Homo sovieticus. This term popularised by Soviet writer and sociologist Alexander Zinovyev in the 1970s and 1980s came to designate the average person in the Soviet Union, and by extension the Eastern Bloc. The new “Soviet man” — a new type of being altogether — could only come into existence within the safe haven of communism, an ideology predicated on eradicating difference and creating an egalitarian, level playing field for each and every one of its citizens.
Homo sovieticus is faceless; he is at once “no man” and “everyman”. It is no surprise then that all aspects of culture across the vast Soviet empire and Eastern Bloc were often cast in a similar cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all mould. Arguably, the Soviet film industry was one of the most affected by the adoption of this generalised identity — one is reminded of Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, which posits photography and cinema as the art forms of and for the masses. While nationalised film studios like Mosfilm and Lenfilm, and their equivalents in Kazakhstan, Georgia or Ukraine, produced mainly mass market fare (from musicals to epics and “East” or “Red” westerns), filmmakers were not provided with much freedom for developing an individual voice.
Fast-forward to the early 21st century when communism — and its cousin socialism — is well and truly a spectre, and the film industry in Eastern Europe, Russia and former Soviet republics is in a rather different position. Filmmaking today across this vast territory is what forms the focus of The New Social: Contemporary Cinema from Eastern Europe and Beyond, a new film programme at Calvert 22 that launched in October 2015 and which explores unknown post-socialist identities through the most vibrant recent films from Eastern Europe, the Baltics, Russia and Central Asia.
The New Social focusses on works by filmmakers who belong to the generation born before and right after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the USSR. Witnesses of the disintegration of the “great socialist experiment”, they implicitly or sometimes even unconsciously reflect on shifts that still shape as well as disrupt their countries. Beginning with Maya Vitkova’s Viktoria (2014), a symbolic trip through Bulgaria’s communist past and unidentified present, the programme continues with the first UK screening of Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s The Owners. Released in 2014, the film is the last — and strongest — part of Yerzhanov’s trilogy on contemporary Kazakhstan, preceded by Realtor (2011) and Constructors (2013) respectively.
Kazakhstan’s rise to prominence as a powerhouse of Soviet cinema began when Stalin sent Sergei Eisenstein to Almaty at the onset of the Second World War. The then capital became home not only to Eisenstein, who filmed Ivan the Terrible there, but to a whole set of Soviet filmmakers, including Vsevolod Pudovkin and Dziga Vertov, as well as the entire staff and equipment of Mosfilm and Lenfilm, the two leading Soviet studios. Rediscovered in the beginning of the 1990s, when the Kazakh New Wave made an international breakthrough, Kazakh cinema still remains the most fruitful film territory of Central Asia, even though it faces the difficulties of censorship and an unstable economy. Yerzhanov (born in 1982) is one of the few young voices from the region who have already — and against all odds — made a huge contribution to the re-building of a Kazakh (film) identity.
His low-budget independent films recall the Kazakh cinema of the 1990s, which is known for its reserved, distant tone and deep painfulness. However, Yerzhanov modernises the style by adding elements of surrealism and the grotesque. The eclecticism of his style is deeply rooted in the realities of contemporary Kazakhstan, a country torn between a ruined Soviet past, a capitalist-driven present and a kind of neo-Soviet, backwards-moving future.
Since the political agenda of Kazakhstan and neighbouring countries is still dependent on that of Russia, Yerzhanov’s films immanently reflect on the social as well existential state of the whole post-Soviet region. His characters inevitably fall victim to an unlawful social system and are not given a chance to defeat it. But, unlike contemporary Russian filmmakers who tend to depict this drama in an extremely realistic, almost documentary manner, Yerzhanov surpasses conventional realism by mixing different popular genres and tones.
The Owners tells the story of one Kazakh family unfairly evicted from their house and kicked out on to the street. However, their misery is expressed in highly stylised mises-en-scène, which have clear references to the tone and tradition of the Western and the musical. In Yerzhanov’s film, a suffering character can suddenly break out into dance, and even death looks like an unnatural reversed happy-end. The contrast between the hopelessness of existence and the playfulness of representation is the backbone of the film. By emphasising the artificiality of his style, Yerzhanov turns current Kazakh realities into an almost Brechtian illusion and strips them off, presenting them as archetypes and paradigms relevant to any time and place.
The most original myth-master to have emerged in Russian cinema in recent years is undoubtedly Alexey Fedorchenko. Based in the Ural region, he received worldwide recognition for his film Silent Souls (2011), a mystic parable that revives the rituals and beliefs of the ancient Russian-Finnic minority known as the merya. Fedorchenko not only re-invented and re-imagined their epic mysterious world that had been lost for decades, but also subtly connected it with the common non-mythical realities of today’s Russia. His magical realism has almost an archaeological ambience and is full of wonderful tricks that balance between truth and mystification, unlimited fantasy and reality.
Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari (2012) is Fedorchenko’s second insight into the world of lost Russian folklore — more precisely, into the realm of the Russian eros which remains an unexplored zone in Russian culture. Twenty-three novels, or rather fairy tales, about love and sex form a “Russian Decameron” and introduce us to a variety of characters, ranging from female virgins to strange creatures from the woods. Social and political commentary is not high on Fedorchenko’s agenda, but arguably his preoccupation with both the natural and mythological is an implied criticism of the lack of identity, diversity and imagination in today’s Russia.
That surrealism is the highest form of realism is made proof by the Hungarian master Gyorgy Palfi in his off-beat black comedy Free Fall (2014). Like Fedorchenko’s work, it is an omnibus and presents several “novellas” about the sheer craziness of average Hungarians living in a typical socialist apartment building on the outskirts of Budapest. Palfi mocks contemporary everyday lifestyles and turns them upside down, showing the bizarre extremes of such common practices as yoga, sex or the green movement. The power and freedom of his imagination turn the story into a highly absurd picture of human manias, phobias and dreams.
An unconventionally eccentric view of the realities of Eastern Europe can be also seen in Little Crushes, a Polish love story about the oddity of ordinary things, directed by Aleksandra Gowin and Ireneusz Grzyb. Two girls clean places after somebody dies there and sell the belongings of the deceased at a flea market. One of them slightly suffers from the fear of intimacy and is scared of being touched. When they meet an odd guy who has a passion for boxes, a strange game unfolds. The film playfully avoids the clichés of social realism and does not label itself as another post-socialist commentary. Like Free Fall, it is rather a statement that the bleak post-socialist environment can also be a secret haven of pure extravagance.
Even Valeria Gai Germanika, one of the pioneers of post-post-soviet “kitchen sink realism”, after making documentaries, docu-fictions and docu-series, has changed her aesthetic for her latest film Da I Da (Yes and Yes). She still films in easily recognisable, hard-core post-Soviet surroundings and sets her story among the faceless buildings that pepper the outskirts of Moscow. But, for the first time, she has made an explicitly dazzling film in which actual physical reality is filmed through psychedelic filters and is mixed with wild dreams and hallucinations. Breaking with clichés of psychological realism, Germanika tells the story of an average girl from the flats who falls for a bohemian outsider and starts to see life differently, awkwardly becoming an artist herself. An amateur naive artist who has one definite advantage — she does not need to be realistic to be truthful and does not need to adjust to reality (or society) to be herself. This is a true free fall, an invaluable experience that Germanika delivers easily, without any effort or judgement.
Weaving in and out of Bulgaria, Russia, Hungary and Kazakhstan among others, all of whom were united by a shared — if imposed — history in the not-so-recent past, The New Social goes in search of filmmakers who are not only redefining the cinematic language of their respective countries but are asking what this “post-Soviet” landscape may look like and the legacy that it still bears. Whether surreal, outright fantastical, outlandish or sobering, what they nevertheless share is a hunger for personal and authentic storytelling.
The New Social is a monthly programme of film screenings at Calvert 22. For more information and details on films and events please see here.