Thursday, 14 January 2010

Cambridge Film Festival 2003 reviews (1)

Each year the Cambridge Film Festival runs a competition for the best critic, the prize being some vouchers. In 2003 I had a serious go at winning this and wrote reviews of every film I saw. They were written at speed in the evening after spending much of the day at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse, and emailed off to the festival website. This has now been taken down so I thought it worth adding the reviews here. Many were of films directed by Alexander Dovzhenko, as there was an extensive programme devoted to his work that year. The first batch of reviews are of his films, followed by the rest, in alphabetical order. I didn't win the prize for best festival film critic, but the reviews still seem to stand up well, and I enjoyed writing them. I later wrote an article on The Battle for Our Soviet Ukraine for the Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film (2005).

Films by Dovzhenko:


With Aerograd Dovzhenko left his beloved Ukraine for the Russian Far East, but the film bears his stamp all the same, majestic forests and the Pacific Ocean providing the backdrop to the story, as opposed to the vast wheat fields of his earlier work. The film itself has a frontier feel about it, with a sense of the vast potential waiting to be exploited. Against this setting is a chase story involving Stepan, a grizzled, wise member of the local collective farm (and famous tiger hunter), tracking two Japanese agents who have attempted sabotage. He finds and dispatches one, but fails to find the other as he, we discover, is being shielded by Stepan’s old acquaintance who lives by himself deep within the forest (a suspicious trait as he clearly lacks the collective spirit). A party of comrades from the farm sets out and eventually the other Japanese agent is caught, and the perfidious friend exposed as a class traitor. The reason for his treachery is because he is in cahoots with a group of Old Believers, an anti-Bolshevik religious sect also living cut off from the regime. Needles to say the final samurai and his Old Believer stooges are defeated.

The title of the film is rather misleading, because the new city of Aerograd does not actually exist. Only as the film ends do the military personnel who are the first wave of colonisers arrive to start work on the project. A local turns up, hoping to study at the new city, but realising that first he will have to help construct it. He is quite cheerful about the prospect, and is unconcerned about the despoliation of the wilderness. Dovzhenko too seems sanguine, and there is a lack of an elegiac note to bemoan the passing of the unspoilt beauty. The story is told in a straightforward manner, and as by now Socialist Realism was in full force, there are few experiments with the style of the film. The main problem is the ropey model work towards the end when waves of unconvincing model aeroplanes are shown. Overall an enjoyable drama by a mature filmmaker able to show that he can use other parts of the Soviet Union than the Ukraine with equal skill.


Arsenal is the product of a filmmaker not in charge of his material. That Dovzhenko could make dramatically exciting films had been indicated by The Diplomatic Pouch, but here he seems to having difficulty in carving a narrative from the events of the First World War, revolution, Civil War and bid for Ukrainian independence. His camera style in particular seems bolted on, influenced by Eisenstein and Vertov, rather than an organic expression of the story. For example there are 45-degree angles that appear to serve no apparent purpose, and in one such instance, where an old peasant hobbles out of the distance up to and past the camera, is told that there are no train tickets available, and then hobbles back from where he came, the effect is risible.

On other occasions the camerawork is static, and here the loss of so many people to war is poignantly achieved. Women stand by their doors, sexual exploitation suggested by a passing policeman casually squeezing a breast. Old men too stand, the distance between them showing their isolation from each other and from the terrible events they have witnessed. A dead German soldier appears to laugh, his upraised hand containing pebbles, as if offering the land he had tried to seize back in a kind of joke.

The overall feeling is of Dovzhenko trying to cram in too much. The scenes that work best, because of the emotions they generate, are those depicting the effects of war on the peasants: an old man kicking a starving horse in frustration, an old woman, her menfolk gone, trying to sow a huge field alone until she drops from exhaustion. These contrast with the schematic nature of the fighting and its unclear aftermath. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Dovzhenko’s next project was Earth, where his love for the Ukraine manifests at its most lyrical, where people get excited at the arrival of a tractor for the collective farm, and where he could concentrate on character studies.

One feels sorry for him trying to reconcile on the one hand his desire to promote a Ukrainian identity, on the other having to work in an increasingly authoritarian environment in which Stalin, intent on suppressing nationalist sentiments within the Soviet Union, was increasing his grip on power. Arsenal is fatally compromised by Dovzhenko’s inability to square two contradictory elements within Soviet society.

Battle for our Soviet Ukraine/Battle on the Right Bank

Battle for Our Soviet Ukraine and Victory on the Right Bank are documentaries made in consecutive years that cover similar ground, the advance and repulsion of the German forces in the Ukraine during the Great Patriotic War. The first is the more harrowing, showing many shots of dead bodies, including children, and the devastation caused by the war is brought vividly home. There is a section showing, in an idealised manner, what life was like before the invasion, and the contrast gives the scenes of destruction much of their impact Both films feature footage taken by German forces that was later captured, providing a more rounded picture of the conflict. Remarkably there is enough to allow Dovzhenko to obey the 180-degree rule of continuity editing, with Germans usually attacking left to right, and Russians from right to left. Interspersed with battle scenes are speeches from party and army leaders (Khrushchev, head of the Ukrainian Communist Party, pops up in both films) and witness accounts from ordinary people, who have harrowing stories to tell. Victory on the Right Bank also covers the war but there is more on reconstruction, and further shots of peasants in the fields, this time organising to repair the ravages of war. Dovzhenko has done a masterful job in editing disparate sections of film together to make the chronology of events fairly easy to follow. As a record of the campaign in that part of the Soviet Union these are valuable films, and stand among the best war documentaries.

Chronicle of the Years of Fire

Chronicle of the Years of Fire was not actually directed by Dovzhenko but by his wife, from his script, three years after his death. Unfortunately there is a huge gap between script and execution, and it is safe to say that Alexander’s film would have been a lot different than Yulia’s turned out. This is a filmic version of those Soviet realist posters, with granite-jawed workers, soldiers and peasants united in the Great Patriotic War. Here Ivan is an everycomrade from (inevitably) the Ukraine and the man does not shut up. He waxes lyrical about his homeland and his hopes for the future at great length, clearly loving the sound of his own voice. It is not so much making conversation as making speeches. He is dedicated to the cause, risking his life continually to defeat the invading German army. These are shown as arrogant monsters who are victims of their own hubris, eventually becoming bogged down in the mud they have created, their commanding officer gone mad. The film takes the war and gives it an epic quality, and there is also the usual Dovzhenkian lingering over the wonderful landscapes; there is a fabulous sequence where a badly wounded Ivan dreams he is drifting on a boat through flooded trees, blossom above him, until he is reunited with his family. The military aspect works well enough, though Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron, telling the same story from the German side, without the technical assistance of the Red Army, does it better. But against this background the stories of the ordinary people, whose sufferings must have been considerable, seem sketchy, and the characters, not least Ivan himself, are two-dimensional. The film ends with Germany defeated (though one wonders how Ivan, shown in Berlin at the beginning of the film, manages to get home in time to be a prosecutor in the trial of a Ukrainian nationalist who abetted the Germans), Ivan married to the teacher, and the village pulling together to make the fields productive once more. The print is stunning, but marred by ghastly American dubbing. Not a great film, more a curiosity, and in its failure to convey adequately the sacrifices of a nation, a wasted opportunity. That failure was redeemed by Tarkovsky, who also made a film about an Ivan only two years later, showing us his childhood in unsparing detail.

The Diplomatic Pouch

Even though this was Dovzhenko’s first feature, it is an assured piece of filmmaking. The story is simple. A Soviet agent in England has to get a case of vital documents back to Moscow. He is waylaid and eventually dies, but not before he has been able to pass the case on to sympathisers. Eventually it is given to Communistic sailors at Portsmouth – which looks uncannily like Odessa – and they undertake to get it to its rightful destination, despite the presence on board of the British political police, with their ballerina accomplice.

It’s a slice of hokum and the diplomatic pouch is merely a maguffin to drive the plot. There is little attempt to render the British realistically; the police uniforms look as if they originally belonged to Mack Sennett, and the sailors’ hat bands were made by somebody possessing a greater familiarity with the Cyrillic alphabet than the Arabic, but the viewer becomes absorbed in the film’s evocation of atmosphere and narrative pace.

The editing is less flashy than we are used to with Soviet directors of this period, with no symbolic elements bolted on. Dovzhenko, who appears in a cameo as a “fueller”, looking broodingly magnificent, has combined the ideological interests of the Soviet Union with a Hitchcock-style thriller, and produced a marvellous entertainment as well as a piece of propaganda.

Farewell America

Farewell America was left uncompleted after Dovzhenko was told to cease production, and was only released after his death with the insertion of bridging segments indicating the progress of the story. No matter, for it is a fascinating exercise. To begin with it is in lush colour rather than the stark black and white we associate with the Soviet pioneers, remarkably well preserved and presented in a gorgeous print. The second thing is that it concerns events in the American embassy in Moscow at the end of the Second World War, but the depiction of the Americans is filtered through the perceptions of Soviet propaganda, making them oddly not unlike the perceptions of Russians presented by Western propaganda of the same period. Thus they are bullying, boorish, paranoid, often drunk, they spy on each other and tell lies – one diplomat who has been on a ‘fact finding’ mission quits when he refuses to toe the line and say that the people are starving and the country is in chaos (untrue of course). He is later murdered, and the Russians blamed.

Running through the characterisation of these unsavoury imperialist lackies is the thread that ties everything together, the story of idealistic Ann Bedford, who is so appalled at what she sees her fellow Americans doing, and their cynicism in misrepresenting the USSR to their bosses in Washington, that she defects. She is shown to be one of the few people in the American camp with any scruples, and her conversion comes after a holiday when she sees the country as it really is, not as her bosses want to show it: “To know us is to love us” is the film’s subtext. There is also a preamble set in Ann’s home in the U.S. where she is shown talking about her new posting with her family, who are much more sympathetic to the Soviets than the Truman administration is, indicating a Russian hope that the U.S. government’s attitude was not representative of the American people as a whole.

However caricatured the Americans seem, it is an antidote, after so many years of hearing foreigners in U.S. films speaking English, to hear ‘Americans’ speaking Russian. Dovzhenko shows the Cold War from the other side, engendering sympathy for the USSR’s plight. When Russian characters complain that the enormous Soviet wartime sacrifices would soon be forgotten outside their own country, and that the United States preferred to fight its battles against Germany using Soviet blood rather than its own, their assessments sadly have the ring of truth.


With Ivan, Dovzhenko is once again extolling the virtues of his native Ukraine, but here concentrating less on the peasantry and more on industrial progress, represented by the building of a dam. The action starts on a collective farm, with the announcement that it has more hands than it needs, it is being run so efficiently (this was a time when forced collectivisation was throwing Soviet agriculture into turmoil) so that a hundred men should be released to work in industry. So off they go for the good of the whole, and work on a dam to generate electricity, with scant regard for health and safety considerations. The focus of the film is Ivan, a fine upstanding young man who wants to work hard, but finds to his chagrin that to be a good Stakhanovite you need more than strength, you need training too. A subplot is his fraught relationship with his lazy drunken father, whom he disowns. But no matter, because his comrades are his family, united in the struggle to make the USSR stronger. He becomes a young communist, and is finally seen at school, learning how to be a better shock worker.

By 1932, when Ivan was made, earlier avant-garde experimentation in film (which was in any case never terribly popular with the mass of cinemagoers in the Soviet Union) had been pronounced as elitist and had given way to a greater emphasis on realism. Consequently the narrative is more straightforward than some of Dovzhenko’s earlier work, though he still has time for the occasional tricksy effect, such as jump cuts and the use of repeated action, such as the mother of a dead worker running through sets of double doors with no intervening action, and later advancing down the great meeting hall to the stage, her progress divided into overlapping sections.

Ivan has a soundtrack but there is not a great deal of synchronised dialogue. Generally it is confined to non-synchronous dialogue and music, the latter a combination of dramatic orchestration and more intimate a cappella singing by Ukrainian women. The film clearly glosses over the harsh everyday reality for the bulk of working people, and it is sad that the aspirations for a better life remained largely unfulfilled. Yet as the opening shots of the Dnieper suggest, the landscape transcends human activity, resulting in a mystical approach by Dovzhenko that sits ill with the tenets of dialectical materialism.

Love Berry

Dovzhenko’s first short is the fast-paced, and very warm-hearted, story of a dandyish barber attempting to offload the baby his girlfriend has dumped on him. This simple plot device is the peg for all manner of farcical shenanigans with a cast of outlandish characters more clearly inspired by the Factory of the Eccentric Actor than by Soviet ideology. The barber himself seems to have been modelled on Max Linder, and nods to Chaplin suggest that Dovzhenko was influenced as much by the comic tradition in Europe and the US as he was by his colleagues developing theories of montage editing closer to home. The treatment of the baby – or babies, as at one point his efforts are so unsuccessful that he picks up another one - is remarkably cavalier, and the reason for his girlfriend’s action, that he won’t commit and marry her, rather racy for the period. Needles to say all is not as it appears, and the poor man, once the truth is revealed, has to put his head under the tap. Well, it was a very trying day.


Dovzhenko’s hymn to the Ukraine is an exercise in symbolism, and also an object lesson on how sometimes we can’t see the obvious in front of us. The premise is that, centuries ago, a treasure was buried on Mount Zvenigora. The film recounts the fortunes of the mountain and its surrounding area through the vicissitudes of the passing years. At its core is the old man, ever present, trying with his grandson to find the hoard. The magic properties of the mountain are early signalled when he thinks he has found a valuable goblet, but it turns into a broken bottle as he and a Viking invader struggle for it. The mountain is good at keeping secrets, and for a while one wonders whether the treasure-seekers are deluded, digging holes in a misguided enterprise. But gradually it becomes clear what the treasure is. Nothing as obvious as gold or diamonds, Zvenogora’s treasue is its people, agriculture and deposits. Only when the Bosheviks era arrives is this realised. The new republic will be able to use this wealth for the good of the Union, beating away those (including Ukrainian nationalists) who would destroy the new regime. In order to tell this story Dovzhenko uses a variety of styles that do not always cohere and can leave the viewer confused. There is no attempt at linear story-telling, but this rag-bag approach is part of the charm, and provides a fast pace to the narrative. Zvenigora is essentially a robust fairy tale for the machine age. As such is a companion piece to the more lyrical Earth, but shows how Ukrainian identity was forged from a less than lyrical history.