ANOTHER HISTORY IN EXPERIMENTATION: CINEMA ON THE PERIPHERY IN POST-COLD WAR EUROPE

This entry was posted on May 28th, 2012

By Mónica Delgado 

Spanish here

The current state of distribution and exhibition of independent and experimental cinema from the Balkans and the other countries of Eastern Europe is poorly developed when compared to the more widely shown filmography from the rest of Europe. Only a few festivals open their doors and contribute to the spread of such cinema to the other parts of the world. The existing hegemonic order in Europe is still reluctant to give more space to this peripheral cinema except as “works of art in galleries and museums”. In such cases though, the films are categorized inside their own universe and inherit the distance fostered by the totalitarian regimes and socialist governments of the Eastern Bloc and the Cold War. Despite this, a new interest has arisen since the turn of the new millennium regarding those artistic and cinematic expressions that were inaccessible due to the ideological regimes of such men as Tito. And this new interest has given this artistic movement status that runs parallel to the canon. These films resulted in notable and playful experimentations and became associated with the countercultural movement and the anti-establishment. Or as in the case of Polish animation, there was a simple undermining of the form.

A sign of the recent interest in the historiography of experimental cinema of the sixties and seventies can be seen from the staging of all the different gallery and museum exhibitions. In 2010, the Pompidou Center in Paris put on the exhibition “Promises of the Past, Discontinuous History of the Art in the Former Eastern Europe” which displayed various works of art from the communist era, including performances, interventions, ready-made objects, video art, cinema and photography. Ion Grigorescu’s Box, secretly filmed in 1977, was part of the exhibition. This film expressed the ritual of the director’s examination of his own body in a radical manner. He filmed himself nude using an 8mm camera in a way that suggested auto-mutilation, similar to the aesthetics of the Vienna Actionists movement which had great presence during those years. And at the beginning of the seventies, The Hungarian Gabor Body used video with artistic purposes and put the focus on the body. Gabor Body’s films were made under strict control of Communist Party officials: experimental cinema seemed like a sacrilegious and solipsistic movement at a time when the focus was on promoting a more social cinema. Gabor joined the famous Studio Bela Balazs in 1971, establishing the experimental cinema group K3 as a platform, the kind of which is nowhere to be found today.

Besides the Pompidou exhibition, festivals like the Thessaloniki International  Film Festival, in celebration of its 50th anniversary, presented in 2009 a series of rarely seen experimental films from the former Yugoslavia with the support of the Akademski Center from Belgrad Filmski. These films were made during the mid-sixties and received good reception outside the limits of the confederation for their amateur qualities, as well as their political audacity, and were therefore exhibited and promoted in cinema clubs.

Stefan Stoyanov Gallery in New York  presented the exhibition Psychedelic Moving Images from Socialist Yugoslavia 1966 – 1976 in October 2011.  It collected and showed short experimental films from Vladimir Petek (Aquarelle, 1966), Naško Križnar (19th Nervous Breakdown, 1966), Ivan Martinac (Focus, 1967) and Slobodan Šijan (Kosta Bunuševac in a Film About Himself, 1970), a filmmaker and a promoter who led the movement in Eastern Europe through his research and cultural activities.

In the communist countries of Eastern Europe, mainly in the former Yugoslavia, the cinema clubs, with different intentions than those of the Bela Balazs Studios in Hungary, became the catalysts of experimentation. Even though many of them were subsidiaries of the state, they would later go on attack and criticize it. In Serbia, one could find the Kino Klub Belgrad–which closed in 1964–and the AFC, where filmmakers like Pavlovic Zivojin and Dušan Makavejev–both influenced by French realism and Soviet montage–and others formed the so-called Black Wave. And the GEFF Zagreb organized the hugely influential Genre Experimental Film Festival in 1963. It presented works like Tomilslav Gotovac’s Afternoon of a Faun (1963) which is comprised of three sequences with the soundtracks from Jean Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie and George Pal’s The Time Machine. It also presented Gotovac’s Circle in which a camera’s 360-degree movement records the surrounding landscapes. This last film can be placed on par with Michael Snow and his experiments with camera. Gotovac actually directed his works earlier, establishing the foundations of  “Structural Cinema”. The GEFF ran until 1970 and had only four editions.

In Croatia, the diffuse activities became focalized in Split, where directors like Ivan Martinac, Ranko Kursar, Vjekoslav Naki or Lordan Zafranovi created a film school called “Spalato”. The other members of the Zagreb Cine Club banded under the term “anti-cinema”, but without focusing on experimental or avant-garde concepts. In Ljubljana, the ŠKUC Gallery supported the promotion of experimental cinema; however only a few archives from that period remain extant today.

An Extended Gaze: Recovered Cinema

The experimental cinema of post-Cold War Yugoslavia and Poland shows evidence of the darkness from which it emerged, a place that was nearly non-existent in the moral and symbolic order of hegemonic cultural circles of countries like France, Germany, and England. Across the Atlantic, the Warhol experience was taken out of its context a thousand times for instant consumption by the masses, but a contingent of experimental works born in the age of socialism did not resonate much except in the internal modes of production and distribution on the periphery of  the agitprop.

There was an effort to form a unique cinema with fragmented or minimal staging and structure.  The hope was that the effort could result in influencing the rest of the world, as it did on the peripheries of cinema. It is impossible to think of the cinema of the Balkans outside the context and boundaries that were framed by the Cold War. Even within the frontiers of experimental cinema, the Manichean border separating the Western capitalist bloc and the Eastern communist countries could not be blurred.

Experimenting outside the experimental border

In the early sixties, the experimental art world had its spotlight pointed in the direction of the United States. The seeds of video art were emerging in the underground circles of both the elite and the ghettoes, and a similar spirit arose in the socialist countries of Eastern Europe.

Pointing towards both necessary and trivial facts with a static camera, and attempting to portray the inroads of the mind with all of its madness and chaos were some of the motivations that drove experimental filmmakers in communist countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic. In this respect, they were similar to the other artists of the same period like Andy Warhol or the Fluxus movement, in that they utilized independent modes of production and  broke from the conventional filmic language.  This means that the political aspects were marked in the language and use of the cinematographic point of view, and resulted in a different cinema from the predominant one. All of this history has recently come to light thanks to the  efforts of cinematheques and museums that fight for preservation and recognition. However, as an example, cinema under communist control still could not reach the cogency of the Vienna Actionists. But it did find liberty on the margins of animation comprised of fixed shots.

During the mid-fifties, the highlight was placed on the school that would later be known as the Vienna Actionists, commonly reduced to the famous personalities of Otto Mühl, Hermann Nitsch or Günter Brus, who never assumed themselves as part of a collective group until 1965. The nude body was subverted and given new interpretations, even the freedom to pervert. Other countries of the region chose a less striking path to trigger current politics. Like many other countries on the continent, Austria was able to make experimental films in the context of the Eastern Bloc. Without any doubt, the experimental films on the periphery of Europe had a personal stamp and would later serve as inspiration for different directors in search of a new filmic language.

On the other hand, experimental cinema in countries like Italy became evident thanks to important names like Silvio and Vittorio Loffredo, Luigi Veronesi, and Cioni Carpi. And in Holland, Franz Zwartjes formulated his style with a 16mm Beaulieu camera. His intent was made visible in his film Birds, which with the passage of time has lost its initial provocation but has won sympathy for its daring montages with quick close-ups–a style which later became common with the use of the “cyborg” camera. In Finland, the visual artist Erkki Kurenniemi, one of the precursors of cyberpunk, presented in 16mm the film Electronics in the World of Tomorrow, one of the first works to tread the frontier of electronic culture.

In 1974, Jean Mitry published the book “History of Experimental Cinema”, supposedly a compendium of experimental films shown till that time.  But many of the films mentioned were Oscar winners or festival selections. The films analyzed and cited by Mitry were the emblematic experimental animations that would be canonized, such as the works of the Scottish-Canadian Normal McLaren (Around is Around, A Chairy Tale, Neighbors, Blinkity Blank), the New Zealander Len Lye (Color Cry, The Fox Chase), and Bert Hanstraa (Pantha Rhei, Glass). However, Mitry also considers Abel Gance (14 juillet, I accuse) and Alain Renais (Chant du styrene) as experimental filmmakers, even though they would not be considered experimental by today’s standards. Mitry also mentions Kenneth Anger, Gregory Markopoulos, Lindsay Anderson, and Chris Marker on one hand and Jean Rouch,  Karel Reisz, Robert Young, Richard Leacock,  D.A. Pennebaker, Shirley Clarke, John Cassavetes, G.M. Kuchar and Andy Warhol on the other. But no reference is made to the experimental cinema of Eastern Europe except for that of the transplants who migrated to the United States. 

Beyond Agitprop 

In the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia that was formed by combining Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Serbia, the amateur filmmakers brought new airs to the few cinemas realized during the times of the agitprop under Tito’s rule. The experimental was born from the amateur movement, building a social experience from the technical and the political, in contrast to other more industrialized modes of production.

During the mid-sixties, inspired by French and American movies exhibited through cine clubs in different cities like Ljubljana, Belgrade,  Zagreb, and Split, these directors created works of subtle criticism and keen sense of humor. Some of these  qualities, which lead to censorship and even years in prison, will be illustrated through different examples later on.

The so called “Black Wave”, pointed to a new common direction for pan-Yugoslavian cinema  under the socialist regime. The movement received this name because of a compulsion to put a label on a group of films, rather than something like with the Nouvelle Vague or the Cinema Novo which appeared in the context of political disenchantment (Marxist dissidents) and of a renovation of style.

Cine clubs in Belgrade promoted the the exhibition and production of works of figures like Dušan Makavejev, who in the year 1955 filmed The Seal, a short film about bureaucracy as a symptom of totalitarianism. He started a series of works that were censored and was forced to live in  exile.

After a period of success between 1963 and 1968, Makavejev’s impact expanded beyond his country. In his films The Man Is not a Bird (1965) and Romance or the Tragedy of the Switch Operator (1967), he used collages and a juxtaposition of documentary and abstract material within context of satire and political critique. With Innocent without Defense (1968), he used a mixture of mockumentary, found footage, and surveys to make an irreverent inquiry into the life of the actor of the first Serbo-Croatian silent film. His film WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971),  explores the sex-oriented thesis of the theorist Wilhelm Reich and incorporates elements of the counterculture and synthesis of genres. Less emblematic works from this period are Vojislav “Kokan” Rakonjac’s Lágrimas (1959) which presents the morality of the postwar partisans as a dry drama as a conventional story and the Serbian Želimir Žilnik’s Serbian Frescoes which stays more faithful to the roads taken by the “Black Wave”.

But it is not until the appearance of the Slovenian Karpo Godina that the choice for a critique of the subtle modus vivendi, repression and cynicism of the totalitarian regime was made, using elements from the agitprop movement. Sunday Picnic, a short film from 1967 that used fixed and unfocused shots of characters in a country setting, is a satirical anti-bourgeois tale. 

The Gratinated Brains of Pupilija Ferkeverk (1970) is one of the first odes to LSD made in front of the eyes of Tito and company. Godina made this short film over a year, chronicling the passage of time and seasons from a fixed view of a woman on a swing in a Slovenian port city. It seems  that nothing happens, with the woman just swinging over a sea floor which reflects the colors of the sky. Suddenly a group of male characters, who are agitprop-inspired stereotypes, appears out of the blue. The men shout, sing, drink Coca Cola, read, and act in a nonsensical fashion, while the woman is swinging in the distance. Suddenly the situation changes, and the woman leaves her place to disrupt the group. The final close-up is of the woman swallowing LSD pills while the men come running from far away to see if they can partake in the potential action. 

A psychedelic song that might have appealed to hippies accompanies The Gratinated Brains of Pupilija Ferkeverk in its entirety, a calling for a liberation from the system through an LSD trip (made even more eloquent by incorporating a female character). She is a new modern-day Eve, who encourages committing “sin” against the  repressive totalitarian system.  The short film was banned even though it was financed by the state, which in turn meant that it achieved its intended socio-political goals.

 The Litany of Happy People (1971) is Godina’s most accessible short film. It is comprised of a series of ethnographic shots that illustrate the different customs and cultures of the town of Vojvodina in northeastern Serbia and has a notably sardonic tone. The film recreates a popular propaganda song that talks about the harmonious coexistence among Serbs, Croats, Hungarians, Slovaks, Gypsies, Romanians, Macedonians, and Russians through vignettes and still shots that try to be living photographs of each ethnic group in various stereotypical poses. The short film is an attack on the idea of the celebration of ethnic diversity that was adopted by the Yugoslavian government.

In 1971, Godina conceived the film I Miss Sonja Heni in which seven filmmakers–Tinto Brass, Milos Forman, Buck Henry, Dusan Makavejev, Paul Morrissey, Frederick Wiseman, and himself–each directed  a short with the same camera in the same single position. Each short film lasts three minutes and the title is a quote from Snoopy, the character from Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. The directors completed this project over one night during the Belgrade Film festival, a testament to the great wit of Godina and the other filmmakers. 

Polish Experimentation

Even though strict social control was imposed by Poland’s socialist regime during the mid-fifties and sixties, in contrast to the former Yugoslavia, an influential and experimental animation developed to a high level unmatched in those years by the West. Walerian Borowczyk, Jan Lenica, Jerzy Kotowski or Miroslaw Kijowicz were some of the leading figures of this trend that sought to challenge conventional animation. At the end of World War II, the State Superior Film School in Lodz was formed. The school was a part of the socialist realist movement that emerged from the Polish School (1956-1963) and developed parallel to the appearance of the animation directors who in times of repression found solace in working on technique, unlike the cinema of the Balkans which rejected censorship.

Kineforms, created by Andrzej Paweowski in the mid-fifties, joined the movement to explore the kinetics of light as well as experimental tendencies in animation. And within this context, the editor and cartoonist Jan Lenica met with the animator Walerian Borowczyk, the director of the seventies cult film The Beast. They created an experimental group until Janica had to go to live in France, where he was able to make other types of work such as Rhinoceros, adapted from the play by Eugene Ionesco.

Dom (House) from 1958 shows influence of surrealism through the use of absurd collage and portrayals of elements of the unconscious. Jan Lenica and Walerian Borowczyk made short films like Once upon a Time (1957) and The Banner of Youth (1958) that would prove important to the later generation of filmmakers led by Roman Polanski.

The founding works of Plaza by Edward Sturlis (1964), Cinéforms by Andrzej Pawlowski (1957) and Somnambulists by Mieczyslaw Wakowski (1958) were realized with manipulated photographic images as well as unconventional drawings done within the  frames. If extreme political repression took a toll on creativity in countries like the former Yugoslavia, in Poland cinematic tools and techniques developed to the point of strengthening the country’s position as the undisputed leader in experimental animation of the sixties.

This article illustrates the need to revisit  Eastern European cinema, which emerged in the sixties and seventies–in the case of Poland even in the mid- fifties–and to properly place it inside the great panorama of world cinema, in which diverse schools– from the Nouvelle Vague to the Black Wave–experimented with notable changes. But above all, this cinema stands out because of an instinctive mea culpa free of prejudices and post-Cold War uncertainties.  By studying history, one can find an alternative history of experimentation in cinema.