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From Russia with Passion: Memoirs of a Soviet Filmmaker

By Tom Powers

Woman with a Movie Camera
by Marina Goldovskaya, translated by Antonina W. Bouis
Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006
263 pages, with Filmography and Appendix of Notable Figures in Soviet Filmmaking and Other Arts

Woman with a Movie Camera is one of those books that gets better as it goes along, and you're not sure if the writer is finding her voice or if you, the reader, are simply acquiescing to her style and subject matter. I think the latter was the case for me. This memoir by Russian filmmaker Marina Goldovskaya stirred memories of film school epiphanies ("I spent entire days in the screening rooms, absorbing everything," she writes), of location and equipment frustrations--including her terror at hanging suspended in an open helicopter hatchway to get a crucial aerial shot--and of  "the joy a documentary filmmaker experiences when catching authentic feelings." If the book ultimately fails to probe the inner life of its author, it nonetheless captures the dedication of a woman addicted to filmmaking. "It turns out that I am truly alive," she writes, "when I'm with my camera. Without it, I'm bored."

Goldovskaya was born in 1941 as Nazi warplanes bombarded Moscow. Too young to remember the war, she also was spared the domestic terrors and torments that plagued her parents' generation. (She compellingly recounts a visit to Lubyanka, the KGB headquarters, where her father was interrogated by the secret police for five and a half months in 1938.) Yet Goldovskaya remains acutely aware of the moral schism that ravaged the Russian soul during the years of communist rule, extending even to her own 25-year career in state television serving "an incurably ill, rotting system."

For all her fulminations against the system, however, Goldovskaya only occasionally lets us see how her own soul was divided, how the compromises she made in order to pursue her career diminished her as a person and simultaneously fueled her passion as a filmmaker. The book is rich with her philosophical speculations about her craft; she repeatedly asks herself: Why this film? Why now? But the lack of a more personal, as opposed to professional, self-examination leaves her story without a dramatic arc of self-discovery.

Goldovskaya was invited to join the Communist Party, and she tells us she struggled with that decision. "In late 1967, I was made a member. And in 1968, our tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia. I felt terrible." But she quickly reconciled herself to her decision: "Otherwise I would not have gotten ahead in television."

After the fall of Communism, she felt like she was living "on the brink of a nervous breakdown" as familiar patterns of life were overturned, democracy was established and immediately threatened, and her own life took a new course when she married an American, accepted a teaching post in the US and became a citizen of two worlds. But her proclamation of a near-breakdown is subsequently slighted. Goldovskaya does not linger on her own feelings, and over the course of the book we don't sense her growth as a person. When she tells us that she went on maternity leave from her job as a television cinematographer, it comes as a shock, since she has given us so little information about her private life.

The good news is that the person who is revealed to us is an extraordinary filmmaker, the first woman to both direct and shoot her own documentaries in the Soviet Union. She was a pathfinder not only for the women filmmakers who would follow, but for all those who exhibited resistance to a totalitarian regime through their achievement as individuals. "What the bosses wanted to see in a movie was the pulse of a big factory, the collective's daily life as it struggled to meet and exceed the plan, and the Party's leading role," she writes. "I wanted to make films about interesting people--preferably the ordinary ones. A circus performer, a three-year-old boy from a family of workers, a seven-year-old future composer, a glassblower, a textile worker." Goldovskaya was an early proponent of direct cinema in the USSR, and she took steps to personalize the documentary form as a vehicle for recording memories, both her own and those of ordinary people who had lived through the long years of Communism. "The diary film is the next step in the development of direct cinema," she writes. With her 1988 film Solovki Power, Goldovskaya became the first Soviet filmmaker to examine the regime's notorious gulag of concentration camps.

Many of the names in this book will be unfamiliar to American readers (it was first published in Russia), and some of Goldovskaya's early reminiscences are less than compelling, along the lines of "I can't remember what we talked about but I'll never forget the smell of those wonderful cookies." One particularly hungers for more anecdotes about familiar figures, especially since Goldovskaya was born into the very heart of cinema. Her father knew Louis Lumiére and wrote a book about him, and he joked with Sergei Eisenstein about feeling menaced by the KGB. As a girl, Goldovskaya lived in the same building as Dziga Vertov, Alexander Medvedkin and Roman Karmen; Eduard Tisse, Eisenstein's cameraman, was a family friend. Her classmates at film school "later became the cream of the crop of the Soviet cinema." She worked as assistant cinematographer on Andrei Tarkovsky's thesis film.

The book really springs to life when Goldovskaya describes her emergence as a filmmaker. She always knew what she wanted to achieve in a film, she tells us, and she inevitably found more than she had imagined. Throughout the book, she imparts the same lessons to her readers that she has conveyed to the students in her documentary film class at UCLA for the past ten years: "I always ask the protagonists of my documentaries to speak of concrete things, of concrete events in their lives. There is nothing worse for a film than generalizations."..."I've always had a bad relationship with scripts. I trust life much more than any concept."..."Dramaturgy does not tolerate emptiness in a film; everything has to be saturated."

Goldovskaya was born to capture a changing world. For her the documentarian's job is to hold onto memories of the past, record change in the present and show life against the flow. She states her credo early on: "Nothing in life vanishes without consequence." In such films as The Prince Is Back, The House on Arbat Street, The Shattered Mirror and Solovki Power, she has captured moments of change and shown that, in the words of one of her subjects, "The present flows out of the past."


Tom Powers teaches Cinema Studies at Illinois State University.