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Artists Amateurs, Alternative Spaces: Experimental Cinema in Eastern Europe, 1960-1990, April 5 to June 14 at the National Gallery of Art (Washington D.C.)

In a series of emails I exchanged with Raczynska and Gurshtein, the co-organizers of this important series shared the nuts and bolts of realizing such a project, which required extensive archival knowledge, international collaboration and the incorporation of films from across Eastern Europe. My questions and their responses are accompanied by stills from a few of the films that were screened at the National Gallery.

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Still from Black Film (Crni film), Želimir Žilnik, Serbia, 1971, a documentary in which the director picks up 10 homeless people from the streets of Novi Sad one night and takes them home with him. Žilnik described as “a film about the class structure of Yugoslavian society but also about the abuse of the déclassé for film purposes; it shows how the filmmaker exploits social hardship." Courtesy the artist. 

Zdenko Mandušić:  Since many of the films in the series have a personal dimension, whether on the level of subject or production, a seemingly appropriate place to begin is with you the organizers. How was this project conceived and pursued? What concepts and understandings of experimental cinema informed your work? How did you envision the series’ website functioning in relation to the original goals and motivations behind the project?

Joanna Raczynska: Ksenya and I share a similar interest in non-narrative, first-person cinema, although we come to it from different angles. Our interest in cinema from this region no doubt stems from our family histories (Russia and Poland, respectively). As we collaborated on this project, our interest grew the more we researched and watched the films. I’ve made some nonfiction films and have worked with artists in the exhibition of their films and videos since 2002. The National Gallery of Art’s film program has been dedicated to the exhibition of film as an art form since its founding in the early eighties, so there is a well-established precedent of screening motion picture works that are artistic, experimental, or otherwise noncommercial. When Ksenya and I asked Margaret Parsons, the film department’s founder and head curator, if we could collaborate on programming a screening of experimental work from the region, she urged us to develop a dedicated series rather than a one-off program. One suggestion was all it took; we spent the next two years working on the series. Personally, I have a deep interest in and love of artist films – especially nonfiction and essay forms. But in addition to the actual films themselves, it is important to stress that both this series and the web feature that grew from it, are intended to shed light on such film archives and collections, and the people behind them. One of our goals from the outset was to connect scholars and website visitors to the artists and archivists in the former Eastern European region who are responsible for the curatorial stewardship (including the restoration and preservation) of the films and videos. So, increasing access was a key motive. 

Ksenya Gurshtein : As Joanna noted, we have shared interests, but come to them from somewhat different places. I first got interested in experimental cinema when I was writing a dissertation on the Slovene artist collective OHO and the Soviet artists Komar & Melamid. The latter didn’t make films (though they recall narrating complex slide shows for friends in the Soviet Union in the seventies – a kind of proto-cinema). But OHO made about three dozen films – I wrote about them in my dissertation, published an article on them, and discussed them in a talk I gave on my research at the NGA. I think that was the original point when my conversation with the Film Department there started about the possibility of bringing such otherwise obscure films to the NGA. I knew from having read the literature on unofficial art in Eastern Europe and having seen films at exhibitions here and there that numerous unofficial artists made films. But as far as I knew, no one had ever considered that aspect of unofficial art systematically, gathered all the information in one place, looked at the films side by side or related these films to official cinema or other kinds of experimental cinema.

Because I was coming to this project as an art historian, I really appreciated Joanna’s insight into what experimental cinema is – given what her take on it was and also what we were both most interested in – we arrived at our focus on largely non-narrative cinema that we felt made a conscious effort to depart from the conventions of both fictional narrative cinema and documentary. For me as a very visual person, it was particularly fun to pay more attention to experiments not just with the visual content of film, but also with sound (although that interest wasn’t pursued by many of the people whose work we researched because they were making silent 16 mm films that would be usually projected to a musical soundtrack).

As for the website, it seemed like the best means available to us to disseminate the information we’d gathered and to create a resource potentially available anywhere to other scholars and films programmers. Thanks to Joanna’s indefatigable efforts, parts of our series will be shown at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this year, and the existence of the site means that the folks there have a ready reservoir of information and a place to which to direct any viewers who want to learn more. 


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Still from Encounter (Sretanje), courtesy Croatian Film Association, by Vladimir Petek, Croatia, 1963, which “offers a portrait of a woman (Ksenija Filipović, Vladimir Petek’s then-girlfriend) whose face becomes mysterious, desirable, and endlessly captivating on film, all the more so because of Petek’s various interventions in the film stock” — Diana Nenadić.

ZM:  Moving from the personal to the logistical, the scope of the series is quite impressive. How was the project funded? Can you describe how your work with multiple archives was coordinated? How were the prints included in the series identified and selected? How did you manage subtitles for films, which needed them? Lastly, what were some of the difficulties you encountered?

JR: The National Gallery is in a unique position to organize such a project since our main exhibition space—the 500 seat East Building Large Auditorium—is designed and engineered to present motion picture work in practically every exhibition format (except for smaller gauges like 8 mm), and dedicated to screening work in the original format whenever possible. We’ve developed strong relationships with international film archives over the years, and are able to approach some national sources with loan requests more easily than perhaps an independent programmer might. For example, as an associate member of the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF), the NGA can request access to rare archival prints from fellow member archives.  The vast majority of people Ksenya and I approached about participating and loaning materials for the series were extremely responsive and generous. Without that generosity and willingness to charge us often only costs for duplication and shipping of materials, we wouldn’t have been able to host such a robust program. We relied on the knowledge of archivists and curators of these collections for suggestions and examples of time-based works that are often unknown even in their country of origin.  As for subtitles, whenever possible we borrowed materials already subtitled in English. For those few shorts without English language subtitles, we were able to work with existing translations to develop power-point slideshows that were then projected beneath the screen live during the screening (the NGA generally shows a film only once). I should mention that most of the titles in the series already have suitable subtitles or don’t require them because there’s no dialogue or voice over (many have only sound and a few are silent).

KG: I want to echo Joanna in saying that the first thing that made the series possible logistically was the amazing generosity of so many of the archivists, gallerists, and individual filmmakers whom we approached and asked for help. The materials, knowledge, and guidance they gave us were invaluable, and a number of them also later contributed texts to the site. In terms of coordination, Joanna and I split up the people whom we knew we wanted to contact and wrote to them, asking for help – and in the vast majority of cases, we received it. Within the NGA, the project was supported first and foremost by Margaret Parsons, who allowed us to use the film program’s resources of both time and money. Working as a Mellon post-doctoral curatorial fellow in the Department of Photographs, I was also very grateful to Sarah Greenough, the head of that department, for giving me time to work on that project.

In terms of difficulties, the biggest challenge had to do with the large number of formats that were working with. The NGA auditorium is amazing in terms of the flexibility that its booth allows – I think that would be hard for many other places to replicate – but it was definitely a challenge for the projectionist to keep switching, sometimes in one program, between 35 mm, 16 mm, digital files, and DigiBeta. We both discovered that digital formats promise ease of use, but in reality are very finicky and unpredictable. Keeping sound and image synchronized, dealing with loss of visual or sound data, knowing which software to use when… I do think the possibility of digitalization has given old experimental films a new lease on life and new potential audiences – one only needs to look at the amazing site that the Filmoteka Muzeum at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw has assembled – but there are definitely a lot of logistical issues that come with digital and that were a challenge to us and required the help of AV professionals. 

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Still from Innocence Unprotected (Nevinost bez zaštite) Dušan Makavejev, Serbia, 1968, courtesy the artist. A madcap, hybrid fusion of documentary filmmaking, newsreel footage, and kitsch that satirized Marshall Tito’s Communist regime through the story of an acrobat and the self- promotional film he made in Nazi-occupied Belgrade.

ZM:  Because the series is positioned to correct the omission of experimental films from accounts of cinemas from Eastern Europe, it can be understood as a historical project that argues for the aesthetic value and social significance of experimental films. Even though the series is not a “comprehensive survey,” it presents an argument for the inclusion of these films in the discussion of East European cinemas. How do you perceive this relation? In other words, how can an understanding of experimental filmmaking inform or revise our notions of what cinema means in the social and aesthetic contexts of East European visual culture?

KG: My sense is that contemporary scholarship of East European cinema is particularly prone – for a variety of reasons – to focusing on auteurs and on national film traditions. There are great examples of both in the region, but there is also clearly value to destabilizing that narrative in a variety of ways, and ours was one of them. I think Joanna is right that maybe “experimental” is too broad a term (though as noted above, we did have a provisional definition). But what we were seeking to show were some of the alternative practices that offer the idea of that cinema wasn’t monolithic in Eastern Europe. Places like Poland and Yugoslavia, as far as I know, made the most concerted, state-wide efforts in the history of the medium to put film production in the hands of the average citizen – and yet film historians don’t seem, by and large, interested in the outcomes of this process. Similarly, the collaborations between visual artists and filmmakers that happened at the Lodz Film School in Poland or the Balasz Bela Studio in Hungary were some of the most engaged of their kind anywhere, yet they don’t seem to be part of a larger art history that explores how and where and why the medium expansion of the visual arts in the sixties and seventies took place. At this juncture, much more theorization is required, but I would echo the title of an exhibition that took place in Slovenia several years ago – This Is All Film. I’d like a broader audience to expand its definitions of what “film” was in Eastern Europe (though the point, of course, is true elsewhere, as well). Who made films, how, and why – I think our series tried to give some new answers to those questions.  

JR: A comprehensive survey of experimental film from the region during the Cold War really isn’t possible, since so much has been lost and so few works are actually accessible. I wouldn’t call all of the works presented in the series experimental—a word that really is so open to interpretation it rather loses its purpose. What the project made clear to me was that we were trying to start a dialogue with all of these various archives and our audiences in the cinema and online. Often we borrowed titles directly from their makers and almost always, when possible, managed to gain permission for our screenings directly from living artists. The Artists, Amateurs, Alternative Spaces programs are not exclusively grouped by country or film genre but rather by content or by means [of production]. Some of the collective practices represented that could be considered documentation (OHO Group, KwieKulik Group, the Enthusiasts archive for example), and some of the individual artists who immigrated to the States or whose work has received recognition here function as bridges across continents (i.e. Jonas Mekas, Zbigniew Rybczynski). I hope that ultimately the series highlights subjective and expressive film practices in the region as robust and vital, much as they were during the same period in “the West.” 

Zdenko Mandušić
Author: Zdenko MandušićCountry: US
Zdenko Mandušić is pursuing a joint Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures and Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago. His areas of study are Russian/Soviet and Yugoslav cinema, film theory, and Russian and Southeast European Literature. He plans to write a dissertation based around the question of how the desire for innovation has inspired technological developments.

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