Levels of Democracy: Ukraine Film Weekend was a weekend programme of films at AV Festival, a biannual presentation of moving image and visual arts that takes place in and around Newcastle.
The headline slogan for the 2016 edition of the festival “Meanwhile, what about socialism?” is a direct quote from George Orwell’s book The Road to Wigan Pier, first published in 1937. The first part of this book reveals the harsh living and working conditions of miners in the North of England, from Orwell's own experiences while embedded in poor communities. This has inspired the thematic framework of the whole festival this year, the second part of the book will also provide the orientation for the next one in 2018, resulting in a unique and timely programme of films, talks and exhibitions that engage explicitly with artists who situate themselves in relation to political struggles.
Events in the festival are spread out over a whole month, with the majority of the films curated into thematic weekend programmes, each of which has had a different focus. In an extraordinary feat of film programming, apparently initiated with help from the British Council, the third festival weekend was a selection of rare early Soviet documentaries, mid 20th century propaganda films and more contemporary works from Ukranian film makers, brought together to tackle the complex and often contradictory positions regarding Ukraine’s relationship with Russia and the West.
It was for the silent films that I had chosen to attend this particular weekend, partly because I have always loved that sparse, evocative Soviet constructivist aesthetic and partly in preparation for doing some programming with the Yorkshire Silent Film Festival this spring, but the films that I watched dealt with the troubling subjects of mining, farming, state power, violence and death, in a loose dialogue with Orwell’s book and his suggestion that it is impossible in our world to “be honest and remain alive”.
The weekend started on Friday night with an unquestionably classic piece of Soviet Cinema, Oleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth (Zemlya, 1930), an emotive film in which two young men, Khoma and Vasyl, find themselves on opposite sides of a political and historical moment and therefore in great danger, as the Bolshevik Party’s ideology expands into Ukraine’s farmland regions.
This is the final film in Dovzhenko’s so-called “Ukraine Trilogy” which spanned a period that began with World War I and ended with Stalin’s farm collectivisations in the late 1920s. Last year this film was designated a World Masterpiece by UNESCO.
Broadly speaking, Earth deals with life cycles and nature, including human nature; the film opens with a discussion between peasants, one of whom lies dying, of what the afterlife might hold. Later, the symbolic arrival of a tractor in a rural village signals a fundamental challenge to their centuries-old way of life and the creation of disunity within society.
In its restoration, the copy of the film that was shown in Newcastle had replaced the usual Russian language intertitles with restored Ukranian versions for which an authentic, reconstructed font was used, while the new ethnic-folk soundtrack recorded by DakhaBrakha gave the film an earthy rather than overbearingly classical character, as can be heard in this clip.
After making this film, a kind of ode to the Ukranian land and the struggles of its people, lovingly filled with low shots of sunflowers and cattle, old farmers and chubby babies, all with a fantastic sense of affect, I was surprised to hear that Ukranian film maker Dovzhenko was denounced as a maker of ‘nationalist propaganda’ in the 'Ukrainization' program of Soviet nation-building and eventually banned from making films in Ukraine. He died in Moscow in 1956.
Contextualising these complex films for the audience throughout the three days of screenings were two special guests: Ivan Kozlenko a specialist researcher and film restorer at the Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre and Anna Reid, political historian and author of Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine.
As deputy Director of Ukraine's official state film archive, created in 1994 on the 100th anniversary of Dovzhenko’s birth, Ivan Kozlenko has a great deal of knowledge about the influence of the avant-garde on early Ukranian film making practice and its subsequent change of direction under Stalin, while Anna Reid countered any tendency towards revolutionary romanticism with her detailed knowledge of Stalin’s ruthless mass extermination of the ‘kulak’ class in Ukraine. During the years following the end of the 1st World War, individual land and labour was consolidated into collective farms, leading to the creation of social instability and terrible famine, against which the population was unable to take any of their own measures. It has been said that this ideologically driven displacement, usually to the hard labour camps of the Gulag, and subsequent replacement of the Ukranian population during this period has contributed to the violent situation in Ukraine in recent times.
Festival Director Rebecca Shatwell appeared tirelessly before each screening to give her personal introduction to its themes and then reappeared at the end with these two guests, occasionally joined by other panel members, for thoughtful and unhurried discussion of what the film ideologically and actually represented. At the centre of all these conversations was the work of the Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre, which has made these restorations available to view and facilitated an international dialogue around the evolution of the artistic avant-garde as a representative form of political persuasion.
Back at the Tyneside cinema for the second day of the Ukranian film programme, the first film was Felix Sobolev and Victor Olender’s The Target Is Your Brain (1986), a frantic piece of Soviet agitprop with a passing similarity to the intense media mashups I associate with Adam Curtis. Its central concern is that entertainment media from America are forms of propaganda and soft power, aiming for the mental transformation of people everywhere. After this, the exhibitions in shops and gallery spaces provided a more restful, but still thought-provoking way to navigate through an unfamiliar city, the most absorbing of which turned out to be at Gallery North at the University.
New work created by Revolutionary Experimental Space or R.E.P. as part of an ongoing ‘Patriotism’ project had taken advantage of every bit of available space, filling the walls with
“a visual dictionary of graphic symbols indicating social phenomena, values and relationships”.
Universal languages using abstracted illustrations explore the use of graphic forms as systems of communication, here they had been assembled as figures - "heroes and anti-heroes" - representing the politics of the protest in Maidan in 2014.
An alphabet of forms was provided to meaningfully interpret the 17 different figures, this was a painstaking kind of fun!
The evening film was An Unprecedented Campaign (1931) by Mikhail Kaufman, who was the brother of Dziga Vertov and the cameraman on Vertov's film The Man With a Movie Camera (1929). This film depicts the rapid industrialisation of collective farms and the ‘triumph of the proletariat’.
This was the World Premiere of a restored propaganda film, with a parade of tractors and combine harvesters representing worker volunteers sent by the Communist Party to rural areas, interspersed with clips of mining and steel works, mechanisation of all kinds and militarisation, documentary film as a weapon of propaganda. The other big draw for this event was a live appearance and performance of a new score by Test Dept, who themselves have been described as “an unfashionable relic of a misunderstood time” .
Personally, I would be proud to have a Test Dept pin badge on my donkey jacket. Their politics have always been militant and confrontational, their music loud and uncompromising, in the 1980s they took their inspiration (and many parts of their instruments) from derelict factories. Tonight’s soundtrack involved the use of samples played on laptops, along with a bit of live saw and banging on a big metal spring, which was bizarrely all part of the same instrument at the front of the stage. If the potential drama of the musical performance had been slightly underexplored, the setting for the screening was gorgeous and the discussion after the film was wide ranging, including a perspective from the band.
Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbas (Dziga Vertov, 1930) was filmed in the coal-rich Donbas area of Eastern Ukraine. The film glorifies actions from Stalin’s first Five Year Plan (1928 – 1932) including the disturbing phenomenon of ‘shock workers’ where groups were pitted against each other for maximum productivity. This film for me is the one that represents that Ukrainian modernist cinematic tradition that I love at its best.
In this film, people are seen repeating simple actions until they look like they are insane – kissing the feet of relics and marching forwards and backwards around wasteland, training for the harsh conditions inside the mines. It propagandises the fight against religion with a surrealist sequence of flying flags and red stars almost comically replacing removed icons and destroyed church towers, as if by magic!
The soundtrack was created using recorded industrial noise, Vertov was experimenting with new sound technology and the film successfully captures the acceleration of everyday life under mechanisation. Historian Anna Reid has to remind us once again, after the screening, that what the film doesn't depict are the thousands of peasants being carted off in cattle trucks.
Fast forward to the 1950s and 60s and Revue (Loznitsa 2008) is a document of the 'glorious Communist illusion' woven together using archival footage, clips and newsreels. Here we see new themes emerging: space exploration, elections, popular culture and theatre, in addition to statues, flags, tractors and parades.
Other films in the programme this weekend included three more of Loznitsa’s documentary films, which are not silent but known for their absence of commentary.
The declaration of Ukrainian independence in 1991, after decades as a republic of the Soviet Union, is part of a period of historic upheaval during which The Event (Loznitsa 2015) shows how the Soviet Union crumbled in August 1991, as crowds gathered on the square in Leningrad.
His slow and immersive documentary Maidan (2014) - described as "a sort of Woodstock of Ukrainian nationalism"  – depicts scenes surrounding the new Ukrainian revolution, which began in February 2014 and brought peaceful and resourceful protestors together with Russian-speaking activists and dangerous nationalist paramilitary groups into deadly conflict. His unique skill is in making the viewer feel as though they are a participant in the events. Also part of this weekend was Blockade (1994) in which reconstructed archive film with sound allows the audience to relive the siege of Leningrad from September 1941 to January 1944.
Sadly, I had to be on a train back to Leeds on Sunday afternoon and so missed seeing the final film In Spring (Dir. Mikhail Kaufman, 1929) but I expect my curiosity for this exceptionally fascinating body of work will ensure I get to see it soon, in the meantime it’s back to planning how best to represent this kind of programming with some events curated for audiences in Yorkshire….and to finish Orwell’s book.
 Turner (2014) No More Coals From Newcastle: Test Dept At AV Festival, The Quietus
 Celluloid Liberation Front (2016) Ukraine goes to Hollywood, Sight and Sound