D Zyuz’kov’s Natalia Yurchenko documentary: a contemplative and poetic TV sports special

D Zyuz’kov, Natalia Yurchenko documentary (1984)

A curious little 20-minute gem on Youtube, this Soviet television documentary about the gymnast Natalia Yurchenko, made about the time when she was World Champion, is notable for its style of cinematography, its respectful and sombre approach to its subject and the sometimes eerie music soundtrack, created by N Mitrofanov, which seems more appropriate to an avant-garde science fiction / fantasy film of the 1970s.

Surprisingly the film begins with the worst experience Yurchenko had at the 1983 World Championships where she won the all-round individual title: a couple of days after that high, she competed in the vault final, injured her knee on landing and had to be carried off. The film then deflects to scenes of Yurchenko training in the gym under the watchful eye of coach Vladislav Rastorotsky, doing warm-up exercises, fussing over other gym pupils training under Rastorotsky and idling in the spare time, playing a tune on a piano or looking at the scenery outside her room. There are actually very few shots of Yurchenko performing her routines and those that appear are bunched up near the end of the documentary and are not shown in full so it is hard for viewers who know her routines to be able to work out when and where she performed the routines and place a date on the documentary. The film’s narrative, unfortunately without English sub-titles, is provided by Yurchenko herself in voice-over and by Rastorotsky in an interview.

Yurchenko’s voice is very girlish and makes her sound younger than she was when the film was made. She appears to talk about her life in training and how it consumes her every moment; the value of the film as a historical document of Soviet gymnastics and sport generally would appear to be minor (my assumption). The film features many close-ups of Yurchenko’s face which have the unintended hilarious effect of highlighting the heavy fringe of hair over her forehead. Her expression is usually very serious and contemplative. Rastorotsky during his interview and training sessions comes across as a gruff bear of a man who expects to be obeyed and is stern and unyielding towards his charges, even his star gymnast.

The style of the film is what makes it stand out: the cinematography is slow-paced for a sports documentary with long shots of its subject looking thoughtful. The film has many shadows and the lighting seems poor in parts, making the film look more sombre than the film crew might have intended. The highlight is a psychedelic dream sequence about halfway through the film, in which bright white lights edged with blue-green colours are superimposed over a scene of Yurchenko performing on the beam. The music ranges from Frederic Chopin’s Prelude, Op. 28, No.4 – a curious choice since the music has an ambience of despair – to a space-ambient lounge music piece played on cheap synthesiser to more conventional orchestral music; the space music has such acid tones that one expects the film to bleach its colours and turn into shades of bleached baby-blue, sickly lime-green and lemon yellow. For a TV sports special, the film has a lot of visual and sound poetry which may have suited the personality of its star.

The film comes across as a snapshot of a gymnast at a particular moment in time, no more, no less, and if viewers are looking for information about her life up to that point of time when the documentary was made, they will be disappointed. As it turns out, the 1983 World Championships were perhaps Yurchenko’s greatest moment in what became a long tenure (for the period) on the Soviet national women’s team: Yurchenko anchored the team almost to the end of 1986 when she retired from the sport. Years later, she emigrated with her husband and daughter to the United States where she coached gymnastics in Pennsylvania for several years. She is the current head women’s gymnastics coach at Lakeshore Academy in Chicago. As far as I know, Rastorotsky taught gymnastics in France and China after the break-up of the Soviet Union and returned to Rostov-on-Don in 1999.

 

Exercises in Preparation for Independent Life: animated criticism of Soviet life and loss of childhood innocence and fun

Priit Pärn and Kulno Luhts, “Harjutusi iseseisvaks eluks / Exercises in Preparation for Independent Life” (1980)

In typically insouciant style, animator Priit Pärn serves up another short cartoon that in its faux naif style criticises the Soviet regime ruling Estonia in 1980. The narrative divides into two complementary threads in which a boy and a man, who might almost be aspects of the same person at different ages or be son and father, demonstrate how the demands of modern life turn them into automatons. The boy learns by imitation and acculturation the habits he must adopt to function in adult society and the man in his business suit repeatedly carries out those habits ingrained in him since he ceased being a child. The short flits between the two characters continuously to show how their actions are steadily converging into the one set of behaviours.

The animation looks dead simple at first but the drawings are more technically sophisticated than what initially meets the eye as the businessman comes into focus and starts pushing paper around his desk and answering the telephone. Colours around the businessman are of various drab shades of brown and grey while for the boy they come in a wider range of bright and joyful primary hues. As the short progresses, the colours associated with the boy start to dull and the colours for the businessman become brighter near the end as his robot routine unravels and objects around him begin to rebel. The animator himself pushes the rebellion along by using a stop-motion animation of his pencil-wielding hand to place the telephone on a different spot of the desk, upsetting the businessman’s autopilot mode of thinking and living.

The start and the end of the short are bookended by a similar sequence of actions performed by the boy (at the start) and the man (at the end): they race across a field, turn into a growing tree, meet a lamb that transforms into a sheep, dive into a river and become airborne swallows. The boy gazes with a puzzled (perhaps even slightly disapproving?) expression at the businessman as the older character cavorts through the field under a brilliant blue sky, rediscovering his old zest for life. A neat and somewhat worrying way of saying that the child becomes father to the man and the man, in reclaiming a life, loses  his son to society’s grasp.

As I’ve come to expect from Pärn, surreal images abound and there are plenty of stream-of-consciousness free associations of images and objects blending into one another. The music matches the narrative and actions and foreign viewers need not worry about having to understand Estonian as the film features no dialogue.

Nael / The Nail (dir. Heino Pars): inventive stop-motion animation short about human nature and revenge

Heino Pars, “Nael / The Nail” (1972)

Droll little animation short “Nael” consists of four stories that illustrate aspects of life in Soviet Estonia in the 1970s using stop-motion animation. First up is a story of two nails who fall in love and have a baby only for the bigger nail of the two to turn deadbeat runaway dad. The second story is of a young nail investigating a hammer who suffers the inevitable smack-down. Third up is a gangland fight that ends only when one nail is arrested by the police (represented as a magnet). The fourth story takes place in a circus in which the lion-tamer orders his kitty to perform various demeaning tricks such as jumping through a ring of fire. The lion reserves its best trick at the very end though which of course means a kat-astrophe for the lion tamer.

The animation is inventive with a minimalist style. All the action is silent so Pars must work at telling his stories and he succeeds . Particularly original is the way Pars gets his nails to conceive babies in the heat of lust, punch one another’s lights out and turn bow-ties into rings ablaze with fire. Viewers quickly acclimatise to the blank backgrounds in which the only stage props are windows are indicated only by matchsticks. Nothing moral or dark is illustrated here apart from perhaps the second story which might be a “curiosity killed the cat” morality story or a snide poke at the Soviet system. Viewers will warm to the fourth story which, although predictable, has a very cheeky sense of humour.

Linn (City): a well-meaning if dated moral tale about industrialisation

Reino Raamat, “Linn / City” (1988)

Earnest and well-meaning, Raamat”s “Linn” is a moral tale of what happens when a town is overcome by industrialisation and the warped, mechanised culture and soulless values that follow in its wake and the town citizens are worn down by the sheer enormous scale of the changes and their seductive embrace. In the context of its time, the animation short might be seen as a nationalistic protest against the Sovietisation of Estonia and  how it reduces everyone to the lowest common denominator, robbing people of their ethnic, religious and other identities as well as their individuality. The short begins in a nameless town, already stacked with cardboard-like anonymous high-rise buildings in which people are living like rats anyway, cultivating their dreams and indulging their love in their children (obvious symbols of the future), which is invaded by huge black blocks that crowd the existing buildings together. Outraged, the citizens of the town form a movement, symbolised by a huge figure, to push back the block. For a short time they succeed but the black block sends out rays of gold money and infiltrate the buildings with lubricious ladies of the night and the men of the town are quickly entranced and enthralled by these gifts. While some stalwarts put up a strong resistance, in the end their efforts come to nought as the women are forced to cradle mini-blocks and the whole town is swallowed up in the miasma of mass industrial society and culture.

The black-and-white animation shows the issue in all its brutal starkness and scenes of mass assembly manufacture verge on Konstruktivist abstraction. There’s a fair amount of female nudity and tastefully portrayed sexual intercourse so the short clearly isn’t intended for children. Characters are representative of various social strata and adhere to traditional gender stereotypes. Women are portrayed either as Madonnas or whores and men as either noble and heroic or weak and easily corrupted. Music varies according to the needs of the narrative with electronic music representing the onslaught of mass industry and its filthy insinuations into people’s lives.

Though the animation is very good, the theme and thus the narrative and characterisation are dated, even for the period portrayed. Workers and capitalists can’t simply be portrayed as good against evil any more: in modern societies now, be they capitalist, corporate fascist, socialist or other, ideologies valuing economic rationality and progress, technocracy, human control of nature, debt-based finance and belief in economic competition and nationalism still hold sway and can be just as destructive of human happiness and life as  Communism was in Estonia from 1945 to 1991.

Aeg Maha (Time Out): Soviet Estonian animation at its most surreal

Priit Pärn and Hille Kusk, “Aeg Maha / Time Out” (1984)

“Aeg Maha” is animator Priit Pärn at his most defiantly surrealist best. The entire short is one big surrealist dream with practically no plot save for the fact that the character dreaming it is journeying in the dream with no particular aim in mind other than to have a good time. All the action takes place on a stage and concerns a cat in thrall to time as represented on an alarm clock. At 9:30 am the main action begins in a whirlpool and the cat plunges right into it like Alice into the rabbit hole.

The cat’s adventures proceed amid a riot of visual gags in which ripples become an island which becomes a manhole cover; palm trees can be chopped into mini helicopters; elves’ long hoods do multiple duty as river streams, umbrellas, fish skeletons and moulds for wolves’ teeth; a woman’s bra becomes a sail; and even the cat’s own tail gets him out of trouble by chainsawing the palm trees and then whacking a predatory shark. Everything is all free association: there’s no narrative within the dream, no apparent moral, it all seems to be just nonsense.

Is it really though? The alarm clock rings and the cat discovers it was all a dream. The curtain falls and all the characters he met in the dream gather in front for audience applause.

There might just be a message, one the Soviet authorities missed completely: within the prison that was Soviet society at the time, you can be free to do whatever you like within your imagination – with the proviso that your time in the clouds is strictly rationed by the clock.

Nõiutud saar (The Enchanted Island): a sweet and charming film with a moral about unity in diversity

Riho Unt and Hardi Volmer, “Nõiutud Saar (The Enchanted Island)” (1985)

Another gem from Tallinnfilm studios and this time it’s a cute stop-motion animation short with no dialogue, just harmonica and string-based tune fragments to substitute for speech and emotion and to emphasise action. The style is simple and sweet with appealing characters; even the monster that pops up with rows of sharp teeth bared in the middle of the body where the head should bounce up is endearingly cute. Initially the film appears to be aimed at children but there is a slight sexual though harmless innuendo in the middle of the short.

A small group of fishing folk lives on a tiny island in the middle of a vast flat sea. Each day they row out to catch fish. One member of the group – usually always the youngest or most inexperienced – has trouble putting his boat out to sea and nearly always drowns while fishing. One day though the fishers are overcome by a monster whale; the little guy turns out to have the most guts and gets rid of the whale. However it seems the monster whale has cast a spell over the rest of the group, all the fishers having gone spastic in their attempts to appease their god, so the little feller converts himself into a bird-machine and flies to another realm to fight the evil spirit. He has to do this three times before the spell is finally broken and the fishers return to their normal functioning selves.

The little characters are Swiss-knife cybernetic organisms that change their forms and this is where the animation is most inventive; the little guys’ hands change from fins to harpoons to wings whenever required. They have expressive eyes but otherwise don’t show emotion. The evil that confronts our hero comes in various forms: firstly as a leviathan whale, then as a beguiling lady flamenco dancer (whom our hero defeats by turning into an old-fashioned gramophone player) and then as an even more colossal whale with a hidden secret weapon. The music is charming and whimsical: harmonica represents our hero’s character including his initial awkward klutziness and later bravery while other characters are accompanied by other instruments, mainly strings.

It’s a funny, sweet and charming little film with a little moral for children that it doesn’t matter if they’re not the same as other children in certain skills: everyone is unique and might have a special talent that helps everybody survive together. The fishing folk accept our hero in spite of his incompetence as a fisher as he has other abilities that help them all. The one flaw people might find is that the fishing folk tend to ignore our hero throughout the film and don’t appear to change their attitudes towards him; some change in the way they interact with him might have lifted the film to universal greatness. Disney-style sentimentality is not called for here, just a slight acknowledgement of what he’s done for them is all that’s needed.

The World Tomorrow (Episode 11: Anwar Ibrahim): a fine conclusion to a generally good interview series

Julian Assange, “The World Tomorrow (Episode 11: Anwar Ibrahim)” (Russia Today, 3 July 2012)

In this final installment in his interview series, Assange goes over to Malaysia by video link-up to speak to Anwar Ibrahim, the major personality and leader of the political opposition in Malaysia. A former student activist and member of Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohammed’s government in the 1990s, Ibrahim fell out of favour and was thrown out of political life on corruption and sodomy charges, and spent several years in prison. Returning to politics in 2008, he was hit with fresh sodomy and pedophilia charges which he fought through the courts for four years until January 2012, when all charges against him were dropped.

The interview starts with a discussion of Ibrahim’s imprisonment, how he came to be jailed and the reasons for that, and how he coped with the confinement and being separated from his wife and young children. Reading famous Russian writers like Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Shakespeare’s plays helped him to construct an inner life otherwise devoid of social contact and external stimulation. Ibrahim was acquitted of charges in 2004 and released from jail; he then lived in the US and the UK for a time. The interview segues into a comparison of Malaysian-style democracy (or whatever passes as such) with regional countries such as Burma / Myanmar, the security situation in Southeast Asia and whether Malaysia and Indonesia should form a security pact with Australia, and the history of ethnic relations among the Malays, the Chinese and the Indians in Malaysia and how inter-ethnic frictions among these groups and others are exploited by the Malaysian government, political elites and their lackeys.

There’s a sidestep into discussing the application of Islamic Shari’a law in Malaysia and Ibrahim makes the point that his concern is about corruption in the country’s law courts regardless of whether they apply Western laws or Shari’a laws. He also makes a plea for religious tolerance and points out that most people in Malaysia, and in Penang in particular where he hails from, practise such tolerance in their daily lives and during public holidays or important social events such as weddings.

The formal interview concludes with a talk on what the future holds for Malaysia and what Ibrahim plans to do should his opposition party win power in the mid-year 2012 general elections. At the point when Assange would normally say his goodbyes, Ibrahim drags him back for a few minutes to talk about Saudi Arabian investment in Malaysia and Assange’s own unhappy circumstances in which the US has filed a secret indictment against him which it intends to use to pressure Sweden to extradite him to US shores after the UK has dumped him with the Swedes to answer allegations of having raped two women, one of whom (Anna Ardin) apparently has ties to anti-Castro Cuban charity funded by the CIA and supported by Luis Posada Carriles who is wanted by both Cuba and Venezuela for having blown up an airliner in 1976. Ibrahim brings up the interesting point that because the US, the UK and Sweden are now seen to be acting as the bullies they have always been, other countries now feel entitled to act the same way; Assange agrees and cites the case of two Swedish journalists detained by the Zenawi government in Ethiopia which felt justified in doing so since it had noted Sweden’s earlier detention of Assange.

Of all Assange’s interview subjects in the series, Ibrahim is one of the more articulate ones though the majority of interviewees have been very impressive in this respect with Noam Chomsky and David Horowitz the big surprise losers. I’d have preferred Assange to have interviewed people with more radical ideas – the kind of interviewee whom Robert Stark in his weekly “The Stark Report” radio interview series takes on – as the choice of people he has had on “The World Tomorrow” was predictable to say the least.  Assange himself has improved as an interviewer as the series progressed and shows himself to be well informed about the politics and history of many different countries. He is passionate about particular issues such as democracy and equality and at the same time is respectful of his interviewees’ opinions.

If more journalists were like Assange in their conduct and in the questions they ask of their subjects, journalism would be much improved in reputation across the world and in English-speaking countries especially. As the situation presently stands, Assange is getting no support from the very people in his profession who should be helping him; this is deplorable and we should hang our heads in shame that we are not holding our media to task over its betrayal of its supposed ethics for allowing him to be thrown by politicians to the wolves in the US government.

This review is based mostly on the transcript of the interview which can be found at this link.

 

Jänes (The Hare): trippy bionic bunny tale reconciles science and nature

Ando Keskküla, “Jänes (The Hare)” (1976)

One of the trippiest animation films I have seen since starting this blog and I have seen a fair few, I can tell you! Let’s genuflect on our hands and knees and thank Thronoi the Bear for uploading a treasure trove of Soviet Estonian animation films to Youtube. Compared to cartoons coming out of the West and Japan during the same period, “Jänes” might not feature such wonderful special effects and the latest technical advances but it overcomes its disadvantages by featuring a heart-warming story about acceptance of outsiders and reconciliation between science and nature in a colourful yet warm and cosy psychedelic style.

 A scientist / inventor, looking remarkably like a paunchy Roger Federer, shuts up his assembly-line cyborg machine for the evening and goes home. His menagerie of animals is curious about the machines in his laboratory and a rabbit ventures inside. It gets lost inside the machine, turns on some knobs and the machine scans its features and accepts them as instructions for a new cyborg. After two false starts, the cyborg bunny is created and leaps out after its original model. Rejected by the other animals though, the cyborg wanders into the city where in the morning it causes peak-hour traffic mayhem and makes headline news on TV. Our Victor Frankenstein sees the lab lagomorph on his TV, calls up his mini-copter and flies into the city in search of his inadvertent creation. Finding it in an alley, exhausted and dented after one too many encounters with deranged drivers, the scientist brings his bionic bunny home and the animals in the menagerie take pity on it and hold a party to cheer it up. The scientist opens a flap in the techno-rabbit’s head, twists a few knobs, and retreats. Instantly a Meccano set of beams, screws and levers pours out of the critter’s head and transforms into a rollercoaster, then an entire fun fair.

The plot is easy enough to follow with a medium-to-fast pace and there’s no Estonian spoken so the film can be enjoyed by everyone within and without Estonia. The animation is sometimes difficult to see and appreciate in the first third of the film which takes place at night. City scenes, based on photographic stills, are sometimes a wonder to see with all their detail though it might be hard for people unfamiliar with Estonia to appreciate the style and ambience of Tallinn as the action moves quickly and the stills are on the scene for a few seconds each. There are lots of yellows, oranges and browns in the characters and some scenes and the look of the film is warm and molten. In the final scenes where Robo-rabbit transforms, bright lights appear and the look can be very abstract as the camera goes up and down the rollercoaster. A peacock provides the disco lights with its tail and bears boogie and dance and go for rides on the rollercoaster, Ferris wheel and flying scooters. 

There’s a wonderful message about how science and nature can co-exist happily together away from humans, and hope might be expressed that the humans can follow the example of the animals and learn to accept outsiders, machine or not, in society.

Kolmnurk (The Triangle): delightfully surreal film about a husband, his wife and her midget lover

Priit Pärn, “Kolmnurk (The Triangle)” (1982)

Yet another delightful animation short from this Estonian animator back in the 1980s and thankfully for a non-Estonian speaker like me, the cartoon features no dialogue apart from the characters calling out one another’s names. Viktor and Julia have been married for some time and the couple seem stuck in a rut: Viktor waits for dinner, reading his newspaper, while Julia makes breakfast, lunch and dinner for him. The relationship clearly is very one-sided: Julia’s emotional and sexual needs are going unmet while Viktor and his tummy are doing very well out of the marriage. Unexpectedly, a little door opens up at the bottom of the stove and out pops Lilliputian-sized Eduard, a suave Latin-lover type, attracted by the smell of Julia’s cooking, who jumps up onto the kitchen bench and eats all the cooked food. Julia patiently cooks more and Eduard gulps it all down. Viktor, enraged at his wife’s acquiescence to Eduard’s amorous attentions to the food, leaves home and Eduard takes his place at the table and newspaper. Viktor later relents and returns to his wife. They reconcile and Eduard skulks back home where his wife Veronika has been waiting; the two take up their appointed places at table with newspaper and stove respectively.

There’s no obvious moral which is perhaps one reason Soviet government censors at the time of the short’s release didn’t take too kindly to the film and limited its cinematic release. The film probably says something about the uneven relationships between men and women in marriage at the time. (I have seen some reviews suggesting that Julia symbolises Estonian land and resources and Eduard represents a rapacious Soviet Union; I hope the creators abhor such racist / white supremacist insinuations.) The animation style is based on pencil drawings and looks superficially simple and straightforward but it’s definitely not a film for children: the animation uses a lot of cut-outs of faces, eyes and sensuous lips to hint at Viktor and Julia’s sexual yearnings and unmet needs, and Julia’s body with its ample breasts also is the focus of Eduard and Viktor’s attentions later in the film. There is much surrealism in the film as well: cooking flavours travel far through the country, Eduard morphs into a necklace for Julia and Viktor floats through the air while running away from home.

The black humour, the deliberately crude, pencil-drawn animation style, whimsical story and surrealistic dream elements make this film a worthy one to watch for animation students.

Suur Tõll: colourful, almost psychedelic animation about a mythical Estonian hero

Rein Raamat and Kulno Luht, “Suur Tõll”(1980)

In Estonian mythology Suur Tõll is a giant hero king who rules the island of Saaremaa off the coast of western Estonia in the Baltic sea. He gets the animation treatment in this 14-minute short directed by Rein Raamat and Kulno Luht and featuring artwork by Jüri Arrak. In a colourful, almost psychedelic cartoon dominated by shades of yellow, orange, dark browns and tan, and with a brassy music soundtrack to match, the great king strides about the island battling evil where he finds it. As the short progresses though, he loses his wife to a demon and then in a fight against an army of demons, the demon king beheads our hero. In a rage, Suur Tõll kills the demon king and defeats the army; he then recovers his head and goes away to die. His body turns into a stony hill and his head becomes a boulder on a plain to remind the Saaremaa inhabitants of his heroism and feats of strength and bravery.

The constant music soundtrack with its deep-voiced, almost inhuman choruses and the blaring brass trumpets gives the short an epic, almost Biblical feel. The giant, his wife and their various enemies look so monumental in their simple cut-out cardboard silhouette figures and big blocks of colour so it’s a real shock to discover that the couple is mortal after all. The animators assume that everyone watching the short knows the stories about  Suur Tõll so they blend the best-known tales about him in one film and the action proceeds silently with just the music as sonic accompaniment.

The bright hues, the almost child-like outlines of the characters and their blocky shapes with very few details of clothing and the way they stride rather than walk, fling things rather than throw or toss, and go WHACK! with their swords, scythes or spears rather than fight, together create something that is very dream-like and surreal, and fitting for an age when giant heroes really did stride across the landscape and sometimes deigned to help humans with their problems. The short is very distinctive in look and style but if viewers want to know more of Jüri Arrak’s work, they are best referred to his paintings and drawings which really are the bee’s knees.