Editor’s Note: Welcome to the fourteenth program of our Virtual Film Festival, which offers a weekly watching schedule of moving image works available for free streaming. Previous programs can be found here.
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by Yoana Pavlova
Ever since January 2020, I have been followed by a constant and nagging sensation of déjà vu. Not that I survived a pandemic before, yet I remember exactly how the world I grew up with went into a sweeping transformation in the second half of the 1980s and the early 1990s. At first, the magic words Solidarnost, Glasnost, and Perestroika were tossed around every once in a while, and, not so long afterwards, we marched under the radioactive rain on the 1st of May, 1986. I also recall my parents’ faces when a group of Romanian workers entered a TV studio during a live broadcast. Kashpirovsky in Ostankino, then another magic word from that era: telemost. I cannot seem to recollect the fall of the Berlin Wall on the day it happened, but I remember all the concerts. Back at the time, our entire perception of the world was mediated by flash news and music.
Now when my child is more or less of the same age as I was towards the end of state socialism in Central and Eastern Europe, I have a lot of questions about the way my parents’ generation dealt with the so-called Transition, only the answers change all the time. Trying to constantly keep up to date with COVID-19 on social media, while also being very careful about the type of information I relay to my own kid and the effect it might have on him, I decide to embark on a journey to the past. As pathetically emotional as it may sound (for it is), the route is laid out with clarity and purpose – if you want to experience the turbulence of 1989 and everything that followed through the eyes of filmmakers at the top of their game, Kira Muratova’s Asthenic Syndrome or Andrei Ujică & Harun Farocki’s Videograms of a Revolution are only a few clicks away, yet this is not what I am looking for.
The following program, ‘Turmoil’, examines the way young and aspiring Eastern Bloc artists perceived the ongoing disruption. Some of them solo, others within the framework of a collective or a large movement. As each country went through its own swirl of events under similar circumstances, certain motifs (factual, social, rhetorical, aesthetical) resurface every now and then, almost like rhymes in the grand chant of History. On a side note, as it is the case with everything related to Central and Eastern Europe, some highly diplomatic resolutions had to be made. For this reason, each (former) country is accorded one slot, with the sole exception of Poland, represented here by two directors, given that both emigrated early on in their career, but this, too, could, and should be seen as a Zeitgeist trope.
Without further ado, I give you the 1989 opening, and this slot can only be Romanian. In addition, it is marvelous to finally be granted the opportunity to introduce Kinema Ikon – a “multimedia atelier” founded in 1970 in Arad, Western Romania. As the group acknowledges, 1989 serves as a division line in their practice, and Mise-en-écran seems to belong to the experimental, 16mm phase. While in the momentum, it is impossible to imagine what will come next, but their entire 1970-1989 œuvre feels like a presentiment of the impending changes. In Roxana Cherecheș & Liliana Trandabu’s piece the female body is still framed, sometimes even staged by men (physically and stylistically), but the gaze is free, playful, ready to bypass stereotypes. The youthful energy bursting from this experiment is infectious and would likely convince you to visit Kinema Ikon’s YouTube channel for more.
The work on Zlatin Radev’s Canfilm / Koservfilm also started some years before 1989, but by the time the film was finished in 1990, it was already an instant testament of the chaos underway. A Clermont-Ferrand winner and an Oscar nominee, the short encapsulates the gruesome atmosphere in any society torn by partisanship and conformity. Fortunately, Bulgaria did not have to go through bloodshed in the Transition period, so all the red juice in Canfilm is still guilt-free funny, but there was a time when my fellow compatriots were actually afraid of all sorts of scenarios, including civil war. The yapping, the buzzing TV, the barking dog – please take note of them, as you will soon spot them in other films from the same program. As for Zlatin Radev, similarly to many other talents from the region (especially at that time), he moved into advertising.
When the majority of people think about the Eastern Bloc’s end, they tend to focus too much on 1989 and not enough on 1991, yet this year “belongs” to USSR – in the present selection, at least. Picking only one title from such a vast territory is almost terrifying, so after some consideration the choice falls on Moscow Actionism. Why? At the time, the capital was still a melting pot for poets, bohemians, idlers from every republic, and the political events in post-USSR Russia acquire a whole new meaning if you regard them through the actionism modus operandi. You can find many 1990s videos online with the most famous coups by the various founders and household names of the Moscow Actionisms, nevertheless, many of these require some basic knowledge in Russian, so I have chosen Ukrainian-born Oleg Kulik in a period when he still worked as a curator at Moscow’s Regina Gallery. Oleg Golosy (or Oleh Holosii) came from Ukraine as well, and as you can see in the video, he is achingly young at the time of the exhibition. As much as the mise-en-scène and the choreography are touching, you might get twice as emotional discovering that Golosy passed away shortly after, in 1993, only to reach legendary status as a painter and as a member of the Kiev art scene.
Moving to Hungary, the 1990s are an intense period for a country more or less forced into the Warsaw Pact after World War II, thus torn away from its cultural heritage. With a well-established tradition in the audiovisual avant-garde and experimentation, once the Iron Curtain was gone, the majority of artists expanded their work, gaining more international recognition. And new names appeared on the scene, looking for new means of expression, but also a new setting – outside of Hungary. In 1989, Tamás Waliczky won the Golden Nica award for Computer Graphics at Ars Electronica, then moved to Germany to create many celebrated (nowadays textbook) examples of computer-generated animation, however, as he mentions in his talks, the feeling of isolation and melancholy persisted, maybe this is why you can often see him as a protagonist in his videos. In Conversation‘s visuals he appears with his young daughter, yet, more importantly, this is a collaborative project with another media artist, Tibor Szemző, who is also a composer and performer. In the spirit of post-1989 openness, “Conversation has to be never definitively completed, it can always change, moreover, [it] may be performed by different artists as well,” Waliczky notes.
In 2016, I was fortunate enough to catch Cinéma du Réel’s special focus on the Albanian National Film Archive (AQSHF), and even interview Clarence Tsui. So when I tell you that the 18-minute documentary The Fall of Idols / Shembja e idhujve (1993), directed by Kujtim Gjonaj, is the perfect meditation on the physical and the metaphysical reality of historical monuments, you have no other choice but to trust me. Alas, the film has not yet been digitized, but once the Albanian Cinema Project achieves this, I recommend it.
To atone for this absence, I decide to accommodate ex-Yugoslavia in the same year: 1993 (no, this is not a political statement, just a pinch of black Balkan humor). Still, Yugoslavia used to be immense not only in terms of territory but also in terms of arts and culture. Želimir Žilnik, Dušan Makavejev, Karpo Godina were still very active in this period, but at the end I opt to make this slot political, and about Sarajevo. Then comes the question about the ethos surrounding war images, as articulated by Selma Doborac in Those Shocking Shaking Days (2016). During the Bosnian war, numerous reporters, documentary filmmakers, thrill-seekers, or plain opportunists overcame the siege in order to “record” this historical moment, and yet, I wanted to see Sarajevo from within, through the eyes of people who could not leave. Hence this stock footage, provided by Global ImageWorks and shot by an anonymous (?) author. The film critic in me cannot help but contemplate on the similarity with the early Lumière films, on the impromptu authenticity of the everyday life we witness in the short, on the aim of the person holding the camera at that precise moment and place. If, by any chance, you happen to know more about this video, please let me know!
The multi-talented Polish artist Mariola Brillowska emigrated in 1981 to Germany, then studied at the Fine Arts Academy in Hamburg, where she still lives. Her Fifi definitely deserves the 1994 spot – a quasi follow-up to her Oberhausen darling Grabowski, House of Life / Grabowski, Haus des Lebens (1990), the film also echoes themes introduced by Zlatin Radev’s Canfilm, yet through a female point of view. The radical feminism teased by the Russian Revolution of 1917 was soon toned down by a more down-to-reproduction approach, and not that heteronormative sexuality per se was a taboo during socialism, but eroticism was. In the aftermath of 1989, popular culture in Eastern and Central Europe was taken over by hyperbolic, nearly mythological women, whereas real life was inundated by crime, so Fifi comes as a reminder that too much exposure to those two classic “genre” concepts, sex and violence, can even mess up the head of a… dog.
With 1995, I would like to introduce the second Polish filmmaker in this selection, Paweł Pawlikowski, whose story of ending up in London as a teenager deserves a fiction feature. His TV documentaries shot at the end of the 1980s and the 1990s are all worth exploring (also available on his own Vimeo channel), and for quite some time I was not sure which one I should pick, but then the idea to return to Russia three years later to witness the actual, grotesque, hallucinatory turmoil was very tempting. “In the era of Trump, Zhrinovsky’s nationalist bombast, loose approach to truth, mad promises and bufoonery, make him seem like a man well ahead of his time,” the documentary intro reads, but the “Make one last effort. Help us and you’ll never have to vote again!” line can truly give you goose bumps, especially if you follow today’s bad romance with populism in practically each and every post-socialist country.
The finale crops up with ex-Czechoslovakia and Jiří Barta, who, in 1989, was seen as one of the most promising successors in Jiří Trnka’s lineage of stop-motion animation. Golem is a project he worked on throughout the 1990s, only could not find any funding for. In 1996, he was ready with a pilot of sorts – the last short in this program. A sentimental glance to a past beyond the socialism decades and the war, to an “organic” Prague as fantasized at the end of the XX century, Golem feels like an attempt to make peace between the many historical and cultural layers of Central Europe. Apparently, producers and decision-makers saw this attempt as far too passé. Ending the lineup on a serious note, the accompanying documentary by Gene Deitch (who passed away recently), shot shortly before the collapse of the state-funded studio system in the Czech Republic, narrates on the ravaging “amateur capitalism” and its consequences. Yes, ending socialism felt liberating, but it came at a price.
Luckily, we have the New East now. A portmanteau term, invented by commissioning editors to denote this fairy-tale land populated by creative babushkas, dancing concrete, gourmet skaters, bus-stops-turned-memorials, Etsy bars, and hand-drawn DJs. But this is for another time.
|Roxana Cherecheș & Liliana Trandabur
|Canfilm / Koservfilm
|Toto Cutugno –
|Self-standing Art. Painting of Oleg Golosy
|Jesus Jones –
Right Here Right Now
|Tamás Waliczky & Tibor Szemző
|Laibach – Mi kujemo bodočnost
|The Fall of Idols / Shembja e idhujve
|Albanian Cinema Project
|Siege of Sarajevo
|GIF from Selma Doborac’s Those Shocking Shaking Days (2016) (below)
|Lepa Brena – Vasil Levski
|Tripping With Zhirinovsky
|Snap! – The Power
|Czech Puppet Film: Revisited