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  • Forward Soviet! History and Non-Fiction Film in the USSR, and: Zhivye golosa kino: govoriat vydaiushchiesia mastera otechestvennogo kinoiskusstva (30-e–40-e gody). Iz neopublikovannogo
  • Sergei Kapterev
Graham Roberts, Forward Soviet! History and Non-Fiction Film in the USSR. London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 1999. xii + 196 pp. ISBN 1-86064-282-9. $39.50.
Lev A. Parfenov, ed. Zhivye golosa kino: govoriat vydaiushchiesia mastera otechestvennogo kinoiskusstva (30-e–40-e gody). Iz neopublikovannogo. Moscow: Belyi bereg, 1999. 434 pp. ISBN 5-89652-008-5.

The formal dissolution of the Soviet system of thought and behavior has imparted to the phenomenon of the Soviet cinema a finality that, one could expect, would be conducive to the appearance of comprehensive monographs employing advanced methodologies of contemporary film scholarship. Such developments as the close correlation of stylistic patterns and technological innovations, new advances in the field of film semiotics, the influence of cultural studies, the "decentralization" of historiographical research (with greater significance attached to "peripheral" micronarratives and clusters of factual material), and more precise and systematic techniques of textual analysis, all might well be combined with unprecedented opportunities in the realm of archival research.1 Unfortunately, these expectations have remained largely unfulfilled. Too bad: the diversity of Soviet cinema – qualitative, experimental, and paradoxical – can be a stimulus both for cinema studies and the study of Soviet history. Its sad record of unfulfilled creativity – together with a much more optimistic record of resiliency and resistance in the face of formidable ideological pressure, and no less formidable conformity – are likely to retain their didactic value for the foreseeable future.

Two recent publications selected for this review provide a glimpse of how the history of the Soviet cinema is treated today outside and inside Russia. The aim of this selection is to compare methodologies and ideologies characterizing contemporary scholarship and to try to establish some of the key issues which, in the opinion of this author, may be blamed for the gnoseological delays in the reassessment of the Soviet cinema's 70-year-long development. [End Page 815]

In a time when attacking "grand narratives" has become a norm, British film scholar Graham Roberts's Forward Soviet! is a welcome return to older patterns of storytelling. Describing and analyzing the development of Soviet documentary ("non-fiction") film from its pre-revolutionary origins and first propagandist efforts of the Civil War to the pioneering cinematic exposés of the glasnost' era (the last work in the filmography is a TV production shown in 1989), Roberts concentrates his attention on outstanding talents and works, emphasizing quality and inventiveness. This makes his book both a historiographical work and a treatise on documentary aesthetics: cinematic representations of actuality are evaluated as products of and comments on parallel historical events, and in accordance with their contribution to the development of cinematic art. In seven chapters, the author covers the most significant stages in the development of the Soviet documentary, analyzing its creative growth in the first years of Soviet cinema, the causes of its artistic decline, and, later, partial rebirth in the course of Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms.

More often than not, Soviet documentary film exemplified political aesthetics, and Roberts's approach leads the reader to reflect on the dangerous beauty of inspired and sophisticated propaganda. The historical sublime is the object – and the source – of most important examples of the Soviet documentary tradition: Dziga Vertov's delirious advertising of urbanism, industrialization, and communist enterprise; Esfir Shub's assemblage-like historical chronicles; and epic accounts of the Great Patriotic War created by Soviet filmmakers, associated with both non-fiction and fiction cinema, in the 1940s. Knowledge of the enormous losses, crimes, and defeats that constitute the tragic material of Soviet history and that were not allowed to be recorded on film, cannot but make one consider even the most optimistic and aesthetically satisfying Soviet "non-fiction" films as documents of sorrow, as episodes in a grandiose social and human drama. However, the historical and the political do not undermine the artistic: they merge and supplement one another. Roberts points out the "apparent paradox" represented by the willingness of non-fiction filmmakers "to adapt their creative...


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