May 9, 2014

On the Same Earth: Pictures of the West More Colorful than Red

The Soviet amateur film Na odnoi Zemle / On the Same Earth (1976) screened at the 9th Orphan Film Symposium in Amsterdam on April 1, 2014, concluding the ninety-minute program “When Workers Leave the Factory: Amateur Filmmaking in the Eastern Bloc."  Sight and Sound magazine's report on Orphans 9 called it "a stand-out session" whose films "gave a wonderfully nuanced picture of life under Communism."  At that session, NYU PhD candidate Maria Vinogradova delivered remarks she entitled "Soviet Amateurs Are So Serious."  Below, as guest blogger, she provides further commentary on this noteworthy short film, uncovered by what Sight and Sound calls her "dogged research."


Maria Vinogradova
On the Same Earth: Pictures of the West More Colorful than Red

On the Same Earth (1976) 35mm, color, sound, 10 min. 
People’s Film Studio, DK Proftekhobrazovania, Leningrad, USSR. 
Author: Vladimir Medvedev; Script: Boris Goller.

On July 4, 1976 the ship Mikhail Kalinin left the seaport of Leningrad for the shores of Canada. The ship, meant to be a cultural ambassador of the Soviet Union during the summer Olympics in Montreal, carried artists that gave performances in the Olympic village, as well as venues of various sizes in Montreal and Toronto. About 80 passengers of the Kalinin were participants of amateur dance and music ensembles. Somewhat invisible among them was a “man with a movie camera” – Vladimir Medvedev, an amateur filmmaker from people’s film studio of the House of Culture of Professional Technical Schools of Leningrad (DK Proftekhobrazovania). Two hours of the footage that he shot during this trip became a ten-minute film that has only been seen by a few people in Medvedev’s immediate circle of friends and colleagues.

On the Same Earth begins where the trip ended, back in Leningrad after a month-long journey that was life-changing for many of its participants. In the Soviet Union traveling abroad was only accessible to the elite or a handful of those lucky enough to be sent abroad within rare exchange programs, sports and arts events. In the film voyagers on the Kalinin are greeted at home as heroes, those people who went through an experience perceived as transformative. The kaleidoscope of faces and flowers, the excitement that is seen but not heard, wrapped into an aural ambiance of slow electronic music, with the sound of fog horn and the screams of seagulls creating nostalgia for something still vivid in memory, but already so remote physically. Images of travelers and greeters in the glaring summer sun are intercut with long shots of the infinite blue of the ocean. The waves, the immaculate white of the ship’s broadside and all-too-familiar synthetic sound of Oxygène by Jean Michel Jarre at once made strange, elevate the experience of the sea voyage, making a trip to another continent akin to an epic space journey by the transport that by that time had already become obsolete.

We do not learn much about Canada from this film, neither do we get any information on how the artists spent that month. Rather, the experience of a new land is a central theme, with an eclectic stream of images of the big city, its people, architecture and the neon signs. This visual feast is accompanied by a slow voice-over narration, in which the excitement of the new experience is contracted by frustration, the struggle to comprehend this experience. This frustration is mediated, if not artificially constructed. The shock of this new physical reality is less strong than the desire to grasp the fact that it, indeed, occurs thousands miles away from home, and to communicate this uncanny emotion to the viewer. No direct sound is used, except for the carefully sampled insert of the sound of church bells. Separated from their aural environment, these images get a dreamlike quality.

The invisible protagonist-narrator of the film wants to appear baffled, yet, we can see his desire to sensationalize the experience. He explains that Canada is mysterious and hard to comprehend, but the active camera eye reveals pride in possession of the technical tool, and its use to organize reality according to the author’s subjective vision. We see a variety of cinematic devices put to use – a combination of long shots and dynamic montage sequences, close-ups and contrasting camera angles. This kaleidoscope could continue indefinitely, yet, it stumbles over the intention to create a narrative structure. In its second half the film leads us into believing that it has a goal, it returns to the question asked in the opening sequence: “What was the purpose of this trip?” Indeed, why, at all, was it necessary to travel? Or rather: for a Soviet traveler, how to find an explanation that would satisfy the society in which purposeless wandering could be synonymous with bourgeois decadence? How to explain that being one of those lucky few who boarded Kalinin and went abroad, indeed, benefitted those who stayed at home? The second half of the film builds up a tension: as the local inhabitants appear to live their daily lives, the narrator sounds frustrated by the impossibility of establishing personal contact with them. They appear to be a part of the same physical reality, yet, their world is inscrutable. The resolution appears suddenly: when the Soviet amateur dance ensemble begins a performance at a city square, the barrier melts: the language of dance allows to establish communication between the two people who seem to belong to completely different universes. This dance, according to the narrator, makes them realize that they still live on the same planet Earth and there is something essential that they share despite all the differences: that is, being human. It is this warming thought that the film attempts to bring home, while finding satisfaction in its explanation for the trip’s purpose.

The uncanniness of this drama returns this visually impeccable film to its roots as an amateur film. In amateur film, camera is the eye and the brain simultaneously. Unable to achieve the seamlessness and illusionary qualities of professional cinema, amateur films are valued for their immediacy, diversity of perspectives and the promise of participation. Yet, is there a room for immediacy in a film such as On the Same Earth? Shot on 35mm and produced on a state-of-the art studio, can this film be called amateur?

In the Soviet Union the definition of amateur films went far beyond home movies. While home movies, mostly shot on 8mm film, were the most numerous, a significant number of amateur films was made by collectives, frequently based at large organizations, such as factories, universities, worker clubs or houses and "palaces of culture." Many of these collectives had paid employees, frequently professional filmmakers or skilled amateurs, that actively sought new participants and taught them various aspects of filmmaking. The amateur was then not necessarily an autodidact, but a filmmaker who earned living through a different occupation, while pursuing film as a serious hobby. The best collectives were granted an honorary status of people’s film studios, which also entitled them to additional paid staff, such as, for example, sound engineers, and better equipment, provided either by their host organization or the state.

The People’s Film Studio at DK Proftekhobrazovania that existed between the early 1960s and late 1980s was the most “professional” amateur film studio in Leningrad. The studio was attached to the house of culture that served students of technical schools who learned working-class professions, and most of its participants were between 15 and 18 years old. At DK Proftekhobrazovania its film studio occupied a status similar to its dance collective, music ensemble, choir and various hobby groups. Having declared socialist realism as its main aesthetic principle, the studio rejected the raw aesthetic of amateur film and sought to achieve the highest technical quality, always shooting its films on professional 35mm format. “Amateur” in its interpretation went back to the 1920s Proletkult concept of the worker who could and, indeed, was encouraged to be an artist at the same time.

Vladimir Medvedev was not a typical participant of the studio at DK Proftekhobrazovania. Employed as assistant cameraman at Leningrad Studio of Popular Science Film, he came to DK Proftekhobrazovania to make his own films. It is only a decade later that he received formal training as documentary filmmaker. Amateur film studio thus provided for him an experimental ground to try out his own ideas, to play a more creative role in filmmaking than what his professional status at the time allowed. Access to state-of-the-art facilities and an opportunity to collaborate with other studio participants allowed him to create films on a higher technical level than what would be available to lonely amateurs.

A few music and dance ensembles at DK Proftekhobrazovania regularly traveled abroad to give performances. For its famous studio, however, this was not the case: if a film was shown at international festivals, it was usually presented by a professional filmmaker assigned by the Union of Film Workers. One or two cameramen from the studio frequently accompanied other ensembles during their tours, in countries such as Yugoslavia, Finland, East Germany, United Kingdom, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Their role was functional (to record the event) rather than representative, as was the case with performing arts ensembles. It then appears logical that Medvedev, rather than any of the 15-18 year old studio participants, was sent to Canada.

Upon his return Medvedev teamed with Boris Goller, a well-known Leningrad playwright, to write the script for the film. Goller had previously cooperated on his other films. The running time of the first edition of On the Same Earth was 40 minutes. However, the director of the palace of culture strongly disapproved of the way that the West was "shown too colorful" in this film. Medvedev and Goller prepared another edition, only 10 minutes long – and this is the version that we know today. It was screened once at the palace and remained shelved since then.

This story told by Vladimir Medvedev explains what seems perplexing at the first viewing of the film: where lay the boundaries of what was appropriate for a film studio whose main stated goal was to raise the working-class youth in the spirit of socialism? How did the flickering neon lights of Montreal advertising its many attractions, from skyscrapers and Coca-Cola to independent movie theaters and peep shows, correspond with this goal? Not very well, it appears. The film presents complexity often found in amateur films: Medvedev was not a dissident, not an "independent" filmmaker completely free from dictates of institutions; nor was he a docile executioner of ideological tasks set by them. His place within the studio at DK Proftekhobrazovania can be likened to the situation described by Thomas Elsaesser in relation to the Western art world in the 1920s and 1930s, in which "the avant-garde artist found in the industrial, corporate or government client the commission that permitted him to experiment in form and technique."* Without calling Medvedev an avant-garde artist, we can describe his Montreal film as the kind of commission that provided room for experimentation, even though it was eventually rejected by the "client." What remains of this experiment almost 40 years later is a trace of citizen attitudes in the state that no longer exists, an evidence of its political, social and aesthetic history, and a portrayal of Montreal captured by a rare anonymous observer.

* Thomas Elsaesser, "Archives and Archeologies: The Place of Non-Fiction Film in Contemporary Media," in Films That Work: Industrial Film and the Productivity of Media, ed. Vinzenz Hediger and Patrick Vonderau (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009), 32.


See also
Maria Vinogradova, "Amateur Cinema in the Soviet Union and the Leningrad of Film Amateurs in the 1970s-1980s," KinoKultura 27 (2010).