Bright Lights Film Journal

Red Carpets and Radicals: The Shadow of Reality at the Fifth Odessa International Film Festival (July 11-19, 2014)

A scene from Anna Melikian's Star

The Fifth Odessa International Film Festival was destined to be unlike its previous editions. Only two months previously, Odessa suffered an unprecedented peak in civil violence with the death of over 40 pro-Russian activists in a fire at the House of Trade Unions not far from the main venue of the festival. The city itself may not have been in the forefront of the actual fighting between separatists and Ukrainian government forces happening during the festival, but certainly it cast a huge shadow over the event. If all this was not enough, the still-unsolved downing of the Malaysian Airlines plane would transform the mood right in the middle of the festival.

The festival itself had been the object of strong polemics in the city, with some claiming that this was “a feast in the time of plague.” Although the consensus was that there was a positive symbolic importance in holding a film festival in spite of the storm clouds gathering over the city (and Ukraine as a whole), it still was unclear whether this festival really reflected the spirit of Odessa. Was it not too compromised, a scaled-down version of previous festivals rather than an innovative event reflecting the tragic times which Ukraine found itself in? Everything seemed to be in place that had been there previously– the Red Carpet events, a hint of glitz and glamour at the opening ceremony, and Viktoria Tigipko, the businesswoman and wife of the chameleon-like oligarch Tigipko (opportunistically changing sides in the current Ukrainian political setup: now with pro-Russian Yanukovich, now with pro-Western Poroshenko) was still there presiding over it all as president of the festival. Yet everything was slightly different too: the luscious Odessan Opera House was replaced by the Soviet-era Musical Comedy Theatre as the location for opening and closing ceremonies, a crowdfunding campaign had been set up to gather extra funds for the festival which were far tighter this year, and the programme included more politically minded films with a radical disposition. This was not the Sarajevo Film Festival of the early-mid 1990s1 but an established festival trying to muddle through in times of strife while keeping up appearances. In spite of all the good will and heroic efforts of volunteers, they still seemed to be feeding Olmi’s old signora (even if rejuvenated in the shape of an oligarch politican’s young wife).

The schizoid format of the festival – red carpets and glamour alternating with a batch of radical underground films – meant that this year it did offer films of a slightly more radical bent than usual with its “Ways to Freedom” programme. Visiting this festival from Moscow meant that I, at least, could partake of some “forbidden fruits” that had little chance of being shown in the Russian capital. Russian screens have long been a no-go zone for films like Gogol’s Wives’ Pussy Versus Putin2, and it’s hardly likely that Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan will be shown in many places in Moscow (if not in some side-street location or an alternative café). Both these films drew unique reactions from the audience. The audience reacted to the Russian filmmakers of the Gogol’s Wives team in a spirit of solidarity, although some questioned the support of some of the art-collective Voina (with whom Pussy Riot and the Gogal’s Wives team had been associated) for the annexation of Crimea.3 When the question was asked as to when Russia would be free (a slogan repeated in the demonstrations shown in the film), there was a long discussion amongst the audience brought to a conclusion by one woman who stated that when, in 2017, a second Russian Revolution takes place, Ukrainians would be happy to lend a helping hand. Another topic broached regarded the physical conditions of filming this kind of underground document in Russia. One of two Gogol’s Wives directors present explained the techniques of hiding the footage after arrest. The film itself has had only a limited circulation through film festivals globally even though its historical value is surely greater than Lerner and Pozdorovkin’s documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer given the “primary” nature of the Gogol’s Wives footage.4 In the same programme section, Alain Margot’s documentary Je Suis Femen was shown. This became the occasion for a festival-related scandal with an impromptu performance by a pro-Femen activist brutally cut short by cinema security, who proceeded to physically abuse him. This repression indirectly caused a stain on the reputation of the festival with its avowed stance of showing radically themed films to boost its civic-minded image.

Another film showing associated with the tragic conflict situation was the Gaamer (2011) by the Ukrainian director Oleg Sentsov, who is languishing in a Russian prison, facing what most believe to be trumped-up terrorism charges and subject, by his own account, to beatings and threats of rape for the simple fact that he was involved with the Automaidan movement and helped Ukrainian servicemen who were besieged by Russian (or pro-Russian) forces in the early days of the standoff between Russian and Ukrainian troops. The film showing was accompanied by a Q&A session with those involved in the campaign for Sentsov’s release as well as with close friends and colleagues of the director. Sentsov’s situation has drawn the attention of a large number of European filmmakers who petitioned the Russian authorities for him to be either charged with a recognisable offence or released.5 Sentsov’s film didn’t have any explicit political themes but was a realistic, doc-styled feature film on the lives of computer gamers (Sentsov used an actual gamer and non-professional actor to play the lead role). One of Russia’s most well-known and respected critics, Andrei Plakhov, had this to say about Sentsov as a filmmaker, prior to another solidarity showing of his film at the Memorial offices in Moscow: “He’s a man with ideas, but absolutely nothing outlandish, by no means extremist. To the contrary, his ideas are very normal and productive. This is an absolutely creative person, a person whose primary aim is to create. That’s why what’s happening is especially bitter. We understand that the film world may lose a talented person. We don’t have many of those.”6

The film that attracted the most public attention was Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan, one of two documentaries on the events in Kiev’s central square showing at the festival. Loznitsa held a master class on the subject of film as propaganda before the showing of Maidan. He used his earlier documentary Performance – made from found footage of old Soviet newsreels – to talk about the forms and limitations of Soviet and post-Soviet documentary. Starting off with a recent conversation he had with Odessan filmmaker Kira Muratova, who had stated that documentary can often be more misleading (giving one a falser sense of reality) than feature films do, he settled into a description of all the aspects of reality that are necessarily left out when making documentaries. When talking of propaganda as such, Loznitsa believes that there are two responsible parties: those who make propaganda and those who (uncritically) absorb and acquiesce in it.

A scene from Loznitsa’s Maidan

His own film Maidan (depicting events at Maidan Square in Kiev where protests initially fighting against the authoritarian turn of President Yanukovich would develop into a larger-scale movement of national liberation against Russian revanchism) was a curious case study in the mood of the Ukrainian audience at this historical juncture. This very reflective and nuanced film nonetheless twice became the occasion for the audience to stand to attention (literally) as the Ukrainian national anthem was heard onscreen. At the morning screening, members of the audience also joined in the sloganeering of some scenes, repeating the Maidan crowd’s main rallying cries during and after the film. Yet Loznitsa’s film was a rather restrained affair, attempting to capture the real, everyday nature of the Maidan in as detached a way as possible (the film was all medium and long shots rather than close-ups). Whether the audience could accept this nuanced view seemed in doubt at the Q&A session after the film. Loznitsa was given a rather rough ride by some in the audience who saw in their own Maidan something entirely different to the Maidan captured by Loznitsa and his team.7 Yet Loznitsa’s concentration on depicting the crowd (rather than its heroes) and choosing an epic rather than a lyric narrative pays off in its relentless chronicling of how the mood changed as the confrontations in the centre of Kiev became more violent. Only time will tell if this will become the definitive account of the events in Maidan, but, unlike many in the audience, I believe its restraint is an argument in favour of it being one of the least overtly propagandistic films to chronicle a historical event of this significance.

Restraint was nowhere to be found in Oles Sanin’s tear-jerking Ukrainian blockbuster The Guide. The audience’s reaction was overwhelmingly positive, and it was clear that this had been made with the idea of as it being Ukraine’s entry for the Oscars. Yet Sanin’s film was two-dimensional, with a clear attempt to delineate goodies and baddies by improbable and ahistorical linguistic and national markers. The use of the tragic history of the Ukraine in the 1930s for a patriotic pornfest of a film seemed dubious at the least and sometimes bordering on the grotesque.

Other Ukrainian films on show in the National (and occasionally in the International) Competition Programme didn’t quite suggest any sustained national renaissance in Ukrainian cinema. Many of these films were either unconvincing, overly sentimental, or simply featured pedestrian acting; only Valentin Vasyanovych’s documentary Crepuscule really did something to save the reputation of Ukrainian cinema at Odessa. Since Vasyanovych worked on Miroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s very well-received film The Tribe, there does seem to be a small community of film professionals showing real promise and giving hope that an elusive Ukrainian new wave may emerge sometime in the near future. If only people at the top echelons of the Ukrainian film world would take notice and finance similar projects rather than blowing millions on faux-Hollywood glitz, then hope could perhaps be restored.

A scene from Two Days

Another main programme showed us the historical basis for this hope. In recent years, retrospectives of Ukrainian films at Odessa all too often lacked spark: frequently lacklustre representatives of an era or a theme. This year, however, proved an exception. Showing films from all historical periods of Soviet (and even early post-Soviet) Ukraine from the 1920s through the early ’90s, the selection committee picked very fine titles indeed. Georgi Stabavoj’s 1927 civil war drama Two Days presented a Ukraine during the Civil War period daily changing hands between Reds and Whites and the tremendous revenge of a previously faithful servant who discovers the sadistic capabilities of his former masters. Released during a period in which Dovzhenko and Vertov wrought their magic, Stabavoj’s long-forgotten film is a masterpiece, thanks in part to the help of Dovzhenko’s cameraman Daniil Demutsky.

Ukraine was also the location for one of the most uncharacteristic but formally exciting films of the Soviet 1930s: Abram Room’s A Strict Young Man. Slightly better known for his 1927 film Bed and Sofa, the film attests to the survival of formalism into the mid-1930s. While made at some expense and immediately placed on the censors’ shelf for decades, A Strict Young Man later proved an influence on such names as Michelangelo Antonioni (one of the few to have seen this film well before its more general unshelving during glasnost). Emphasizing Greek and Roman classicism and giving more than a hint of homoeroticism, Room played with formalistic conventions entirely alien to the monolithic spirit of Socialist Realism then in ascendance. That it was made at all, and made in Ukraine (to which Room was basically banished following other “deviations” prior to the making of this film) is something of a miracle. Riefenstahl comparisons (given the sporting classicism of certain scenes) don’t do justice to the fact that this was a film inimical to both the Socialist Realism of the 1930s and even the humanism of the early 1960s. Eight decades later, A Strict Young Man still stuns the viewer with an assault on our conceptions of what was possible in the early to mid-’30s in the Soviet Union.

From Sheer Boredom

While Room’s film has been celebrated by film critics and scholars in recent years, it is Artur Voytetsky’s 1967 Gorky adaptation From Sheer Boredom that astounds the most. Voytetsky and his films are not established names even for those who know Soviet cinema well, but the director with his very fine lead actors (Maya Bulgakova and Vsevolod Sanaev) manages to create a masterpiece from this superbly crafted tale of class, rank, and humiliation. Deeply delving into human cruelty in a provincial backwater where degrading the other is one of the few pastimes, this film belongs with Bardem’s Calle Mayor as a powerful indictment of the deleterious effect that an unbalanced and uneven social structure has on the individual. These were just three of the films on offer for the Ukrainian retrospective, but they suggest that Ukraine – alongside its Poetic School – had a number of great cinematic works at different periods in its history hidden from general view.

This year the traditional programme devoted to Russian films was unsurpisingly (given the present circumstances) absent, and it was left to only two major films – apart from the Gogol’s Wives team mentioned above – to represent films made in the Russian Federation. One was Anna Melikian’s Star, which was entered into the international competition. While Melikian herself didn’t come to Odessa, her film crew did. Much was made of their international makeup, coming as they did from all republics of the former Soviet Union. Melikian herself is Armenian, even though she works in Russia. Her film was one more of her inimitable fairy-tale explorations of death and glamour. This film reproduced many of the tropes of her former award-winning film Mermaid with its undertones of a Hans Christian Anderson-like fairy tale. Not as devastating and much more mainstream than, say, Muratova’s8 similar recent foray into Hans Christian Anderson territory with her Melody for a Barrel Organ, Melikian’s productions nevertheless represent an original strand in “Russian” cinematography.

The other Russian filmmaker invited was the documentarist Vitaly Mansky, who gave a master class and presented his film The Book devoted to the Armenian disapora. Mansky emphasised his links with Ukraine, having grown up in the Western Ukrainian city of Lvov and devoted a number of films to this subject and Ukrainian themes.9 Mansky’s speech as Jury chair at the closing ceremony (a large part of which he made in Ukrainian) was greeted with applause. In many ways he was received more warmly in Ukraine than at the Golden Apricot Film Festival in Armenia, where the political subtext of his documentary didn’t altogether enthuse the traditionally pro-Russian Armenian intelligentsia.

How Russian-Ukrainian cultural relations in general will develop is unclear. The curtailing of cinematic relations between the two countries is depressingly clear. A single significant Ukrainian film was shown at the Moscow Film Festival earlier this year: Victoria Trofimenko’s Brothers: A Final Confession, which had some stylistic similarities with the great period of Ukrainian cinema at its high point, the 1960s and early ’70s, and was rather prescient in recounting the present impasse between Ukraine and Russia. Cultural dialogue between the two countries hasn’t been entirely severed, and an appeal by some figures in the Ukrainian film world during the crisis over Crimea10 did receive a corresponding reply of solidarity from a number of Russian colleagues,11 although this was outweighed by a larger pro-Putin letter signed by some significant Russian cultural figures including from the Russian film world.12 Since then there has been talk of a Ukrainian ban of certain Russian cultural figures entering Ukraine (which includes those who signed the pro-Putin letter).13

Not only is the present becoming a battlefield, the past is as well, with the international film press having been caught up in this. An initial headline by Variety claiming that Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, topping a “best documentary ever” poll, was a Ukrainian film14 was then rewritten.15 The body of the article itself was still factually incorrect, eliminating the Russian and even Polish dimensions of the film. The “nationalisation” of Soviet cinema history can only contribute to a futile and silly culture war to add to the present creeping real war. The logic of nationalisation fits ill with the many figures who, like Vertov, were multicultural and multinational. The two brightest figures in contemporary “Ukrainian” cinema – Kira Muratova and Sergei Loznitsa – can hardly be given national epithets, nor can the great Sergei Parajanov (subject of a retrospective at Odessa last year), who, like Kira Muratova, chose Ukraine as an adopted homeland. “Russian” cinema, too, is full of similar cases.16 Time will tell how the “balkanisation” of the post-Soviet space will wreak its own particular havoc.

There has always been a certain anglophile strand in Odessa festival programming, and that was the case this year. Both Stephen Frears and Peter Webber were either invited as jury members (Webber) or given retrospectives (Frears), and both gave master classes to festivalgoers, as did David Puttnam. Previous years have seen Michael Winterbottom and Monty Python retrospectives and featured Peter Greenaway and Ken Loach. A summer school for film critics has also traditionally attracted a number of critics from Britain.

Another British film this year was to provide the biggest spectacle of the festival with between 15,000 and 25,000 people turning up at the legendary Potemkin Steps to watch Hitchcock’s silent film Blackmail with a live orchestra accompaniment.17 In many ways these live events are the film festival’s greatest “gifts” to the city and the more positive upside to its overt chase for a long-abandoned old Hollywood glitz. It would be better for the festival to reevaluate Ukraine’s historically important film studios whose grounds (if not façade) have been rather abandoned in past decades.

One way of doing this would be by retelling the glorious story of Odessa’s cinematic past. A promising new film project on Dovzhenko’s origins as a filmmaker in Odessa by Konstantin Konovalov – presented at both the Moscow Business Square in June and Odessa’s Film Industry Office – has garnered co-production support from as far afield as Argentina and Finland.18 An engaging film on another part of Ukraine’s cinematic heritage told of the time when many postwar classics were shot in a Ukrainian village named Buchak that was later partially flooded to build a hydroelectric plant and reservoir. This bucolic, nostalgic look at the filmic past of Soviet Ukraine, Hollywood on the Dnieper: Dreams from Atlantis, was shown on the final day of the festival and drew thoughtful recollections of better days when Ukrainian cinema produced a body of works that genuinely belonged at the vanguard of world cinema.19

All in all, Odessa’s Fifth International Film Festival seemed very much like a transitional affair. In order to enhance its reputation, it will need to shake off the glitz and concentrate on some of the strengths it has built up over the past few years as a forum of ideas and a showcase of Ukrainian cinema to an international audience. It also needs to try to find even more ways to involve the city’s inhabitants apart from the singularly spectacular Potemkin Steps silent screening and the neighbouring daily public screenings at the Lanzheron Steps. A film festival in Odessa in a time of strife and war was more than justified, but this particular festival didn’t quite make itself seem relevant enough to the present moment. Reminders of this present moment were always encroaching on the mood and public response, but the organisers themselves didn’t quite catch that mood. Moreover, all too often the excesses of what was happening outside the screenings threatened to overwhelm events at the festival itself. Hopefully next year the transformation needed to make Odessa a genuine celebration of resistance and renaissance will finally come about.

  1. []
  2. []
  3. It transpired that the art group broke into two opposing factions: the Moscow and the Saint Petersburg group. Those supporting the Crimea adventure of Putin were the group from St Petersburg who had nothing to do with Pussy Riot []
  4. Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer relied on a great deal of Russian television footage, whereas the Gogol’s Wives team were present during the major performances of Pussy Riot from the very beginning. Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer was shown in the US on the HBO Network in June 2013. []
  5. []
  6. Cited in []
  7. This is not the first time that Loznitsa has received something of a mauling at the hands of the Odessan audience: the showing of his In the Fog at the festival two years ago also became the occasion for a show of audience dissatisfaction, with some outspoken members of the audience telling Loznitsa that he had made a boring film and offering suggestions on how he should have made it. []
  8. Muratova was finally honoured this year with an award for her career and a live screening of her early ’90s scandalous Asthenic Syndrome. []
  9. His recent planned film on Ukraine has been at the centre of a scandal in Russia given that initially the project was approved by a commission that then withdrew support based on what clearly seemed political pressure. []
  10. []
  11. []
  12. []
  13. []
  14. The headline itself was not altogether misleading considering that Vertov was shooting at the behest of Ukrainian film studios and in mainly, but not exclusively, Ukrainian cities. []
  15. []
  16. Take for example one of the “grand old men” of Russian cinema – Marlen Khutsiev. Born in Tbilisi, he shot his first films in Odessa only to later work at Mosfilm. []
  17. []
  18. []
  19. []