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Kinoglasnost: Soviet cinema in our time

By Anna M. Lawton
Russian critics on the cinema of glasnost
By Michael Brashinsky, Andrew Horton
The zero hour: glasnost and Soviet cinema in transition
By Andrew Horton, Michael Brashinsky

By Gleb Aleinikov
What on earth is parallel cinema? Who is a part of this in the USSR? I will try to answer
the questions simply and in a straight forward way. All Soviet citizens have the right to know
about this new movement in cinema, so that after a difficult working day, he or she can
entertain the proud thought: We have parallel cinema... And may fellow citizens have bright
dreams, which are in fact the most democratic form of parallel cinema in the world.
Let’s start with the most general definition: parallel cinema - is cinema, which is made
outside the system of corporative or state film production, financed by film directors or
sponsors. Such cinema is often called independent. The idea of such cinematography was
born in the 20’s, and is connected with French and German avant-garde authors. In 1929
the 1st international congress of parallel cinema was held in Switzerland, in which such
famous cinematographers as Sergey Eisenstein, Bela Balazs, George Vilgelm Pabst, Hans
Richter, Walter Ruttmann and Leon Moussinac took part.
In the 60’s, with the advent of 16mm film, parallel cinema became a worldwide
phenomenon. The most famous groups of independent cinematographers worked in New
York, San Francisco, Zagreb and other cities.
In the USSR, a country with absolute state monopoly over film production and
distribution, parallel cinema did not exist as a single movement right up until the 80’s,
although a few producers created films, which were clearly not amateur productions.
Now a bit of history. Parallel cinema as a system owes its appearance to the activities of
three people: Igor Aleinikov, Yevgeny Yufit and Boris Yukhananov. Up until 1987, their
auditorium was limited to artists, men of letters, musicians who were developing in
underground culture. Often, the underground was parallel cinema. Such a social status
conditioned aesthetics. As practically the only (apart from emigration) alternative to the
ideologized official culture, the underground gradually became the national culture, and
therefore was not a synonym in any way for the word avant-garde. Like any true culture, the
underground existed on the advantages of cultural traditions, on the realization of the
teacher-student relationship. In connection with changes taking place in society; artists,
musicians, and poets came out from the underground. Directors of parallel cinema were left
in isolation. As you know, cinema is not just a creative activity, but also production; it is not
enough to enjoy creative freedom, you need the means to make it happen. Under state
monopoly of film production, independent authors cannot raise the necessary means, and
thus cannot enjoy creative freedom. All that was left was to disappear or establish a new
status. They chose the latter, and a certain kind of cine-political activity began. The leading
lights of parallel cinema made the only possible correct decision - they decided to create a
myth. For the last two years, the myth of parallel cinema has been born. I emphasize;
parallel cinema exists on the level of being a social myth. Be that as it may, it has acquired
an audience, more films are being made, and the number of producer-authors is growing.
The myth is gradually becoming more and more believable, and becoming a law. Mythology
has a huge social effect.
Of course finance and technology are, as before, minimal. Creating an independent
studio is out of the question: the biggest problems are synchronic sound and the quality of
the film stock.
The opinion is heard and read in the mass media that if cinema is going to be parallel,
then it should remain parallel. Some people don’t understand why parallel cinema people
are on television, have their articles printed in official magazines, receive official recognition.
Maybe it’s because people don’t get it, that parallel cinema isn’t underground any more.
We explain our behaviour simply. We cooperate with the media because we are offered the
opportunity to do so, and because it gives us a chance to make contact. Contact - is the
way to reach an audience. As far as official recognition goes - this is up to each authorproducer.
Here, the concept of the independent producer is confused with the concept of
the independent cinema business. Just because an independent producer decides to work
in official cinema, independent cinema doesn’t disappear, just as official cinema doesn’t
disappear when an official director starts working independently. Parallel cinema hasn’t
divided cinema, it has broadened it.
The birth of parallel cinema can be fixed in time in 1987, when the cine journal
‘CINEFANTOM’ appeared as typed carbon copies, paid for by its authors. The journal was
noteworthy because its editorial staff were mostly parallel cinema authors, who, together
with critics published original texts. The editorial staff considers that practice and criticism
should exist together for mutual benefit, that criticism is a form of creative activity, with the
same status as practice.
Other tasks the journal sets itself are to expose insufficiencies in Soviet cinema in the
light of world cinema. The journal doesn’t confine itself to a specific theme within parallel
cinema, it willingly turns over its pages to critics analyzing traditional cinematography made
in more often than not, unconventional methods. Original material is published dedicated to
the creative works of Fasbinder, Shtraub. Sokurov, German and Tarkovsky. Specially close
attention is paid to Video Art, including experimental home video, video art, video
installations, and video acts. The journal strives towards its texts being not only
informational and academic, but also complete in the sense of their artistic form. The journal
is a platform for the development of new styles, genres and structures.
Now a little on the directors who are involved in parallel cinema in the USSR. I am
writing only about representatives in Leningrad and Moscow, as I know their work well.
I will begin with Leningrad - which is a kind of capital of parallel cinema. I will start by
naming three names: Evgeny Ufit, Oleg Kotelnikov and Evgeny Kondratev. The way I see it,
they occupy a common cultural platform. All three are products of the same Leningrad
cultural underground, of artists and musicians. I think that Leningrad rock-culture, to be
more precise; its punk members had a big influence on them. It was from there the
paraphernalia of rock-concerts (idiotic make-up, scandalous costumes), the music itself,
and the way the actors performed, derived from. These directors are active musicians, and
in their way have an influence on their musical contemporaries. They are also painters.
Kotelnikov is more famous as one of the leaders of the Leningrad ‘New Wild’. The ‘New
Wave’ and ‘Free Form’ movements are also close to them.
Evgeny Ufit. Twenty eight, born and bred in Leningrad. He is the leader of the cine
group ‘Mzhalalafilm’. He describes his creative work with the term ‘necrorealism’. From
1982 to 1984 he was involved with situational photography, and he was involved with the
following necrorealistic subjects: mass fights, murder, suicides, every day trauma. Legal
medicine had a big influence on Ufit, a world where pathologic-anatomical atlases are
important. Ufit has been involved with cinematography from 1984, and his necrotic ideas
have come to life and taken form.
Ufit’s first two films ‘Orderlies-Were’wolves’ and ‘The Tree cutter’ which were filmed on
film stock which had already expired, and thus the quality of the films is ‘terrible’. But
thanks to necrorealism and Ufit’s sense of black humor, this is all justified. In my opinion,
necrorealism - is an interpretation of the myth of the death of cinema in the context of the
Soviet cinema. Because Evgeny Ufit - is a director and a human being - he has remained
active, and he has had to find a way out, to be more exact, to understand - is their life after
death? He wasn’t satisfied with the idealistic interpretation of the after-life. Like any true
materialist. He looked at the body and noticed that after death it is subjugated to a whole
series of metamorphoses. A song from the film ‘The Tree cutter’ appeared at that time.
Our corpses are being eaten
Fat maggots crawl around,
After death, that’s when
The life we’ve been waiting for, begins!
Figuratively speaking, Ufit transferred the metamorphoses of corpses onto the film
industry: expired film, careless editing, the hero is either a corpse, a suicidal or half-dead.
Compete madness, endless ideological battles filmed in high speed when you can’t
distinguish ‘us’ and ‘them’, and as a result the opinion is formed that this is simply about a
bunch of guys hanging around in the next village, as one of the lines in the song goes.
From an interview with Ufit from CINEFANTOM:
Ufit. ...The first shoots were held in a large, crowded courtyard in the center of
Leningrad, after I had got a fight going around a rubbish tip. We didn’t manage to film for
very long, about 20 minutes, as I (I was holding the cine camera) was marched off in a
convey of policemen to the nearest police station, where I was read the book - I was
accused of almost everything. Then they decided that my case was not part of their
jurisdiction, sent me off to the RUVD, where they tormented me for a whole week, until the
film was developed.
They looked at the film and didn’t discover any compromising material apart from
absolute madness. Then they let me go, advising me not to do this any more. I didn’t take
their advice and on the next day calmly continued filming.
CINEFANTOM: What aspect of our own culture has had the biggest effect on you?
Ufit: None of it has, with the possible exception of K. Mikaberidze’s ‘My Grandmother’,
but it is mostly an international work. Films from the French avant-garde of the 20’s has
effected me - ‘Andaluzskiy dog’, ‘Golden Age’, by L. Bunuel and ‘The Shell and the Priest’
by J. Dulak.
The influence of early Bunuel is particularly noticeable in Ufit’s third film - ‘Spring’. In his
picture, Ufit began to pay more attention to the shot-construction, to editing, to the tactility of
the visuals. He turned away from fast-speed filming. ‘Spring’ marked a new stage of
development of Ufit’s creative career. The dominating factor became a condition of
depression, expectation. If there was any laughter at all, you wouldn’t call it care-free.
Among Ufit’s contemporaries, Andrey Mertvy figures, a talented actor and director, the cocre-
of ‘Spring’.
Oleg Kotelnikov. 30 years old. Artist. He works in animation. His biggest influences
were Hering and Warhol. Because a group of artists usually work on a cartoon, his group
was called ‘North Pole’ (apart from Kotelnikov, the group included A. Ovchinnikov, E.
Kondratyev, the Inal brothers), and it is only possible to talk about collection authorship.
‘North Pole’s’ methodology is simple: artists meet and a film is made. The first of the
group’s films was a cartoon made jointly by Kotelnikov and Medvedev, drawn with felt-tips
onto transparent film, that is without any shooting at all. The group’s animation films are an
interpretation of the ideas from the paintings of the ‘New Wild’ group. A wide variety of
materials are used: collages from newspapers and magazines, plasticine, sand, any old
thing which happens to be lying around. There is a role-playing film; ‘On the side of Olf’,
which is filmed in a communal flat. Its crazy action develops amongst corpses and half dead
people, and thus is necrorealism. But this film, unlike Ufit’s includes treatment of the
emulsion of cine film with sharp objects and dies. Two worlds open up before the viewer:
the real world and the drawn world. But this is simply a formalality, as the two worlds
duplicate each other, then conflict each other, then complement and build on each other,
they are absolutely independent. Animation is often used for the beginning sequences of
feature films, such as in Kondratev’s films ‘Halley Comet’ ‘Nanainana’, ‘I forgot, idiot...’, in
Evgeny Ufit’s ‘The Tree Cutter. ‘North Pole’ created a video clip together with musicians
from the rock group ‘Igri’
Evgeny Kondatyev (idiot). 30 years old. He is the most mysterious person in parallel
cinema. He has been involved in cinematography before he arrived in Leningrad, when he
lived in Chernogorsk. In 1984 he became a member of the ‘Mzhalalafilm’ group.
He made several films using necrealistic ideas: ‘Work and hunger’, ‘Nanainana’, ‘I forget,
idiot...I’ Unlike Ufit’s films, which have a leaning towards lingering shots, to set up effects
similar to the necrorealism of pathologic-anatomical atlases, in his first works, Kondratyev
used a fast, rough edit, similar to clips, full of symbolism. The films are devoid of the
meaning that gave other necrorealistic films a certain established character. These films
work not only because of the subject of the films, but also because of the editing.
The three minute film ‘I Forgot, Idiot...II’ was a turning point for Kondratyev. For the first
time there was a concept in Leningrad parallel cinema. The film begins with a series of
titles, declaring that a ‘boy from a pioneer camp, who had agreed to act in a film, left with
some grand dads in a bus, never to be seen again. After the titles there are a few
landscapes, and a man is seen walking towards the camera who suddenly disappears, and
at the end of the film - blackness seen through a window. After the titles, the viewer is left
with a feeling of expectancy, and he pays great attention to the few banally-shot scenes, at
an incomprehensible man. The viewer knows that nothing is going to happening, but he
can’t take his eyes off the screen. The culmination of the film is reached at that point when
the titles merge with the landscape. It is as if Kondratev off-handedly demonstrated here
the initial strength of naive Lumerovsky cinematography in which there is an unexplained
desire to see life reflected in cinema, then a desire to leave, like that brave pioneer boy in
the illusive world of the silver screen.
Now Kondratyev has left necrorealism firmly behind and is working on the theory of
vertical and incorrect cinema.
An excerpt from a letter by Kondratyev reads: Authors, it seems to me, fight trying to find
a space for themselves within the limitations that they have created for themselves. But
illusion is endless. The dream of all surrealists was to create an illusion, but they used
traditional language; editing and composition. Kondratyev strives towards an effect, when
the shot ends, the next one begins, and...!!! The viewer cannot understand - did he really
see that or was it his imagination’. Kondratyev tries to return to the original sources of
cinema, and is not afraid of being primitive. He suggests paying attention to such
phenomena as the vertical direction of film as it moves through a camera, and to the fact
that most movement is horizontal, in other words, to take a look into the sub consciousness
of the cinematographic process, at that which most directors don’t even think about, and
take for granted. Kondratyev first of all gives his students-teenagers transparent and black
exposed film and gets them to make films using without using a camera, with the help of
sharp objects and dies, making an accent on the fact that for a film show, the projector is
more important than a camera. Only after they have mastered these aces, do the kids
begin to work with film making equipment.
Kondratyev began using the ideas of verticalness and incorrectness in the film
‘Development of the Cinema. Part 1’. Horizontal primitive.’ The point of the film is that he, in
the process of teaching the viewer the basics of the cinema, is at the same time a study
process for its author.
The films ‘Fire in Nature’ and ‘Grezi’ cannot be written about using the traditional
language of film critics.
The best people to talk about the Leningrad group ‘Che-Paev’ are its creators. To quote
from a booklet that they produced: ‘The Leningrad cinematic group Che-paev was
organized in the Spring of 1988 as a creative laboratory of the world wide Chapaev society’.
The group set itself the task of theoretical research in the area of contemporary
cinematography, and also practical propaganda of total Chapaevian ideas. The main
direction of the group can be seen in its name, which unites the names of two key figures of
the heroic pantheon - Ernesto Che Gevaro and V. I Chapaev. The artistic manner of the
group was formed directly under the influence of the Leningrad ‘New Cinema’, particularly
by such representatives as Evgeny Kondratyev, Evgeny Ufit and Andrey Mertviy. The
concept of single heroic time, developed by art theoretician Olga Lepestkova had a
particular influence on the group.
The group produced the films: ‘Alchoholism - to Battle!’, ‘Present to a Lonely Moscovite’,
‘Battle for the Navy’, ‘Details of Icing-Over’, ‘Symmetrical Cinema’, ‘Movement’, ‘Chapaev’.
As Alexei Feoktistov wrote in his article: ‘the film group Che-Paev presents the concept
of true Marxist-Leninist cinema, in as much as the universal improvement of authentic realty
automatically assumes the total improvement of the individual. Practically speaking, they
suggest an improvement of social consciousness through cinema’.
Apart from O. Lepestkova and A. Feoktistov, Maxmud Pizhamskii also joined the group,
the poet Kirill Sluchainiy and the composer Zakhar Nikolaev cooperate closely with it.
In 1988, Alexander Sokurev created the ‘Leningrad Film School’, which four parallel
cinema authors joined: Yevgeny Ufit, Igor Bezrukov, Denis Kuzmin and Konstantin Mitenev.
Sokurev stresses that he is not their teacher, he is only helping them on an organizational
Parallel cinema is not yet developing so fast in Moscow as in Leningrad. Moscovites’
creativity is completely different from that of the Leningrad contemporaries. This is
connected with different cultural traditions. Putting it very roughly, the main difference is that
Moscovites try to govern cinematic language, using distance. Leningradians are getting
more and more deeply involved in the new cinematic world that they have created.
Boris Ukhananov. Thirty one. Video director. The first thing that needs to be
emphasized, is that he is not involved in the cinema. Ukhananov is the first to point this out.
Cinema and video are different art forms. Ukhananov calls his whole video production as a
video novel in a thousand cassettes. That is, it is an uninterrupted work (the end of which is
foreseen in the distant future), and divided up like a novel is, into chapters. Ukhananov
works on each chapter in different capacities, from the point of view of the director in one,
from the actor’s point of view in another, from a stylistic point of view and so on...
Ukhananov has also introduced the concept of the ‘matrix’. The whole video novel - is a
‘megamatrix’. The ‘matrix’ is material from one of the chapters, a complete literate
expression. But Ukhananov plans to work with the ‘matrix’ further, and create ‘variations’.
The journey from the ‘matrix’ to the ‘variants’ is carried out by ‘postructuralist editing’.
Speaking at the Leningrad conference ‘Youth Culture’ in 1988, Ukhananov said:
...Firstly I should say a few words about video authoring. The video author combines or
strives to combine the work of the cameraman and director as the key person who drives,
determines the composition and development of video creation. It is even possible to say
that the creation of a video is conducive with the striving of the camera to merge with the
video author.
I identify three levels of this merging. We will call this object... a video centaur, and
describe three different ways in which it appears: video-eye, video-body and video-hand...
Generally speaking these are completely different principles of inter-relationships with the
world and the camera.
Ukhananov is one of the CINEFANTOM journal’s editors; he manages the ‘converstaions
on video’ section.
Ukhananov doesn’t stop with what he has already done. Recently he began to work with
a new concept - ‘fatal edit’. This is editing inside the video camera. The technology can be
described as follows: the ‘matrix’ is filmed, then the cassette is not taken out of the camera,
but new material is filmed in ‘dabs’ on top of the already existing, shot video. As a result, a
ready video film is taken out of the video camera.
Ukhananov also teaches. The ‘Free University’ was formed in Leningrad in 1988 - this
was the first independent university in the USSR which provided a humanitarian education.
The university has theatrical studios, a film and video production department, a literature
department, a history of art department, a painting department and a music department.
Ukhananov heads the department of individual film and video direction, where he teaches
together with other patricians and theoreticians of parallel cinema.
The Aleinikov brothers. Igor is twenty seven. I am twenty three. We have been filming
together for two years, and have made dozens of 16mm films and two on 35mm. Igor
Aleinikov has been involved with cinema since he was nineteen, and without my
involvement, created over ten films on 16mm and 35mm. Writing manifestos is not our
thing. Working at the end of the postmodern epoch (we still relate to being postmodernists),
without tiring ourselves out on concrete movements, styles, genres of film. There is an
element of social comment in our films, such as in ‘Cruel Illness of Men’, ‘Metastasi’ and
‘Attraction’. And there are films in which the ideas of Moscow conceptualism are to be
found, such as ‘Tractors’, ‘The End of the Film’. We liken irony to alienation. The film ‘I am
Cold. So What?’ is a kind of creative self-reflex. We have shot a few cartoon films. You can
say that we are experimenters. But the experiment is not so much to do with creating a new
language but in coming to terms with and using the existing cinema structure, a broadening
of the language of cinema at the cost of other types of Art.
We want the viewer to understand our films, and for that we try and look into the
consciousness of the viewer. In this, we consider that apart from a minimal knowledge of
cinema culture, it is important for us to understand such sciences as semiotics, psychology,
the physiology of perception, the theory of information and others. Igor Aleinikov is also
involved in social cinema activities, which is a quite separate form of creativity. He is the
founder and the editor-in-chief of the journal CINEFANTOM, the organizer of the festival of
parallel cinema (the first festival was held in 1987).
And so, parallel cinema - is not made up of isolated films ‘made by mischievous young
people’, as Soviet press refers to us, but a new movement in cinema culture, which is
already bringing fruit. Dreams are coming true.

Published in the magazine ‘ISSKUSTVO KINO’ (THE ART OF CINEMA), No. 6, 1989.