Frames of Freedom: 100 Years of the Soviet Dream

Every year on the 15th of August, we at the People’s Film Collective try to bring you something slightly set apart from our regular monthly screenings as well as the range of films that we offer during our annual festival. “Frames of Freedom” seeks to explore, in its subjects and cinematic languages, different perspectives and outlooks on the idea of human freedom. These are modes that depart, consciously, from the singular and homogeneous definitions of freedom that are ritually thrust upon us by governmental propaganda machinery, where the ‘independence’ we celebrate translates into nothing but the sovereignty of a nation-state. To this sovereignty, it appears, every other notion of freedom, all other histories, and struggles, must be violently subsumed.

This year, we chose to bring before you a selection of films that look back towards the history of the Soviet Union, as well as the trajectory of Soviet cinema, from the early decades of the last century to the first decade of the present one. Naturally, because of the constraints of time that we are working with, our selection has had to be limited to films that we thought were contextually relevant to our own times. We wanted to avoid screening again the films that are most commonly thought of when we speak of Soviet cinema: for example, identified classics such as Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), which, are justifiably popular and have been seen by many interested audiences in Kolkata. However, we did want to include some films that were representative of the times in the Soviet Union in which they were made, along with a couple that are not so commonly known. We have also chosen to screen two films that were made in the post-Soviet era (in 2006 and 2010) – one of them looking back at wartime Leningrad (during the World War II) and the other at the history of the momentous disintegration of the USSR that changed the course of global politics forever.

Audiences will find that making the journey through the six films that we have chosen (spanning a time period from 1925 to 2010) will also mean turning the pages of Soviet history, looking at the flowering of a dream, the early years of optimism, innovation and energy, leading on to the imposition of socialist realism from above as a stricture of state ideology in the Stalin era, followed by the bleak and confused post-war years, and finally the deep affective and political contradictions of the Perestroika. Mourning and hope come together in these years to mark a generation that is both hopeful and bitter, both deeply anti-establishment and strangely apolitical: mirroring curiously, and in complex ways, our own growing up in a rapidly liberalising India in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The first film that we are screening on the day is Eisenstein’s Strike, his first full-length film that was completed in the same year as Battleship Potemkin. It was a time of radical experimentation in Soviet cinema, both in theory and in practice. Filmmakers like Eisenstein and Vertov were trying to find a cinematic language that would best reflect momentous changes in the Soviet Union, and radical experimental cultural groups like the Proletkult were still active. Proletkult actors were part of this project and the film told the story of a factory workers’ strike in pre-revolutionary Russia while experimenting with notions of collective filmmaking and the collective as the protagonist. The other important films of this period were Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera,  and Vsevolod Pudovkin’s adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s Mother, as well as Ukrainian director Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth.

The next film that we will show is Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying (1957), recognisably a classic of Soviet cinema. Made in a post-Stalinist era when censorship mechanisms had turned more flexible, Kalatozov’s feature film looks back at the impact of the Second World War on the Soviet Union through the eyes of the protagonist Veronika who loses her lover Boris in the war. Among many other important films of the period was Grigori Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier (1959), also about WW II and its impact on the emotional lives of ordinary people. Many of the other films, in this period, focused on the human cost of WW II, which was in sharp contrast with the war films like The Fall of Berlin (1950) made earlier.

We then move on to Mikhail Romm’s 1965 documentary film Ordinary Fascism (also known as Triumph over Violence in the United States of America) which describes the progress and degeneration of fascism in Europe (primarily in Nazi Germany) through existing archival footage. Romm was following the fine tradition of Soviet documentary cinema which used found footage to tell a complex story, a technique which was first adopted by Esfir Shub in her classic film, The Fall of Romanov Dynasty (1927). We decided to choose this film over the other landmark films of this era, including Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962), Andrei Rublev (1966) as well as Sergei Parajanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) and Colour of Pomegranates (1969), or films made in epic scale by Bonderchuk, because we felt it was important to our times of resurgent fascism and right-wing populism all over the world.

Soviet cinema has had a rich legacy of animation films, from early experimentation by Dziga Vertov and Alexander Bushkin, the delightful world of the Brumberg sisters, to the satirical animation works by Fyodor Khitruk, which is all but forgotten today. We chose Tale of Tales (1979) by Yuri Norstein, as our next film, to take a glimpse into this world. This greatly admired film, which has been considered by many critics as the greatest animation film of all times, eschews conventional narrative to tell a story of loss of loved ones in war, but is deeply aware of small joys that life offers nonetheless.

The next two films are made in the post-Soviet era: Sergei Loznitsza’s 2006 documentary Blokada, which is in the same tradition of the compilation films like Ordinary Fascism, looks back at the devastating state of Leningrad during the Second World War, and Robin Hessman’s 2010 documentary My Perestroika which takes a hard, unforgiving look at the complex, bleak and baffling history of the years of the final disintegration of the Soviet Union, seen through the eyes of a cynical and embittered generation which survived it. Rather than tell a linear story of either unmitigated hope or darkness, “Frames of Freedom” wishes to ask difficult questions about our most cherished dreams of freedom which need to be encountered in the raw if we are to resist honestly the accelerating brutality and loss of freedom in the world around us.

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Frames of Freedom, 2019

15th August

1 1 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Jogesh Mime Academy, Kalighat Park

Entry free

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