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THE ENTHUSIASTS ARCHIVE

Banner stills L to R: Litany of Happy People, courtesy Slovene Cinematheque
Death of Metalosaurus
, courtesy Igor Toholj; and Game, courtesy Slovene Cinematheque

City Scene / Country Scene

A surprisingly large number of Eastern European experimental and amateur films focus, at least in part, on the places where the films were made. Both city streets and rural locales seem in these films to become characters in their own right, and this program presents some of the richness of possible attitudes toward place that Eastern European experimental cinema offers its viewers, showing how seemingly universal interests in both urban environments and rural landscapes was often inflected in the region in the postwar period by the citizens’ often complicated and fraught relationships with various kinds of “public” space.

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Still from Game, courtesy Slovene Cinematheque

Among the “city films” included here, Karpo Godina’s Game (1965) and Naško Križnar and the OHO group’s Dok. Film (1968) are remarkable for the sense of freedom and frisson in urban life that they convey. This sense might easily be taken as the enthusiasm of young people experiencing their city—Ljubljana—at a time of increasing affluence and political liberalization. Yet the testimony of Križnar’s fellow OHO member Milenko Matanović about his discovery in 1969 that all of his actions were being watched and logged by the police (who did not harass him otherwise) suggests that the openness, carefree pleasure, and curiosity with which the protagonists of the two films thought they could encounter the people on Yugoslav streets was at best fleeting or at worst always illusory.[1] In the 1970s, an echo of OHO’s urban playfulness could be found in the innovative performances of the Academy of Movement (Akademia Ruchu), the Polish artist group–cum–theater troupe that, unknown to passersby,  staged and filmed subtle interventions into the fabric of city life. Yet the tenor of the group’s work was also notably different from OHO’s in that it was a self-conscious “response to the political repression and censorship experienced from the totalitarian regime in Poland at the time” and a way of “interfering with the tedium of life in the city.”[2] Akademia Ruchu was less flamboyant and more somber than OHO in its performances. One of their films shows troupe members lining up in a queue to nowhere, mimicking the food-shortage queues of the 1980s, while another shows the actors stumbling in a public space.

The idea that urban public space subjects one to surveillance and control (much like the act of being on camera) was made explicit in Hungary in 1976 by the artist Tibor Hajas. In his film Self-Fashion Show, encounters reminiscent of Dok.Film turn sinister when a voice behind the camera orders passersby on Budapest streets (as well as people in a studio) to compose and present themselves in a certain way to be filmed. By contrast, Jaan Tooming’s and Virve Aruoja’s film Endless Day (1971), which was made in Soviet Estonia, showed a very loose narrative of a man performing with no apparent guidance (but great gusto) almost every action imaginable in a city. Yet their film—one man’s manic and epic journey through Tallinn during a seemingly endless day—which, according to Eva Näripea, illustrates “the idea of a man in search of his voice and place in the world,” was banned by the authorities before completion because it was “at odds with the principles of socialist realism” and was deemed so dangerous that every copy of it was slated for destruction.

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Still from Centre, courtesy Filmoteka Muzeum

Two of the city-focused films from the 1970s in this program, Ljubomir Šimunić’s Pression (1970–75) and Kazimierz Bendkowski’s Centre (1976), concern themselves with city life as a private affair. Šimunić captures in sequences that last a few seconds at most an idiosyncratic world of walks through Belgrade during the day, complete with Peeping Tom activities, and taxi rides through the lit-up city at night. Bendkowski, too, focuses on the city—Warsaw, in his case—as both an exciting and a disorienting spectacle of neon signs and car lights dancing in the night. The film starts out by capturing its namesake Centrum shopping center at night—a fact that led Łukasz Ronduda and Michał Woliński to place it in the “social and economic context of 1970s socialist Poland [and the] Edward Gierek–era policy of luring and bribing the public with the vision of ‘socialistic consumerism.’”[3] Yet much of the film verges on or actually becomes pure abstraction, suggesting that Bendkowski was interested not in making a statement about city life in socialist Poland but rather in using the visual resources of the newly consumerist city as the “canvas” and “paint” for his formal experiments. The same can be said of Ivan Ladislav Galeta’s Sphere (1971–84), in which Galeta pays cosmological homage to the Earth and Sun and uses experimental optical printing techniques while filming everyday people interacting with Ivan Kožarić’s 1971 sculpture Grounded Sun in central Zagreb.

Compared to the wider range of takes on the city in experimental films from the 1970s, the two films from the 1980s featured here seem to reflect the ironic disillusionment with which Communist regimes were increasingly perceived by their citizens as 1989 drew near. Both Thomas Werner’s Hello, Berlin! (1987), made in the former GDR, and Igor Toholj’s Death of Metalosaurus (1989), made in the former Yugoslavia, mock socialist reality in oblique but legible ways. Notably, both films also take place amid the new urban topography of vast blocks of ferroconcrete high-rise apartment buildings that for many define postwar Eastern European architecture.[4] In Death of Metalosaurus, an electricity pylon sprawled on the ground represents collapse, and the film hints at the idea that the Yugoslav political system is a dying dinosaur. In Hello, Berlin!, an imaginary tour of East Berlin juxtaposes images of socialist leisure with disaffected protagonists and subtle reminders that Berlin is the city where Cold War divisions were most prominently inscribed into the urban fabric. The film ends with the line, “When exactly will the tour be over?” A group of films made by an artist that could not be included here but were also “city films” made in the 1980s were those shot illicitly by the Romanian Ion Grigorescu [LINK] as he documented the destruction of old buildings in his beloved Bucharest, where postwar urbanization happened late and was especially traumatic. [5]

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Still from White People
courtesy Slovene Cinematheque

One might expect the countryside, by contrast with the city, to be less laden with socio-political meanings than urban space, and in some ways, that was true in Eastern Europe. Our research turned up far fewer experimental and alternative “country films” than “city films,” and the ones made by artists suggest that they treated nature as a space where they could escape and transcend their everyday realities. The Slovene OHO group is again emblematic here—the works that its members made in nature, particularly those shown in the film Summer Projects, which was part of the 1970 Information exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, deal with elemental concerns and make no references whatsoever to politics. Yet, as Marko Pogačnik, one of the founders of the earlier OHO movement, has noted, it was cultural politics and policy that brought the group to nature in the first place: “My first contribution to the work of the OHO Group was Summer Projects in 1969. . . . After [an] . . . exhibition at the Moderna galerija (Ljubljana) there was a crisis. We wanted to go on developing our ideas, but had no way of showing our work. I suggested that we exchange the museum or gallery spaces for natural settings. Thus our series of land art works came about.” Noting his interest in nature as a spiritual space, Pogačnik again frames it in relation to Yugoslav politics: “We were always interested in whatever was forbidden and rejected by the ruling system of thought (politics). At that time, spirituality and ecology were off limits,” which is partly why he and other OHO members developed lifelong interests in both topics.[6] The second OHO film in this program, 19th Nervous Breakdown, predates most of the group’s work in nature by several years, and it was shot on the outskirts of the town of Kranj rather than in wilderness. Yet it already presages the way that the countryside would ultimately become for the group the preferred place to explore their ideas about natural, as well as spiritual and social, reality, as can also be seen in their most ambitious film, White People.[7]

If the relatively liberal Yugoslav system of support for the arts provided occasional opportunities for artists like OHO to show their work, in some Warsaw Pact countries, no such opportunities existed. In the USSR and Romania, artists’ interest in alternative spaces for art making (be it the natural landscape or the privacy of one’s apartment) was often driven by the necessity to make art away from prying eyes. This aesthetic borne out of necessity can be seen in the films made by the Romanian artist Ion Grigorescu, whose Man as the Center of the Universe (1978), shot on the outskirts of Bucharest, resonates with OHO’s cosmological concerns about humanity’s place in nature and shows Grigorescu as uncharacteristically “whole”—rather than doubled or split, as he often appeared in the performance films that he staged in his apartment. Nature also provided the setting for the open-ended, often poetic and mysterious actions of Moscow’s Collective Actions group, which began taking its “trips to the countryside” in 1976, recording a handful of its works on film.

Artists were not alone, however, in seeing in nature a space for liberated or subversive actions. Historians have documented much wider cultural phenomena that saw young people in the region leaving cities seeking a certain kind of freedom, and in some instances, these larger social trends found their reflection in amateur experimental films. In her essay “Weekend Getaways: The Chata, the Tramp, and the Politics of Private Life in Post-1968 Czechoslovakia,” Paulina Bren notes the subversive meaning that was acquired in post-1968 Czechoslovakia by “tramping”—the activity of young people who created countercultural communities by camping in nature with few comforts, inspired, in part, by the romance of American films about the Wild West.[8] To a striking degree, one also sees such a perception of the countryside as a place of freedom where homage to an imagined West can be paid in the strange but remarkable “remake” of Easy Rider (1969) that was created by the underground filmmaker, writer, and all-around nonconformist Lubomír Drožď, better known as Čaroděj OZ (Wizard Oz). The culminating effort of his amateur filmmaking career, Easy Rider OZ (1984) took a year to make, is over 40 minutes long, and ostensibly repeats the plot of the iconic American film. Yet it does so with a DIY aesthetic that lends the characters and their environment an innocence impossible in the original. Most notably, this difference between the two films is encapsulated in the bicycles—rather than motorcycles—that the two protagonists of Easy Rider OZ use to traverse the verdant Czech countryside, which offers them opportunities for free love and a hippie music jam. In the former USSR, too, it is the countryside—namely, the large, scenic outdoor camp called Gauja (after an eponymous river) north of Riga—that to this day most vividly evokes the memory of Soviet hippies.[9] This is despite the fact that, as Mark Allen Svede has documented, in Latvia, which had the USSR’s most visible hippie community, the capital, Riga, was the epicenter of hippie activity, as captured in a handful of films, including those shot at eccentric private gatherings by the ringleader of Latvian hippies, Andris Grīnbergs.[10]

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Still from Litany of Happy People, courtesy Slovene Cinematheque

One other important view of the countryside that is captured by the films in this program is not as a present-day heterotopia for a select few but as the place connected to the communal past where ethnic difference, identity, and authenticity are preserved at their purest. The idea that “the land” is where a people’s traditional ways are preserved is stressed as a positive in The Flipside of the Coin. One sees the idea’s darker ramifications most clearly and poignantly in Karpo Godina’s Litany of Happy People, which today seems to have foreshadowed (despite its own best intentions) the failure of the Yugoslav project of national brotherhood and the return of bloody ethnic tensions to the Balkans in the 1990s.  — Ksenya Gurshtein

1. Milenko Matanović recalls in an interview, “Once, I think it was in 1969, I was taken to a police station where a couple of plain-clothed policemen asked me about my life, but mainly wanted to let me know that I was being watched. They showed me a large binder and asked me if I wanted to know what I had been doing on a specific day. . . . I was never bothered again. At first I was upset and found it unsettling. A few days later I took a more generous view: I was proud of myself for providing jobs for several individuals; I was helping the economy.” Matanović’s work with OHO, with which he actively participated in street actions, has had a lasting impact on him. “I still do art, but not in museums and galleries. I rather go to main streets, parks and other gathering places, or schools. To me this is a logical extension of the work I began with OHO.” (back to top)

2. For more, see Łukasz Ronduda, Polish Art of the 70s (Warsaw, 2009), 344–61. The group also has a website in Polish. (back to top)

3. Satisfaction: Consumption Art from Communist Poland of the 1970s, exh. cat. (Warsaw, 2010), 1; the authors, however, do not make a case for why they include this film with a group of others that are much more overtly concerned with consumerism. (back to top)

4. Both Belgrade and East Berlin saw the construction of vast new residential neighborhoods in the postwar period as part of expanding urbanization. For an insightful essays on the way “post-Stalinist functionalism” and “Khrushchev Modern” architecture shaped East Berlin, see Greg Castillo, “East as True West: Redeeming Bourgeois Culture from Socialist Realism to Ostalgie,” in Imagining the West in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, ed. György Péteri (Pittsburgh, 2010), 87–104. David Crowley’s essay “Paris of Moscow? Warsaw Architects and the Image of the Modern City in the 1950s” in the same book describes similar processes taking place in postwar Warsaw. (back to top)

5. For Grigorescu’s relationship to architecture and urbanization in Bucharest, see Erwin Kessler, ed., The Self-Punishing One: Ştefan Bertalan, Florin Mitroi, Ion Grigorescu; Arts and Romania during the 1980s and 1990s Bucharest, 2010), 196–201; and Marta Dziewanska, ed., Ion Grigorescu: In the Body of the Victim, 1969–2008 (Warsaw, 2011), 66–67. “The ambiguous image of Romanian modernization was documented in such films as City in Socialism (1974–1987) and My Beloved Bucharest (1977). At the same time, Grigorescu made Zurich, Basel, Paris (1977), a film which offered a critical and an almost moralizing view of Western European cities.” Ibid., 10. (back to top)

6. Even more starkly, the trajectory from urban performances to performances in nature could be traced in former Czechoslovakia in the work of Milan Knížák and the Aktual group.(back to top)

7. The film 19th Nervous Breakdown was included in a film program curated by Croatian curator Branko Franceschi titled Psychedelic Moving Images from Socialist Yugoslavia, 1966–1976, which was shown in multiple U.S. venues in the fall of 2011. Descriptions of some of the films can be found in this review. Though the program focused on the influence of Wetsern popular music on Yugoslav amateur filmmaking, it also demonstrated the awereness and sympathy with Western countercultural ideals that existed across Yugoslavia.(back to top)

8. Paulina Bren, “Weekend Getaways: The Chata, the Tramp, and the Politics of Private Life in Post-1968 Czechoslovakia,” in Socialist Spaces: Sites of Everyday Life in the Eastern Bloc, ed. David Crowley and Susan E. Reid (London, 2002), 123–40.(back to top)

9. Mark Allen Svede, “All You Need Is Love(beads): Latvia’s Hippies Undress for Success,” in Style and Socialism: Modernity and Material Culture in Post-War Eastern Europe, ed. David Crowley and Susan E. Reid (London, 2000), 202; and Robert Gildea, James Mark, and Anette Warring, eds., Europe’s 1968: Voices of Revolt (Oxford, 2013), 191. According to the latter source, summer camps for hippies were held at Gauja as late as 1992.(back to top)

10. Mark Allen Svede, “All You Need Is Love(beads): Latvia’s Hippies Undress for Success,” in Style and Socialism: Modernity and Material Culture in Post-War Eastern Europe, ed. David Crowley and Susan E. Reid (London, 2000), 191–92.(back to top)