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Russian Avant-Garde Films from the 1980s
by Becky Tan

Russia played a role in this year’s Kurz FilmFestival Hamburg 2019. I attended a section called “Farewell Avant-Garde.” This was a retrospective of seven Russian short films which originally showed between 1985 and1989. They are all Soviet underground films by directors who attempted to circumvent the “strict bureaucratic censorship.” Titles are: Tpaktopa (Tractors)”, I am frigid but it doesn’t matter, and Waiting for DeBil, all three by the brothers Igor and Gleb Aleynikov; Bechy (Spring) and Wild Boar’s Suicide, both by Evgeniy Yufit; Nanaynana and Daydreams, both by Evgeny Kondratjev. They ran from four to 22 minutes. All were black and white, actually very often fuzzy grey, perhaps due to the difficult filming conditions of the time, as young directors huddled in their basements using whatever equipment they could salvage. I saw trailers and tractors, a caterpillar and a steel horse, all moving earth. I learned that “shooting movies is easier than breeding fish.” A woman is raped. Someone asks, “Is it possible to make a movie without a film?”

Spring was divided into four sections. First, people get off a train in the snow and roll on the ground. There is a rope in a tree – oh, it’s a swing. Then there is a midget clown in a circus. In Part III the snow melts, and in Part IV it’s spring. Then there were girls lying on the floor, a rope, stuff falling out of a suitcase, then a pasture with horses, pigs and dogs, a beach with a family, a farm. The seventh film, Waiting for DeBil had perhaps more of a plot. There is a note which says, “When will you come, please forgive me.”  A professor lives on the other side of the wall. There is a dog; the professor dies; a woman moves into his apartment. Birds are fed in the snow. They turn on the stove. This could almost be biographical. Here director Gleb Aleynikov plays a movie maker who is waiting for Count DeBil, played by Evgeny Kondratjev. Five of the films are silent; two have English subtitles.

Much more interesting than the actual films were guests Vladimir Nadein and Evgeny Kondratjev. Vladimir looks even younger than his 26 years and he already has an impressive career curating films, acting and producing. He is co-founder and festival director of the Moscow International Experimental Film Festival (MIEFF), and therefore could collect these Russian films and bring them to Hamburg. (They have also been in other festivals, e.g., in the USA.)

Director Evgeny Kondratjev was represented with two of his short films, as well as one film in which he is an actor. He has personal experiences of this era in Russia, when underground films were created as an answer to the impossible hold on any kind of creativity. We learned that, at the time, they were not really filmmakers, but amateurs (many of whom, in the meantime, have passed away), who “captured the energy of the time, just doing their thing even though it was forbidden.” They felt the need to express the will of the people; there was a kind of energy that had to come out.

Alexandra Gramafke, the festival’s business manager, was quite capable, translating Evgeny Kondratjev’s Russian into German as well as English. With white hair, and dressed in a black suit and black bow tie, he makes an impression as if he had just emerged from the screen. He suggested that we see “Skizzen zu Mozart” on YouTube, where he is represented by his “other” name Jevgenij Kondratiev. He now lives in Berlin.

So, what else did I learn? That “конец“ means “The End” in Russian.