The Russian invasion of Ukraine has had a seismic effect on those of us who work with Eastern European and post-Soviet culture. As institutions and artists have rushed to react to the war, there have been urgent calls to “decolonise” our understanding of the cultural history of the broad post-socialist region, to “deplatform” Russian artists – even to drop labels like “post-Soviet” and “Eastern European” altogether. But what does this look like in practice? As part of Klassiki’s ongoing partnership with goEast Film Festival, a world leader in the curation of the region’s film heritage, we asked their curators about their vision for film programming during and after the war.
No Nation Without Culture (dir. Vladlena Sandu, Chechnya/Russia, 2022)
How should we talk about the “post-socialist space” and its cinema today? In 2023, should we talk about the post-socialist film world in unitary terms? Or is the point to prove the diversity of a region to outsiders who may still not be aware of it?
Heleen Gerritsen, Artistic Director: As long as there is no universal term accepted by everyone living in this vast space, I think we will stick to the (deeply flawed) name of our festival, which includes the phrase “Festival of Central and Eastern European Film”. The aspects that people and film cultures in this region have in common are historical, political, and economical, and much less cultural – unless we divide the region into smaller “portions”. The term “post-Soviet” is not widely accepted anymore either, but we do not really have a better alternative. For us and our programming, diversity is key: giving a platform to diversity, highlighting uniqueness, and then from there we start (sometimes) looking at the common denominators in the region. But individual artists, filmmakers and cultures are the starting point, especially in our contemporary programmes, like the festival competition.
Barbara Wurm, Symposium Curator: This range of terms and labels for the post-Soviet is large. It is never purely ideologically motivated, but rather characterised by fluctuations in discourse, and – this seems to me to be particularly relevant for us as “third parties” – one should have at least rudimentary historical-political knowledge, a certain cultural sensitivity, and be prepared to ask about the respective internal perspectives.
The aspects that people and film cultures in this region have in common are historical, political, and economical, and much less cultural. The term “post-Soviet” is not widely accepted anymore, but we do not really have a better alternative
Since the region of “Central and Eastern Europe” is defined by a shared experience of 20th-century socialism, then how as curators do you conceive of the balance or play between films produced under socialism and films produced after it, in reaction to it, even against it? How do you understand the curation of “classic” and “contemporary” films in these terms?
Heleen Gerritsen: I think film history is incredibly important: It’s an audiovisual exploration into the region’s past and it is here that common denominators between the countries tend to be found. We can also be more critical towards or offer in-depth discussions about historical films. It opens up the possibility for different cinema event formats. However, we try to keep a balance, and this has been at the core of goEast since its inception: contemporary cinema, contemporary issues and new styles stand alongside historical programmes. Somehow, automatically, the entire festival and all the films in it communicate with each other, and new narratives appear.
Barbara Wurm: What “Soviet” means is a matter of perception. It is more than the designation of a state and its republics, an ideological term that was seen in the positive as a fighting formula, in the negative as a defamation, and objectively as a real as well as experimental interweaving of political theory and practice. As far as aesthetics is concerned, for decades one made do with the formula of “socialist realism”, which, among other things, made a serious discussion of the question of a “Soviet aesthetics” seem superfluous.
I probably first encountered ambiguities during my examination of Dziga Vertov, whose creative work (it seems clear to me) was entirely under the sign of affirmative Soviet filmmaking, politically as well as aesthetically. His career, which was repeatedly tamed by functionaries, is for me representative of the central ambivalence of Soviet aesthetics. Ultimately, this was the crux of the entire Soviet avant-garde: the more they gave formal and aesthetic expression to their political (“leftist”) convictions, the more dubious they became to the organs of power. It is very difficult to make affirmative Soviet art.
Zones of relative artistic freedom can always be identified within the Soviet production landscape, and the studios of Kyiv and Odesa were at times among them: see Marlen Khutsiev, see Abram Room’s “deportation” to Kyiv, or Vertov’s “departure” to the Ukrainian capital, away from the center of Moscow and the Sovkino studio in the late 1920s. Whether explicitly pro-Soviet or indirectly a- or even anti-Soviet, whether with or without ethnic roots, whether Russian- or Ukrainian-speaking, Georgian, Armenian, or Jewish, whether with or without a passport, whether “redistributed” by the system or voluntarily returned (like Parajanov to Kyiv): the Ukrainian lineage in (post-)Soviet cinema is marked by dissidence. A new perspective in the mediation of Soviet film heritage would focus on the connection between the censorship-produced formation of a “shelf film canon” (latterly the celebrated, rediscovered counter-canon) on the one hand, and what one might call inner-Soviet colonialism or Russian (rural) hegemony on the other.
Conscience (dir. Volodymyr Denysenko, Ukraine, 1968)
As curators and programmers, we all need to rethink our approach to showcasing the cinema of both present-day Russia and the Soviet Union. You are screening films from Ukraine past and present, and inviting a great deal of reflection and discussion of Ukrainian cinematic identity; you’re also featuring films made recently in the Russian Federation. What are your thoughts on curating Russian and Ukrainian films both while the war is ongoing and, in a hypothetical, hopefully not too distant future where the active combat is over?
Heleen Gerritsen: I honestly do not know what the future for Russian cinema looks like. Maybe in a distant future we will screen the 2022 Russian blockbuster Cheburashka as part of a symposium called “War-time Entertainment from the Putin-Era”. I am not too optimistic, to be honest.
We still find ourselves in an exceptional situation, with a full-blown war on our doorstep. In Germany the war is very much present on a daily basis. The Russian films we have in our programme this year were either made by non-ethnic Russian filmmakers, and/or directly address the political situation and the war of aggression against Ukraine. Now is not the time to celebrate Russian cinema and leave the impression that “all is quiet on the Ukrainian front”. We have decided in 2022 to stop screening films that were financed by the Russian state and/or organisations and by rich individuals affiliated with the state. Solidarity with our Ukrainian colleagues comes first, and when we do screen films from the Russian Federation, we inform our Ukrainian colleagues beforehand and explain our motivation for the screening.
The Russian Federation is not a nation state. It consists of around 185 nationalities, some of which share a tragic faith with the Ukrainians. The Chechens went through two horrible wars. Entire ethnicities, like the Kalmyks, the Chechens, the Balkars and many others, were deported under Stalin. These minorities have been the target of war, aggression, racism, and colonisation. This is something our Ukrainian guests also see and respect, especially because most of the resistance against the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine inside of the Russian Federation is coming from indigenous movements. Like I said: diversity is key and giving a platform to indigenous film languages is not only important but also very rewarding for curators curious about new forms of storytelling.
Sophie Brakemeier, Programme Coordinator: It is a delicate balancing act to curate Russian films these days – not only when Ukrainian films are involved and not only since February 2022, but since the start of the war in general. On the one hand, we know that it is our responsibility to revoke a lot of the attention Russian cinema had in the past and re-distribute it to Ukrainian cinema; on the other hand, we mustn’t forget about all the voices that are unfairly banded together under the idea of “the Russian Federation” – without drifting into some kind of “Not All Russians!”-style reasoning.
In times of war, a lot more effort needs to be put into talking to each other, listening to each other, counterweighing needs, and centering the people and voices behind the films in contrast to letting the films speak for themselves. Now, curating must be more than ever understood as a performative act, and I cannot imagine a future where this should be different.
we are very aware of our own position as Westerners. It is rather obnoxious to tell Eastern Europeans: “Go on, decolonise yourselves!” Especially because the concept is often seen as a Western discourse, and not everybody is eager to make the translation to the Eastern European context
What would it mean for a film festival to be “decolonial” or even “post-colonial”? Is that a desirable thing? How can the specific circumstance of “Central and Eastern European” cinema enrich our understanding of these terms?
Heleen Gerritsen: I love film festivals but let us be honest: the classical film festival concept is rather old fashioned. The red-carpet nonsense, the genius cult around revered masters of cinema, the emphasis on “beautiful people”, the elitist aspects of it all, corporate sponsors and branded goodie bags. I don’t think you can just keep all of that, add a couple of “diverse films” into the mix and then put a label on it saying, “We’re post-colonial now”. For me, decolonisation is about asking questions, it’s about finding justice and a balance of power. Who gets to speak? What films are being shown and which ones stay invisible? But also: where does the money come from? Who gets paid? I do think this is desirable, but I am well-aware that it undermines the very essence of the concept “film festival” as we know it.
goEast is run by a non-profit cultural organisation which is making a lot of effort to “decolonise” itself now – the Deutsches Filminstitut and Filmmuseum. It is a long and sometimes painful process, internally we do not always agree, and I personally find it very humbling. Barbara Wurm and I, while curating the symposium, were also very aware of our own position as Westerners. It is rather obnoxious to tell Eastern Europeans: “Go on, decolonise yourselves!” Especially because the concept is often seen as a Western discourse, and not everybody is eager to make the translation to the Eastern European context. It is crucial to work alongside programmers from the post-Soviet space and get their input. Decolonising of course also means being critical towards our festival’s own past, about re-assessing our past programming and our understanding and perspective on the post-Soviet region – a lot of which used to be dominated by Russian cinema.
How can films produced on the territory of the Russian Federation help us to rethink our understanding of “Eastern European cinema” in terms of indigenous filmmaking? In what ways has recent discussion of culture and imperialism in the region failed to consider the question of indigenous identities?
Heleen Gerritsen: As a Western person, I find it a little unethical to point fingers at my Eastern European colleagues. I will say this though: among film critics, dissident journalists and progressive Moscow intellectuals from Russia, even those who live abroad right now, you will hardly find any people with an indigenous background. And it shows. There’s a certain tone-deafness, an exoticisation, and regrettably sometimes there is a lack of respect. At the same time, films from the Sokurov school, which promoted “cinema from the regions”, often shot in non-Russian minority languages, have been doing incredibly well on the international festival circuit.
The vast piece of land that we call the “post-socialist space” is home to various cultures, some of them indigenous, but also for example the Romani people. Where do people that are not tied to one country get their funding from? Where do they find their audiences? What if, as is often the case in the Russian Federation, state funding is your only option? Under those circumstances, is independent indigenous cinema even possible?
Motherland (dir. Hanna Badziaka and Alexander Mihalkovich, Belarus, 2023)
Belarus often seems like the (almost) forgotten third party to the active combat in Ukraine. How can the specificities of the Belarusian experience – both politically and in terms of cinema – help to elucidate the above questions?
Igor Soukmanov, Guest Curator: In order to resolve this question, it is important to note that after the mass protests in August 2020, we are essentially dealing with two hypostases of a single state. Nowadays we are dealing with “Belarussia” and “Belarus”. Belarussia is Lukashenko’s fiefdom and a vassal of Russia that practices conservative Soviet values. Belarus is a country supported by the part of civil society that understands itself as a part of Europe. Unlike the authorities and their henchmen for whom the declaration of national independence is linked to the personal idea of eternal rule and the dogma of the Soviet Utopia, civil society in Belarus advocates for changes and a life free of ideological tyranny and the influence of the Russian Big Brother. Belarus (in contrast to Belarussia) does not suffer from nostalgia for former times. Most of the protesters are people who were born during the Lukashenko era. The Soviet rhetoric of the government does not represent any semantic value for them.
This “generation 25+” has become the centre of the changes that have occurred in filmmaking. In this area there was also a split into two parts: the official cinema of Belarussia and the independent cinema of Belarus. The former embodies the archaic state model of cinema symbolised by the national film studio, Belarusfilm. All the movies filmed in the studio in recent years are very local. There are not the spectators who are interested in them but the state which “should have its own cinema because of its protocol”. The studio’s management has isolated themselves from the world industry almost willingly. It is a model of a bygone epoch that is unable and unwilling to compete even within its own system. The latter includes independent young filmmakers, most of whom now are living abroad. After August 2020, attempts to cooperate with the state proved impossible. Making films about the reality in Belarus now seems dangerous – filmmakers can end up behind bars. Taking money from the state is moral act.
Belarusian civil society has shown solidarity with the Ukrainian people and has condemned the aggression of Russia. Independent filmmakers were among the first in Belarus to sign an anti-war petition in the early days of the war. This initiative contributed to the unification of a previously divided independent Belarusian film community. The result was an initiative to establish the Belarusian independent film academy (BIFA). On 17 February 2023, the Berlinale held a presentation of BIFA which brought together leading Belarusian filmmakers, directors, producers, festival managers, and film critics. Among them were Daria Zhuk (Crystal Swan), Aliaksei Paluyan (Courage), Andrei Kutsila (Strip and War), Sasha Kulak (Mara), and Vlada Senkova (II). This date may be a new milestone in the history of authentic Belarusian film.
Klassiki’s partnership with goEast Film Festival runs from 27 April – 18 May. Explore the full programme here.