Seeking the Other

By George Clark

soviet-elegy-aleksandr-sokurov .jpgSoviet Elegy, 1989

The tone of Oberhausen’s 51st gathering in May was set by artistic director Lars Henrik Gass in his opening speech. His critical attack focused on the increasing pressure for Eurocentrism in festivals.  Certain EU funding stipulates that 70% of work shown must be of European origin. Not only does this mean international festivals receive less support, but it vastly reduces opportunities to engage with the world. This year’s special programme, The Fallen Curtain: the Self and the Other since 1989, (curated by Marcel Schwierin), directly opposed this insular view and explores how we understand ourselves in relation to Europe and the World. This panoramic selection (consisting of over 100 works) sat at the heart of the festival and its themes reverberated throughout. The programme was underpinned by a historical exploration of Soviet film and the way people and culture survive under the pressures of domineering power, be it the USSR, USA or today the EU.  

Fallen Utopia

Suitably, the programme opened with The Beginning (Armenia/USSR, 1967), Armenian Artavazd Peleshyan’s tribute to the brotherhood of man, made to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Soviet revolution. This inspiring film is a dense montage of demonstrations throughout the world. Its formal and kinetic brilliance, edited to an excellent score, expands the utopian zeal of the Soviet revolution to celebrate man’s ability to exact change and overthrow tyranny.

The struggle between Soviet ideology and regional identity flows throughout the programme, as in the mesmerising Salt for Svanetia (Michail Kalatosow, Georgia/USSR, 1930) a poetic study of life in a remote village in what is now Georgia. The film sits between a salute to the Soviet Union – it climaxes with Bolsheviks seen heroically building a road to link the village to the rest of the USSR – and a tribute to regional culture and customs.  

The Perestroika period saw the opening up of the Soviet Union prior to its collapse. Tractors (Igor & Gleb Aleinikov, USSR, 1987) takes this symbol of the USSR and subverts it with an ironic commentary. Chronicle of a Demonstration (Dmitry Zhelkovsky, USSR, 1988), an official document of the annual revolutionary celebration, goes a step further; subtly undermining the ceremony to reveal the bleak future barely hidden beneath its elaborate choreography.

apologies-anne-robertson.jpgApologies, 1990

More local to the festival were films which explored the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany. From America Sells (Bjørn Melhus, Germany, 1990), a document of a sickening American choir who invade Berlin Alexanderplatz to sell T-shirts, to minute observations on a day of monumental change in Fifteen Pieces of Unity (Betina Kuntzsch, Germany, 1991). The democratisation of the USSR and Eastern Bloc countries was by no means a smooth process, the flood of Western capitalism ripped though the countries throwing them open to corruption and gangsterism, seen especially in the horrific conflicts that tore Yugoslavia apart in the 1990s. The documentary The Crime that Changed Serbia (Janko Baljak, Serbia-Montenegro, 1995) profiles, with remarkable access, the gangs ruling Serbia. A series of disturbing interviews reveals the reality of conversion to capitalism as men, modelling themselves on American gangsters, boast about their conflicts, wealth and power.  

Inward Looking Eyes

Marx’s historical materialism was a pre-psychological theory and, as Marcel Schwierin points out, “this fundamentally false concept of humankind was perhaps the critical cause of communism’s failure.”  

The ways people define themselves formed a central axis of the programme. Dr. Turner’s Mental Home (Dora Carrington/Beacus Penrose, UK, 1929) displays the paranoia and distrust of psychoanalysis at the beginning of the century, while Thine Inward-Looking Eyes (Thad Povey, USA, 1993) looks again at early images of psychoanalysis to question filmic expectations. The abundance of self-evaluation in the West is reflected in Apologies (USA, 1990) where filmmaker Anne Robertson attempts to exorcise her compulsive feeling of guilt by apologising for everything, from her coffee addiction to forgetting to record sync sound and being unable to remember what she was apologising for. The emergence of video art in former Soviet countries saw a different type of self-definition. In her video A Loser (Estonia, 1997), Kai Kaljo introduces herself as an Estonian female artist to a soundtrack of canned laughter.

umbrella-michail-kobakhidze.jpgUmbrella, 1966

The programme’s subtitle, The Self and the Other, also relates to mans’ relationship to animals. George Reys’ excellent The Chewing Cow (France, 1970) crystallises our relationship to animals in a single shot of a cow. The complete passivity of the cow is broken when it spots the camera and becomes aware of the human gaze and subsequently of itself. This devastating moment of realisation seems to carry the potential for man to upset the natural order of the world. Man’s intrusion into the animal kingdom flows throughout the programme, from the horrendous experiments in Experiments in the Revival of Organisms (D. I. Yashin, USSR/USA, 1940) [1] an educational featuring a revived dogs head and the totalitarian Lord of the Flies (discussed later), to films like Cape of the Brown Flier (Izja Gersteijn, Kazakhstan/USSR, 1966) which show the co-dependency of man and animal rendered as a single family. And finally William Wegman’s brilliant collaborations with his artistic partner, the dog Man Ray, in a series of droll video performances including Dog Duet (1975, USA) and Spelling Lesson (1973, USA).

Love and Familly

As with Armenian Cinema in the former Soviet Union, a distinct cinematic tradition also flourished in Georgia. Umbrella (Michail Kobakhidze, Georgia/USSR, 1966) provides a fabulous example, a wonderful retelling of a classical romance in the wordless lunch break of a train conductor. On The Art of Loving or a Film with 14441 Frames (Karpo Godina, Yugoslavia, 1971) gently toys with the prudish nature of communism in its profile of a town where a factory of women and garrison of soldiers are stationed but forbidden to mix. Les Blank’s God Respects Us When We Work – But He Loves Us When We Dance (USA, 1968) surveys’ the original flower power ‘love-in’. Seen now the film is hilarious yet reminds us of the utopian nature of the notion of free love which seems unthinkable now.

In stark contrast is Bill Meyer’s interview film Familie Strassburger, Dresden (GDR, 1986), designed to challenge misconceptions about East Germany. It’s fascinating for being undermined by the presence of a state appointed cameraman. The interviews are painful to watch because of the desperate way the family defends their lifestyle without being attacked.

lord-of-the-flies-vladimir-tyulkin.jpgLord of the Flies

Another film that explores family life is the remarkable Our Mom Is a Hero (Nikolay Obukhovich, USSR, 1978 – 89). It profiles an exemplary Soviet mother, whose high productivity saw her turned into an icon. Her rise is juxtaposed with scenes of her husband and son at home, entertaining themselves while waiting for her return. What is remarkable in this assured and patient film is the way these two realities slowly converge and the mother’s glamorous life finally connects with her home life, as she returns exhausted and sits down to cry. A compassionate study of the sacrifices that supported such figures.

National Identity

Peleshyan’s film We (Armenia/USSR, 1969) is a marked example of how people and culture can be defined against a dominant ideology. In stark contrast to this rigorous folkloric definition of cultural identity, we see rituals and routines that are presumed to define Western nations, gently deconstructed in The Nuclear Football (Andree Korpys/Markus Löffler, Germany, 2004), made from images of Germany’s preparation for an official visit from George W. Bush.  

The legacy and character of the USSR are tackled in Aleksandr Sokurov’s masterly Soviet Elegy (USSR, 1989) a pinnacle of his early documentaries. Divided into three sections the film starts with lyrical images of a cemetery; then a series of portraits of the leaders of the USSR, from mass murderers to reformers and concludes with an intimate depiction of Yeltsin prior to his presidency, sat alone in silence, the history that has just drifted before us on his shoulders. Meanwhile, Et cetera... (Andrey Osipov, Russia, 2001) depicts the wars that have marked successive generations of Russians. The inevitability of conflict is slowly grasped as images compiled from a century of wars cycle anonymously before us as certainly as each generation matures.

Lord of the Flies (Vladimir Tyulkin, Kazakhstan/USSR) is a study of a disillusioned Russian settled in Kazakhstan as the self appointed king of his animal colony. Through him we witness the recycled barbarianism of the Soviet Union, his addresses to camera on how Gorbachev should handle Perestroika are horrific and absurd. His backyard is a depressing reminder of the betrayals of power and trust that eventually undermined the Soviet Union.  

Cosmic Matter

The space race saw the USA and USSR both strive to colonise the cosmos and sell space exploration to its people. It’s material often fuelled by wild hyperbole but a more sober side of space exploration is presented in Proud Humility (Pavel Kogan, USSR, 1965) a fascinating document of an astrology department in the USSR. It mixes clear descriptions of the lab’s discoveries with an underlying poetic appreciation of science and mans’ humility in the face of the cosmos.

Powers of Ten (Ray & Charles Eames, USA, 1977) explores the position of man within the material universe, from the outer cosmos to microbes within the body. The camera retreats upwards from a picnicking couple until the earth and our galaxy recede, obliterated by the magnitude of the universe.

At this point the film reverses and advances towards the earth and eventually into the hand, skin and atoms of the picnicking man. This film crystallises the entire programme. Its symbolic journey places the world in relation to the body. As Power of Ten shows us, the most important part of exploration was not the journey outward, but the voyage inward it allowed.


[1] Educational films featured in the programme can be freely downloaded from the Prelinger archive at Films include: Facing Reality (USA, 1954), Experiments in the Revival of Organisms, (USSR/USA, 1940), Trailblazer in Space, (USA, 1961) & A Wonderful New World of Fords (USA, 1960).
[2] For full programme notes and other information on curator Marcel Schwierin’s activities, visit:

George Clark is a curator, writer and filmmaker. He is currently working on a thematic overview of recent European Artists Film & Video for the Brief Encounters Short Film Festival in November 2005.