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.

Homosexuals and Homophobes: Victoria Lomasko on the Side by Side LGBT Film Festival

Originally published (in Russian) at soglyadatay.livejournal.com

Victoria Lomasko
Side by Side: Homosexuals and Homophobes

When the organizers of the Petersburg LGBT film festival Side by Side invited me to serve on the festival jury, I agreed right away. I’m no expert on cinema, and I’m not a member of the LGBT community, but given what has been happening in Russia, the festival has become a political event, and being involved with it is a way of clearly expressing your civic stance.

As one of the organizers, Gulya Sultanova, told me, “This time, almost all the movie theaters [the festival approached] decided to support the film festival, despite the potential risks. And that’s worth a lot.”

I found it difficult to share Gulya’s optimism. I was certain that attempts would be made to disrupt the festival, and that trouble lay in store for organizers and festival goers.

A Dangerous Opening

Several minutes before the festival’s opening ceremony at the Warsaw Express shopping and entertainment complex, police got word of a bomb threat to the movie theater. While police combed the building for a bomb, festival goers hung outside in the chilly wind.

“There are homophobes on the corner. They’re really creepy.”

A gang of beefy skinheads appeared a few meters away from us. As Gulya later explained, the guys were nationalists from an organization called Soprotivlenie (Resistance). One female viewer standing next to me was visibly nervous.

“Now they’ll start throwing rocks at us, like during the rally at the Field of Mars. Now they’ll start firing at us with pneumatic guns!”

Right there among the gay activists was Dmitry Chizhevsky, a black bandage on his face. It had only been just recently that persons unknown had attacked an LGBT community center and shot Chizhevsky in the eye with a pneumatic pistol.

Side by Side organizers asked festival goers not to wander off by themselves.

We were finally ushered into the movie theater. The Dutch film Matterhorn, about a father who has kicked his gay son out of the house, opened the festival.

Police escorted Side by Side viewers from the movie theater to the subway.

Predictions by Foreign Guests

Post-screening discussion of Out in East Berlin: “I think the tough times are still ahead of you.”
3_strahi“We were afraid of pogroms, that they would try and kill homosexuals in the street.”

At the last minute, many foreign guests had been frightened to come to Russia.

Side by Side Received Five Bomb Threats during Its Ten-Day Run

Five times the police received false threats of bombs planted at Side by Side festival venues. Loft Project ETAGI art center and Jam Hall Cinema were each threatened once, the Skorokhod cultural center, twice.


“We’ve received another bomb threat, friends!”

The police and ambulance came each time, and everyone was evacuated from the buildings where the “bombs” had been “planted.” At ETAGI, for example, its staff, patrons from its cafes, bars and shops, and its hostel guests were kicked out onto the street along with LGBT activists.

The people behind the false bomb threats have not been found.

Side by Side co-organizer Manny de Guerre: “No venue will ever work with us again.”

Manny’s worries were justified. After the bomb threats, both the Zona Deistviya co-working space at ETAGI and Jam Hall Cinema terminated their agreements with Side by Side for the remaining screenings.

One day, the festival program was disrupted entirely. Not only were the screenings not held. A discussion entitled “Young People’s Freedom to Access Information on LGBT” was also canceled.

Lena Klimova: “In our city, many people don’t even know the word LGBT.”

Lena Klimova, a journalist and creator of the Internet project Children 404, was supposed to take part in the discussion. She had specially come all the way from Nizhny Tagil for the festival.

Through the Back Entrance

The screening, at Jam Hall Cinema, of Blue Is the Warmest Color (La Vie d’Adèle), which was then playing without incident at many other theaters in Petersburg, was interrupted by a bomb threat. The police led viewers out of the theater through the back entrance. At the main entrance, Petersburg legislative assembly deputy and United Russia member Vitaly Milonov demanded that police free children whom the “sodomites” were, allegedly, “forcibly holding” at the screening. Around twenty lowlifes came out to support Milonov.


“We caught several minors in the movie theater and photographed them with their IDs.”

While waiting for the theater to be checked for bombs, Side by Side viewers took refuge in a nearby cafe, but several people, including me, lingered on the street. A policeman came up to me.

“Tell your people not to stand in the street but to hide in the cafe. They could be attacked.”

“They don’t want to go into the cafe.”

“It’s dangerous. Although they look like ordinary people. Maybe they won’t be noticed, and no one will bother them.”

While what the policeman said jarred me, it didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was the absence of support for Side by Side on the part of Petersburg’s civic and leftist activists.

In the Bomb Shelter

After Jam Hall pulled out of its agreement with Side by Side, the festival moved to the Green Lantern Press Club, a small basement space. No bomb threats were made to this venue.

As festival jury member Bård Ydén remarked, “What bombs? We’re already in a bomb shelter.”

The feature films Tom at the Farm and In the Name Of and the documentary film We Were Here were shown in the “bomb shelter.”

LGBT Christians

In the Name Of is about a priest’s struggle with his homosexual desires. Andrei, a pastor at a Protestant church, took part in the post-screening discussion.

LGBT Christian: “A persecuted minority is being oppressed in the name of the church.”

“I’m offended by the idea that a person can’t be both Christian and LGBT.”

The pastor recounted how he had once invited LGBT Christians to celebrate Easter at his church, but the other parishioners had refused to eat at the same table with them.

Pastor: “The Bible unequivocally treats homosexuality as a sin.”

We Were Here

We Were Here, about the AIDs epidemic among gays in San Francisco in the 1980s, made a huge impression on me. The epidemic claimed over fifteen thousand lives during this period. The US government considered introducing a compulsory quarantine, clothes with identifying marks or special tattoos for people infected with HIV. Mass protests by the LGBT community put a stop to such plans. Gays demanded information about the new disease, development and free distribution of drugs, and government support for HIV-positive people. At the same time, the LGBT community established charitable organizations: hundreds of gay activists became volunteers, while many lesbians donated blood and worked as nurses.

One of the people featured in the film, AIDS activist Ed Wolf, came to the festival.

Ed Wolf: “I’ve ridden around Petersburg. You have many gays here. I saw them myself.”
Moderator: “So the American government wasn’t willing to solve the problem?” Ed Wolf: “An army of activists forced the government to act.”

Thanks to the civic engagement of the LGBT community and, later, the society at large, the epidemic in San Francisco was stopped relatively quickly.

Ed Wolf continues to work on HIV/AIDS issues. According to him, women are now at risk.

“It’s hard for women to force their husbands to wear a condom every time.”

Wolf also said that gays are also men and that it’s time for them to reconsider their patriarchal views of women.

Lesbiana

At Side by Side, I noticed that the LGBT community was also not free of sexism. Spotting my jury member badge, one young gay man asked which movies I would be voting for. Hearing I had chosen Blue Is the Warmest Color and Lesbiana: A Parallel Revolution, he said, “Those films are so boring. And lesbian sex is disgusting to watch.”

Most of the films shown at Side by Side were shot by male directors and dealt with gay love. Lesbiana: A Parallel Revolution was the only feature film at the festival made by women about women. The screening room was half empty: men did not come.

The audience at Lesbiana

Lesbiana combines interview with aged lesbian activists who were involved in the LGBT and feminist movements during the 1970s with documentary footage from the period. In those years there were a lot of separatist lesbian communes, where women lived and engaged in painting, sculpture, literature, music and performance.

Sharing our impressions of Lesbiana at a cafe: “I wonder whether there are ‘feminine lands’ in Russia where only lesbians live?”

Jury Deliberations

The jury at Side by Side consisted of Alexander Markov, a filmmaker; Marina Staudenmann, director of the Tour de Film international film festival agency; Bård Ydén, director of the Oslo Gay and Lesbian Film Festival; and two people far removed from the professional cinema world, Elena Kostyuchenko, a journalist and LGBT activist, and me.

 Alexander Markov (on left). Elena Kostyuchenko: “As the only LGBT activist on the jury, I’m responsible for authenticity.”

Our discussion quickly shifted from the films to Russia’s homophobic policies.

Elena Kostyuchenko: “If they start removing children from LGBT [families], our lives will change forever.” Marina Staudenmann (on right)

We were nearly unanimous in our choice of the winning feature film.

 Marina Staudenmann: “La vie d’Adèle.” Bård Ydén: “La vie d’Adèle.”
Alexander Markov: “La vie d’Adèle.”

Valentine Road, about the murder of a transgender schoolboy by his classmate, won the prize for best feature-length documentary film.

The Festival’s Closing Ceremony

Aside from the by now routine bomb threat, viewers who came to the closing ceremony had a surprise in store from the Rodina (Motherland) party. Party activists handed out “gift bags” to them.

Side by Side organizers describing what was in the “gift bags”: “The bags contained rope and bars of soap, along with a note reading, ‘From Russians with love.'”

Gus Van Sant, the festival’s most anticipated guest of honor: “The people who wanted to shut the festival down caused the LGBT community to close ranks.”

Gus Van Sant showed up at the Side by Side closing ceremonies with Sergei “Afrika” Bugaev, whom he introduced to the audience as his “good Russian friend.”

A woman in the audience asked the famed director, “What is a Putin endorser doing at an LGBT film festival?”

Van Sant chose not to answer the question.

Afterparty at the Malevich LGBT club

Sitting among gays and lesbians at the closed LBGT club, I mulled over my impressions of the events of the festival. I had felt frightened several times during the clashes with homophobes, and I was glad I was heterosexual. I would not be forced to live my entire life in a constant state of anxiety.

Towards the end of the festival, Gulya Sultanova said, “We’re just a festival, but there’s the sense we’re running a military operation.”

LGBT activists are just people. Why must they live as if they were invisible or criminals?