held on May 3 - 9, 1997 in Jurmala, Latvia
European Documentary Film Symposiums Riga, 1999
Hans-Joachim Schlegel

The Past and the Present of Documentary Cinema
in Central and Eastern Europe

I am being doubly bold now. Firstly, I shall speak Russian, secondly, being a westerner, I shall try to tell you about the past and the present of your documentary cinema. I hope that these brief notes may be useful for our discussion as a viewpoint of someone who does not belong. At any rate, I am happy to be with you here, in Yurmala, the place of historic importance for documentary cinema. Not only because this year is the 20-th anniversary of the symposium. I mean the historic significance of these symposia for the countries of the Eastern block. For it was possible here to ponder on documentary cinema freely, critically and creatively, it was possible here to show the films which in westerners’ view simply could not have existed. I think it is important to recall today the merits of the brave Latvian directors, film critics who had initiated all this, but it is also important to remember that here, in the so-called socialist countries, there was a different kind of cinema, not only the official one. Lack of knowledge of real historic processes results in the opinion that the history of documentary film in Eastern and Central Europe is the history of this official cinema, a commissioned illustration of the party life. Surely, this kind of cinema did exist, particularly in the 50-ies, but since the times of "the thaw" there were other opportunities as well. I was happy to be able to watch here a retrospective of two films: Lisakovitch’s"Katyusha" which rehabilitated the human face, the individual, and Artavazd Peleshyan’s film which was a certain rehabilitation of the advance-guard of the 20-ies. It was rehabilitation of both contents and form. I think that the discovery and rehabilitation of the advance-guard had tremendous significance for the Soviet Union and socialist countries. This is particularly obvious in Peleshyan’s films or, say, in the films of Uldis Braun who came back to Riga from the Institute of Cinematography inspired by Vertov. In general, the significance of the Institute of Cinematogrphy is worth noting, for after the elimination of "the thaw", in the awful Brezhnev’s era the impetus of "the thaw" was still felt there. Michail Romm’s personality was of importance, for in spite of all the new generation of students grasped and made use of the impetus of the "the thaw".
Having been in charge of the selection of short films and also short documentaries for the Oberhausen festival, I remember how difficult it was to find in Brezhnev’s times some interesting documentaries in Moscow, at the Central studio of documentaries. But such films did exist on the outskirts of the Soviet empire. They were made in Riga, Armenia, Georgia, even in Kirghizstan. One should not forget that Izya Gerstein was working there, he made bold films about the preservation of national identity. I strongly recommend to recall the movie "Sold to Be Scrapped" which we did manage to bring to Oberhausen where it was awarded.
I heard a lot about Latvian movies then. But they were difficult to obtain and almost impossible to bring to Oberhausen. Still, the main thing is that these movies did exist, as well as this symposium. Without this we cannot today describe the history of documentary film in Eastern and Central Europe at all.
Surely, movies of this kind existed in other socialist countries as well, in particular in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. It is noteworthy that already in 1968 the Czech historian of documentary cinema Anton Navratil published a book on the history of the documentary in these countries titled "Ways of Truth, Ways of Lie". This means that then already he could describe these two trends, the two then existing options. The documentalists exploring the ways of truth were, incidentally, highly creative directors, for little could be stated openly, very often one had to strike on new montage forms, new imagery, so as to express figuratively something impossible to state verbally. This is why the scope of documentary cinema in these countries was, I believe, much more interesting and bold than of that in the West. And we should not forget it today.
In his movie "The Parade" as early as in 1958 the Serbian director Dushan Makoveev, better known as the director of fiction films, demonstrated the enormous opportunities of ironic montage used by him to show the spirit of official ceremonies. So when discussing in Stutgart, in the Centre of Documentary Cinema, the topic "Irony and satire in documentary cinema" we noted that more samples of this could be found in Eastern and Central Europe that western documentary cinema wasn’t so bold.
The example of V. Vyshnevski is also of great interest. Without montage, just using the stylization of colours, symbols and non-traditional camera movement he showed the falsity of the official spirit and thus revealed the truth of life. Similar examples can be found in Bulgaria where movies like "House # 8" by N. Volev, "Counted days" and some others were made. In a word, this is a very wide spectrum. And I think that it would be interesting at this moment to re-estimate and write anew the history of this documentary cinema.
We tried to do something of the kind in Stutgart two years ago. We organised the symposium "The subversive camera. Alternative documentary cinema of Eastern and Central Europe". It is very important that this was a joint effort with the colleagues from the so-called former socialistic countries, including Latvia, for this goal could be achieved through dialogue only. I can promise that the proceedings of this symposium will be published.
It would also be very interesting to take into account the role of the images of poetic realism and the images of the national and ethnographic tradition in this process. Being non-political, they still give the opportunity to preserve the individuality of small peoples.
I think that if we consider the history of documentary cinema in Eastern and Central Europe from this point of view, we shall realise that these movies influenced people’s minds and stimulated the processes that changed reality. In principle these documentary films prepared such historical events as The Prague Spring, the "Solidarity" movement in Poland, they were of great importance during the Perestroika. I think that they were not only the mirror of the perestroika, but its driving force as well.
I remember that American movie directors (Leacock including) who came to the Petersburg festival were delighted by the fact that documentaries became the factor of real life, that they changed this life.
What happened next? The change of the system turned out to be so fundamental that at first documentalists faced a crisis for economic and psychological reasons, which is almost natural. At any rate, the courage present in the history of socialist documentary cinema almost disappeared. In my view, even a certain aesthetic conservatism appeared: old structures were reiterated in new colours, in a new guise. Very often old official patterns are employed in a new ideological context. If I watch a Russian documentary film wishing to learn something about the country, a strange situation emerges. Surely, there are films like Kossakovsky’s "Habitat", "The Belovs". But generally speaking, when I think about documentary films at the Yekaterinburg festival, Russia looks like an agrarian country of the 19-th century, the main character being an eccentric, most often of peasant origin. I might have missed something, but I have not seen in documentaries a miner on strike, for example, while this is a very interesting character. I have not seen the portrait of a "new Russian", problems connected with the mafia, the trauma of the Chechen war. Indeed, "Not the Last War" had little to say about its human and social tragedy. Let us consider, why?
More courage in the analysis of new contradictions can be observed mainly in those countries where this had been done before: in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia. Of great importance are the sociological documents produced by Elena Trestikova and particularly by Karel Vahel, probably the main documentalist of the Prague spring. He is now making a new movie titled "The New Hyperion" about new ideology in his country, ironical and intellectual. I think such a movie is a very timely one. The Belgrade radio B-92 is worth noting, documentary cinema plays an important role there in revealing the criminality of the Serbian government, and these movies have a real impact on social processes.
These examples are surely an exception from the rule and an echo of the times past, in particular for the reason that the development of new technical means changes the cinema, documentary cinema in particular. It is highly revealing that the Oberhausen festival where cinema-engage has always played such an important role witnessed this year the impact of new computer opportunities which indeed bring fundamental changes into aesthetic and figurative-visual communications. And this presents another big problem to be discussed: what next?
I am very glad that last year and this year despite all the Russian director Aleksandre Sokurov was of greatest success. He is constantly in search of the new in documentary cinema, attempting by means of his meditative camera to disclose the inner reality of outer phenomena, people and objects. This is an alternative to western cinema, a new step forward in documentary cinema. It is of great interest that Sokurov, with his interest for spirituality, employs in his latest works the newest Japanese video technology. Thus here, too, a new prospect opens up: the union of western technology with East-European imagination and the bent for spirituality. The more so since Sokurov’s way also shows the link with tradition, with Tarkovsky, for whom the time imprinted had always been closely connected with radical documentalism. On the other hand, there is some exchange with the quest of the young, in particular in Lithuania, where Stonis is also looking for new approaches and methods of opening up the window to the inner world. It is of great importance that even in the West this cinema arouses great interest. This, I believe raises small, or, maybe, big hopes for a future dialogue.
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