systematically being destroyed by the Nazis through hard labor, inhuman conditions or straightforward murder) and a group of local Norwegians who, caught by historical circumstance, end up involved working in the context of the camp and who, appalled by the Nazis’ inhumanity, gradually grow determined to help the prisoners. The personal drama evolves around two sets of fathers and sons. On the one hand, there is Janko and his father, prisoners, and on the other hand there is the local man Ketil and his son Magnar. Janko dreams of freedom and manages to escape (while his dedicated father perishes in the camp); this father-son pair live in perfect understanding and, once free, the son will continue the struggle of the father. Not so with the difficult relationship between Kjetil, who is determined to help the partisans, and Magnar, who is not only employed by the Nazis but seems totally faithful to them. The rift between father and son (which is equated to a rift between moral responsibility and lowly opportunism) grows deeper and leads to a tragic end: Kjetil accidentally shoots Magnar dead while defending Janko, the escapee. It is the dramatic tension around the relationships of these four characters that keeps the film going; otherwise there isn’t much more but a variation of other films that deal with the life of prisoners in a camp, as seen in films like Stalag 17; other much superior camp films have been made since.

In my recent purchase and watching of this film, I was mostly intrigued by the fact the DVD cover listed the Norwegian Norske Film and Avala film (the Belgrade production studio) as co-producing partners — a transnational collaboration between two peripheral European countries realised in a period during which such joint projects were not very common (some would even claim no such collaborative projects ever took place in the divided Europe of the 1950s). Well, there is one more piece of evidence of the existance of such transnational efforts, and one that testifies not only to the interesting subterranean dynamics of Cold War cultural politics of the 1950s, but also of the liveliness of collaborations between individual small national cinematographies. Tim Bergfelder has explored some aspects of such forgotten (but in fact, quite lively) cross-national collaborations in his book on German co-productions in the 1960s“. Clearly, there is quite a bit more to highlight and work on in terms of Europe’s co-productions history, especially as co-productions between Western (Nordic, in this case) countries and those of the East bloc, especially intriguing in the case of communist maverick states like Yugoslavia and Romania whose cultural policy was relatively independent from the Soviets and who engaged in a variety of extremely interesting co-production ventures. It has been written about only sporadically and in scattered locations; a collaborative transnational project is perhaps due here to highlight these forgotten trans-bloc cultural exchanges of the Cold War.

I bought a copy of the DVD at a large special store in one of Tromso’s shopping malls this January, during the film festival. The DVD cover, pictured above, lists the film as part of the series of ‘Norwegian classics’ that have been now released on DVD (Norske klassikere). Once I had purchased it, I asked around some of the Norwegian friends who were at the festival, but none of them seemed to have heard of the film. When searching on the IMDb for more information on it today, I was not able to find a listing for such a Norwegian classic at all: the search for ‘Blodveien’ only produced a reference to the film’s Yugoslav title, Krvavi put. However, I see that there is at least one review of the DVD in Norwegian, by Kai Arne Johansen at the Norwegian-language site Cinerama.no (I wish I could read it, especially as I see it makes some references to Oscars and Cannes, if I get that correctly).

To purchase the DVD, with English subtitles, click through here.

© Dina Iordanova
3 April 2010

Nie sme na vseki kilometar: A personal memoir

January 7, 2009 at 1:04 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Dina Iordanova
7 January 2009

René Vautier: Anti-Colonial Filmmaker

November 8, 2008 at 12:32 am

I first heard the name of René Vautier from Erwan Moalic, the powerhouse behind the remarkable film festival in Douarnenez, a true community-based festival dedicated to working class audiences and featuring films on ethnic and other minorities (in existence since the 1970s). I was asking Erwan if he could please identify what was the ideological influence that had informed the establishment of the Douarnenez event, and he named Vautier, whom he described as a hugely important but little known and widely-suppressed Breton filmmaker. The description proved correct, as when I asked around about Vautier at a later point (talking mostly to colleagues in anthropology and French based in the UK and the US), almost no one knew of him (I gather, I did not ask the right people): I was left with the impression that the filmmaker is not as widely known as he apparently should be. Eventually I was nicely surprised to come across a lengthy article on him in the Financial Times (of all places), in which author Tobias Grey described him as ‘the most censored of all French filmmakers’. Luckily, there is the Internet where one can find more on him, from the good French-language Wikpedia article to various write ups on his classic anti-colonialist film Afrique’50 and on his best-known film, the documentary-style feature Avoir 20 ans dans les Aurès (1972).

It is this film,
To be Twenty in the Aures, that prompted me to write on Vautier today, as I finally got round to watching the French language DVD I had purchased in France a few months ago. It is a memorable and certainly extremely brave feature, which can be taken for documentary at moments, especially when featuring extreme scenes such as the rape of a local woman or the torture of detainees (scenes that surpass in intensity similar scenes from such anti-war classics as Brian de Palma’s Casualties of War or recent Iraqi-war themed films like Nick Broomfield’s The Battle for Haditha). A platoon of hesitant French soldiers are fighting the colonial war, being fed daily doses of indoctrination from the radio dispatches and from their own lieutenant Perrin (a remarkable young Philippe Léotard), yet the things that happen on the ground and the local relationships they forge make them more and more disillusioned about the supposedly patriotic mission they are serving. The only French film to be included in the Cannes selection in 1972, the film received the FIPRESCI prize. Aesthetically it is a pre-cursor of Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (1993); at moments I also thought that certain scenes in it may have influenced Bill Douglas’ Comrades (1986) — both films featuring European men who are essentially displaced by being transplanted to a Southern environment. The film is released by Doriane Films, a distributor that carries the work of filmmakers like Peter Watkins and Ousmane Sembene. I see that in the Amazon.fr site, from where it is available for sale, this rare DVD ranks at around 30,000 level of popularity. Sad.

The DVD features various extras, most importantly a 55 minute-long extraction of his earlier work on colonialism in Algeria, called Peuple en marche which presents the anti-colonial stance of the director particularly persuasively and features what I suppose is an extremely rare footage (as Vautier is, reportedly, the only French filmmaker who has filmed the war in Algeria from the point of view of the colonized). The 23 minute documentary called Vautier The Indomitable which chronicles the life of the director, was particularly important to see, especially as it features the sequence of systematic suppression of his work over the years (filming, prison terms, filming again, hunger strike, filming, censorship, and so on) in a light-hearted manner, evidently this being the way in which Vautier prefers to present himself. Born in Bretagne in 1928, he has remained at the periphery of French militant filmmaking. It is sad to see he is so little known, provided that what I saw of his work appears to be so enormously important: after all, he filmed in Algeria at the very same time when Frantz Fanon was writing his seminal The Wretched of the Earth (1961). Yet spending time in Paris earlier this year, I did not come across any mentions of Vautier nor across events that would feature his work (whereas, in conjunction with the commemorations of 1968, there were plenty of discussions of other similarly-motivated groups, such as the Medvedkine collective and others).

© Dina Iordanova
6 November 2008

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

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
http://www.archive.org/details/aerograd.

© Dina Iordanova
29 August 2008

Transnational Class of Film Professionals II

July 28, 2008 at 12:57 pm

Valley of the Wolves: Iraq (Kurtlar vadisi – Irak) is a Turkish action film made in 2006, set in the conflict zone in Iraq near the Turkish border. The film opens with a reenactment a real incident from the summer of 2003 (pictured), where a group of Turkish border guards are arrested in their own headquarters and publicly humiliated by American troops, who are officially their ‘allies’. The incident leads to the suicide of one of the border officers who feels he has been dishonored by such treatment on the very territory he is supposed to guard and protect. Opening with a set up that clearly questions the nature of the American ‘allied’ involvement with Turkey, the rest of the film pictures in truly dark shades the travails of various shady American figures and mercenaries operating in Iraq, and the resistance they encounter from brave undercover Turkish patriots. There are many action scenes, weddings that end up in bloodshed, blown-up minarets, spectacular fights, suicide explosions, as well as reconstructions of scenes that remind of the notorious Abu Ghraib pictures, smartly interwoven into the plot.

The film made quite a splash internationally, and even though it has not been shown in America, it has been extensively discussed as a work of anti-Americanism. A discussion on NBC even mentioned that American troops stationed in countries where the film was screening have been explicitly prohibited from seeing it, out of fear that they may become subject of attack by enraged audiences. And even if the film was not distributed in the US, the two American actors who were cast in it, Billy Zane and Gary Busey, were publicly denounced for taking part, and declared anti-patriotic racist mercenaries, like in this image seen at a blog-site called ‘Villagers with Torches‘.

It is not my intention to go into this controversy here, as I have discussed it elsewhere (BBC World Service, December 2006). My interest in Valley of the Wolves is in relation to the emerging transnational class of film professionals, and it is this film that gives me the chance to most powerfully illustrate my point. The stunts, for example, were handled by a group of Czech-born professionals, who mostly work in Hollywood but also have regular international outings. Dusan Hyska, the stunt coordinator for the production, comes with credits from films such as Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, and has worked on productions by directors like James Cameron (Titanic) and Scorsese (Gangs of New York). His fellow-stuntsman Jiri Horky was in Van Helsing, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and, more recently, in the second installment of the Chronicles of Narnia (2008) while Jan Petrina, Billy Zane’s stunt double, has also been in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001). If we move on to the special effects department led by industry veteran Mark Meddings, one discovers a wealth of overlaps with key American films by directors Ridley Scott, Stephen Spielberg and Oliver Stone. Employed on Valley of the Wolves as coordinator of special effects, Meddings comes with credits as senior special effects technician on Saving Private Ryan (1998), and has to his credits films such as Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) and Black Hawk Down (2001), Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain (2003), and Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004). The project that immediately preceded his involvement with Valley of the Wolves was Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005), a film showing the clash of Christian and Islamic civilizations.

Here is a clip of the film. The Hollywood touch shows; the style seen in this sequence is reminiscent of the bazaar scene in Indiana Jones (I believe it was in Raiders of the Lost Ark), mixed with sequences from Black Hawk Down.

In the ‘bonus’ section of Valley of the Wolves DVD, Meddings and his colleagues are seen setting up scenes of destruction with dummies, bloody body parts, artificial severed limbs and a variety of other props and prosthetics. Watching the ‘Making of’ documentary I could not help a feeling of a ‘deja vu’, thinking of many other similar ‘Making of’ documentaries found on the DVDs of Hollywood action epics, showing teams of equally committed special effects professionals engaged with setting up the pyrotechnics, the stunts, and the prosthetics for each new film. The plastic severed limbs and the little pumps that splat blood used in the Valley of the Wolves clearly have their prototype in the well-familiar bloody body parts and guts scattered all over Omaha beach in the famous scene that created the memorable heart-wrenching reaction on seeing Saving Private Ryan‘s opening scenes.

The bottom line is that the creative specialist force behind this epic entertainment is the same, and it operates transnationally. The same people whose skills and ingenuity helped create the unforgettable visceral images that enhanced American patriotism in Saving Private Ryan can happen, on occasion, to apply those same skills and wit in the context of productions that may encourage a very different view of the world. It is not realistic that the special effects profession or the stunts people, many of whom may be working in Hollywood but are often not even Americans, could be bound by patriotic loyalties or political allegiances that would bar them from taking on assignments across the world. It is an aspect of globalization that needs to be acknowledged and reckoned with.

For Part I of his post, click here.

© Dina Iordanova
29 July 2008

This entry is part of my investigation into international epic cinema, which also includes entries on other films from China (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower), Thailand (Suryiothai), Kazakhstan (Nomad), India (Asoka, Jodha Akbar), and elsewhere (Mongol).

Russkies (1987) Rick Rosenthal

July 22, 2008 at 11:11 pm

This film will remain known in the history of film mostly as the first cinematic appearance of Joaquin Phoenix (completely unrecognizable as one of the boys here). However, Russkies has also got its historical importance as an interesting attempt of ‘positive propaganda’ from the end of the Cold War, a period during which the previously demonized Russians begun being humanized in the context of Hollywood (and thus in the context of an all American discourse).

Misha, a Russian military sailor who has always loved all things American (he also happens to speak flawless American English somehow) has jumped ship and wants to stay in the US under Reagan’s presidency. The teenage boys who accidentally stumble at his lair have not yet managed to develop the commonly shared prejudice to ‘commies’ which would plague every other ‘normal’ adult American. So they take Misha for what he is and even defend him in situations of confrontation, in the course of all this revealing that Russians are people like everybody else, not that different from their fellow-Americans. There may be some Russians with sinister intentions, indeed, but the misunderstandings are easily cleared. The message is that Americans do not need to fear Russians as, once members of the middle class can meet face to face, the ice melts away and people can reach out to each other.

© Dina Iordanova
23 July 2008

Documentary on the big screen: Mai 68 at the Filmotheque du Quartier Latin

May 24, 2008 at 1:07 am

An initiative of Documentaire sur grand ecran, the program Sauve qui peut (le monde), a title clearly referencing Godard’s 1980 film, was presented at the Filmotheque du Quartier Latin, with the subtitle Quand les cinéastes montent au front. Yet another example of robust programming, this time conceived by academic Dominique Villain, it included:

Vent d’est, France/Germany/Italy, 1970, groupe Dizga Vertov (Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin)
Ernesto Che Guevara : Le journal de Bolivie, France/Switzerland, 1994, Richard Dindo
The Cool World, USA, 1964, Shirley Clarke
In the Country, USA, 1966, Robert Kramer
The Edge, USA, 1967, Robert Kramer
Ice, USA, 1969, Robert Kramer
Night and Fog in Japan, Nagisa Oshima, 1960
Le fond de l’air est rouge, France, 1977-2008, Chris Marker
Pravda, France/Germany, 1969, groupe Dizga Vertov (Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin)
Ian Palach, France, 1969, Raymond Depardon
La Sixieme face du Pentagone, France, 1967, Francois Reichenbach and Chris Marker
Rocky Road to Dublin, Ireland, 1968, Peter Lennon
British Sounds, France, 969, groupe Dziga Vertov, (Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Henri Roger)
L’esprit du temps, Netherlands, 1968, Johan van der Keuken
Saute ma ville, Belgium, 1968, Chantal Ackerman
Libre examen, Belgium, 1968, Luc de Heusch
Le 17eme parallele, France/Vietnam, 1968, Marceline Lordian and Joris Ivens

Yet another program, Mai 68 des luttes ouvrieres, exclusively evolving around documentary is presented at Saint-Ouen and at the L’Ecran de Saint-Denis during the last week of May.

© Dina Iordanova
24 May 2008