Published in Slavic and East European Performance, 13:2 (1993), 51-54.

Copyright (c) Slavic and East European Performance, 1993.

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Cinema in Transition: Recent Films from East and Central Europe--Symposium

David A. Goldfarb

Pencil and paper are all a poet needs to transform an artistic vision into its practically finished form. Publication can be someone else's job. Almost by definition we presume that the lyric verse is the product of one voice acting alone.

Filmmaking is industry. Wheels turn, lights burn, knives cut and hundreds of hands contribute their labor with generally little knowledge of the eventual shape of the final project. Filmmakers like all industrialists in the former Communist world are experiencing a fundamental change in the way they do business. The interdependence between business and the creative process was the most salient topic of a recent symposium at the New School for Social Research in New York, as part of "Cinema in Transition: Recent Films from East and Central Europe."

The festival organized by Katherine Cornell and Elzbieta Matynia, ran from April 17 to April 28, screening over thirty feature films, documentaries, shorts and student productions, and producing an East European supplement to v. XIX, no. 4 of Cineaste. Most interesting was the opportunity for the directors of most of the films shown to answer questions after the screenings and to meet for an all-day Symposium with critics, actors and writers on Saturday, April 28. In spite of a desire bracket the "economic" questions to the earliest panel and move on to "artistic" concerns, the conference revealed that the two cannot be separated. The three panels were entitled were entitled "From Subsidy and Censorship to Free Speech and the Box Office," "The New Cinema: Themes, Heroes, Climate" and "The New Cinema and the Politics of Identity," but attempts to contain topics were happily unsuccessful, with all speakers overlapping and joining in on other panels.

Polish director Feliks Falk (Top Dog) set the tone when he observed that complaining is the current fashion among East European directors. While all sixteen of the directors who spoke said "yes, but not me," it was apparent that the nature of filmmaking in all its details--technique, themes, audience, and even the idea of a "national cinema"--were changing rapidly after a long period of relative stability, which was the positive effect of heavy state regulation and subsidy. Not only were these filmmakers transforming their industry to become "more like it is Western Europe," but in the process were realizing that they were stepping into a moving river which was never before like it is now--even for Westerners. Indeed, what artistic filmmaker in the world does not have something to complain about?

Antonin Liehm (The Most Important Art: East European Film after 1945, with Mira Liehm), Czech critic, compared the current situation to Germany in the 1920's. As former East Bloc currencies, wages, products, etc. have not caught up to the world market, it is possible to make large feature films for relatively little money, and still a substantial government subsidy. This situation invites speculation. A wildly successful film may cover only half its production costs, Liehm claimed, because East European markets are simply too small. Rumanian Mircea Danieluc, for instance, claimed that he made The Conjugal Bed for about $60,000, and that in his country the price of a ticket is about half the price of a beer. Everyone knows, however, that a massive adjustment in the economy must come over the next five years, and that 1993 film budgets will seem like peanuts in 1998. It is, therefore, likely that a film produced now can be re-released or exported later and return many times its investment, even if it is not particularly successful.

It has long been the case that many more American than European films are screened in East European cinemas, as in all European cinemas, but several directors noted that box office sales for American films have declined as videocassete recorders and (frequently bootlegged) tapes have become more widely available. Hungarian director, and now director of the Hungarian Film school, Gyula Gazdag (Hungarian Fairy Tale) noted that while the increased use of VCR's was cutting into the box office on all sides, they were necessary for the elimination of censorship. Theaters are large and easy to close down. VCR's and the distribution of tapes are impossible to regulate, as is well known in the U.S.

Rather than fighting the trend, filmmakers are considering ways of utilizing "competing" media for their own ends. Montenegran director Dusan Makavejev (WR: Mysteries of the Organism) commented that many directors are paying for their projects by producing films in 35mm for television in a four-times-fifty minute miniseries format, then recutting for the theater. This "compromise" with television, Makavejev astutely observed, is not a particularly East European phenomenon, but the effect of new ways of seeing film throughout the world. Everywhere, the single screen theater is being replaced by the multiplex, video, laser disc, cable television, pay-per-view, and in short order, the possibility of downloading all media products from computer networks. Even in Hollywood--especially in Hollywood--films are not produced without a thorough consideration of all marketing possibilities.

Falk stated that his goals would not really change with the political changes in Poland, but that he still felt the need to document social life and to produce politically engaged films. Filmmakers are not only now feeling the effects of market pressure on their creative endeavors, but in Poland, recent "Preservation of Christian Values" legislation is replacing older forms of censorship. Falk, Robert Glinski (All that Really Matters) who faxed his comments to the symposium, and Polish actor Daniel Olbrychski (Wajda, The Promised Land) all concurred that this new law and the growth of right-wing nationalism were the greatest political dangers to culture in the new republics.

The prolific young Polish filmmaker Magdalena Lazarkiewicz (The Last Bell) expressed a desire for a new realism in East European film. She noted that upon arrival to New York, the airport, the subway, the city all seemed somehow familiar, and that she seemed to have met these forms of everyday life already in American film. American cinema "is everywhere," she said, but "our cinema is in the head." Lazarkiewicz felt that East Europeans need to work at "translating reality" for others, as Americans have done, and pointed to a Steven Spielberg production employing a half Polish cast as one effort toward that goal.

Rumanian director Radu Nicoara (The South Pole) and the young Hungarian, Arpad Sopsits (Video Blues), on the other hand, envisioned a new moral indeterminacy in filmmaking. Nicoara, perhaps reacting to the requirement of the positive hero under Socialist Realism and the personality cult of Ceaucescu, wants to make films without clear heroes or enemies, depicting the "absence of personality." His current project, he told the audience, is a film about the last Volkswagen, in which his hero will be Europe. Sopsits saw much opportunity, with the opening of Soviet and East European archives, for the exploration of the tragic hero, but imagined the possibility of "unfinished" tragedies, leaving the freedom of the conclusion to the minds of the audience.

In former Yugoslavia, everything is much more indeterminate by nature. Propaganda films, apparently, are being made, but Rajko Grlic (Charuga) and American scholar Daniel Goulding (Post New Wave Cinema in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe) imagined that the infrastructure of the country and the physical means of producing films would be so severely damaged by the war that film could have little impact on cultural life in the region. Makavejev, however, noted that American film had already played a role in forming the self-conception of the combatants in the war. One need only look at CNN, Makavejev claimed, to see that the street fighters were not dressing like the familiar chetniks but like Rambo, karate fighters and Vietnam-era soldiers. Grlic divided his life into his day job and his night job. By day he teaches at New York University and is working on a big-budget production for the BBC about the first giraffe in Europe. By night he is on the phone to friends and family at home, and is working on an underground film in 8mm video about a Croatian child from a Serbian village and a Serbian child from a Croatian village who are caught in the war.

Grlic's comments and an encouraging note from screenwriter and scholar Andrew Horton of Loyola University, suggested that in spite of the difficulties of developing a new industry, if not because of those difficulties, important films must be made. Horton idealistically pointed to the example of his own struggling student filmmakers who will get their works on screen and into the festivals even if they can only muster the resources for an 8mm video camera and the benevolence of a few close associates. Ultimately, no economic system supports artistic film, almost by nature, because such films challenge prevailing systems. Dusan Makavejev, producer of the most outrageous films, maintained, however, the bivalence of external constraints on artistic judgement stating, "we do nothing but censorship from the first cut to the end. Every cut is a choice."


Last updated September 3, 1995. If you have any suggestions or comments on this page or anything in this archive, please e-mail me.

David A. Goldfarb


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