Russia on Reels: The Russian Idea in Post-Soviet Cinema

Beumers, Birgit (ed.),
Russia on Reels: The Russian Idea in Post-Soviet Cinema.
Kino: The Russian cinema series. London and New York: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 1999.
ISBN: 1 86064 390 6
£14.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by I.B. Tauris Publishers)

It will be quite normal, perhaps even remarkable, if, with time, Russian cinema can take the same place that cinema takes throughout the world: somewhere between entertainment and light intellectual challenge. Any serious discussions about Russian cinema would then come to an end. We will make films, you will either watch them or not watch them, and basta! But for some reason we keep expecting more of cinema, as we did in the past. (46)

Those were the words of Sergei Selianov, the Russian film-maker, in a speech given at the 1997 “Russian Cinema in the 1990s” conference in Bristol. Russia on reels is based on papers presented at that conference, with a few notable additions: reprints of Oleg Kovalov’s “The Russian idea: synopsis for a screenplay” and Tatiana Moskvina’s “La grande illusion”. The latter is a stinging critique of the work of Nikita Mikhalkov, the actor and film-maker, director of Burnt by the Sun (1994), so it was perhaps for reasons of balance that the editor Birgit Beumers included Mikhalkov’s 1998 speech to the Russian Film-makers’ Union on the function of a national cinema.

Any book on national cinema offers an exploration of that concept, that way of considering – grouping – classifying – cinema. An edited collection has the strength of contributing a range of voices and opinions. The editor’s challenge is to determine the extent of the spectrum. Should the contributions be selected on the basis of their commonality, the presence of a unifying thread linking one chapter to another? Should the contributions be selected on the basis of their differing assumptions about Russian national cinema? Are the contributors required to answer the questions they pose? Beumers contributes a brief introduction in which she indicates the questioning approach favoured in Russia on Reels: what is the function of cinema in the new Russia? (2)

It is an ambitious goal, and one that can only be canvassed inconclusively in a collection of twelve essays and three short speeches. Sergei Selianov’s somewhat exasperated words resonate. “For some reason we keep expecting more of cinema…”. Must, should or can Russian film-makers represent or reflect Russia in their films? What is Russia after the 1991 dissolution of the USSR? As Richard Taylor points out in his valuable contribution “Now that the party’s over: Soviet cinema and its legacy”, national and cultural identity was a complex, loaded issue in the Soviet era. We should not expect Russian national identity to be any more straightforward today.

Birgit Beumers addresses this question of “Russianness” by organising the contributions around explorations of the Russian Idea. The Russian Idea is a term with a long currency. Nancy Condee’s contribution, “No glory, no majesty, or honour: the Russian Idea and inverse value”, traces the developing use of the term since the nineteenth century, but argues that the Russian Idea is a centuries-old cultural pattern with its roots in the collapse of Constantinople in 1453 and the subsequent isolation of Russian Orthodoxy as a national church. (25)

Sergei Selianov and Oleg Kovalov were commissioned by the British Film Institute in 1995 to make a documentary on the history of Russian cinema to commemorate cinema’s centenary. Titled The Russian Idea, its thesis is recapitulated in Kovalov’s synopsis reprinted in Russia on Reels. Essentially, Selianov and Kovalov are more interested in continuities between pre- and post-revolutionary Russia than in perceiving a decisive break from a Russian to a Soviet identity presented in cinema. The film itself – which is well worth seeking out – offers a more convincing version of the argument than Kovalov’s synopsis, largely due to the compelling power of the images. Stills, all that remain from Sergei Eisenstein’s banned Bezhin Meadow (1935-37), reveal the creation of a new set of iconographic images in the very act of destroying a church:

The peasants here are grey-bearded prophets; the young men are broad-shouldered Renaissance apostles; the fleshy girls are earthly Madonnas; the peasant wrecking the iconostasis is a biblical Samson; the chubby young boy in the shirt, raised high under the cupola towards the slanting sun-ray which turns his locks golden, is the young Jesus ascending to the Heavenly Throne. (16-17)

The final section of Russia on reels concentrates its attention on contemporary Russian cinema by way of chapters on three film-makers: Alexander Sokurov, Kira Muratova and Dmitri Astrakhan. Beumers titles this section “The Russian idea for contemporary film-makers”, but upon reading the contributions, it is not evident that the writers considered the film-makers within a national cinema paradigm: and nor should they necessarily have to. It is also questionable whether these or any film-makers perceive themselves as working within the parameters of national cinema, whatever they may be. It would take a brave or foolhardy soul to declare confidently that Sokurov’s stunning Russian Ark (2002) is “about” Russia and its history.

Part of the value of Russia on Reels for those seeking an introduction to recent Russian cinema is its comprehensive appendix of directors and their films. Beumers also includes a filmography of films released in the 1990s. Films released or televised in the UK are marked with an asterisk. And here we reach a difficulty. Graham Roberts’ contribution, “The meaning of death: Kira Muratova’s cinema of the absurd”, filled me with longing to see this film-maker’s work, and, in particular, the truly marvellous, rich and strange-sounding Asthenic Syndrome (1991). I have not yet been able to find this film in Melbourne – although I fully intend to keep trying for that asterisk.

I was however fortunate enough to see some recent Russian cinema at the Melbourne International Film Festival in July. The highlight was The War (2002), the director Alexei Balabanov’s indictment not only of the Chechen war but of the way in which the conflict is reported both within and beyond Russia. It is, in a way, a modern-day version of Leo Tolstoy’s short story, “A prisoner of the Caucasus”. Russians and Chechens have been fighting in the Caucasus for centuries. They fought before the concept of the nation came into existence. After the formal initial dissolution of the Soviet empire in the early 1990s they continue to fight as the limits and boundaries of Russian territorial control are contested. Cinema has become caught up in this battleground, with the disruption, as recently as October 2003, of the Chechnya Film Festival in Moscow. Another venue had to be found quickly after the Cinema Na Presnya refused to show nineteen international films on the Chechen conflict on the basis that the films were “too political”. Cinema’s function, in Russia as elsewhere, is a matter of some dispute far beyond academic, economic or aesthetic concerns.

We will make films, you will either watch them or not watch them…
But for some reason we keep expecting more of cinema…

Mas Generis,
La Trobe University, Australia.
Created on: Tuesday, 4 May 2004 | Last Updated: 4-May-04

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Mas Generis

About the Author

Mas Generis

Mas Generis lives in Melbourne where she reads library books and goes to the movies.View all posts by Mas Generis →