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
Wang’s work is an honest, autobiographical look at the demise of an idea, if not a complete collapse of an ideology. The images he employs include his own drawings and paintings, often breathtakingly beautiful. All children of his generation (born in 1960) did drawings of sunrise at Tiananmen Square, and the film opens with the animation of one such picture. This is followed by social-realist revolutionary paintings portraying Chairman Mao, as well as Wang’s family photographs. An art school student and later a professor following the cultural revolution of 1981, Wang was influenced by the Renaissance, Romanticism, and Surrealism. But the images that are most significant in this film, are the symbols of communism combined with those of the “decadent West”, as the country opened to foreign cultural influences. One such picture is that of Marx, over which bottles of Coca Cola are superimposed. Furthermore, photographs of the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square are tinted with red colour. These two categories of images speak of the downfall of communist ideology – which certainly would not have developed in the same way without the influence of images of its opposite, the capitalist ideology.
«Was the revolutionary fervour and belief misplaced, or was it betrayed?»
On the other end of the visual and aesthetic spectrum is the footage of Black Panthers holding little red books with the teachings of Mao in Varda’s 16mm film. But even more significant is the Panthers’ awareness of the importance of uniform – not just their signature black leather jackets, berets and sunglasses, but also the symbols of racial and gender emancipation. After centuries of rendering a perception of beauty as something exclusively white in media, culture and society in general, black women are waking up to their roots, expressing it in wearing African-style clothes and the natural Afro hairstyle. As one of the women speaks of liberation and emancipation, her hair becomes a representative image of the whole movement and its widest meaning. The natural hair becomes a uniform of the fight for equality.
Back in Burkina Faso, Sankara did not only deal with practical, progressive issues such as vaccination campaigns and road and railway building programmes without European experts and companies involved, but also insisted on local production. Public officials were required to wear African-style garbs produced locally, turning them into symbols of anti-colonialism and national identity. On the other hand we see many different military and police uniforms succeeding each other throughout the ten years period the film covers. The changing uniforms is a symbolic expression of the all-too-frequent changes in Burkina Faso as the country was subject to power games initiated from Europe and surrounding puppet governments. But also significant, and related to Black Panthers, is the fact that Sankara was one of the first heads of state to promote women’s rights, and by that moving against tribal traditions.
Tears and recognition
The final images of Shuffield’s film deal with the assassination of Sankara, initiated by the French and executed by Compaore and his ally, the Ivory Coast president Felix Houphouet Boigny. We see chaotic movements of armed troops followed by images of African – not only Burkinabe – people in tears after Sankara’s death. His ideas and actions resonated powerfully across the continent. Although African nations – limited by their governments’ alliance to European powers – did not have capacity and ability to employ Sankara’s ideas, they recognized the path he was trying to set the continent onto.
«This year’s retrospective programme rotates around some key terms in the history of communism.»
Images of masses in tears are also present in the central part of Popivoda’s film, which depicts the breaking point of Tito’s death in 1980. The whole country stood still as the Blue Train carrying the beloved president’s body travelled from one end of Yugoslavia to the other.
A large part of Popivoda’s film is also dedicated to the “collective body”, represented by Labour Day parades and rallies on Youth Day, when thousands of performers took stage at the stadium of FC Partizan in Belgrade, celebrating Tito, socialism, brotherhood and unity, accompanied by anthemic, swelling orchestral and choir music. Assertive and enthusiastic, they are inverted in the last ever Youth Day rally in 1988, with performers running with torches in the dark stadium to a bombastic, apocalyptic composition reminiscent of Carmina Burana. A clear sign of times to come.
And then came capitalism
What follow next in Popivoda’s film are mass protests and police brutality at the 1990s demonstrations, to the sounds of punk and rock’n’roll music. Evident in both cases is a sense of belonging to an inspired collective – whether it steps forward in unity to express support or defiance. And regardless of the motive, from the distance of 2013 when the film was released, and even more so now, these collective actions feel almost naïve. Was our revolutionary fervour and belief misplaced, or was it just eventually betrayed?
As Yugoslavia was falling apart, so was the communist ideology. But what Popivoda posits here is that communism was not – as the protesters on the streets of Belgrade in the period 1991–2000 believed – to be replaced by democracy. What they got instead was neoliberal capitalism in its most cruel form, combined with partocracy and the state’s intertwinement with organized crime.
A similar conclusion can be deducted from the three other films: Many Chinese reformations have now brought the country to the top of the world’s capitalist economy, the Black Panthers’ rapid demise and the present rise of racism in the US, openly supported by its president, and Sankara’s noble ideas sabotaged by ruthless neo-colonialism.
The collective orientation and concept of struggling together for the common good that these films display seem to have disappeared alongside the downfall of the ideologies, today replaced by individualistic values. What today is branded as “left” or “right” is just a fake and increasingly transparent mask for the only real remaining ideology: capitalism. We are all individual consumers now – easy targets for capitalism and willing members of the consumption-obsessed society.
The practice of communism portrayed in the four films proved unsustainable, and its corruption inevitable. The noble idea of communism now feels romantic in its naïveté, but its value is undeniable.