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‘There are no different truths’: the last years of Soviet cinema

A new season at the Barbican tells the story of the USSRs final generation through the lens of its pioneering film-makers

Young people are our big hope, but they spell trouble for us too. In 1965, an administrator at the Leningrad film studio, Lenfilm, summed up an enduring dilemma for Soviet official culture. How could the Young Communist League (on paper a public organisation, in practice entirely subordinate to the party leadership) mobilise the younger generation without promoting political enthusiasms of the wrong kind? Soviet cinema a young art form with particular appeal to the countrys youth was, throughout its existence, a showcase for conflicted views of young people. Its own fate, too, altered as attitudes to them changed.

In the first years after the October revolution, youth activism was strongly encouraged in life and on film. Sergei Eisenstein was just 27 when Battleship Potemkin, with its martyred young leader of a naval mutiny, made him world famous. But views of political participation by children and young people changed abruptly under Stalin. Eisensteins Bezhin Meadow, in which a tow-haired boy leads the assault on traditional village life, ran into trouble in August 1936. This came a month after a crackdown on child psychology, which was considered perverted, and at the point when patriotic values were returning to the school syllabus.

Soviet film studios altered, too, turning into showcases for mature artists: the masters. In the late 1940s, film production stalled a mere eight titles for the whole USSR were produced in 1951. Almost none of the state film school, VGIKs graduates went on to make features. They toiled away directing documentaries, public interest movies and films for schools. Most were not even allowed to shoot footage while in college. Instead, graduating students sketched proposed shots and wrote pitches for films they would never be able to make.

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A poster for Eisensteins 1925 silent masterpiece, The Battleship Potemkin. Photograph: Ronald Grant

This changed dramatically under Nikita Khrushchev. The leaders main goal was to remobilise communist values. But the political and social reforms of the day transformed the lives of young people and gave prominence to subcultures as well as sanctioning forms of collective activity. Expansion of the film industry brought hundreds of new film artists screenwriters, camera and sound operators, designers as well as directors into Soviet studios.

Many cinema novices were young in an approximate sense around 40. That still made them at least 20 years younger than the surviving masters from the Stalin era. Yet, cinematic youth was in no sense overawed by the generational gulf. Some had served at the front in the second world war. A good many had lost parents to political terror. Accelerated maturity and new expectations were the texture of the times. Movies about young people became central to the thaw and shifted the cinematic language new body types and gestures, new kinds of emotional rhetoric, and dynamic, mobile styles of camerawork went with the youth focus.

The Brezhnev era was, in Mikhail Gorbachevs words, the period of stagnation. However, the new emphasis on stability gave a paradoxical prominence to youth unrest as a symptom and cause of social anomie. Social deviance was far more prominent in 1970s and early 80s cinema than during the 50s and 60s. In this sense, glasnost under Gorbachev accelerated, rather than initiated, a stark view of Soviet reality.

A tale of youth before the onset of the second world war: Goodbye, Boys.

Until recently, the films of the USSRs last decades were mainly a specialist interest. But that is starting to change. Earlier this year, Londons Regent Street Cinema presented the season Youth on the March! in association with the Russian film foundation Kino Klassika. This gave an exhilarating introduction to nine major films by young Soviet directors from the past 50 years, including Otar Ioselianis Falling Leaves, Kira Muratovas Brief Encounters and Juris Podnieks Is it Easy to be Young?. This week, the Barbicans Generations: Russian Cinema of Change in collaboration with New East Cinema show six more youth films.

Half the movies in the Barbican season date from the post-Stalin era, underlining its transformational importance. There is Mikhail Kaliks luminous testament to teenage friendship, Goodbye, Boys. And there is Dinara Asanovas harsh yet lyrical 1983 portrait of a work camp for young offenders, Tough Kids.

Asanovas movie is particularly interesting. She was, like the young people she portrayed, a marginal figure, first as a woman director (one of only three in the new generation, alongside Muratova and Larisa Shepitko, to achieve renown). Her Kyrghyz origins only two directors permanently based in Leningrad came from central Asia also contributed to her outsider status. She had close ties with the cultural underground and shared its intense concern with the abject and the overlooked.

Asanova disliked the category of childrens film. I want to show that there are no different truths for different age groups, she wrote in her notebooks. This determination to avoid patronising young people on screen went with working methods that were, in Soviet terms, unique.

All Asanovas movies, beginning with her first full-length feature, Woodpeckers Dont Get Headaches, were filmed using improvisation a considerable feat in a culture where scripts went through at least seven clearance readings and divergence from agreed texts could provoke uproar. Asanova treated each shoot as a way of establishing human and intellectual contact with everyone on set. She was deeply interested in western youth films and asked the state film board, Goskino, for permission (which was refused) to show the crew If and A Clockwork Orange during the pre-production stage of Woodpeckers.

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A different kind of childrens film: a still from Tough Kids, directed by Dinara Asanova. Photograph: Barbican

At the start of her career, Asanova faced accusations of unprofessionalism and chaotic working methods. When complete after extensive edits Woodpeckers was placed in the third quality category, a soft ban that confined screenings to film clubs and venues in distant provinces. But by the early 1980s, five films on, Asanova had convinced her colleagues of her work methods as well as her talent, which helps explain why Lenfilm took the risk of making Tough Kids to begin with. We know this film is going to be tricky at the start, and later on, too, said Asanovas editor, Frizhetta Gukasyan. With eyes open to the inevitable, the studios artistic management backed the director all the way.

When Tough Kids was shown to Asanovas close colleagues, there was silence. People were so moved they couldnt put their reactions into words. A screening at Lenfilms chief vetting body, the Artistic Council, though, brought indignant objections on the grounds that the film was too soft on young criminals. Two recent high-profile street attacks by Moscow and Leningrad teenagers, leaving victims for dead, had made the guardians of morality nervous. Goskino insisted on edits which took 100 extra days of filming. Eventually, Tough Kids cleared the state and party approval process. In 1985 a sign of changing times it was awarded a state prize.

By then, Asanova was dead, at the age of 42. The human cost was high, not just for her. Cinema is the blood that I suck from other peoples lives, she wrote in her notebooks. Some of the young people she worked with, including her son Anvar, ended up shipwrecked, caught in the gulf between Asanovas utopian view of the creative process and the rigidity of late Soviet social norms. But Tough Kids asks questions that were too often ignored in Russia and, indeed, in any society today.

Tough Kids has explicit and subversive echoes of the most famous Soviet film about young offenders, Nikolai Ekks 1931 classic Road Into Life, shown on TV while Asanovas movie was in production. Yet, with its documentary-style talking heads and delicate balance between nihilism and hope, it is more post-Soviet than Soviet.

The leading directors of the past 30 years, including Aleksei Balabanov, also showcased by Generations, and Andrey Zvyagintsev, have dwelt extensively on violence by and to young people. But of all film-makers, Asanova had the closest contact with young people themselves. Tough Kids was their film, as well as hers. No wonder that after it came out, Asanova got a telephone call from a young woman she had never met. Make a follow-up to Tough Kids. Please. But this time, call it Tough Girls.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/sep/25/no-different-truths-last-years-soviet-film

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