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The 5th Congress of Soviet Filmmakers (1986)
You Get What You Ask For
By Andrei Plakhov

20 years ago on May 13, 1986, the 5th annual Congress of Soviet Filmmakers took place. It became the first obvious sign of change in society and culture and had lasting consequences not only for the film industry. I was reminded of this date by a phone call from a German newspaper that had decided to talk to the participants in this event. In Russia many prefer not to remember that day.

The zeal of cinematographic perestroika was pure romanticism. Its organizers strove to unite the ununitable: they announced marketing reforms in the film industry, and at the same time tried to revive the revolutionary avant-guarde dream of an ideal art and ideal spectators. Taking the role of an "avenger of the people" against the lordship of the party and censorship, they expected that the people would make their free choice, reject bad films that make their idols Tarkovski and Fellini, along with the originators of dozens of domestic films languishing on the "shelf." There was a time when there was a rush for these films. In the provinces people were attracted by posters with the slogan "Film is not for everyone," and people flocked to the screenings desiring to be part of the elite. It was then a shock when that same public demanded crude spectacles, and filmmakers began to fulfill this wish. But seeing that they filmed quickly and unskillfully, the spectators soon turned away from Russian film completely preferring Hollywood, even if it was second-rate.

Nonetheless, the revolution at the convention was not in vain. It freed filmmakers from dogmas and prohibitions. And it provided at least ten years of practically unlimited freedom. How it was used by those directors who were used to working under constant opposition attempting to deceive censorship is another story. Nearly all of the older generation of directors fell into a deep crisis and the middle generation along with them. Exceptions only prove the rule. The leader of perestroika, Elem Klinov, was put up to completely undermine Soviet film and to bring a final sacrifice to its gods. It seemed that Klimov had everything necessary to impress all of humanity with grandiose accomplishments. Talent and  experience. He took an uncompromising stand. Plus the administrative resources and attention of the whole world which was hypnotized by perestroika. Hollywood was more than ready at that point to finance his Master and Margarita and other of his super-projects. But Klimov did not take up the offer. Soon he moved into the shadows away from the public arena and entered into a lonely almost hermit-like existence. He is the only filmmaker not to have had any dividends from perestroika, not a studio, not any houses, not a position, no possessions. And he is the only one to have truly suffered as an artist although not at all toppled  from the pedestal of Soviet idols. The others continued to work even though they were long past their creative peak and considered themselves victims of the Jacobite Terror. Klimov's sacrifice at the start, at the climax of his creativity was absolutely voluntary, his choice — free. Being at the very top of the perestroika pyramid, he was the first to detect the rot at its base. He did not want to be a participant in its headlong slump into consumerism.

Neither Klimov nor any other activist of the 5th Convention was an angel and all made many mistakes, however, they do not deserve the rebuke that they led filmmaking to its end. The old Soviet distribution was technologically outdated having no cinema multiplexes. They were doomed, but new facilities as well as new works of art could not be formed immediately, not to mention the new changes in the market. Many important pictures were filmed in the 90's, but, on the whole, Russian cinema did not give way to the powerful new wave that the world was waiting for. It was not able to take a full-fledged seat in the international, globalizing culture. The hope for co-production (in the early 90's every third Russian film was funded in part by the French and a few by the Germans) disappeared after most of the films were not very successful. Since then, most new projects count on government support, or more recently on the sponsorship of TV stations which are also in essence the government. The freedom of speech that was nearly infinite in the early 90's is being limited little by little by politics on one hand and the market on the other.

The censorship of the market determines the situation with distribution. With the exception of TV-advertised blockbusters, Russian films have a hard time making it into the theaters. There the repertoire is dominated by Hollywood or domestic mainstream, the niche of the art-house films is seriously diminishing. And our mainstream is quite peculiar; it functions differently from America. Russian movie stars who shone in Soviet times have almost all burned out; only those who found refuge in television are still burning — that would be the newsmakers of show business and series. But still they burn only in the light of advertisement, and in a small art-house film and their names themselves will do nothing for the scanty numbers at the shows. Sitcoms are left as the most profitable and quickly compensated genre in the Russian film industry. Despite the obvious superiority of American and European sitcoms over Russian, the viewers turned over to the latter very quickly. A compensatory mechanism is at work: the young audience goes to the theater to see new Hollywood films and Russian Hollywood rip-offs. It is obvious that two main powerful currents of mass-culture have formed: the international-global and local-patriotic. 

The 5th Congress gathered those who made art films, which by their very nature are not suited to the market. By declaring the need for liberal reforms, most signed their own death sentence. There is a comforting thought that a new generation of directors lives, if not under communism then under "honest capitalism." However, from Fyodor Bondarchuk Junior (the director of the blockbuster Company 9 and an activist in the Kremlin party "Edinaya Rossia") to Hollywood is even farther that from Sergei Bondarchuk Senior (the head of the Soviet Kino-establishment) to Hollywood. As for Europe, it is ahead. At the Cannes Festival there were more Norwegian films than Russian, and the Paris repertoire is still uncomparably richer and much more diverse than in that in Moscow.

Andrei Plakhov
© FIPRESCI 2006

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