Alexander Markov: A Soundtrack to Soviet Africa

Alexander Markov
Soviet Filmmakers in Africa from the 1960s to the 1980s

In 1960, seventeen African countries gained their independence. For the two superpowers, competing for influence in the Cold War, these “new” countries were obvious opportunities for deploying their own power. Under Khrushchev’s Thaw, Soviet foreign policy increasingly focused on Africa and the Arab world, which became priorities for proactive Soviet diplomacy.

The 1960s thus witnessed the heyday of African studies in the Soviet Union. A number of Soviet filmmakers were dispatched to the continent to produce newsreels and documentary films whose mission was to record the “friendships” between the Soviet socialist specialists at the helm of scientific progress and the African socialist hopefuls who had just broken free from the yoke of colonialism.

The films were given titles such as Hello, Africa!, We Are with You, Africa!, and Good Luck to You, Africa!, to convey that desire for friendship unambiguously, and to contrast starkly with films produced on the other side of the Iron Curtain, such as the notorious Italian documentary about the “dark continent,” Farewell Africa (Addio Africa, 1966), which speculated that civil wars and bloody conflict would set the continent ablaze after the European colonialists exited it.

Despite the fact that Soviet film production was centralized in Moscow and Leningrad, studios in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine, Belorussia, Georgia, and Uzbekistan also produced documentaries about Africa. The best filmmakers were involved in their production, and Saving Bruce Lee focuses on four of them: Yuri Aldokhin, Mikhail Litvyakov, Vladlen Troshkin, and Rimtautas Šilinis, who made films about Mali, Congo, and Tanzania between 1960 and 1980.

There was also an interest among Soviet filmmakers in documenting wars of independence and armed conflicts (Ethiopia, Libya, Algeria, Congo, Egypt, Chad, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Angola, and Namibia), but such films were produced differently. Only cameramen were dispatched to film on location, and most of them were veteran WWII cinematographers.

Nearly half of the Soviet documentary and newsreel films about Africa recorded official visits by Party leaders, government officials, and heads of states. The other half presented partly imaginary Soviet constructions of African reality.

On the one hand, the filmmakers were under the spell of a revolutionary romanticism. In factories, schools, and universities, in streets and in squares, Soviet citizens had marched and rallied in support of the aspirations of their African comrades for liberation from colonial rule and the right to self-determination. On the other hand, Khrushchev’s Thaw itself contained a promise for better times for Soviet citizens themselves that echoed the hopefulness of the newly sovereign African countries. The imaginary construction of socialist Africa was fashioned according to Soviet paradigms, with soldiers and youth on the march, collective farms, and one-party rule.

The documentaries produced during the Thaw are peculiar, because while they toe the ideological line, they are nonetheless imbued with the loosening of inhibitions that permeated Soviet society at the time. So while an ideologically motivated eye will only see what it wants to see, in these films, the cinematographer’s lens betrays a tangibly genuine curiosity about the “otherness” of African reality that would be impossible to counterfeit.

In contrast with the footage of official parades and collective farms, the films also capture ordinary people going about their everyday lives. The camera conveys the contradictory emotions and mindset of the people standing behind them, in which simple, unfiltered affection and enthusiasm blend with the cinematic idioms of the era.

Ordinary Africans were shown at the helm of a historical transformation, thus embodying the journey toward the “radiant future.” This was another echo with the spirit of the Thaw that, paradoxically, made Soviets more congenial to Africans. It was a seemingly naïve illusion in retrospect, but it was emblematic of the period.

The dramatic structure of these Soviet documentaries about Africa produced in the 1960s and 1970s is perhaps where the ideological conditioning is most palpable. Almost all fit into a particular generic scheme or pattern, because they were commissioned by a state that valued ideology more than the art of documentary cinema.

The footage was edited to fit a script, drafted in the studio back in Moscow or Leningrad, and narrated in a voiceover. Soviet composers were also commissioned to provide the musical scores. In other words, the soundtracks rarely featured sound from the locations where they were filmed, and the voices of everyday Africans were almost entirely absent. Instead, the Soviet narrative carefully guided the viewer’s experience of the moving images.

In this exhibition, the soundtracks have been severed from the images, and the cinematic footage has been freed from its bondage to the master narrative. I would thus like to propose a critical rethinking of the era and the language of Soviet political film.

__________

These are Petersburg filmmaker Alexander Markov’s notes to his contribution to Saving Bruce Lee: African and Arab Cinema in the Era of Soviet Cultural Diplomacy (A Prologue), an exhibition curated by Koyo Kouoh and Rasha Salti, in collaboration with Alexander Markov and Phillippe Rekacewicz. The exhibition is on view at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow from June 12 to August 23, 2015.

Alexander Markov’s documentary film Our Africa will be released in 2015 or 2016.

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