Pordenone is a small town in northern Italy, located in a province with a complex name Friuli-Venezia Giulia. As a rule, it is not a must-visit sight for average tourists. People come here on business or visit it on their way to Venice, Trieste, Austria, or Slovenia. But, believe me, you will be totally captivated and enchanted once you come to this medieval town, especially if you get to know Pordenone while it hosts the world’s most influential festival of silent films, like it happened to the delegation of Ukrainian moviemakers, who presented the program of Ukrainian silent films “Ukraine. The Great Experiment” this autumn in Italy (working title is “Ukrainian Miracle”). Deputy Director General of Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Center Ivan Kozlenko was among them.
SILENT FILMS AS MEDICATION AGAINST DEPRESSION
Ivan, I must admit that until recently I had not known that such a unique film festival exists. How did you find out about it?
“How did I find out about it? Now it is hard to say. Apparently, it was connected with Silent Nights in Odesa we have been holding for several years in succession now. When I was compiling the program of the film festival and carrying out a monitoring, it was important for me to find analogical projects which were functioning and whose experience could come in handy for us. That was when I read that a forum in Italian town of Pordenone is the biggest festival of silent films, which was created 32 years ago. It was founded in 1981, after the disastrous earthquake in northern Italy, which killed many people. At that terrible time a group of enthusiasts, who were amateurs in moviemaking, decided that their fellow countrymen needed some inspiration. They came up with an idea of a silent film festival. At first it was a small students’ festival and the screenings took place in the open air. When in the 1990s the Giuseppe Verdi Municipal Theater was built in the town, it became the venue of the film festival.
“Incidentally, current president of the festival and his wife were those enthusiastic students in the 1980s. They still are members of the organizing committee of the festival. And film critic Jean Mitry was the first director of the forum. There is an award named in his honor, given for special achievements in preserving of cinema. By the way, director of the Museum of Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Film Studio Tetiana Derevianko was received this award in 1998.
“David Robinson has been at the helm of the festival for the past 17 years. He is perhaps the most respected official biographer of Charlie Chaplin. He has spent much time with the heirs of the family of the famous silent movie actor and, based on this communication, he has written two big biographies, which are considered classical works in this genre. Owing to Robinson’s authority, the Pordenone Festival has turned into the most grandiose and world-renowned cinema forum of archivists in professional circles.
“I found out about the film festival in the following way: I was looking for filmography of Ukrainian-born German actress Xenia Desni and found out that one of the films in which she played, Swedish film Merry-Go-Round, took part in the film festival in Pordenone several years ago. I phoned and asked whether there was such film in the data base of the festival. It turned out there wasn’t, but since that time I started to scrupulously study their website and I have found there many Ukrainian films (or the ones which have some relation to Ukraine). For example, in 2004 Pordenone held a large-scale event commemorating Dziga Vertov, of course, in the context of the Soviet cinema.
“And a year ago I saw on the website of the film festival that Italy planned to host a full retrospective of silent films of Hollywood star, Ukrainian Anna Sten. The abstract read that Sten was a Swede who starred in Russia and in Hollywood. Since Hollywood production is already a period of sound cinema, the entire retrospective of the actress was based on Soviet Russian and German cinema (Sten took part in Franco-German productions as well). And the only film, shot at Yalta Film Studio in Ukraine, in which she played as well, was not on the list. I wrote then an angry letter to the director of the festival, where I stated this fact, all the more so the Ukrainian film was the first one in the actress’s filmography. I also wrote that Anna Sten is not Swede (at that time Olena Novykova defined that Sten was a pseudonym the actress took from the scenic name of her first husband in Kyiv, and the actress’s real name is Hanna Fisak, Fisakova). Moreover, I offered to submit the Ukrainian film to the film festival, because the Dovzhenko Studio had just restored it. And we started to correspond. Robinson was surprised at unprecedented persistence of an unknown person, but he explained he took the data about Sten’s biography from Wikipedia and promised to correct it. And when I came to the festival for the first time, he admitted in surprise that he expected to see a passionate and weird elderly archivist, as they most of them look like that (laughing).”
How old is Robinson?
“Eighty-three! But he is a very modern person with a lively and flexible way of thinking. Having met me in person, Robinson offered me to make in 2013 a program of Ukrainian films in Pordenone. That was impressive! Inspired by the prospect, we wanted to include eleven films at first, but later we had to curb our appetite, since apart from the Ukrainian block, the festival was presenting a large Swedish program and a retrospective of films by German director Gerhard Lamprecht. As a result we included eight films in the program. We did not include the films which were known in Europe by then, like Man with a Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov.”
Which genres of films were presented in the program?
“I had the task to show the uniqueness of the national cinema and how it differs from the Soviet film production of that time. For there existed quite a specific situation in Ukrainian film production since mind-1930s. The thing is that in Russia Bolshevik films started to be shot in 1918. The most famous is The Young Lady and the Hooligan, based on the screenplay by Vladimir Mayakovski, who played there as well. Nationalization of filmmaking took place in Russia in 1919, following Lenin’s decree. And since Soviet regulations were not in effect in Ukraine at that time, because the power was changing every two months, the law on nationalization was not implemented. There were private film studios: in Odesa – until 1919, in Yalta – until 1930. And even when many people – Mozhukhin, Lysenko, Kovanko – left the Crimea, and some – Vitold Polonsky and Vira Kholodna – died, many pre-Revolutionary actors and directors stayed to work at Yalta Film Studio. And they were shooting absolutely unique cinema until 1925. Although surrounded by famine and destruction, those people, whose education was based on the school of entertainment, attraction, and decadent cinema, screened works by Leonid Andreev, Edgar Poe, and Alexander Grin, invented non-existing countries, where with luxurious set designs of fantastic palaces they staged scenes of balls with wonderful costumes. However, their stories ended either with revolution, or some other cardinal changes, but that was utopian filmmaking.
“We brought one of such films to the festival, The Struggle of Giants by Viktor Turin (incidentally, Anna Sten played in his second work, Agent Provocateur). This is a large-scale film, with huge set design and a crowd of extras. Turin just came back from Hollywood and, probably, was the only Ukrainian director who had skills to shoot such epic films.
“We showed in Pordenone two chamber psychological dramas – Night Cab Driver and Two Days. We familiarized our European colleagues with totally unexpected Oleksandr Dovzhenko. The canvas of his film The Diplomatic Pouch is detective, but the film is light and ironical, with comedy moments. And it is extremely stylish. Ida Penzo, who, according to some evidence, was in close relations with Oleksandr Dovzhenko and writer Yurii Yanovsky, played the lead role. Yanovsky wrote the book Master of the Ship about their complicated friendship. There was such a spicy moment. Our colleagues were simply captivated by the film, because they had never seen it before, and they discovered iconic Oleksandr Dovzhenko from an unexpected side. From Dovzhenko’s oeuvre we also presented Arsenal and Earth. We showed the record of Earth, but with accompaniment of DakhaBrakha. And the music received enthusiastic comment. Namely Robinson offered to stake in the program on Dovzhenko, because over 32 years of the festival’s history only Zvenyhora was shown there.
“Our discoveries, films by Mykola Shpykovsky Self-Seeker and Bread became the triumph of our program. Many people in the audience rose in applause. This is almost an incredible situation for professional audience.”
“NEW WAVE” FOR ARCHIVAL RESEARCHERS
What is the age category of the viewers of silent films in Italy?
“As I have already said, the Pordenone film festival is professional. It draws archivists and film critics. But tickets are sold for evening shows, and we even have an amateur picture which features a huge line to the box office. Three films from the Ukrainian program were screened at audience show: The Struggle of Giants, Self-Seeker, and Bread.
“An interesting thing, I have noticed for the second year that the professional audience and the circle of researchers-archivists become younger. Pordenone even held a roundtable, where this process was analyzed. They concluded that older generations, mainly involved in preserving, fixation of cultural film heritage, have fulfilled their task. Now one can make the ‘mines,’ dig deep down, this is what the youth is for the most part involved in. I would say the time of ‘new wave’ has come for archival researchers. This is connected, in my opinion, with total penetration of the Internet and mobile connection into our lives, and in these things young people are more knowledgeable and orient themselves better in new electronic gadgets. Besides, it is extremely interesting. There are really detective stories about the way old films, which were considered lost, are found. An Argentine researcher (he is called a film enthusiast) received an award in Pordenone. He does not have any professional background, he does not work in any specialized institution, but last year he found Yevgeny Chervyakov’s film, My Son, which had been considered lost, with Anna Sten. This is a wonderful example of avant-garde cinema! There are a few more films, in particular, the lost parts of Metropolis by Fritz Lang.”
Can you explain why the interest to silent movies has increased in recent years? An example of this is the film The Artist, which has been shown all over the world with incredible success and won all kinds of possible international awards, including five Oscars, all this in the time when fantastic special effects are available in modern filmmaking, 3D, etc.
“When the possibilities of cinema language are exhausted and it becomes so conventional that the audience cannot feel any fresh emotions, professionals start looking for ways of alternative expression of feelings and knowledge. In this sense silent movies have extremely bright, no matter how paradoxical it seems, possibilities to influence a present-day person. I think the thing is namely about this. Besides, the lack of outstanding names and geniuses in present-day cinema (not only there: on the whole, lack of unique personalities is the plague of our time) cause a need for some kind of a ‘corridor.’ A ‘corridor’ of means of expressions, which has been established in advance. And restrictions the artist faced stimulated him to work more intensively on creation of senses hundred times more than when you can do anything you want.”
SOUNDS OF MUSIC
I know that the screenings of Ukrainian films were accompanied by virtuoso pianist from Odesa Yurii Kuznetsov, as well as well-known Belarus, Polish, and Russian musicians. How did the audience perceive the original music?
“This is an interesting question. The festival in Pordenone is above all a film review. Music has never been an important component for its organizers, always just an accompaniment. I did not like this, because at Silent Nights in Odesa music is a full-fledged element of the show. Italian professional audience could probably watch silent films in complete silence (Smiling), which in fact is unbearable. Therefore our offer came totally unexpected to them. David Robinson warned me that the festival audience was quite conservative, so he could not guarantee what its reaction would be to the innovation (piano is a usual musical accompaniment in Pordenone, rarely – orchestra performances at the festival’s opening and closing). His fears turned out to be groundless: after one of the films a woman came up to me, repeating with Southern frankness and temperament: ‘Belissimo! Belissimo!’ I don’t know why the festival organizers had avoided this kind of experiments. Maybe they were afraid that the show may somehow vanquish the scholarly component of the forum? I don’t see any contradiction in this combination. You can watch silent films from archivist’s position, but with at minimum double pleasure.”
ABOUT JOURNAL, MUSEUM OF CINEMA, AND MODERN EDUCATION
Will your cooperation with the film festival continue or you have exhausted the surprises of Ukrainian silent films for Europeans?
“The festival’s director offered me to make a program of silent animation. Unfortunately, few things have been preserved from animation production, but we still do have something. We can create an interesting project, too, for example, dedicated to Ukrainian-Jewish topics. At the beginning of previous century many films of this kind were shot in Ukraine. We need to think about this idea and develop it.
“In this context the experience of our Georgian colleagues, who several years ago showed a big program of Georgian cinema in Pordenone, is quite demonstrative. They succeeded to make a statement that Georgia is a country with original cinema. This year the festival also had a project of Georgian cultural films. So, today the films shot in this country are already perceived as independent cinema, which is not part of former Soviet Union. It is important to win the same attitude to Ukrainian cinema. But our current success in Pordenone needs to be reinforced on a regular basis. The program of silent films should be shown over the world. Professional analytic research should be enhanced. An army of film archeologists needs to be involved. They must publish their works. And we need a publishing body for this, for at the moment there are no specialized publications about cinema in Ukraine. It would be good to create a magazine, like Kinokolo. I understand what difficulties Volodymyr Voitenko faced when he was editing it. But today is a different time, we have possibilities, we just need to have a desire to make use of them. Of course, we need a Museum of Cinema, and there are numerous problems in this concern, too.”
You have grandiose plans, there is no doubt about it. What is the next standard you are going to set?
“At the festival Molodist, which is now taking place in Kyiv, we are showing the restored copy of legendary film After Two Hares. What is important, it is in Ukrainian! But I must say the current state of Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Center can be called ‘growth disease.’ And we are concerned about this. Lately many things have been done and certain achievements have been made. We need to fix them. We want to enter film distribution, so that our projects, which have already been realized, could be shown not only in Kyiv, but all over Ukraine. For our baggage includes not only silent films, but also modern short films. We plan to release DVDs and books on cinema. Many projects emerge spontaneously. For example, recently one of them has ended in Croatia. There is a small festival for research associates, and its organizers appealed to me with a request to compile the program of utopian cinema. This is an extremely interesting project. Apart from Struggle of Giants and Zvenyhora, we have wonderful A Strict Young Man by Abram Room, and several films of this genre. So, what I would like to be involved next year is thematic programs. To create an educational platform. I feel that our country really needs this kind of project at the moment. At first, I think, we should invite a foreign lecturer once in two months for four (at maximum seven) days to create a kind of an open educational institution as an alternative to academic education. These are, in short, the results which have not been summed up.”
REVIEWS OF UKRAINIAN PROGRAM
David Robinson (Great Britain), Director of the International Festival of Silent Films in Pordenone:
“We are restoring justice: I will admit, this is a strange situation, but we haven’t seen Dovzhenko’s films. This is a shame, big shame for us. But I insist: Dovzhenko was a great Ukrainian film director, not Russian at all!”
Paolo Cherchi Usai, co-founder of the International Festival of Silent Films in Pordenone:
“Ukraine is a big surprise! Its original signature in the palette of Soviet cinema is evident. The mastery of cameramen and set-up. Ukrainian films are pleasant to watch. You don’t need to be an academician in cinematography to understand their beauty and value.”
Review in online publication Silent London:
“An invigorating palate cleanser after all that angst, Dovzhenko’s breakout spy drama Sumka Dypkuryera (The Diplomatic Pouch, 1927) out-Expressionisted the Expressionists. Breathlessly fast-paced, ultra-stylized and utterly ludicrous, the film was a joy to watch on the big screen, especially with suitably wild and wonderful accompaniment from Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius. I wish the Bond franchise looked like this. No wonder Dovzhenko went on to be somebody – and the Ukrainian strand at the Giornate is already proving to be a winner.”