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A Nostalgic Reminder of Growing up under Communism

When on November 7th 2013 I found myself in the packed auditorium of Teatr Polski (“The Polish Theatre”) in Warsaw in order to participate in the inauguration ceremony of the Seventh Sputnik over Poland Russian Film Festival, my thoughts went back to the times of my early youth. The times were as they were. Great literature has been created about those times and the political and social climate that dominated the world then. A number of films was made, as was a number of brilliant and important books presenting the currently shrouded-in-legend 1950s, 1960s and 1970s of the previous century.

January 21, 2014 - Ryszard Jabłoński - Articles and Commentary

sputnik nad warszawa

I would like, however, to tell you about a certain young man who was growing up in those times and, like any immature organism, would take handfuls of everything that was being offered to him at that time.

Television virtually did not exist yet (perhaps luckily so) and hardly anyone could afford to buy an ordinary TV set, but in even the smallest town there was a cinema. We used to go to the movie theatre and discuss film. Films let us dream. They let us get away from the grim and unattractive reality of communism. Finally, inside the dark and safe cinema movies let us be “real citizens of the world”.

My readers need to be reminded that in those times there existed such “creations” as great Czechoslovak cinema, sublime French cinema, existential Swedish cinema, independent Yugoslavian cinema, fabulous Italian cinema and internationally recognizable Polish cinema. I could go on and on but to sum up, there were powerful and very interesting national cinemas, including those of the United States and the Soviet Union. Fully-fledged cinematic pluralism dominated, at least in Poland. There was obviously censorship, but about that I was informed a bit later after I had already grown up when, in a more conscious way, I was participating in the cultural life of our country.

Times have changed and they are as they are. When we go to the cinema, most often to a multiplex, the selection is not as diverse; there is not as much variety in terms of film productions as in the second half of the previous century. “To už se nevrátí”, as our southern brothers, the Czechs, usually say. “It will not come back.”

Cinema has become, first of all, a market commodity, a product that is to yield the highest possible profits to investors, still called, presumably out of habit, film producers. English-language film studios (often not American ones any longer) have dominated and destroyed almost all national cinemas, above all the European ones.

Worldwide commercialization is victorious. The time has come for the monopoly of work with no value and a dictate of stupidity. Art defends itself but does so very clumsily, since it always has to be dependent on money and has never won. It has even failed to make an attempt to win over the financial circles, since artists like to shine. In order to do so, the resources for success are required, and thus one must be wealthy. Therefore, anyone can be bought, bribed, deluded with the perspective of walking down the red carpets, spread out during numerous vanity festivals.

Soviet Film Days used to be organized every November as a part of various celebrations prepared for the anniversary of the October Revolution. Lenin believed that cinema is the most important of all the arts. For that reason, cinematography in the Soviet Union was always well-funded.

Nor was money spared on propaganda, which in Poland would always backfire. The Poles have never trusted the authorities, perhaps because for two centuries the authorities were forced upon them, thus they were alien; not ours, as the Poles used to say.

November screenings would often take place to no audience when great works such as Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, Sergey Bondarchuk’s Destiny of a Man or even the best film adaptation so far of King Lear directed by Grigori Kozintsev, with the titular role played brilliantly by Estonian Jüri Järvet, were being shown.

In order to know literature, one needs to read a lot. In order to become an expert on theatre, ballet or stand-up comedy, one needs to attend performances. In order to understand and be able to correctly evaluate a film, one needs to watch a lot of films and go to the cinema often.

Not showing off to my friends or even my family – since in those times, as we would say today, it would not have been “cool” – I used to go to the cinema passionately. November Soviet film days let me learn about and understand the great and meaningful cinema of our eastern neighbours who, throughout the previous century, in a variety of ways deeply influenced world film art and its creators. Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin and Dziga Vertov (born in Białystok, Poland) were all pioneers at the core of Russian and Soviet film thought.

It is impossible to enumerate here all the great and important artists. In order to do so, a voluminous book would need to be written, but I must mention Constantin Stanislavsky, whose work method is the foundation of studying acting during all theatre studies in the United States, but also in key acting schools around the world. Anton Chekhov is an author whose works are used and exercised by all students of the art of acting at any major university.

From almost 140 titles – among them both retrospectives and the latest productions – proposed by the organizers in the seventh edition of the Sputnik over Poland Festival I saw, due to a lack of time, only eight. They were the most recent ones.

Width, space and a deep breath: this is how I would metaphorically characterize the general impressions from the films I watched. In contemporary Russia, films are made by both maestros of the screen and brilliant and skilful youths. One can feel the opulence, capabilities and great potential of this massive cinematography. Harmonious and political new Russian cinema, freed from destructive regime censorship and conscious both of its possibilities and the needs of the audience, is creating an extraordinary new value that may amaze the world, similarly to the once-great Russian literature.

Russia is standing on the side and has a brilliant observer’s position as well as necessary in art distance giving time for analysis of world phenomena. In order not to fall into idolatry and mechanical imitation, it is good to keep a healthy distance and safe perspective. Making use of such experience and possibilities, a Russian artist can take only what is essential, functional and, finally, verified by others. All these “curiosities” are carefully filtered and refined with true Russianness always being the key message in this cinematography.

The organizers brilliantly fit into the cultural calendar of events. They found their audience and major sponsors. After leaving Warsaw, Sputnik is going to visit 40 Polish cities, will be shown in the film carriage of the Intercity rail group and, finally, in May it will travel to Dubai.

Before concluding, it is worth discussing the films themselves. Lyubov Arkus’ 2012 documentary film Anton’s Right Here, which was already awarded at the Venice Film Festival, made a great impression on me. It is an unsettling tale about the compassion we can offer to another person. The film’s protagonist is an autistic boy who lives between a ruined apartment on the periphery of a large city and a psychiatric hospital. He finds himself in front of the camera the day before he becomes the patient of a psychoneurological dormitory, a place where people with his diagnosis do not live long. This brave, but also political and greatly moving picture is also about our helplessness in the face of the world’s mechanisms.

I was greatly touched to once more watch Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938) as part of the festival retrospective. This work about Russia, patriotism and foreign threats is still great and important. Watching it, you feel the breath of a coming war. I find in this film many technical inspirations which, in my opinion, Aleksander Ford used in the film Knights of the Teutonic Order (1960). The digitally remastered film stuns with its artistic maturity and terrifies until the end, when we decipher its main message.

The festival’s jury included Andrzej Seweryn, an actor and Director General of Teatr Polski, film director Xawery Żuławski and screenwriter and theatre and film critic Łukasz Maciejewski. The festival jury unanimously voted for Alexandr Veledinsky’s The Geographer Drank his Globe away as the best film of the year. The audience concurred that it was the most valuable of all presented films.

I share the opinion of both respectable groups and will write nothing more about the film since films are to be watched, not written about, and I encourage the reader to do so and, as an old cinema lover, I invite everyone and always to the dark cinema halls where so many amazing stories come to life.

Translated by Justyna Chada

Ryszard Jabłoński is an experienced film and theatre actor and screenwriter educated at the National Film School in Łódź, Poland, the alma mater of such legendary filmmakers as Roman Polański, Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Kieślowski. He currently lectures at several universities in Warsaw and is preparing two books for publication.

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