Otar Iosseliani speaks about political cinema, the criteria of authenticity and “friendship of peoples”
The world-renowned dissident director Iosseliani recently launched his new film Chantrapas which is addressed to all film artists who left Soviet Georgia under pressure. The Ukrainian Week asked the maestro about his understanding of “national cinema” and the proximity of pure art to the public at large.
U.W.: Is it possible for a film director to take a principled position in the current cosmopolitan film industry? In other words, does national cinema remain a reality, or, in contrast, are all large studios and the few existing “nationally conscious” films right in suggesting that the nation as an object of filming is a thing of the past?
Children today are growing up uneducated as they use the internet and blogs, i.e., they have merely an imaginary freedom of self-expression. Meanwhile, bland and rather obtuse proposals and discussions about restructuring the world are again filled with bile, malice and lies and this can only lead to a bad end. It should be understood that national art is based on the rare phenomenon of passing the science of living in this world as well as traditions and habits from generation to generation. When the links joining generations are severed, national culture dies. When the communists came to power in Cambodia — once a refined country — they began to kill those who thought in terms of traditions in order to turn the people into cattle. What for? Well, the purpose of any revolution is to level off the population by squeezing everyone into the Procrustean bed and reducing people to one and the same low level. This is when things like fairytales, bylina and songs disappear, just like the sense of quiet comfort of sitting around a table and talking to one’s grandmother. Everything that is a perpetuation of national traditions dies off. When “cultured” whites burst into the beautiful country of America, they destroyed the indigenous peoples, and now we can only feast our eyes on heaps of stones and the ruins of their pyramids. We speak of Egyptian culture, but there is not one representative of it in present-day Egypt. What remains is, again, pyramids, ravaged tombs of pharaohs and sculptures excavated and put on display in the Cairo Museum or the Louvre.
U.W.: Returning to cinema, even under the Soviets it was strong both in Georgia and Ukraine, wasn’t it?
This is a myth. There used to be a Bolshevik directive – “friendship of peoples.” They held events like when the Bashkir, Georgians, Armenians, Ukrainians, Estonians, and others would come to Moscow to dance and sing their folk songs. And this was called “cultural olympiads.” In fact, it was just a show. Even today you can put together people in Ukraine who will dance the hopak for you and sing what remains of your wonderful songs, if there are still people who remember them. But this is not culture. It is not culture when Rostropovich plays the cello or Richter the piano and the entire audience pretends to be listening. When the audience is not capable of doing the same thing as one soloist, then it does not hear and really cannot understand music.
When a gap between privileged musicians and the masses which listen to them appears, there is no culture left. Sophocles, Euripides or Aristophanes wrote their texts for Athenians expressing the thoughts that were on the latter’s minds and which pained their souls. It was communication with the stage on the burning issues of the day. Why did Brecht’s theater have such tremendous success in Germany? Because he used the intellectual language spoken by everyone.
Taras Shevchenko wrote “Reve ta stohne Dnipr shyrokyi” (The Wide Dnipro is Roaring and Groaning), and this text was close to everyone, and that is why it was culture. There are books which preach and books which foreshadow the future. More than many other writers, Gogol is one who is as large as life today. Anything he wrote can be applied to the present – take your pick. Although a Ukrainian by ethnic origin, he wrote Dead Souls and The Inspector General about Russia. Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka are about the things that were dear to him.
U.W.: You appear to have a clear attitude on politics: a vivid and principled protest against Russian imperialism. But you have never reflected these views in your films. Why? Working among the French, even despite their Russophilia, you could express things you would not be allowed to say in Russia itself, while you would not be able to do so in Georgia for objective reasons?
The reason is that I have been doing art. No matter what I undertake or what profession I choose – a turner, metalworker or school teacher – I would still have my own political position. If I were a teacher, I would not stop teaching. If I were a shoemaker, I would not stop making shoes, even though I would be thinking about something else. You see, making political films is a hopeless endeavor.
U.W.: Are Oliver Stone’s films hopeless then?
Let me reply in this way. You must have seen Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. What is it? In my opinion, it’s goodness knows what. But because it’s Lang, megalomania and unnatural gesticulation coupled with bulging eyes became the mainstream of the German school of cinematography. An entire constellation of directors at the time spoke to the viewers precisely in this language. At this time, French directors produced such beautiful films as René Clair’s Un chapeau de paille d’ltalie (The Italian Straw Hat). In the United States, Buster Keaton fashioned the image of a person who notices nothing but who from our standpoint is deeply unhappy. Later this became the foundation for Chaplin’s commercial exercises.
Returning to the issue of “political films” and Metropolis — a pure example of the genre — what is it about? It tells the story of a son in a privileged family whose eyes are opened and he begins to rebel. But we know what it eventually leads to, what the end of any revolution is. You cannot shoot films about these things just like the senselessness of massacre, because you will not teach anyone any lessons with it… Each one of us has something in common: we resolutely reject the existing system. The Decembrists rejected the social order in Russia imposed since the times of Ivan Kalita, Ivan the Terrible and then Peter I and the German princess Catherine. The situation was aggravated when Paul ascended the throne and was killed by his own son. The only Russian tsar who wished his people well was Alexander II but he was blown up. The infirm Nicholas II emerged at precisely the time when the autocracy had to be abolished.
I am saying all this to explain that we all know it, so there is no point in producing films about things like that. It is all on the level of pamphlets. This was the starting point for Bolshevism and communism: Marx and Engels sat down and penned a manifesto beginning with the phrase: “A specter is haunting Europe—the specter of communism.” And it came to a sorry ending. In other words, artists have no part in these games. The goal of art is to conscientiously and openly formulate the things we are all thinking about. If someone succeeds in doing so, as was the case with Saltykov-Shchedrin in Istoria odnogo goroda (The History of a Town), I applaud him. Nevertheless, his History is still a political work. The most political of all is Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin which shows the sadness of realities, the intrusiveness of regulations and the senseless passage of life. The social conventions of the time destroyed the love between Tatyana Larina and Onegin. Now this is nothing else but politics. “She went – and Eugene, all emotion, / stood thunder-struck. In what wild round / of tempests, in what raging ocean / his heart was plunged!” And why? Because he did not know how to think!
Falling Leaves (1966)
There Once was a Singing Blackbird (1970)
Favorites of the Moon (1984)
And Then There Was Light (1989)
Farewell, Home Sweet Home (1999)
Otar Iosseliani is a Georgian filmmaker, script writer and actor. He was born in Tbilisi in 1934 and obtained a diploma in film direction from the State Film Institute (VGIK) where one of his teachers was Alexander Dovzhenko. In 1966, his first feature-length film Falling Leaves won a FIPRESCI award at the Cannes Film Festival. A decade later, his Pastorale won the same award at the Berlin Film Festival. In the 1980s, he emigrated to France over issues with Soviet censorship. He now splits his time between France and Georgia. He has received awards from the European and French Film Academies and awards at the Venice, Moscow and Berlin Film Festivals.