Experimental Cinemas in State-Socialist Eastern Europe
Ksenya Gurshtein and Sonja Simonyi, eds., Experimental Cinemas in State-Socialist Eastern Europe (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press B.V., 2022), 334 PP.
Experimental Cinemas in State-Socialist Eastern Europe contains thirteen essays that address film production between the 1950s and the late 1980s in the national contexts of state-socialist countries outside the former U.S.S.R.: Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Yugoslavia. The aim of the book is to fill the gap in English-language literature on postwar experimental filmmaking in Eastern Europe, which is still mostly constituted by studies focusing on experimental film culture in individual countries. The book’s transnational perspective gives a unique and successful opportunity to understand locally specific histories of experimental cinema in the Eastern state-socialist countries by highlighting the relationship of filmmaking to institutions—the official institutions of the state, foreign ones, and self-created ones—within the broader context of the region, which is the main goal of the collection of essays. In their introduction to the volume, editors Ksenya Gurshtein and Sonja Simonyi write, “We believe that the particular sociocultural circumstances in state-socialist Eastern Europe—a peculiar mix of tacit, and sometimes generous, support from socialist states that was combined with often unpredictable periods of intense official hostility—for which the terms ‘second public sphere’ and ‘gray zones’ serve as shorthands, make a compelling case for the regional focus of the book. We also believe that this book’s transnational perspective provides insights that stand-alone national histories cannot[…].” (p. 21) They stress that when they began the book project in 2015, recent English-language books published on postwar experimental cinema were all studies focusing on the experimental film culture of single countries.
Both the volume’s editors are researchers on the art and culture of Eastern Europe: Ksenya Gurshtein, currently the curator of modern and contemporary art at the Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University, has published on postwar conceptual, experimental, and neo-avant-garde art in Eastern Europe, and Sonja Simonyi is an independent scholar working on the visual cultures of socialist Eastern Europe. Gurshtein and Simonyi contextualize their study in reference to recent scholarship on Western experimental film—which studies cinema in its social, political, and institutional contexts—such as After Uniqueness: A History of Film and Video Art in Circulation (2017), by Erica Balsom, and Other Cinemas: Politics, Culture and Experimental Film in the 1970s (2017), edited by Sue Clayton and Laura Mulvey. They also note recent publications, mostly in art history, that look for overarching patterns that defined experimental culture in state-socialist Eastern Europe while not losing sight of significant discrepancies between national conditions.(The editors cite the following books: Cinema, State Socialism, and Society in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, 1917-1989: Re-Visions, edited by Sanja Bahun and John Haynes (New York and London: Routledge, 2014); Art Beyond Borders: Artistic Exchange in Communist Europe (1945-1989), edited by Jérôme Bazin, Pascal Dubourg Glatigny, and Piotr Piotrowski (Budapest: Central European Press, 2016); Theater, Globalization and the Cold War, edited by Christopher B. Balme and Berenika Szymanski -Düll (London: Pallgrave Mcmillan, 2017); Globalizing East European Art Histories: Past and Present, edited by Beáta Hock and Anu Allas (New York: Routledge, 2018); and Klara Kemp-Welch’s Networking the Bloc: Experimental Art in Eastern Europe 1965-1981 (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2019).) The groundwork for Experimental Cinemas in State-Socialist Eastern Europe was laid with a web-based project and film program entitled Artists, Amateurs, Alternative Spaces: Experimental Cinema in Eastern Europe, 1960-1990, on which the editors of the book worked together in 2013-2014.(See the website for the project at the National Gallery of Art, https://www.nga.gov/features/experimental-cinema-in-eastern-europe.html.)
The term “experimental” is used in the book as a more neutral alternative to the related terms “avant-garde,” “underground,” or “independent” filmmaking “because it best encompasses different types of cinematic works that counter more mainstream approaches to film, covering both textual and contextual elements.” (p. 14) (The editors point out that animated films fell outside the study, because they deserve more thorough separate exploration.) The book is chronologically focused on the 1960s and 70s, decades in which the greatest flourishing of experimentation in film stock occurred. It is divided into four sections according to diverse methodological concerns stemming from both film studies and cultural history: Key Figures; Production, Support, and Distribution; Viewing Contexts, Theories, and Reception; and Intersection of the Arts. Despite this general categorization, most of the book’s thirteen chapters could easily fit into more than one of these four categories. As such, this review does not directly follow the structure of the book under review, but instead highlights other treads that run across its sections.
The book’s chapters complement each other especially in terms of showing different ways that experimental film functioned in relation to the state—to state support, to the lack of it, or to the structures of oppression depended on it. Together, the essays give a nuanced picture of the condition of experiments that were undertaken in narrative, working practices, distribution, and film exhibitions in Eastern Europe. Focusing on experimental cinema’s relationship to institutions has allowed the authors to explore the personal creativity of the analyzed and interpreted works in a new way—as embedded in larger social systems. This focus also inspires the editors to include some topics which are less known or unknown worldwide, especially in English-language literature on film, such as the history of amateur cinema in Bulgaria.
In the first part of the book, dedicated to Key Figures, film studies scholar Gábor Gelencsér frames director Gábor Bódy within Hungarian avant-garde cinema as being simultaneously inside and outside of the state-socialist system. Gelencsér examinates Bódy’s involvement in and impact as an organizer on the Balázs Béla Studio (BBS), which changed from the 1970s onward, providing opportunities for professionalization to aspiring film directors and artists with no prior film experience. (p. 38) In this chapter, readers encounter the theoretical thinking of the filmmaker, who unpacked the relationship between documentary and fiction, through a reading of Bódy’s essays and the concept of new narrativity, connected to the new sensitivity. (p.45) Gelencsér analyzes and interprets Bódy’s feature films, considering how experimental, documentary, and fictional elements coalesced in those works.
Independent curator and writer Łukasz Mojsak also contributes to the first section of the volume, with a comparative study of the attitudes and works of Józef Robakowski, the oldest member of the group Workshop of the Film Form (WFF), and of Paweł Kwiek, the youngest member. The author shows that in the early 1970s, Kwiek maintained a creative relationship with artists from the “soc-art” movement, which was engaged in reforming the socialist regime, when Robakowski, being involved in reforms in Łódź Film School, spoke from a staunchly ani-Communist position. (pp. 85-86) In the 1980s neither of them wanted to situate their work in official circuits, due to political repressions and the imposition of martial law in 1981. Mojsak’s choice to examine works made by WFF in the text through the prism of Robakowski and Kwiek’s seemingly opposing attitudes towards the socialist system makes it possible to formulate the complexity of relations between the state and artists in Poland during that period.
The theme of experimental cinema that flourished in socialist Poland is examined through film scholar Masha Shpolberg’s essay on “creative documentary” and works made by Wojciech Wiszniewski. Wiszniewski was the leading filmmaker within this movement, who produced his most remarkable films with the Educational Film Studio (WFO), and the author analyzes both the institutional conditions of WFO and Wiszniewski’s formal and thematic choices. Shpolberg primarily references the Polish film scholars who have argued for the importance of WFO, a small film studio, as an incubator for the “creative documentary” movement. She points out that it is only in the past few years that the topic has attracted the scholarity attention it deserves, referring to the book Elementarz Wytwórni Filmów Oświatowych (2018), edited by Michał Dondzik, Krzysztof Jajko, and Emil Sowiński. Shpolberg’s contribution here fills the gap in the English-language literature about this theme.
Literature and culture scholar Seth Howes argues that in the GDR experimental filmmakers received less studio support than in other socialist countries and their films instead emerged from smaller scale collective practices. He points out that the lack of studio support for experimental film caused creators to mostly shoot using Super 8, a format that often lacked the magnetic audio track required for synchronous sound recording. He also argues that filmmakers in the GDR reincorporated their films into live performances, so GDR experimental films cannot be read as mute. (p. 223) Howes analyzes and interprets experimental work produced by the DEFA studio for documentary film: Jürgen Böttcher’s Transformations (1981) as well as works by Tohm di Roes, A.G. Geige, and Matthias BAADER Holst, examining how sound and image coincided in those films. Howes’ focus on the topic of the “film apparatus” adds to the diversity of research approaches on display in this edited volume.
Greg de Cuir, Jr., an independent curator and writer based in Belgrade, analyzes and interprets the Belgrade Trilogy (1964) by Tomislav Gotovac, a Yugoslavian-Croatian alternative filmmaker and experimental performance and visual artist. Gotovac produced films in the nonprofessional environment of the Academic Kino Club (Akademski kino klub) in Belgrade, which was founded in 1958. (p. 59) De Cuir’s text frames Gotovac as an “undisputed forerunner of structural cinema,” working at the intersection of film expression of avant-garde and documentary and rooted in tradition of a city symphonies. (p. 63) The essay fills the gap in the reception of films made by Gotovac, positioning the Belgrade Trilogy at the intersection of avant-garde and documentary filmic expression and showing that the key to understanding Gotovac’s significance as an artist is an awareness of his place within postwar amateur film and Kino Club culture. (p. 74)
Themes taken up in Gábor Gelencsér’s essay continue in the text by Ksenya Gurshtein, who shows that BBS was a studio officially supported by the state, which gave non-professional artists the access to professional tools of filmic expression and opportunities to produce innovative works. She draws attention to the ways that this history complicates our understanding of the relation between official and unofficial culture in state-socialist countries. Miklós Erdély, introduced by Gurshtein as (according to Sven Spieker) the most influential among the members of the Hungarian neo-avant-garde, twice failed to get into the Academy of Dramatic and Dramatic Arts. (pp. 270-271) He worked also among others in the fields of poetry, music, photography, painting, montages and collages and he directed five films between 1974 and 1985 at BBS (p. 271). Gurshtein shows that despite the fact that BBS was self-governed without exterior political control (p. 268), some works by Erdély were banned and became accessible to a wider public after the death of the artist (p. 272).
The essay by art historian Marika Kuźmicz opens the fourth section of the book, dedicated to the topic of intersection of the arts. The author examines Wrocław, the second center of experimental film in Poland, much less-known than Łódź, where the WWF was established. Kuźmicz presents three groups, in which artists worked with film in connection with other media: Permafo (1970-1981), Galeria Sztuki Aktualnej (Gallery of Current Art, 1971-1975), and Galeria Sztuki Najnowszej (Gallery of the Most Recent Art, 1975-1980). The members of these groups graduated fromthe State Higher School of Visual Arts (Państwowa Wyższa Szkoła Sztuk Plastycznych) in Wrocław. Kuźmicz argues that the common thread uniting these artists was the tethering of art to everyday life experience, “a counterreaction to Polish conceptual art, which was defined by a sense of alienation of contemporary art from society at large.” (pp. 246-247) Perhaps most significant (for the volume’s editors, who highlight this in the introduction) is Kuźmicz’s assertion theartists running Permafo did not recognize the division of “professionals” from “amateurs,” and thus their practice can be read as a case study in considering the status of amateurism in socialist Eastern Europe. (p. 24)
Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of the book’s approach—although it is not delineated as a particular section within the book, but rather as a theme that runs across many chapters—is to draw attention to the realizations of non-professional cinema, studies of which are widely represented in the volume. This focus can be read in the context of the growing understanding of discourses on professionalism and amateurism as another layer of the functioning of power, reflecting initiatives aimed at more egalitarian access to expression through culture.(Patricia R. Zimmermann, Reel Families, A Social History of Amateur Film (Indiana University Press: Bloomington, 1995). In the introduction to Experimental Cinemas, the editors write, “amateurism, which was encouraged across most of the European state-socialist sphere as an edifying and wholesome field of creative for the masses, is the foremost sphere of ‘minor’ film cultural activity that emerges as central to experimentation across the different national contexts discussed in the book.” (p. 24) As such, works included in the book can be read as realizations of hopes placed by theoreticians in amateur cinema connected with its creative, experimental potential. It is also worth mentioning that Paulina Haratyk has recently completed a study on the topic of developing amateur cinema in the state-socialist Poland.)
Vladimir Iliev, who was a participant in the Bulgarian amateur film scene, and Katerina Lambrinova, a film expert for Bulgarian National Television, present the history of the organization of amateur cinema in Bulgaria, showing its roots in The Society of Bulgarian Amateur Filmmakers, founded in 1924, as well as its development from 1957 to 1972, whenUnion of Bulgarian Filmmakers was established. (pp. 105-107) Iliev points out that from 1957 to 1972, amateur film clubs were often the first step to professional filmmaking. (p. 108) This contribution also examines the function of the National Center for Amateur Artists, founded in 1973 as a part of an official policy that drew a firm boundary between amateurism and professionalism. (p. 110) Iliev shows that the system of organization of amateur film clubs provided opportunities for artists to participate in various national and international film festivals. However, because of the lack of distribution, amateur filmmaking remained isolated from the wider public. The authors also examine the functioning of an unofficial film studio, Kyupsfilm, founded by students at the technical high school for industrial chemistry in Rousse, which gave a wide space to creative experimentation in the area of film. (p. 114) The essay fills the gap in the English-language literature about amateur filmmaking in Bulgaria.(Aleksandar Bošković’s contribution to the volume, an essay dedicated to Yugoslav filmmaker Slobodan Šijan’s production the fanzine Film Leaflet (1976-1979), can also be read in the context of the study of amateurism, expanding the focus beyond the movie screen to publications.)
Another text dedicated to amateur filmmaking, in the volume’s second section, is Petra Belc’s “Home Movies and Cinematic Memories: Fixing the Gaze on Vukica Ðilas and Tatjana Ivančić,” a contribution that addresses the important topic of the history of women in filmmaking. Belc writes, “[B]y 1976 there were around seven hundred women working in the film industry in Yugoslavia, [but] only seven among them were able to produce a total of fifteen feature films in the span of fifty-four years”, showing the patriarchal environment in which the protagonists of her text operated. (p. 156) The author points out that films made by Vukica Ðilas and Tatjana Ivančić have failed to find their place within the largely male experimental film canon. (p. 157)
Art historian Ileana L. Selejan focuses her contribution on the Romanian experimental arts collective kinema ikon (ki), from its founding in 1970 until 1989. She points out that “the infrastructure for ‘cultural leisure’ provided by the state was rerouted or even subverted by ki to less predictable ends.” (p. 199) Selejan argues that ki operated on the margins of state-founded cultural environments, rather than outside them. (p. 198) The book’s studies on experimental cinema’s relationship to both official state and self-created institutions are further supplemented by the essay written by Sonja Simonyi dedicated to the film component of the event Work and Words as a “manifestation” of Eastern European contemporary art organized in Amsterdam in 1979. The text focuses on studying how experimental cinema negotiated the transnational East-West circulation of culture (p. 294).
Czechoslovakia presents a separate case in terms of experimental filmmaking, due to the dramatical shift of cultural politics in the country after the 1968 invasion by Warsaw Pact troops led by the Soviet Union. Cultural scholar Tomáš Glanc contributes to the book with a text dedicated to the works of Čaroděj, an influential Czechoslovak underground filmmaker, filling a gap in English-language scholarship on Czechoslovak experimental filmmaking from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, which is very limited. Glanc points out that in Czechoslovakia—unlike the situation in Hungary, Poland, or Yugoslavia—there was no “gray zone” of smaller film studios where filmmakers could create experimental state-supported works. (p. 319) He shows that the community of which Čaroděj was a part created a “second public sphere” as a platform independent from any state-based institutions and structures. (p. 325)
Glanc’s text does not really elaborate the meaning of the terms “gray zone” or “second public sphere” directly, but these two related theoretical concepts are ones that the editors present in the introduction as key ideas for the volume. The editors quote the definition of the “second public sphere” from the collection of essays edited by Katalin Cseh-Varga and Adam Czirak, Performance Art in the Second Public Sphere: Event-Based Art in Late Socialist Europe, as “a (pseudo-)autonomous arena of communication and opinion sharing, a network and cultural production of individuals and groups, which existed in addition to a dominant public sphere, with which it was interconnected.” (p.18) They evoke the ambiguous understanding of the term “gray zone” from the document entitled New Exploratory Phase in Research on Eastern European Cultures of Dissent: Joint Review Report (NEP4DISSENT).(Maciej Maryl, Piotr Wciślik, Muriel Blaive, James Kapaló, Zsófia Lóránd, et al., New Exploratory Phase in Research on East European Cultures of Dissent: Joint Review Report: Report prepared by the participants of the COST Action CA16213 (NEP4DISSENT) (Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences. 2019). Available online at https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-02144983, pp. 8-9.) The authors of this collective document define the idea of the “gray zone” as on the one hand connected with resistance as an act of negotiated autonomy and exploration of the ambiguous realm between the official culture of socialist countries, and on the other hand connected with openly dissenting cultural activities. (p. 19) Despite the potential ambiguity of this term, Experimental Cinemas in State-Socialist Eastern Europe is an example of how comparative and transnational approaches to the study of alternative cultures can be illuminating, a point on which authors of NEP4DISSENT insist. The book is of interest generally to scholars of film and media and art historians of Eastern Europe, and it will also be very useful for scholars of amateur cinema and alternative cultures.
Experimental Cinemas in State-Socialist Eastern Europe is also poised to open up new avenues for transnational research in fields of media art history of Eastern Europe during the socialist era, including those that are not fully represented in the book, such as women’s filmmaking. Film works made by women are discussed in the book in the texts by Marika Kuźmicz and Petra Belc, respectively, but these seem like just the beginning. “Does the very act of opposing traditional aesthetics and questioning male-dominated language generate a new language and carry an aesthetic with it? It is at this point that feminists have recently come to see the modernist avant-garde as relevant to their own struggle to develop a radical approach to art,” writes Laura Mulvey in “Film, Feminism and the Avant-Garde.”(Laura Mulvey, “Film, Feminism and the Avant-Garde,” in Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures. Language, Discourse, Society (Palgrave Macmillan: London, 1989), p. 112.) Mulvey points out that avant-garde aesthetics, positioned in opposition to mainstream cinema, was perceived as a tool of expression by women, but at the same time in the area of experimental cinema women’s access to the means of artistic articulation was much more limited than men’s. Further comparative studies on women’s experimental filmmaking in Eastern European state-socialist countries could be the next step in transnational research. It would also be interesting to study the conditions of cinematic expression of other unprivileged identity groups, such as queer artists. The topic of queer visual culture is only mentioned in the book in Tomáš Glanc’s text, which discusses how Pavel Veselý, the film lead actor of the film The Blessed Cleaner (Blahoslavený uklizeč, 1980) by Čaroděj, wore female drag on-screen.
More broadly, Experimental Cinemas in State-Socialist Eastern Europe is a useful study for anyone concerned with how alternative cultures functioned under the state socialist system in the 1960s and 1970s. It is also fascinating reading for those who are generally interested in the ways culture functions nowadays as new oppressive structures of political power emerge in Europe. The book can be read as a search for parallels between the present moment and the times described in the book, a precious source of knowledge to everyone who is interested in systems of organizing culture. As Gurshtein and Simonyi write in their introduction, “If alternative cultures of socialist period teach us anything, it’s that culture workers should strategically use the resources of the state when and if they are available while also developing grassroots parainstitutions as needed to create communities of shared concern around issues and activities that the state would not knowingly embrace and support.” (p. 29)