Festivals: Rotterdam 2015
This year, extra-cinematic events created meaningful connections among some of the films screened at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. Aside from the victory of the “radical” left coalition in the Greek elections—hopefully the beginning of the end of neoliberal policies in (southern) Europe, whose effects on film festivals are not incidental—two other significant things took place: King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia died, and the Kurdish militias of YPG (a guerrilla army mainly composed of young Muslim women) liberated the Kurdish town of Kobani, which had been under siege from ISIS for the past few months. Both of these occurrences naturally relate to Adam Curtis’s Bitter Lake, which received its big-screen premiere at IFFR.
King Abdullah's death was met with mournful respect by Western leaders (the Obamas flew to Riyadh for his funeral) even though the kingdom he ruled over with an iron fist forbids women from driving and walking in public unaccompanied by men, has beheaded 10 persons in 2015 alone, and banned public cinemas until very recently, when an IMAX that exclusively shows science documentaries opened in Khobar. (Where are all the freedom-loving cinephiles when it comes to Saudi Arabia?) Curtis’s Bitter Lake makes clear why this brutal tyrant has been so reverently treated by democratically elected Western leaders. An ailing Franklin D. Roosevelt met with the Saudi monarch shortly after World War II to discuss business and secure privileged access to the oil-rich region. Curtis patiently tries to untangle the confidential, friendly relationship between Washington and Riyadh, and to debunk the nebulous narratives that have distorted the nature of every Middle Eastern conflict that has taken place since WWII. It is no easy task, which is reflected in Bitter Lake’s labyrinthine form. The narrative that emerges from this thoroughly researched documentary is far removed from the daily fictions of mainstream media coverage: economic interests, not democratic values, have acted as the guiding principles behind every invasion in the region, and Western powers have never hesitated to side with the worst forms of fundamentalism to maintain control over the region and its resources, usually in the name of anti-communism and against secular Pan-Arabism. Though none of this is news to those who are familiar with the historical record, it’s shocking to see how the forces we’ve so bravely fought against—like the Taliban or ISIS—were actually spawned by Western powers who subsequently lost control over their creations, like Frankenstein and his monster.
Angels of Revolution
The sudden and radical upheaval of a revolution can destabilize the emancipatory process it initiates and lead to self-destruction, as shown in Aleksey Fedorchenko’s Angels of Revolution. Set during the 1934 Kazym rebellion, the events are “based on a true story”—a claim that should be taken with a grain of salt—and raises crucial issues facing any society undergoing revolutionary change. We follow a group of Soviet avant-gardists in their utopian quest to bring revolutionary art forms, as well as the art of revolution, to the most remote corners of the newly formed Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Rather stiff and formulaic in its tone, Fedorchenko’s film explores not only the dawning of the Russian revolution but also its inborn failure. Unlike Chinese Communists who built a broad social network long before coming to power, Bolshevism was a predominantly urban movement with no meaningful connections to the vast rural areas of Russia. Angels of Revolution details the doomed attempt to convert a profoundly heterogeneous society, in which the innovative forms of Constructivism and Communist Futurism clashed with ancestral cultures unwilling to undergo such a sea change. The cultural and anthropological differences that ran between the Bolshevik intelligentsia—presented here in their noblest and most experimental incarnation—and the preindustrial communities living miles (and centuries) away from the urban hotbeds of Soviet avant-garde become painfully evident in the film’s finale. When the intrepid avant-gardists reach a village of Khanty people in western Siberia, they encounter an ancient culture and a different language that is utterly unreceptive to their theremin compositions and experimental cinema. Though the film struggles to render its characters with verisimilitude, the director strikes a laudable balance in terms of representation, neither falling prey to demonizing Soviet expansionism nor overly romanticizing cultures untouched by progress. What Angels of Revolution shows, as impartially as possible in narrative film, is the fundamental incompatibility between the original utopia of the Soviet revolution and the anthropological diversity of the sprawling country in which it took place. The inevitable conflict between these two irreconcilable aspects will paradoxically bring about the brutal elimination of both experimental art and rural cultures, amidst the slaughters committed by the Red Army.
The civil war between Red and White Russians and, later, Stalin, would wipe out the last traces of the avant-gardists’ idealistic project. Also screening at IFFR, in the “Everyday Propaganda” program, was a somewhat anachronistic example of revolutionary formalism, Internationale by Alexander Shein and Alexander Svetlov. Made in 1971, long after artistic experimentation was obscured by the reactionary tropes of Soviet realism, the 22-minute short revisits the lessons of their country’s art by the paranoiac light of the Cold War. Through split screens, dialectical montage, and the rhetoric of anti-imperialism, the mendacious projections of the great Soviet nemesis, America, are colorfully demolished: in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, racial persecution thrives, and behind the waving stripes and stars of the American flag are the war crimes of the Vietnam War. Yet the long-anticipated promises of democratic capitalism that transformed rotten Soviet apparatchiks into equally despicable oligarchs remained only a mirage for a large part of the population. Many in the former USSR, in a perverse historical fall backward, are now nostalgically longing for the ugly old days—a testament to the deceitful nature of globally pervasive neoliberal thought more than the “beauty” of Soviet communism.