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GLASNOST IS FRAGILE
For Mykola and Raisа Radenko
by Harlan Kennedy
If there were an international Word of the Year competition, the 1987 prize would have to go to glasnost. Millions of people who a year ago could not tell a glasnost from a glockenspiel now meet the word daily. It crops up on front pages and news bulletins whenever East meets West. Glasnost: "openness."
Cinema in the Soviet Union barely comprehends the arrival of glasnost. Approaching the 70th birthday of Lenin's introduction of state censorship – November 9, 1917, when a machinery of centralized control was introduced – filmmakers have been conditioned to accept state decisions, with the only appeal possible directly to the presidium itself.
The first indications that the situation might be changing came in May 1986 with the Fifth Congress of Soviet Union Cinema Workers. This event was opened by no less a luminary than Mr. Gorbachev, and its main event was the election of the new first secretary for the Cinema Workers Union, filmmaker Elem Klimov (of Agony, Come and See, and Farewell). Klimov was voted in by a hand count after being proposed by Aleksandr Yakovlev, the Communist Party S.U. Central Committee's secretary for ideology. So whatever else this election was, it was not a spontaneous gesture from the rank and file. It was clearly, however, a gesture, since Klimov is the first change at the top of the filmmakers union in 20 years. His predecessor was CPSU Central Committee member Lev Kulidzhanov, who many feared would be glued to his post for life.
Not content with introducing new clout into the union, Gorbachev then overhauled the leadership of Goskino. This tired old beast is the Central State Committee for Soviet Cinematography – or Film Ministry, in essence – with responsibility for script approval, finance, production planning, and censorship. In January, Goskino's chairman Filip Yermash fell to Alexsandr Kamshalov. Kamshalov's mission: to signal and effect a change in attitudes, to supervise the relaxation of 70 years of censorship laws, and to rescreen and release some of the banned films.
The union and Goskino are now planning to work together as equal voting partners on major movie issues, from the vetting of new movie projects to the selection for entry of films at foreign festivals. Klimov and 20 colleagues – film directors, screenwriters, critics, Goskino representatives – set up a Conflict Commission to draw up a list of films to recommend for release that were banned or shelved between 1966 and 1980. The controversial Kyra Muratova's 1971 The Long Goodbye, Gleb Panfilov's 1979 Theme (which, when shown for the first time in the West, at the Berlin Film Festival, won top prize), and Tengiz Abuladze's 1984 Repentence, an exposé of Stalinist personality cults, are at last seeing the light of day.
There are two major problems with glasnost. First, it will be a long time before non-Soviet observers can know how much the reforms now being implemented represent through-and-through liberation rather than a promise that cannot be delivered or, finally, window-dressing for Western eyes. Russian filmmakers remember the Khrushchev thaw followed swiftly by the Brezhnev winter, and the Prague spring followed swiftly by "tanks for the memory." The residual fear in announcing a cultural and political spring is that, like the fate of Mao Tse-tung's spring of "a thousand flowers," Gorbachev or the apparatchiks who survive him will lop their heads off once they stand up and identify themselves.
One of the obstacles to greater freedom in the USSR is that repression is an age-old Russian tradition. Censorship does not date from the storming of the Winter Palace but goes back over 400 years of autocratic rule, taking in the heyday of Russian literature on the way. The phenomenon of the "long novel" – The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace, Anna Karenina – was itself a product of censorship. For in 19th century czarist Russia, books were allowed to be published unmolested if – and only if – they exceeded a certain length.
In modern Soviet cinema, not even that escape clause has existed. Three factors have made it probably the most controlled and ideologically "directed" cinema in the world. Every movie script must be approved by one of the State Cinema Committees set up in each of the 15 republics. "It is they who make the final decision on it," Georgian director Georgi Shengelaya explained to me recently. "In judging the project's suitability, they take into account its artistic quality, its commercial potential, and its ideological content."
Also, the state has complete control over a movie's distribution, deciding how wide or narrow its release will be. There are three categories, ranging from nationwide release in big theaters to minority club distribution, sometimes confined to Moscow alone, for films like Tarkovsky's or Paradjanov's. Finally, the state has the option of banning a movie completely, and of refusing to give a green light to any other films from its maker.
There are apologists for this system who see no significant difference between the ideological pressures of filmmaking in the USSR and the commercial pressures of Western cinema. "There's no such thing as freedom in any film industry," claims Soviet emigré director Andrei Konchalovsky. "Filmmaking requires an enormous amount of money, and it doesn't matter if that money is state money or corporate money. People who pay for the music order the tune. It's the censorship of power or money."
If there is a difference in kind between the random market prejudices and preferences of studios or producers in the West and the monolithic ideological commandments operating in the USSR, it also involves when, at what point, the filmmaker feels the clamp – before or after a film's realization. The only "random" element is which political regime in the USSR happens to be in power when a filmmaker wants to make or release his film. For even if lucky enough to get a movie with a potentially troublesome subject made, a filmmaker can still find that Soviet history has stolen a march on him by the time he's seeking to distribute the film – as Konchalovsky himself found out with Asa's Happiness, his only film to be banned in the Soviet Union.
"It was the second film I made; it was never released. Or, rather, it was released but just on three screens, in clubs, for three days. It was politically unacceptable. It was a story of peasants speaking quite "open" language – dirty, colloquial – and they talked about concentration camps, prisons, Stalin times, and things like that. It wasn't a dissident picture; it was just reality. But I was unlucky with the timing: I was late by two years. When it was due to come out, Khruschchev had just been replaced by Comrade Brezhnev, and the `thaw' had started to get a little frozen."
Konchalovsky's response, during the rest of his film career inside Russia, was to stick mainly to patriotic themes (Siberiade), or to Party-approved masterworks from great literature (Uncle Vanya, A Nest of Gentlefolk). In the latter tendency, he comes uncomfortably close to the Bondarchuk Syndrome: a tendency to shore up Soviet self-esteem by annexing pre-Soviet literary classics (in Sergei Bondarchuk's case War and Peace, Boris Godunov) and processing them into movies whose uninflected fidelity guarantees instant Party approval. It also guarantees instant inertia; Masterpiece Theatre Soviet-style.
Other filmmakers – notably Andrei O Tarkovsky, Sergei Paradjanov, and Otar Ioseliani – have a different riposte to the dangers of censorship and ideological pressure. They search for personal, autobiographical, or folk-cultural settings and subjects, ones that stand apart from political or propagandist connotations and at the same time avoid the deadening imprimatur of literary adaptation. They do not say yes to the Soviet cultural-historical hegemony, nor do they say no. They merely, in a phrase beloved of Tarkovsky, "drink from their own glasses." In a country that forbids outright dissent, making determinedly personal films is as close as most artists can get to defying the state, unless they want to be locked away.
Even these filmmakers sometimes flirt with subjects that are overtly subversive. In his native Georgia, Ioseliani made Songthrush and Pastorale, films full of an off-kilter poetry and wry comedy. (Ioseliani looks like Jacques Tati and makes films to match.) He then went to Paris in 1983 to make Les Favoris De La Lune, a surreal black comedy about art forgery, prostitution, crime, and terrorism. He has an intriguing answer to the question "Why go to Paris to make a film like this?"
"I wanted to look at the pure play of these market energies in a country where they freely happen. You cannot make a film about fraud or corruption or prostitution in a country where they are forbidden or where, in theory at least, they do not exist. So the idea to make a spectacle of human nature in its anarchic side is muddied by the fact that you must argue first that these things happen. In the West, even when they are illegal, people are quite open that they exist."
Invidious moral comparisons made by the East about life in the West are one of the classic tools of Soviet censorship: Life is corrupt and/or corrupting in the West – including, of course, the West's movies. In his book Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky recalls his student days at Moscow's Soviet Institute of Cinematography: "We didn't see enough films (and now, I understand, institute students see even fewer), because teachers and those in authority were afraid of the baneful influences of Western films.... Of course, this is absurd: How can anyone bypass contemporary world cinema and still become a professional? The students are reduced, as it were, to inventing the bicycle."
Paradoxically, looking at films by Tarkovsky or Paradjanov, you think they did invent the bicycle. They did create a new kind of cinema, with a style of imagery and narrative – surreal, oneiric, poetic – unlike anything being created in the West.
The censorship-vs.-freedom debate never lacks for those who argue that it does the artists good to have to invent the bicycle. These crusaders for the fecund influence of oppression on a culture point to the imaginative use of allegory in censorship-ridden countries. If you cannot say something directly, disguise it: say it in parables.
The trouble with allegories is that over time their once clear subtext, and even some of their urgency, fades. In Soviet cinema, allegory scarcely exists as a force worth reckoning with. Occasional controversial movies are made, like Elem Klimov's initially banned film about Rasputin, Agony, which could be construed as a portrait of present oppression disguised as past oppression. But most such films could equally validly be construed as a portrait solely of past oppression, in which case, far from subverting or criticizing the present, they shore up the status quo by implying how much worse things were. This skepticism could also be applied to the spate of movies about the Stalin era, now being thawed out in the era of glasnost. Do they represent self-criticism or self-congratulation?
Sometimes, the past clearly is used to invoke the splendors of the national character – both now and then. World War II is a favorite stomping ground in Soviet cinema. In Bondarchuk's They Fought for Their Country, or in Larissa Shepitko's The Ascent, or Klimov's Come and See, there is no hint whatsoever that the struggles of Russians against Nazis has reflective irony in the restrictions imposed within the Soviet Union. For Adolf Hitler can you read Stalin or Brezhnev or Andropov? The real function of these films is to keep reminding people, inside and outside the USSR, that Russia was then, and essentially is now, a country of Good Guys fighting on the Right Side. (Western filmmakers may question that assumption, but rather rarely do they take the Nazis' side.)
When state propaganda and dissident parable prizefight each other in Soviet cinema, it's hard to find any clear instances when parable wins out. And the most original and imaginative movies of all – those of Tarkovsky and Paradjanov – spar away outside this arena altogether.
Not that even aloofness keeps them safe. For the ultimate menace of censorship is that it does not always confine itself to political-ideological matters. It can seek out other margins and comers where new thought or imaginings are being born. For the new can itself be a danger: an energy for change in a society where change is the enemy.
With the recent death of Tarkovsky, Sergei Paradjanov is almost certainly the filmmaker with the most original vision now working in the Soviet Union. Yet his career has been strewn with obstacles and interruptions. In the Sixties, he made two of the most imaginative Soviet films ever: Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors and The Color of Pomegranates. After completing the second, the life of a poet told in richly symbolic tableaux and an attempt virtually to write a new hieroglyphic language for the cinema, Paradjanov was unable to work for another 14 years. For most of that time he was in prison on an obscure cluster of charges, of which the only one identified for Western reporters was homosexuality (a punishable offence in the USSR).
Soviet directors I have quizzed about Paradjanov's punishment – including his fellow Georgians, Georgi and Eldar Shengelaya – call it a tragic interlude while maintaining it had nothing to do with his films. Yet those films have had to struggle desperately for exposure inside Russia, despite acclaim outside, and a recent Moscow radio program investigated the vicissitudes surrounding the release – or virtual non – release-of his latest film, The Legend of Suram Fortress.
The program announced that it had received letters complaining of the unavailability of Paradjanov's film. "Has this film," one letter asked, "like Paradjanov's other works, really disappeared without a trace?" The program's presenter, having done some detective work, discovered that only 61 prints exist for the whole USSR (compared to several thousand for most movies). He contacted Valeny Viktorovitch Markov, head of the chief directorate for the provision of cinema facilities, and asked why. Markov replied curtly, "The film has not been popular with audiences. If the filmgoer doesn't see Legend of Suram Fortress, he won't be missing anything."
The criterion of audience appeal is a persuasive one. If a director like Paradjanov is not likely to have filmgoers storming the turnstiles by the millions – and indeed he isn't – why bother to give him a large release? But what the program discovered is that his films are not even getting through to the film clubs, where Paradjanov would be assured of a following. The president of one regional film club said that not only had Legend of Suram Fortress not been shown in his town but he had not seen a single Paradjanov film.
Interviewer: "What have you heard about this director?"
Club president: "I've heard his films are compulsory viewing."
The club, he explained, puts on films "commonly regarded as difficult" and tries to show that these works "get easier somehow with the passage of time." They are "perhaps a little ahead of their time compared with the stock perceptions that are foisted on us by the run of films whose artistic language could be termed elementary." It is important to discuss these films, he said, because otherwise they will be made completely unavailable for "lack of interest."
So which comes first, the lack of audience interest or lack of the film? One certain way to freeze the growth of a culture is to use the congenial-sounding reason that a work is "difficult" as a pretext to spare audiences the trouble of seeing it. Thus the easy and familiar are institutionalized, the new and strange are ostracized, and the complainers will remain in a manageable minority.
The chill of censorship in the Soviet Union is ingeniously multifold. (1) Your film may not get funded if it is not ideologically acceptable. (2) If it is funded and made, it may not get released. (3) If it is released, it may be to so small an audience that the fires of discussion and enthusiasm can never spread.
One kind of sentiment keeps recurring in conversation with Soviet directors. It is spoken matter-of-factly and ungrudgingly, as if it were a natural law of human life. "Every director has his own censor in his own head," says Otar Ioseliani. "You know how far you can go and what you can say," reflects Andrei Konchalovsky. And, "Naturally you do not include things that are ideologically unacceptable," per Georgi Shengelaya.
The axiomatic quality of these remarks is their most chilling aspect. It is as if most Soviet filmmakers believe this is the way of the world, not just of the USSR. When glasnost comes to Soviet cinema, it will be a matter not just of thawing the icy grip of political censorship and the machinery of state control, but also of removing the censor in the soul.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE JUNE 1987 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.