2021 Russian Film Symposium:
Representation & the Reel
Vladimir Padunov — The cancelation of last year’s 2020 Russian Film Symposium due to the global pandemic and resulting lockdown was merely a ripple in comparison to the tsunami that struck all screening venues worldwide. The prolonged closure of movie theaters meant the disappearance of “the big screen” from the daily (or weekly or monthly) experiences of all cinemagoers. While the growing emergence of “the small screen” in the past decade (DVD-players and television sets, streaming on computer monitors and cellphones) threatened the well-being of traditional practices of film screening attendance, the pandemic accelerated and ensured a radical reconfiguration (long predicted but always still in the future) in the cultural practice of watching films. No longer a public event and experience, it is now a private occasion and ritual; no longer a collective response to the flow of images, it is now an individual reaction to a visual narrative.
But the cancellation, as bitter as it was, also opened an opportunity to take stock of both the accomplishments and failures of the first 20 years of the Symposium (2020 would have been the 21st anniversary). While the accomplishments were impressive, the failures were equally so. Among the accomplishments was the fact that between 1999 and 2019 the Russian Film Symposium screened 339 Russian, Ukrainian, Belarussian, and Central Asian films (feature films, shorts, and student films); brought five Russian directors and US director George Romero to Pittsburgh, as well as Russia’s leading scriptwriter (Aleksandr Mindadze, now also a director), film actor (Sergei Makovetskii), conceptualist performance artist (Dmitrii Prigov), and two directors of film production studios; fifty two of Russia’s most prominent film critics, historians, and theorists attended and participated in the Symposium over the years, as well as forty-nine leading scholars of Russian cinema from Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, the UK, and the US.
The failures, however, were every bit as impressive. The Symposium turned a blind eye to a major development in the Russian film industry. After the suspension of all government funding for film production following the end of the Soviet Union, two types of filmmaking were left with few prospects: animation and documentary films. While both flourished during Soviet years, newly emerging private film investors and the Ministry of Culture (which slowly and gradually began providing funding for new film projects) shied away from both of them, placing their bets on the renewal of the feature film industry. As a consequence, animation and documentary cinema virtually disappeared from Russian screens.
Only with the establishment of the Cinema Fund (officially known as the Federal Fund for Economic and Social Support of Russian Cinematography) in 1994 did partial funding resume for animators and documentarists. Over the next 25 years animation and documentary cinema re-emerged as important and constitutive components of the Russian film industry. The Symposium, however, failed to acknowledge this fact: animation and documentary films were strikingly absent from its programs.
Similarly, while the Symposium included a wide range of feature film genres—from comedies and tragedies to melodramas and crime dramas, from heritage films to contemporary ones, from focusing on the center (Moscow and Petersburg) to the periphery (the provinces), and from films receiving international release and awards to films whose distribution was entirely domestic (or even underground)—missing were Russian horror films. Admittedly the horror genre arrived late in the Russian Federation (and there was virtually no precedent for this genre during Soviet years), nonetheless the failure to recognize the emergence of this new genre paradoxically gives us the opportunity—in time of plague—to address this shortcoming. It is to these three genres—animation, documentary, and horror—that we turn our attention in this year’s Symposium.