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On the Legacies of Communism: New Documentaries from Central and Eastern Europe

By Steven Montgomery

Four film stills from (Clockwise, top-left): 'Russian Women, Bliss, The Bells from Chernobyl' and 'Experimentum Crucis'

The aftermath of the American Civil War was the backdrop for a mythic American movie character, Scarlett O'Hara, who found herself adrift amidst sweeping changes in her world too recent to comprehend fully. Her struggle to survive in a suddenly altered society has affected generations of moviegoers. Though the political issues are not the same, the recent drastic political and economic upheavals in Central and Eastern Europe have likewise made for remarkable human drama. Documentaries from Russia, Poland, Germany and elsewhere have been on the scene capturing the transition from communist to private market economies—and its affect on people in their countries. Much of their work was shown at the "1998 New York Screening Days," April 23-27, 1998, in New York.

The ornate screening room where the event took place was once a private living room of a grand Fifth Avenue Mansion­ now turned over to the nonprofit Goethe Institute. And if any ghosts of the wealthy family who once lived there still inhabit the place, even they may have been rattled by the disturbing images of a society in transition to capitalism: an old Russian woman evicted from her newly privatized apartment (Checking Out); life in a detestably-grim reform school for boys in Russia (Experimentum Crucis); the lingering hardships of the "biggest catastrophe of the industrial age" (Bells of Chernobyl); and Polish state farm workers coping with displacement and a lost past (Arizona).

A recurring theme in the films was that of people struggling amidst uncertain and frightening circumstances—often searching for some particle of hope through which to move on. The most troubling was Experimentum Crucis (53 min., 1997, Kazakhstan) by Taras Popov and Vladimir Toulkin. The film is set in a reform school for boys in Kazakhstan that has the atmosphere of a prison camp. One 10-year old inmate had been caught stealing a videotape, ice cream and cigarettes—and was sentenced to 4 years confinement where he is met by a harshness towards children that is incomprehensible. Terrified upon arrival, he is barked at by a prison official, "Where are you from, you little bastard?!" The guards, accompanied by attack dogs, carry live ammunition and in one scene, they march the boys naked through snow to a bleak shower room. For many, their skin is diseased and their lips are broken. One boy is a victim of horrifying sexual abuse by the staff.

There is an episode in the prison cafeteria where the inmates, who are clearly undernourished, clutch bowls of gruel and are given 10 minutes to eat. Strangely, with its rows of tables and hungry faces, the scene resembles the orphanage of Oliver Twist depicted in several Hollywood films—only here the terror on the boys' faces is real. Their particular journey from boyhood to manhood is about as perilous as it gets, and their hurt expressions are some of the most haunting ever to appear in a film. In a quiet moment, one boy sadly reminisces about life with his family left behind: he chides himself , "Why did I have to steal?" A visiting mother in tears tells her son, "Be a good boy. That's all I've ever said to you—be a good boy." One visiting priest shows kindness to the inmates.

Yet the film depicts the boys as victims of a disintegrating society wherein the innocent and the weak suffer the most. The producers, one of whom worked in the institution, are courageous in having made the film to expose the prison's deplorable conditions—and this work surely deserves a place amongst the most riveting of social documentaries.

In stark contrast is the film Elite (52 min., 1997, Russia) by Alexei Uchitel, which depicts a rising business, intellectual and political nouvea riche of post-Gorbachev Russia. Here, amidst lavish catered parties, gracious country homes and a constant parade of designer fashions, we see a newly wealthy society. In watching the film, one can 't help but ask the question, "How did these people become so cheeky so fast?" This work does an expert job in showing the principles the new-elite live by, the hopes they cherish and the things they fear. They describe the travails of a wealthy life-some quite authentic. One fashionably dressed woman recounts her husband's kidnapping, his murder and the difficulties of being made a widow at age 36. Other obstacles seek to interfere with the good life. At a black-tie reception attended by the new celebrities of Moscow, guests are uncomfortably reminded of the recent past as a May Day demonstration populated by communists takes place just outside.

Far from the cities and the elite, we proceed to Russian Yaroslavl villages in the film Russian Women (27 min., 1997, Russia) by Rayisa Borisovna Malova. One subject of the film, a village woman, asks, "Why make a film about us?" The seemingly ordinary women featured speak eloquently of their lives: they survived Stalin and the War, drunken and unfaithful husbands , waiting for pension checks that are months late. One woman offers her outlook on life: "Be a good human being and God will giveth."

Despite the grimness of their village life, the film illuminates the mysterious soul of the Russian Woman , ready as ever for self­ sacrifice and to tolerate, open to charity and pity. The filmmaker asks one careworn woman how she and her friends endured the difficult years, including conditions causing near-starvation that followed World War 11. She replies , "Oh, we were very strong then!" The women still are mighty and their candor makes this film inspiring.

Bliss (52 min., 1995, Russia) by Vitalij Manskij tells a related story in Russian Women the style of a Russian folk tale. In the Russian countryside after the fall of Communism, an old woman watches over a drunken old man and a midget. Everyone on the farm is defeated by poverty, neglect, old age or vodka, except for one mysteriously pregnant girl. Director Manskij captures gorgeously the rich local landscapes, focusing on contrasting qualities of light and dark—reflecting both the liveliness and the sadness of the characters. The blending of magical realism and documentary styles makes the tale both bleak and humorous.

Checking Out (29 min. 1997, Latvia), by Carl J. Biosmark, tells the story of Marija, who lives the dull, poor life of a post-Soviet pensioner. She came to Latvia during the '60s in search of a better life, hoping to become a stewardess but working for the state railroad instead. She describes with great pleasure her train travels across the old Soviet Union. Now she tries to orient herself to the '90s—a new and different reality. The government is evicting her from her apartment due to privatization, and she seems too apolitical to understand the revolving changes in the system. Yet Marija is too poor to remain in her world of dreams and memories. The film combines documentary and narrative styles as well as the use of both 35mm film and digital video, cleverly minoring the vital epochs of Marija's story.

Finally, The Bells of Chernobyl (52 min., 1996, Ukraine/Belarus/France/Japan), by Kurt Langbein, is a memorable documentary which evokes recent history through the superb use of government archival footage and previously unreleased KGB documents. Hour by hour, day by day, the Chernobyl drama is reenacted by witnesses from among those most closely involved, from the Soviet leader at the time, Mikhail Gorbachev, to the power plant manager who was imprisoned after a showy trial staged in Moscow to reassure the population. There is an eerie drama in this film, in how some of the witnesses describe so calmly the cataclysmic disaster of Chernobyl—it's obvious that their emotions have been tempered with the passage of time.

We hear from heroic firefighters who arrived on the scene within minutes of the meltdown, only three of whom are still alive to testify. We see these men and women struggling with pitifully inadequate resources to contain the invisible enemy which kills most of them either quickly or slowly. Here the camera and even the videotape become heroes in this story—in some instances of the rescue effort, the tape is all that survived.

Most dramatically, we meet Chernobyl's chief engineer in jail shortly before his death, explaining what went wrong. He sits in the prison yard and painfully tells his story. One is continually surprised, in seeing this film, at the number and variety of witnesses who agreed to be filmed.

We learn that Chernobyl is an ongoing calamity for the people of the area. Due to food shortages, no one can stop the local population from eating contaminated food and farming the radioactive land. The negligence of the authorities and the ignorance about the real dangers of nuclear power have left a horrific legacy, especially for children.

In watching both The Bells of Chernobyl and Experimentum Crucis, we are struck by the harsh injustice of the situations. Through the compassion and skill of the filmmakers, we get a feeling of "We are like these people and they shouldn't be treated this way!"—a feeling evoked through the documentary tradition at its best.

The purpose of the 1998 New York Screening Days, programmed by Claus Mueller of the International Film and Television Exchange, was to facilitate access to U.S. media markets for productions from Central and Eastern Europe. In attendance were American distributors and television programmers who at times competed for rights to the productions. After the screening of Bells of Chernobyl, distributor Sue Oscar of Filmmakers Library expressed interest in the distribution rights, saying that the film "stands as an eloquent warning to the world of the dangers of nuclear explosion." In addition, Oscar said the length of the documentary (52 min.) is an asset, making it ideal for the college market to which she distributes films. A competing distributor also seemed to be ready to make Chernobyl an offer. As the audience rose for a brief intermission between films, the battle for Chernobyl had just begun. However, in this way, the event provided a gateway for some important documentaries to reach the American market.

Mueller works year-round to prepare for these screenings for opinion makers in the United States—offering perspectives on developing countries as reflected in their own film and television productions. This year he is grateful for the cooperation he received from the Czech television export office and the Common wealth of Independent States INPUT coordinator Leon id Zolotarevski from Russia's Ostankino office. Next year's screenings will focus on Latin America.

STEVEN MONTGOMERY produced the documentaries Hobie's Heroes (1981) and Morocco: The Past and Present of Djemma el Fna (1995) , and he is former president of the New York Film/Video Council. From 1983 to 1990, he studied the Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel, a philosophy concerning mankind's relationship to the world. Montgomery's website is: