Highlighting this year's Russian Film Symposium are issues of race and ethnicity, themes inspired partly by the rise in racial and ethnic conflict in that country over the past decade. The six-day symposium, co-presented by the University of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Filmmakers, begins Mon., May 5, and offers 13 films, to be shown on the Oakland campus and at the Melwood Screening Room, in North Oakland. There will also be discussions and visiting speakers.
Specifically, the films will examine the "domestic other" ... the outsider within Russia. These include peoples from the former Soviet states and those defined by other ethnicities or races, such as gypsies or Jews, as well as outsiders still melding into Russian life.
Symposium organizer Vladimir Padunov, an associate professor of Slavic language and literature and an associate director of the film studies program at the University of Pittsburgh, counsels that in Russia, "racism has never been questioned as a category; it's completely unreflected upon." The recent film Needing a Nanny, for instance, depicted abuse heaped on Uzbek laborers by a vindictive nanny. But, says Padunov, "The Russian media saw it as a film about evil nannies, rather than nannies being evil to other disempowered groups."
This year's program spans nearly 80 years ... from a 1928 silent feature to 2005 commercial releases ... and reflects some changes in how the domestic other is perceived. Some of the earlier works trumpet the embrace of the outsider into the grand socialist scheme, such as in Circus and Seekers of Happiness. "Films [such as those] were made in 1936, at the height of Soviet 'nationalities policy,'" says Padunov, "which in its unwritten components laid the basis for what is called 'the great family,' a structured family of nations. Clearly, the father is Stalin, then there are the children, all of these different nationalities." But even within the family, there was a pecking order that placed the ethnically non-Russian states lower, as "the lesser and more backward brothers," inferior groups that had to be helped along.
As always, the symposium offers the opportunity to see films unlikely to be screened here again, and which in some cases have never been seen in this country at all. That includes 1933's Motherland, which holds the distinction of being the first film banned by Stalin. Another highlight on the schedule is Vsevolod Pudovkin's silent feature Heir of Ghenghis Khan, which will be accompanied by live music provided by Antithesis, a student band from CAPA.
The following films screen at the Melwood Screening Room. (See box for complete schedule.)
SEEKERS OF HAPPINESS. Vladimir Korsh-Sablin's 1936 film is a lyrical melodrama that follows a group of American Jews to their new homeland, Birobidzhan, a remote region in Russia set aside as an autonomous Jewish state. The various family members adapt well to life in the collective; one even finds romance with a hunky Russian. The simple story is intercut with songs and folk music, propagandistic scenes of happy workers, and languorous looks at the abundant earth ... fields, lakes, flowers, babbling streams. One such stream proves the undoing of a potential socialist, when he discovers it harbors gold.
CIRCUS. An American circus performer, Marion Dixon, flees the U.S. in disgrace, and signs on as the privileged star of a Moscow circus ... but really, her journey has just begun. A series of dramas, songs and romantic encounters puts Miss Dixon on the enlightened path of socialism, where she eventually finds peace in the many arms of the working class. The subtitles are wobbly, but Grigorii Aleksandrov's 1936 film is beautifully shot (Aleksandrov was Sergei Eisenstein's co-director), and a real visual treat. The last 20 minutes of the film are well worth the price of admission ... there's an extravagant Busby Berkley-style musical number, "shocking" melodramatics and an extended state propaganda sequence that'll have you cheering for the red flag.
DEAD MAN'S BLUFF. A briefcase full of heroin is the catalyst that pits a never-ending succession of assorted gangsters (crooked cops, bosses and enforcers) against one another in this over-the-top gangster shoot-'em-up from last year. Riffing on the both the generic trappings of recent Russian gangster films and the assimilation of criminal elements into ordered society, Aleksei Balabanov's black comedy suggests there's little profit to be made anymore in petty, provincial disputes settled in careless bloodbaths. Thus the two protagonists, a pair of casually racist and somewhat dim heavies, decide to pursue the new grail, "start-up capital."
NEEDING A NANNY. This 2005 drama from Larisa Sadilova (With Love, Lilya) is part psychological thriller and part social study. For reasons we never fully understand, Gayla, the nanny, purposefully sows discord in her new home. She is abusive to the family's hired Uzbek laborers, pokes holes in her employers' marriage, and teaches their only child to be quite rotten. Perhaps it is class anxiety: Gayla is presented as a simple countrywoman, now in the employ of the new middle class, with its frantic Western lifestyles and materialist trappings. Yet they aren't truly bad people, just a little careless, and Gayla fails to bring any class-conscious empathy to her treatment of the household's other employees, the undocumented Uzbeks.
The films scheduled for the morning and afternoon will screen via video projection in Room 208B of the Cathedral of Learning on the University of Pittsburgh campus (4200 Fifth Ave., Oakland), and will be followed by discussions. Unless noted, the films are in Russian, with English subtitles. There is no charge and the public is welcome.
Additional screenings will take place at the Melwood Screening Room (477 Melwood Ave., Oakland), and will be presented in 35 mm. All films are in Russian, with English subtitles; admission is $6. For more information see www.rusfilmpitt.edu or call 412-624-5713.
Mon., May 1
10 a.m. My Motherland (Aleksandr Zarkhi and Iosif Kheifit, 1933, 80 min., no subtitles)
2 p.m. Heir of Ghenghis Khan (Vsevolod Pudovkin, 1928, 126 min.) With live musical accompaniment by Antithesis of CAPA; screened at the Frick Fine Arts Auditorium at Schenley Plaza).
Tue., May 2
10 p.m. The Elusive Avengers (Edmond Keosaian, 1966, 74 min.)
2 p.m. The Gypsy Camp Rolls Into the Sky (Emil Lotianu, 1976, 101 min.)
7:30 p.m. Seekers of Happiness (Vladimir Korsh-Sablin, 1936, 81 min.). Melwood
Wed., May 3
10 a.m. Tale of How Tsar Peter Married Off His Negro (Aleksandr Mitta, 1976, 100 min., no subtitles)
7:30 p.m. Seekers of Happiness; to be introduced by Peter Bagrov. Melwood
Thu., May 4
10 a.m. The Border (Mikhail Dubson, 1935, 81 min., no subtitles)
2 p.m. Commissar (Aleksandr Askoldov, 1967/87, 105 min.)
7:30 p.m. Circus (Grigorii Aleksandrov, 1936, 89 min.); to be introduced by Oleg Aronson. Melwood
Fri., May 5
Close to Eden (Nikita Mikhalkov, 1991, 109 min.)
2 p.m. Roots (Pavel Lungin, 2005, 103 min.)
7:30 p.m. Dead Man's Bluff (Aleksei Balabanov, 2005, 110 min.); to be introduced by Dawn Seckler. Melwood
Sat., May 6
5 p.m. Dead Man's Bluff. Melwood
7:30 p.m. Needing a Nanny (Larisa Sadilova, 2005, 110 min.); to be introduced by Diliara Tasbulatova. Melwood
Sun., May 7
3 p.m. Circus. Melwood
5 p.m. Needing a Nanny. Melwood