The millennium, the 1994 official centenary of cinema and the fall of the Berlin Wall... The last decade or so has provided an abundance of good reasons (or excuses, as the case may be) for taking stock of the history and histories of cinema. An unprecedented profusion of books, both scholarly and popular, on a variety of subjects has seen the light of day. Lists, canons and counter-canons have vied for our attention.
The British Film Institute (BFI) has long been a central institution, both nationally and internationally, in the preservation and popularisation of the legacy of film history, as well as in the publication of works of film history and theory. In recent years, the BFI has provided us with top-100 lists of British films and TV programmes, as well as the ambitious "Classics" project, initiated in the early 1990s with the goal of building a collection of perfect showprints of 360 key films in the history of cinema and publishing a small volume on each film.
Alongside these projects, the BFI has also published several anthologies and guides to "World Cinema," on topics such as independent cinema, film industries outside of Hollywood and Western Europe, genre films, etc. Among recent works is The BFI Companion to Eastern European and Russian Cinema, containing some 200 entries on everything from national film industries, genres and film schools to individual directors, actors and screenwriters, as well as special topics such as "Yugoslavia's break-up in film."
A wealth of perspectives
With the Companion's four editors—including the British doyen of Russian and Soviet film studies, Richard Taylor—and its twelve contributors, who have British as well as Eastern European backgrounds, we are guaranteed a breadth of knowledge and a variety of perspectives. The heterogeneity of the book is further accentuated by the nature of the cinemas involved. As the introduction to Eastern Europe (the book has double introductions: one for Eastern Europe and one for Russia) admits, these cinemas are far from monolithic.
Indeed, more than anything it is the political constraints of the Cold War period that make us think of an "Eastern Europe," and consequently an "Eastern European cinema," the way we do. To a certain degree, then, the category at the heart of this book is of limited historical validity. And this, I believe, contributes to the main problem. In spite of the fact that this volume sets out to cover not only Russian and Soviet cinema but an entire century of cinematic history, many of the contributors have clearly been most interested in dealing with the second half of the century, the Cold War and its aftermath.
Fitting historical material of this scope into less than 300 pages is not an easy task, and it would be petty to argue over individual names and entries one would have liked to see included. In this case, however, the omissions, taken together, create a somewhat naive liberal picture of the "Free Art" of an idealised, natural, bourgeois "civil society" as opposed to the oppressive nature of state interventionism. Whereas production constraints in Stalinist societies and their affects on films and filmmakers are rightly highlighted, those of pre-war societies are hardly mentioned.
Significantly, the entry on censorship moves directly to the Cold War era, completely skipping over the frequent examples of state and corporate censorship of pre-war days. There are exceptions to this—notably Taylor's entry on the former Soviet Union—but on the whole it remains an annoying problem, probably due more to somewhat lax editing than to any shortcomings of the individual contributions.
Cinema's other voices
More successful is the book's stated attempt at redressing an imbalance in the established film history by focussing on small countries, popular traditions and "other voices": women, gays and lesbians and post-colonial communities. This can be seen as a contrast to the Classics project, which has been criticised for its "relentless good taste," in the words of Colin McCabe. This goal is not always fulfilled; some of the contributors still favour "High Art" or politically controversial films at the expense of popular cinema, and the references to gay and lesbian cinema are, understandably, few and far between.
Yet, with the attention given some of the lesser-known or smaller film industries—notably in the excellent entries on the Albanian, Bulgarian and Romanian cinemas, on popular genres such as the Yugoslav "Partisan Films" and the Yiddish cinema of Poland, as well as on women filmmakers—this book offers an invaluable complement and corrective to most mainstream film histories. Where else would one find an easily accessible account in English of Albanian film history or learn about Romanian Westerns?
Post-Communist film production
It is in dealing with the past decade, the "normalisation" period and the reintroduction of liberal capitalism to Eastern European film industries, that this volume works best. The double introductions give us brief but valuable accounts of the differing strategies adopted to reconstruct film production in the face of competition from Hollywood and the culture industries of the "free market."
Nancy Wood and Dina Iordanova describe how the crisis of the early 1990s, following the privatisation and break-up of earlier structures of production, distribution and exhibition, initially led to a sharp drop in production and a dependence on "cross-border 'runaway' productions," which took advantage of cheap facilities but offered little room for "serious artistic input."
The new private distributors generally chose the safety of the Hollywood product, and rising ticket prices together with the booming video market led to a decline in the total number of admissions. However, through a successful strategy of co-production and co-operation, the industries of what we might now think of as Central Eastern Europe have, according to Wood and Iordanova, by and large succeeded in becoming an integral part of the European film industry, benefiting from the development of an industry that is less and less nationally based, as well as from the subsidies of the pan-European funding bodies set up to counteract American dominance.
If there is a contemporary crisis, conclude Wood and Iordanova, it is one that affects Western and Eastern European cinema alike, "a crisis of identity in an era that marks the end of national cinemas."
Film's survival in the former USSR
Julian Graffy gives us a somewhat different picture of the fate of the film industries of the former Soviet Union. The intense Western interest in Soviet cinema during the glasnost period of the 1980s proved to be short-lived, and the strategy of co-productions proved a commercial as well as an artistic dead end, resulting in hybrid films that failed to satisfy East and West alike.
Instead, an interior reconstruction occurred, made possible by the size of the domestic market and co-operation between the countries of the former Soviet Union. The Russian state once again set up a scheme for state support of production in 1996 (though it was gradually eroded by inflation), and the Union of Filmmakers, led by Nikita Mikhalkov since 1997, has adopted an ambitious programme aimed at modernizing the nation's cinemas.
Two other factors mentioned by Graffy are perhaps of even greater importance: firstly, the ability to create a modern popular cinema and to produce proper "stars" capable of attracting audiences and, secondly, the increased efforts to co-ordinate the cinema, video and television markets, much in the same way Western production companies had to learn to do during the cinema crisis of the 1980s.
Yet the recurring economic crises of Russia have meant that production figures remain low, and Richard Taylor presents a gloomier picture in his entry on the former Soviet Union. "'Soviet Hollywood'" has, according to Taylor, "failed to keep pace with its American mentor, quite simply because the real Hollywood does Hollywood films better." He concludes that Russian cinema is in danger of disappearing "in the looming chaos of transition to shadowy notions of capitalism and democracy."
Here, as throughout this volume, the varying and even contradictory views are both its strength and its weakness, mirroring the uncertainties of the situation and the heterogeneity of its subject but also surely resulting in a certain frustration for the reader looking for the kind of quick overall orientation a "companion" is supposed to offer.
Nonetheless, we are left with the impression that the industries of both Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union have not only managed to survive in that state of near permanent crisis that has for decades been the "natural" state of existence for their Western European counterparts but surprisingly have often even thrived. This is due not least to their continual capacity to produce films that deal seriously with the tragedies and struggles of contemporary history—such as the wars in the Balkans and the Caucasus and the social turmoil of post-Stalinist society.
Daniel Lindvall, 20 November 2000
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