The Bloodland of Belarus

Belarus, a former Soviet republic of about 10 million, is said to have the highest per capita number of World War II films in the world. Many of them are considered to be some of the finest war movies in history, most notably the 1985 film Come and See, which tells the story of a young teenager who joins the Belarusian resistance and witnesses horrific atrocities.

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The Soviet theatrical poster for Come and See.

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The World’s First Film Screening

On this day in 1895, French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière used their patented cinematograph in Paris to hold the first film screening in history. It consisted of ten short films, each an average of fifty seconds.

The Lumières went on tour with the cinematographe the following year, visiting Brussels, Mumbai, London, Montreal, New York City, and Buenos Aires. Their films were also shown in Egypt.

Ironically, despite arguably being the world’s first filmmakers, the brothers stated that “the cinema is an invention without any future” and subsequently went on to focus on color photography (in which they also broke much ground).

Below is the world’s first movie poster, advertising one of the brothers’ comedies, L’Arroseur Arrosé, the first comedic film and the first film to portray a fictional story.

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The World’s Second Largest Film Industry: Nollywood

Nigeria hardly comes to most minds when one thinks of cinema. But as CNN highlights, Africa’s most populous country — and one of the world’s potential great powers — is already making its mark in the ever-more globalized film industry.

Nigeria’s film industry pumps out around 50 movies per week and is estimated to generate around $600 million annually for the country’s economy. With more than 1,200 films a year, it’s the world’s second biggest producer behind India. Nollywood is also Nigeria’s second biggest provider of work, employing directly or indirectly more than one million people, according to the United States International Trade Commission.

However, films are typically low-budget and revenues are small. One of the highest grossing Nollywood film so far is thought to be “Ije: The journey”, which generated $500,000 when it was released in 2010. It stars two of Nollywood’s biggest stars, Genevieve Nnaji and Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde as sisters fighting for justice.

Most Nigerian films are released directly to DVD or television; Netflix recently dedicated an entire section to Nollywood. These media platforms, plus the low cost of production, gives Nigerian cinema an image problem — though not if filmmakers could help it.

In recent years, a new wave of filmmakers who want to shake off Nollywood’s reputation for shoddy productions is emerging. Dubbed the New Nigeria cinema, these young professionals want to create a movie industry which can compete with Hollywood — not just in quantity but also quality.

Actor Wale Ojo, one of the biggest supporters of the movement, told CNN: “New Nigeria Cinema basically means an elevation of Nigerian film — high production values, good strong narratives, stories that capture the essence of who we are as Nigerians, as Africans.

“And it means also that these films can be shown at international film festivals anywhere in the world, from Toronto to Cannes to Venice.”

As Nigeria continues to grow in political, economic, and global influence, it is likely that its soft power, such as cinema, will become more prominent on the world stage.

Ten Post-Soviet Films to Watch

In a previous post, I touched on the Soviet Union’s and Russia’s rich history of producing ingenious science fiction films, in both the technical and conceptual sense. That legacy lives on to this day, and not just in Russia or within this one genre. Here are ten award-winning films from across the former Soviet Union, ranging from tiny Estonia to expansive Kazakhstan.

Leviathan (Andrei Zvyagintsev, Russia, 2014)

Winner of the best screenplay award in Cannes this year, this immaculately crafted drama works on multiple levels. Superficially, it centres on a stubborn man’s refusal to sell his family home, located on a prime real estate spot near the Barents Sea. But it’s also a coolly devastating indictment of corruption that permeates every level of Russian society, from local government to the Orthodox church. Lush cinematography, top-notch acting and a propulsive pace are added bonuses.

Maidan (Sergei Loznitsa, Ukraine, 2014)

Sergei Loznitsa, a director born in Belarus but raised in the Ukraine (who now mostly lives in Germany), raced back to Kiev last December to record the extraordinary events unfolding in Independence Square, ground zero for the so-called Euromaidan wave of civil unrest that became a revolution. The result is an extraordinary, courageous work of documentary-making, austere yet emotive, which records soup distribution and riots alike with the same steady, unblinking gaze.

Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus (Madeleine Sackler, Belarus, 2013)

A bit of a cheat this one, because the director is American, but then again, they don’t make a lot of films these days in Belarus – arguably the most oppressive regime of all the former Soviet republics. Documenting the valiant efforts of an underground Minsk-based theatre company to continue making dissident plays despite arrests and police brutality, the film was made from footage smuggled out of the country at great personal risk to all involved.

Harmony Lessons (Emir Baigazin, Kazakhstan, 2013)

Kazakhstan may be the butt of jokes in Borat, but the relatively wealthy republic has one of the strongest film industries among the ex-Soviet states, and this is one of its best films of recent years. Made with formalist precision in every way, this story about a lone wolf of a boy being bullied at school evolves into a devastating dissection of crime and punishment, alienation, power and our complex relationship with animals.

In Bloom (Nana Ekvtimishvili, Georgia, 2013)

Georgia has long been a breeding ground for cinematic talent, from auteurs such as Sergei Parajanov and Otar Isseliani but there’s a new generation coming through now who show immense talent, including Nana Ekvtimishvili. Her film In Bloom, co-directed by Simon Gross, revolves around the charged relationship between two 13-year-old girls who come from very different but equally unhappy homes. The intimate drama intersects satisfyingly with its early 1990s setting.

The Light Thief (Aktan Arym Kubat, Kyrgyzstan, 2010)

Aktan Arym Kubat writes, directs and stars in this poignant, frequently humorous story about an electrician who illegally siphons off power from a local wind farm to keep everything going in his rural small town. Meanwhile, the corrupt mayor is plotting to sell the town’s land off to the Chinese. The political message is palpable but not overstated, leaving room for charming slice-of-life interludes, such as a cracking scene depicting the local horseback sport of goat-grabbing.

The Hostage (Laila Pakalnina, Latvia, 2006)

Prolific Latvian director Laila Pakalnina is an original – a natural surrealist whose quirky, humorous, highly stylised docs, shorts and features couldn’t be mistaken for the work of anyone else. Hostage is one of her more accessible, but no less peculiar efforts. It is the tale of a plane hijacker who lands in Riga, takes a young boy hostage and demands $30m (£17.9m), a CD-Rom to help them learn about Latvia and local chocolate. In its own weird way, the film is a love letter to Pakalnina’s homeland.

Before Flying Back to Earth (Arūnas Matelis, Lithuania, 2005)

Inspired by the fortitude and kindness he saw when his own child fell ill with leukaemia, director Arūnas Matelis returned to the oncology ward at the top paediatric hospital in Vilnius to record the experiences of patients and staff who confront death there every day. On paper this might sound mawkish and offputting, but it’s a remarkably unsentimental film told with a vérité matter-of-factness and an endearing lightness of touch.

Revolution of Pigs (Jaak Kilmi, Estonia, 2004)

This ebullient, youthful comedy-drama tracks a bunch of Estonian teenagers in the 1980s who plot a mini revolution at their yearly socialist summer camp, described by Variety as Meatballs meets Lindsay Anderson’s If…., with a big dollop of Soviet kitsch. It’s cracking, bawdy fun that grows progressively darker as we get to know the various characters – standard-issue teen-movie types who just want to get laid and who fear getting shipped out to the war in Afghanistan when they grow up. Plus ça change.

Koktebel (Boris Khlebnikov and Alexei Popogrebsky, Russia, 2003)

This was the first feature for both its two co-directors. They’ve both gone on to have interesting careers that built on the promise of this luminous work, which was somewhat overshadowed the year it premiered by Andrei Zvyagintsev’s similarly themed The Return. A road movie about a homeless father and son travelling on foot from Moscow to the Crimea, it’s a beautiful study of parent-child dynamics that recalls Terrence Malick in its painterly elegance.

Source: The Guardian

Seven Soviet Sci-Fi Films To See

Russia and Soviet filmmakers have long been among the innovative and pioneering in the world, producing groundbreaking advances in cinematography, editing, film theory, and more. So perhaps it is no surprise that the combination of its cinematic prowess with its equally accomplished scientific vision would lead to some amazing films

From developing the genre of mockumentaries, to inspiring Star Wars, here are seven Soviet-era science fiction films you should consider watching (Courtesy of The Guardianwhere you can see the video clips and image stills).

Aelita (1924)
Dir: Yakov Protazanov

Based on Tolstoy’s novel of the same name, Aelita is considered a classic not only of Soviet filmmaking, but of world cinema. It tells the story of an engineer, Los, who creates a spacecraft capable of flying to Mars.

Los sets out for the Red Planet in the company of Gusev, a Red Army soldier, and a sleuth called Kravtsov. On Mars, the trio encounters an alien humanoid civilisation. While Gusev plots a revolution, a love affair blossoms between Los and Aelita, the daughter of the Martian leader.

The novel is regarded as an original work of fiction with strong topical resonances. Alluding to the real-life rocket engine developer Iuzef Dominikovich, the book also features an ideological dimension,referencing the trans-humanist teachings of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.

Cosmic Voyage (1935)
Dir: Vasily Zhuravlev

Initial attempts at a moon landing end in failure. A rabbit launched into space perishes en route. A second rocket, this time with a cat on board, vanishes without a trace. The third, manned by a small party of scientists, proves a success. Finally, the moon is colonised by the USSR. And on the way back, they even find the cat, long presumed dead, alive and well.

This naive Soviet pop sci-fi flick makes for impressive viewing even today, and for good reason. It is this very film that gave rise to the now standard practice of employing real-life scientists as on-set consultants (with Christopher Nolan’sInterstellar being a recent example ).

The scientific aspects of Cosmic Voyage were supervised by none other than Soviet rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who created 30 technical drawings of the spacecraft for the film.

Meteorites, The Universe, Road to the Stars, Planet of Tempests, The Moon, et al. (1947 – 1970)
Dir: Pavel Klushantsev

A fan of the Soviet documentary-meets-sci-fi genre, it was director Pavel Klushantsev who pioneered this hybrid, combining elements of pure documentary with live action fantasy .

His films juxtapose talking heads documentary and laboratory footage with carefully choreographed scenes set on alien-inhabited planets. Klushantsev’s Planet of Tempests made such an impression on US filmmakers that it ended up spawning two American adaptations. The first of these, Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, was produced in 1965 by Roger Corman; the second, actually an adapted version of Corman’s film, was directed by Peter Bogdanovich and released in 1968 under the title Voyage to the Planet of the Prehistoric Women.

According to a story that sometimes does the rounds in film circles, George Lucas, who regarded Klushantsev as the godfather of Star Wars, desperately wanted to meet the Soviet director, but ultimately the two sci-fi pioneers never crossed paths.

Solaris (1972)
Dir: Andrey Tarkovsky

Tarkovsky’s film tells the story of Kris Kelvin, a psychologist who has travelled to the space station Solaris to evaluate whether the scientific mission being conducted there should continue. The scientists on board the station have been driven to the verge of madness, and soon Kelvin finds himself haunted by a manifestation of his beloved, who had committed suicide back on earth.

Needless to say, no overview of the Soviet sci-fi tradition would be complete without mention of Tarkovsky and his films Solaris and Stalker, both classifiable, to some extent, as science fiction. Like the rest of Tarkovsky’s filmography, these two works have received extensive analysis .Coming on the heels of the shelvedAndrei Rublev, long withheld from release by the Soviet government, Solaris enjoyed such a degree of success that Tarkovsky was effectively given carte blanche for any future projects.

American director Steven Soderbergh remade Solaris in 2002, with George Clooney as Kelvin . However, Soderbergh’s Solaris lacks the artistic and conceptual power of the original.

Pilot Pirx’s Inquest (1978)
Dir: Marek Piestrak

This joint Soviet-Polish production revolves around a mission to Saturn. A big corporation succeeds in creating humanoid robots and, paying no heed to the skeptics, decides to put them into mass production. A crew of robots and humans – headed by a captain named Pirx – is sent out into space to launch two satellites into Saturn’s rings. True to the finest traditions of the genre, things don’t go quite to plan.

Even today, this film feels contemporary – and all because its Polish director,Marek Piestrak, strived to achieve maximum realism. Costumes and models were devised on the basis of existing American and Soviet prototypes. It’s electronic soundtrack, written by progressive Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, also feels very contemporary, and was an influence on The Prodigy’s Smack My Bitch Up.

Per Astra ad Aspera (1981)
Dir: Richard Viktorov/Nikolai Viktorov

The action of this film, whose Latin title translates as Through the Thorns to the Stars, is based on a screenplay by cult Soviet sci-fi writer Kir Bulychev and is set in deep space . A reconnaissance craft – named Pushkin in homage to Russia’s greatest poet – encounters a derelict starship. Inside is a humanoid woman with the inhuman abilities of teleportation and telekinesis.

Richard Viktorov directed the original 1981 version of this film. He died soon afterwards in 1983 and Viktorov’s son, Nikolai , released a new version in 2001, having remastered the sound and special effects and shortened the running time by cutting several set pieces laced with Soviet ideology.

Hard to be God (2013)
Dir: Aleksei German Sr

On a planet mired in its own Middle Age, chaos, darkness and degradation reign. The situation is carefully monitored from Earth, and when it finally appears that a renaissance is imminent, Don Rumata Estorski is sent to the planet to investigate. He must remain a detached observer of events, but witnessing rabble-rousing and lawlessness amongst the local inhabitants, he breaks his neutrality and interferes in the process of an alien civilisation.

Film of Interest: Taxi

I am very intrigued by the premise of the film, in which director Jafar Panahi poses as a taxi driver in Iran’s capital and largest city, Tehran, candidly recording the conversations his has with various passengers; the entire strata of Iranian society is represented, from the religious to secular, the modernizers and the traditionalists, and so on.

The is the third film to be done by Panahi since the Iranian government banned him from directing, screenwriting, giving interviews, and travelling abroad; his niece collected the Golden Bear Award it recently won at the Berlin International Film Festival. Unlike the previous two films, this one was fearlessly shot out in the open; Panahi has stated that he plans to continue his work despite the ban.

His first film since being placed under house arrest This Is Not a Film, was defiantly shot during his court appeal of the sentence, portraying his struggles and frustrations with expressing his creativity in an oppressive environment. It was smuggled to the 2011 Cannes Film Festival through a flash drive hidden in a cake.