COMMUNISM (1917–): This year’s retrospective programme at DOK Leipzig is comprised of films of different geographical origins that rotate around some key terms in the history of communism.
Titled “Commanders – Chairmen – General secretaries. Communist rule in the visual languages of Cinema”, the Retrospective is divided into eight categories and explores Marx’s notion that history repeats itself – first as tragedy, then as farce. From the great selection of films in the programme, I chose four…
«Spatial images are the dreams of society. Wherever the hieroglyphics of these images can be deciphered, one finds the basis of social reality.» Ronald Kracauer
The above quote by Ronald Kracauer opens the film Yugoslavia, How Ideology Moved Our Collective Body (2013) by Serbian-born, Berlin-based director Marta Popivoda. In this 60-minute documentary composed exclusively of archive footage ranging from 1945 to 2000, the filmmaker – who was 32 when she made the film – explores the post-WW2 history of Yugoslavia through images representing communism and its consequences. These range from protests against the King of Yugoslavia in 1945, the building of the new country and its ideology in 1947, and its development and student protests of 1968; then to the bloody dissolution of the common state in the wars of the 1990s in Croatia and Bosnia – in many ways started by Slobodan Milosevic’s speech at a mass rally in Kosovo in 1989 – and further on to the 1990s demonstrations against Milosevic and, finally, his overthrow in 2000. The voice-over narration deals with the author’s memory of this history, as well as memories of her grandparents and parents, and particularly their representations and recontextualization from the angle of young people who witnessed the end of the country and took (or tried to take) part in forming of the new Serbian society.
Agnes Varda’s 1968 documentary Black Panthers presents what has turned out to be a time capsule – so timely that it was not screened on French television for which it was intended as the editors feared its ideas and images would re-ignite the student protests in France. The 25-minute film was shot in Oakland, California, and it combines footage from one of the Panthers’ peaceful protests with an interview with Huey Newton, an icon of the movement who was jailed for killing of a police officer. The protesters speak of liberation of black people through both militant and peaceful means, in part aligning themselves with the hippie movement and protesting the Vietnam war, and in part with the teachings of Mao.
In Thomas Sankara – The Upright Man, a 52-minute documentary by Robin Shuffield for French television in 2005, we are presented with communism in the context
of anti-colonial struggle. Sankara was the man who renamed the former French colony Upper Volta to Burkina Faso (which means “Land of Upright Man”), and he is known as the “African Che”. He was a charismatic leader with Marxist leanings who ruled the country from 1983 to 1987, when he was assassinated by the forces of his one-time closest collaborator, and then rival Blaise Compaore – who was, by the way, just re-elected as president last summer.
A much longer path from belief in communism to disillusionment is shown in an impressively concise and straightforward manner in the short animated documentary Sunrise Over Tiananmen Square by Chinese filmmaker Shui-Bo Wang. It was nominated for Best Documentary Short Academy Award in 1998. Compared to the abovementioned three films, Wang’s work is aesthetically and visually pure. No shaky hand-held cameras, no tattered VHS and TV archive footage; just a succession of animated, mostly hand-drawn images and photographs describing the author’s path from a devoted communist to a disappointed dissident after the Tiananmen Square bloodshed, accompanied by his own narration.
Drawings and uniforms