In this period of great hope for change, filmmakers were among those who tested the limits of the system’s willingness to bring about true reforms in countries that, in many cases, were still struggling to recover from the ravages of World War II. Advocating for change meant exposing the social ills that needed to be fixed. Just as important, it also meant giving visual and verbal form to a new attitude of respect toward citizens, who would, in a truly Communist future, be able to get results from those in power rather than live in fear of them. The genre of the documentary film was singularly well suited to both of these purposes, and thus the second half of the 1950s and the 1960s saw a flourishing of work by young documentarians who often looked for new forms and ways of engaging their subjects.
Documentaries with a Human Face
The ill-fated Prague Spring of 1968 began with the Czechoslovak Communist leader Alexander Dubček announcing a desire to build “socialism with a human face.” This visually evocative sentiment came at what would soon be the end of the tumultuous period of de-Stalinization and liberalization that began in 1953 with the death of Joseph Stalin and the coming into power in the USSR of Nikita Khrushchev. In 1954 the Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg gave a name to this period with the title of his novel The Thaw. In 1956 Khrushchev’s “secret speech” condemning Stalin’s “cult of personality” signaled to Communist functionaries the acceptability of political and social reforms, though the Hungarian Revolution quashed by Soviet troops later that year also demonstrated clearly that the Soviet Union would not relinquish control over its neighbors despite the unpopularity of the governments it backed.
Still from Black Film, courtesy Želimir Žilnik
This shift was in keeping with a larger interest in humanistic values and social concern in world cinema, marked in the documentary realm by the emergence of Free Cinema in the United Kingdom, cinéma vérité in France, and Direct Cinema in North America, as well as more broadly by the ethos of Italian Neorealism and French New Wave. In Eastern Europe, however, such work was inflected by the much more severe punishments artists could face for questioning official representations of reality (concerning, for example, the situation of society’s most vulnerable members: marginalized ethnic minorities, children and youth, and the rural and urban poor) in socialist countries that claimed to put the interests of the disenfranchised first.
Still from 10 Minutes Older, courtesy Riga Film Museum
Several films selected for the National Gallery’s program show a desire on the part of filmmakers to create more intimate and compassionate depictions of individuals and everyday people, whom the films endow with a new sense of dignity and importance, often literally focusing on their faces. This tendency is particularly strongly represented in the so-called Riga school of poetic documentary, whose masterpieces 235 000 000 (1967) and 10 Minutes Older (1978) abound with close-ups of human faces, the latter consisting of a single 10-minute take of a child’s agitated face. Similarly, Pavel Kogan and Petr Mostovoy’s Look at the Face (1966), the most famous film to come out of the Leningrad Documentary Film Studio (Lendokfil’m) during its most creative period, lovingly juxtaposes the faces in Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna Litta with the faces of museum visitors gazing on them. Interestingly, a long sequence in which the camera examines the faces of museum visitors juxtaposed with art also appears in 235 000 000, though it was filmed amid the portraits of the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow rather than at the Hermitage (located in then-Leningrad).
Given that many of Eastern Europe’s young filmmakers of the 1950s and 1960s shared a sense of discontent with the world around them, numerous “black”—that is, socially critical—documentaries were also made across the region during this period, even though the filmmakers themselves often did not know one another’s work. As Bjørn Sørenssen shows in A Companion to Eastern European Cinemas (2012), the earliest group of such films were the Polish Black Series documentaries made in the mid-1950s (and shown by the end of the decade in London by the adherents of the British Free Cinema movement). These addressed a number of pressing social issues, including “hooliganism” among disaffected youth, the severe housing shortage in postwar Warsaw, and official claims that prostitution did not exist in Poland. Whereas some of these films aimed their message at the audience, urging people to care about the plight of their fellow human beings, others, like the film about prostitution titled Article Zero (1957), pointedly blamed politicians and demanded action. As Sørenssen demonstrates, in a span of a few years, these Polish films began to chart new formal waters, moving from the older tradition of using didactic voiceover to new forms—which would gain prominence in the 1960s—where narration is done by the participants in the action or avoided altogether in favor of either “detached” or “emphatic” observations on which the filmmaker pointedly does not comment.
Still from Gypsies, courtesy MaNDA Archive
In Hungary, the film Gypsies (1962) was the first socially conscious documentary to come out of the Balázs Béla Studio. Writing in 1985, J. Hoberman called it “a documentary of unprecedented frankness” and “a daring departure from the informational films of the fifties—allowing for the direct expression [in Hungarian cinema] of unofficial opinions as well as offering a sympathetic portrayal of an alternative to the approved social order. Victimized by centuries of oppression, Hungarian gypsies were here able to articulate their situation in their own words." BBS continued to create highly experimental documentaries throughout the 1960s and beyond, their connection to a larger trend of social criticism articulated explicitly in the title of Pál Schiffer’s 1969 Black Train, which portrayed the situation of “the impoverished workers brought from Hungary’s poorest region . . . to work in Budapest.”
Still from Black Film, courtesy Želimir Žilnik
Similarly, the socially critical stance and personal commitment to change of the filmmakers of the Yugoslav Black Wave (which produced iconoclastic works of both narrative fiction and documentary) was epitomized by Želimir Žilnik’s 1971 Black Film. Žilnik wrote in the accompanying “Black Film Manifesto,” “Film must become critical of society. I must wrestle against two enemies: against my own middle class nature which turns this commitment into an alibi and business and against those who manipulate, who own the power and the capital, who benefit from the silence.” Indeed, in Yugoslavia and Poland, even amateur filmmakers turned their cameras on social problems, as shown, for example, in the film Portraits (Passing By) (1966), made by the 22-year-old Lordan Zafranović, who would go on to become a renowned Croatian film director but at the time was a member of the amateur Kino Club in Split. Set to a jazz sound track, Portraits (Passing By) presents an impressionistic but nonetheless disturbing procession of people from the margins of society whose struggles are being ignored by those better-off around them.
What considerably complicates our understanding of the relation between the filmmakers and state authorities is the economic aspect of film production. Socialist bureaucrats were often meddling, punitive, and quick to censor, but they could also fund films that would likely languish had their producers needed to raise private capital and pursue commercial success. Bjørn Sørenssen notes of Article Zero (1957), “Seen in the context of documentary film history, Article Zero is sensational. . . . It takes on a subject matter that at the time was a taboo, not only behind the iron curtain, but in Western Europe and North America as well, where, given the financial situation of documentary in the West, it would have had problems making it through the screenplay stage.” Similarly, writing in 1985, Peter Rubin described an unusually democratic production process and funding scheme at the Balázs Béla Studio, where filmmakers faced the possibility that their films would not reach the general public but still had the resources to support an artistic community that produced a remarkable experimental legacy. The Riga Film Studio and the Neoplanta Film Studio in the Serbian city of Novi Sad (where Žilnik made many of his films) are two more examples of state-run facilities that supported pioneering work by numerous filmmakers over a number of years.
The legacy of experimentation as well as social commitment, economic infrastructure, and international intellectual exchange in postwar Eastern European documentaries is rich enough to warrant a film series and extensive scholarship all its own. For this series, however, our selections merely begin to map out this legacy, focusing on films that experiment with unorthodox narration, unusual imagery, and unconventional uses of sound in the 1960s and 1970s. — Ksenya Gurshtein