Ulrike Ottinger is a filmmaker who came out of the 1970’s New German Cinema, making distinctive and odd films like Madame X and Ticket of No Return, before moving on to film a number of works in Mongolia and the furthest east, where she has shown a huge amount of interest in ethnography. This film fits in with that, and while it is in a sense a travelogue, it’s also very much a film about the way that history is latent in the present cultures of the Bering Sea, and the continuum of practices since the 18th century (when some of the texts she reads over these images are taken from). History, then, is indivisible from present-day life, and undoubtedly will continue to be for many generations.
An epic ethnographic documentary in four parts, this covers the cultures and people living around the Bering Sea, both on the Alaskan and Russian sides. As you might expect from the running length it does so in some detail, and as suggested by the title, it also links in historical perspectives. Specifically these come in the form of texts written by naturalist Georg Steller (who accompanied Bering on his exploits), then a century later by Adelbert von Chamisso, a poet and botanist, as well as a little bit from James Cook. However, it’s director Ulrike Ottinger’s voice and cinematic style which dominates the film, though in a respectful way, observing and allowing the people of the region to move about their lives and tell stories when they feel compelled.
It’s difficult to sum it all up in a short review, but the sense I got was of a continuity between Steller in the 18th century and the modern scenes, as a lot of the same practices and customs take place that he described, even if political changes have meant movements of the populations and the closure of the borders between the two nations (which come closest at the top of the world, between the Big and Little Diomede Islands, between which also runs the International Date Line). A lot of the shots of the expanse of this wilderness are breathtaking, but it’s in the simple details too that the film shines, in just pointing the camera at the people, and if some of the sequences seem too long for comfort (some hunters skinning and cutting up a seal), others you feel could go on for an entire chapter (the indigenous people demonstrating their dances was a particular highlight).
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Ulrike Ottinger (based on texts by Adelbert von Chamisso and Georg Steller); Length 720 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 24 May 2020.
For my history themed week, I’m focusing on a couple more films which are somewhat tangential to history, both made by a Ukrainian filmmaker. The Trial takes footage from the 1930s and uses it to make a point about the way that events are manipulated by the (state-controlled) media, whereas Victory Day is about the way that history informs the present, specifically World War II, taking a celebration of Soviet victory over Germany, but as it unfolds at a monument in Berlin itself. These are slow, self-effacing documentaries that nonetheless reveal something fairly interesting about the ways we relate to history, and the way it can be used.
Continue reading “Two 2018 Films by Sergei Loznitsa: Victory Day and The Trial”
Usually I like for my Friday review to be of a new release, to honour something that’s also newly out in cinemas (which this week is fantastic new Georgian film And Then We Danced), but I haven’t seen any recent ex-Soviet films. Therefore to fit with perhaps the musical qualities (if nothing else) of this week’s new release, here’s a film I saw earlier this year for the first time, as part of Kino Klassika’s sidebar to the BFI Musicals seasons (which also gave us Cherry Town). It’s a “Red Western” about the birth of cinema, made by the Soviet Union but set in the Old West of the United States, satirically of course.
I certainly can’t fault this film for giving me something I haven’t seen before, which is to say a Soviet musical ‘Western’ set in an imagined California (a town called Santa Carolina) at the birth of cinema — hence the title, which references the location of the Lumière brothers’ first public screening of their films. In it, a man called Johnny First (Andrei Mironov) arrives in an unruly town and brings them the magic of cinema, which soon converts them from lawlessness into docile respectability, but the dream is undermined by the saloon owner and the local priest — which already suggests a certain Communist critique of Western values and power structures, while still respecting the power of the moving image. Women, too, have a strong role in this film directed by a woman, and get plenty of opportunities to show their greater engagement with the social good and willingness to fight and win. The racial elements — caricatures of both Mexican and Native American people — have perhaps aged rather less well, but just seeing such stereotypes in a Soviet context is immediately odd, and while certainly racist, seem to work in different ways from what has become familiar from the American films this one is mimicking. Nevertheless, the core of the film remains with the filmmaker character and his audience, making it a self-reflexive satirical film, enlivened by some amusing recreations of early films, overblown fight scenes, and a bit of musical japery.
Director Alla Surikova Алла Сурикова; Writer Eduard Akopov Эдуард Акопов; Cinematographer Grigori Belenky Григорий Беленький; Starring Andrei Mironov Андрей Миронов, Aleksandra Yakovleva Александра Яковлева, Nikolai Karachentsov Николай Караченцов; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Wednesday 22 January 2020.
The Ukrainian director Kira Muratova died in 2018 after a long career starting in the 1960s. Her filmmaking is perplexing, perhaps wrought from the chaotic times she worked through, dense with allusion and busy with action, almost breathlessly so. I can’t pretend to understand all the details, and in some cases much of it seems to wash over me, but I can’t deny she was doing something fascinating and her films remain worth watching if you can (and they are not always easy to track down).
Continue reading “Two Films by Kira Muratova: The Asthenic Syndrome (1989) and Chekhovian Motifs (aka Chekhov’s Motifs, 2002)”
Another Soviet film from Russia in my theme week, this time a jolly musical about a housing project in Moscow. It screened within the aegis of the BFI’s big musical retrospective, as part of a smaller series of Russian musical films.
There’s a glorious new building going up, and a group of young people (and a few older ones) want to get in on a new apartment. That’s basically the plot of this jaunty and colourful Soviet musical, which because this is near the beginning of the craze for prefabricated high-density housing — and because there was indeed a drastic shortage of it — is actually pretty keen on the idea of social housing. Still, it pokes deserved fun at the party apparatchiks leveraging their influence to get a new pad, the guy literally knocking through a wall at one point into someone’s else flat in order to enlarge his own domain. It’s the young people who are the film’s focus though, as several couples start to form amongst them, in this new town being built from the ground up by good workers — like Lyusya, a crane operator worthy of getting her portrait hung up in a civic space, and Lida (Olga Zabotkina), an architect who tries her best to rebuff the irrepressible advances of Boris (Vladimir Vasilyev). There’s some nice camera setups and rather liberal use of back projection, but it does give it a daffy, fun quality. You can almost see the steps that get from this kind of thing to, say, Cloud-Paradise (1990) a few decades later, where the housing is rather shabby and the bickering far more caustic. Right now, it’s about the optimism.
Director Herbert Rappaport [as “Gerbert Rappaport”] Герберт Раппапорт; Writers Mikhail Chervinsky Михаил Червинский, Isaac Glikman Исаак Гликман, Vladimir Mass Владимир Масс; Cinematographer Anatoli Nazarov Анатолий Назаров; Starring Olga Zabotkina Ольга Заботкина, Vladimir Vasilyev Владимир Васильев; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Wednesday 8 January 2020.
I’m still on holiday this week, but Friday in the UK sees the release of one of my favourite films of last year, the Georgian dance-based drama And Then We Danced, which I exhort everyone to go see. Therefore this week, I’m doing a week devoted to the Soviet Union and its former republics, starting with the silent era.
Of all the films I saw at the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in 2018, I had perhaps the fewest expectations about this one, and it ended up being thoroughly delightful. It’s a very late silent film made in the USSR about a wayward father (Pyotr Kirillov) who shirks responsibility for raising his son — in a particularly excellent scene, he avers strongly that he’ll leave if his partner (Yevgeniya Pyryalova) goes through with having a baby, grabbing an empty suitcase for show and leaving loudly (“I WILL LEAVE”, “I AM LEAVING!”, “I have left…”) while she looks on impassively and with very little interest in him sticking around. And that’s reasonable, for he is no good, and ends up in a bachelor apartment with a bunch of architects designing the glorious Soviet communal future. Moving forward in time, when (for reasons too silly to elaborate) his baby is separated from its mother and brought to the bachelor pad, they all take turns raising it while searching for its mother. It has a snappy sense of style, some beautiful photography, and a lithe central performance in the character of Andrey (Apsolon), who is first seen along the wharves of Leningrad, like a young Gene Kelly about to launch into a tap routine (though sadly there’s no dancing). It largely maintains its comic pace, and even if one hopes perhaps for an ending wherein the woman raises her kid with the four bachelors (minus the deadbeat dad), at the very least it has a happy outcome.
Director Eduard Ioganson Эдуард Иогансон; Writers Boris Chirskov Борис Чирсков, Ioganson, Rafail Muzykant Рафаил Музыкант; Cinematographer Georgi Filatov Георгий Филатов; Starring Pyotr Kirillov Пётр Кириллов, Yevgeniya Pyryalova Евгения Пырялова, Andrei Apsolon Андрей Апсолон; Length 68 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Friday 29 June 2018.
Today the fearsome British costume drama industry unleashes yet another adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma upon us all. Last week my Polish themed week led up to the release of Agnieszka Holland’s latest film, but it can probably be considered as much a British film as a Polish one, especially as it deals with a British subject. It has the big old handsome period details you expect from such films, but it tells a slightly different story once it gets to the USSR, and perhaps that sets it apart from the usual run of such things, but I think there’s a lot to like.
This film sets itself against the backdrop of the “Holodomor” in the Ukraine — a famine during the 1930s largely engineered by the Soviet leadership, which killed millions of peasants — but really it’s about the way that these kinds of stories are treated by the media, about how the media is in the pocket of business and government interests. And so our crusading Welshman Gareth Jones (played by James Norton, the same actor who most recently was seen as Mr Brooke in Little Women) campaigns to bring to light this atrocity at a time when Western powers were more interested in alliances with the USSR and so not well-disposed to such revelations (and the media, as ever, reliable lapdogs to the powerful). The acting is all pretty solid (even Vanessa Kirby in a rather token role as the only apparently non-historical figure), and it’s directed capably by Agnieszka Holland albeit with some little expressionist touches. However, there’s plenty about this movie which rather too on the nose, seeming to ask us “do you see??” as it’s waving its arms to make clear what its teachable moments are. For example, and perhaps most clunkily, there’s the framing device of George Orwell writing Animal Farm, which we gather might have been a rather anodyne book about animals being mean to one another until our titular hero impresses upon Orwell exactly what the Soviets are really doing, at which point his faith in the Revolution starts to waver. Sadly, then, the film never quite lifts the way it needs to, but it’s worth watching all the same.
Director Agnieszka Holland; Writer Andrea Chalupa; Cinematographer Tomasz Naumiuk; Starring James Norton, Peter Sarsgaard, Vanessa Kirby; Length 119 minutes (originally 141 minutes).
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Friday 7 February 2020.
This documentary work is a co-production between USA and a number of Eastern European countries, Poland among them, so it only tangentially fits into my themed week. However, it touches on a common figure in the folk mythologies of all these countries.
A beautiful film, strange and haunting, which fits into the poetic documentary category, for if it doesn’t have a clear ostensible subject, it nevertheless touches on many things in an oblique and allusive way. It’s centred in Eastern Europe and Russia, blending in the fairy tale of the title (told via animation) with images illustrating the continuation of customs in rural and city living in this part of the world, and the tension that exists between them. If I found myself sleepy during the film I was perhaps lulled by the strong sense of calm suffusing the film’s telling. I would want to revisit this though, and other films by the director, because it seems to be doing something more than just documenting the world, reaching to something even rather profound about human existence and the need for fear as a basis for humanity’s place within the world.
Director/Writer Jessica Oreck; Cinematographer Sean Price Williams; Length 73 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Monday 3 October 2016.
This Friday sees the UK release of war film 1917, so I’m looking at some war-themed films, though not all exactly in the ‘war film’ genre. Today, for example, is a fascinating and beautifully-shot documentary that is more about the visible presence of a history of war within the landscape, sometimes in quite subtle ways.
There’s such a range of documentaries in the world, it’s sad to think that some people might link the form solely with talking heads and archival footage. This strange Belgian piece (with many other countries co-producing) manages to sustain its enigmatic tone throughout its whole 90 minutes and four sections, such that it’s hard precisely to say what’s going on, just that all of it is related to the (sometimes unusual) ways in which a 20th century history of war has manifested itself throughout continental Europe. There’s a woman who sits in her flat in the morning eating breakfast, then puts on a military uniform and travels to the woods to some of kind of training facility — or maybe it’s just an elaborate ‘escape room’-type game for people with too much money — where she translates another instructor’s barked orders into English. There’s another where a man sits in his home basking in the dappled light coming through the windows before at length we discover it’s a former bunker. And then there is the inflatable weaponry. It’s all inscrutably presented, even a little comical at times, but it’s never boring thanks to the careful editing and very precise and lustrous framing of each shot.
Director/Writer Isabelle Tollenaere; Cinematographer Frédéric Noirhomme; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Tuesday 17 April 2018.
I’m still going to be covering some of my favourite films I saw during 2019 until at least the end of this week, as well as inevitable best-of lists. As it happens, the end of this month sees the UK release of another film called The Lighthouse, but not to be confused with that Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe psychodrama is this 2006 film by Armenian director Maria Saakyan, who died far too young in January 2018, from cancer. It’s expressionist and beautiful and weaves a poetic tableaux of rural Armenian life interrupted by war.
This poetic, beautiful film that touches on war and family in rural Armenia is very much my kind of thing, where the narrative almost takes a back seat to imagery that suggests via metaphor and allusion to inner states, as Lena (Anna Kapaleva) tries to get her family out of a war-strewn area. It feels very much like some Theo Angelopoulos films (but without the overweening self-importance) or the more elegiac films of Aleksandr Sokurov, and to be sure there’s a lot of beautiful and potent imagery that can feel almost abstract. And yet, focusing on the women of this village grounds it in customs and lived experienced in a successful way I think. It’s really very sad that the filmmaker didn’t live to make many more films, because as a debut feature this is extraordinary.
Director Maria Saakyan Մարիա Սահակյան; Writer Givi Shavgulidze Գիվի Շավգուլիձե; Cinematographer Maxim Drozdov Максим Дроздов; Starring Anna Kapaleva Анна Капалева; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 9 March 2019.