USSR cinema central in ‘1989’ film festival

The European Studies Council will continue its annual film festival about a specific year in history this week: “1989: Film Culture and the Fall of the Wall” begins Thursday with a screening of “Little Vera” at the Whitney Humanities Center.

Fans of late-USSR cinema rejoice.

“1989” is the fourth conference of its kind in four years, following conferences centering on 1946, 1956 and 1968. The dates are not arbitrary: Each represents a year of political turmoil in Europe. Screenings of rare European movies are followed by panel discussions between historians and film scholars on how the films inform and are informed by their years. Fourteen films will be screened between Thursday and Saturday (including “Distant Voices, Still Lives!”) — which can get exhausting, even for the most dedicated cinephile. Still, the conference’s organizers have faith that the momentousness of 1989 will maintain the audience’s interest.

“In a way, 1989 is the end of history,” said Richard Suchenski GRD ’11, a grad student in the Film Studies Department and the conference’s graduate assistant. “It’s the beginning of a different moment. Looking at these films, we can see directors working to deal with the period and all its reverberations.”

The year 1989 certainly has its share of political upheaval to hold one’s attention: the fall of the Berlin Wall, Tiananmen Square, Russia’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, Ayatollah Khomeini’s death threats to Salman Rushdie. But, at least in the U.S., the year is not seen as a benchmark for the progression of European cinema and thus might seem an odd choice for the overarching theme of a film conference. Suchenski emphasized that “1989” is not simply about the aesthetics of the works shown but also about uniting film and history scholars to discuss how the movies reflect and interact with their historical time.

“We’re interested in this reciprocity between cinema and history,” Suchenski said. “The programming panel tried to strike a balance in the films it chose. Some are more interesting as cultural objects, some are more interesting as aesthetic objects.”

Suchenski posed Godard’s “Germany Year 90 Nine Zero” as an example of a film that strikes a balance between the aesthetic and the historical, saying that the film is interesting both as a product of its time (it’s about Germany after the Wall) and as a work of art (it’s Godard). One recalls the different kind of balance achieved by a screening of Godard’s “La Chinoise” at last year’s 1968 conference: Half the audience reveling in the film’s genius, the other half confused and vaguely angered by its unapproachability. Still, Suchenski maintained that this year’s conference is open to all, saying its films and topics are “geared towards everyone.”

Professor John MacKay sees an inherent interest in the year itself. An associate professor in the Slavic Languages and Literature Department as well as in the Film Studies Department, MacKay has helped organize all four of these conferences. He says this year’s conference is unique because most of the audience of “1989” will have lived through the year.

“It’s still hard for me to consider it a historical moment,” said MacKay, who spent 1989 studying in the USSR. “When the Wall fell, everyone knew that it was an important time.”

“But,” he added, “now it’s clearer.”

MacKay went on to position the conference in terms of its predecessors, saying that the central political event of the 20th century was the Russian Revolution of 1917 and that the events of 1945, 1956 and 1968 can all be seen as upheavals resulting from that. The year 1989, he said, began a new period in history. For both MacKay and Suchenski, 1989 marks a transition from one period to another. Suchenski described “Germany Year 90 Nine Zero” as a “meditation on the changing face of Europe.”

Understanding 1989, both said, is crucial to understanding the contemporary world.

Who actually shows interest in the event will be interesting to the organizers. MacKay said the conferences draw a heterogeneous crowd “about two-thirds Yale, one-third non-Yale.”

Multiple film studies students said they hadn’t even heard that a conference was taking place this weekend.

“I haven’t received any information about it,” said Mary Senn ’10, a film studies major. “It sounds interesting.”

As long as all goes according to plan — in an e-mail, one professor said he hadn’t yet seen the film he is supposed to introduce — the conference should begin Thursday Feb. 7 and end Saturday Feb. 9.

Comments