Suits, Comrades and ‘Troublemakers’
This special section of the Astra film festival is designed to take a sideways look at a largely unexamined aspect of our continent’s history: the way a leading public service televisual broadcaster in western Europe approached the last years of Eastern Europe's communist dictatorship and their aftermath.
What sort of subjects did BBC producers broach? What were the obsessions of the Corporation and how did independent creative talent within it react to the wholly unexpected changes in political life in the years after 1985? How do you, an audience who lived through or have family memories of this time now see the outsiders’ perspective on your world?
Within the cold-war history of broadcast media, the story of television occupies a special place. In countless homes within the Soviet bloc one could have found a family member listening quietly to a radio tuned in to one of the ‘hostile,’ networks. Radio Free Europe, Radio Freedom and the BBC world service blasted fresh air into the stifling stale atmosphere created by the communist media.
This was an era before the internet and cable television and so it was only radio that had this direct access into most (though not all parts) of the Communist bloc. Radio stations like Radio Free Europe and the BBC World Service broadcast into the bloc using the local vernacular. They could do so because they were staffed with refugees from the region, people who had seen the Soviet system at first hand. These journalists were thus doubly immunised against the kinds of compromises that television productions of the time tended to make.
So, the high standards of radio were in part a technical matter: a radio journalist could take a recorder into Czechoslovakia and, if lucky, take home more or less unobstructed verbatim from behind the iron curtain. But their standards were not just a matter of technology. In Britain, as in the rest of the world, television media comes under far greater scrutiny from those in political power than the print or radio media. In Britain this is, for the most part, not a matter of direct control but rather of the careful creation of a culture of ‘the acceptable’ and ‘the unacceptable’. There was, at the end of the 1960s a brief period of liberalism under the visionary Controller of the BBC, Hugh Greene. This came to a rapid end when the paranoiac Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson engineered Greene’s removal, supposedly for encouraging too disrespectful a tone in political interviews. Under Greene, a generation of journalists were given access to the airwaves who, in Paul Watson's words, were determined "to take documentaries beyond the limits laid down for BBC staff and to get on television subjects unpalatable to hierarchies". More than twenty years later, Watson was the commissioning editor for one of the eastern European films we present in this special program of the festival, but Watson is the exception. Most of the time, the BBC manages to produce a strangely tame and docile film maker, suits as they are called in the local jargon.
The period when the BBC came to be really tested began with the rise to power of Mikhail Gorbachev and the era of so-called ‘glasnost.’ In 1986 ‘for the first time’ – oh proverbial tele-phrase! - BBC producers gained access to the Soviet Union to make what became a twelve part series about ‘ordinary Russians.’ The stars of the series ranged from a dour Moldovan judge, through a conscript soldier to a beauty queen. The lesson the series wanted to impart was in one sense simple: Soviet citizens are recognisable humans ‘like you and me’ dealing with the kinds of frustrations, maddening bureaucratic regulations and personal challenges that are the fate of modern humans the world over. You can see the logic. In the early 1980s there had been a period of significantly increased international tension. Now under Gorbachev there was hope for a new period of détente and this series was supposed to lift the mask on Homo Sovieticus. And, of course, to some extent it succeeded.
But it was also bland fare. All the absurdities of the one-party system, the misery of a generation of Brezhnevian economic stagnation, the all encompassing fear instilled since childhood were airbrushed out of the picture. The tale of the Moldovan judge managed to pass a whole hour without commenting on the fact that she loyally spoke Russian to camera but was in fact a Romanian mother-tongue speaker. And overall the viewer got a sense – a wholly misleading sense – that Homo Sovieticus was pretty much like their western counterpart, if poorer, more loyal and worse dressed.
Comrades was in this sense a missed opportunity. So awe-struck were the producers by the ‘access’ that they were given they fell into an utterly unjournalistic fit of politeness and timidity. For sure there was nothing unpalatable to ‘the hierarchies’ here – although when the BBC went back in 1991 do make a ‘five years later series’ it emerged that the poor Moldovan judge had lost her job over the earlier film – maybe because she allowed her family to be filmed speaking Romanian at a celebratory party.
The films we present in this special program of the festival are not the representative ones (with the exception of Death of Yugoslavia). Most of the films, those many, made by BBC about Eastern Europe were investigating hot political issues, explaining the background of the BBC news for British public. These films, many of which attained very high standards include: Cry from the Grave (2001) by Leslie Woodhead about the 1995 masacre in Srebrenica (Bosnia), or Children of Beslan (2005) by Ewa Ewart and Leslie Woodhead about the hostage tragedy in a Chechnian school Cecenia, and The Valley-Kosovo (1998) by Dan Reed, as well as the award winning series on The Death of Yugoslavia.
The selection of the special program BBC view on Eastern Europe in Astra Film Fest 2007 will predominantly screen the films made in a very different mode. In a sense they were made in reaction to the disbelief that nicely packaged films like Comrades generated. But precisely because they did not fit the ‘common sense’ of the time they were not always easy to make.
We see this with Forgiving the Blood Melissa Llewelyn-Davies’ film tells the story of a mass movement for forgiveness of vendetta that took place in the early 1990s in Kosova. The film is a powerful and ironic examination of the seductive promises of nationalist politics and was shot before the worst of the wars of Yugoslav secession in the spring to winter of 1992. Yet Llewelyn-Davies had been banging on the door of the BBC since mid-1991 when she first heard of this extraordinary phenomenon. In 1990 she and I had worked together on a documentary about Transylvania during which she had seen at first hand the revival of nationalist politics in the region. Advised by the former central Europe correspondent of the Corporation that if she wanted to explore this phenomenon further she should turn to Yugoslavia she began to knock on the door of the corporation in early 1991. But no one was interested. The suits who ran the departments could not believe there would be a war in Europe’s backyard and found nothing of interest in a story of Albanian peasants, nationalist students and a professor of Folklore. It was only when Paul Watson took over an anthropological series that the film was commissioned. Ironically, Llewelyn Davies and myself ended up in a god-almighty battle with the BBC over the final cut as one of the Comrades producers had by then replaced the ‘troublemaker’ Watson and was determined to hand in a simpler and cruder film than the one we had made.
Pawlikowski’s films likewise come from a wholly different moral universe than Comrades and Goodbye Comrades, and from an insider view. Pawlikowski, born in Poland, moved to the UK when he was 15, and has gradually become one the most influential and important British film directors. In the mid-80s he was commissioned by the BBC Community Programme Unit to make documentaries for them. Then he moved on to direct numerous award-winning documentaries including From Moscow to Pietushki (Emmy International, Prix Italia, Royal Television Society Award), Dostoevski's Travels (special mention at Felix European Film Academy Awards), and Tripping with Zhirinovski which received the Grierson Award in 1995, Serbian Epics few of which we show here.
Darkly funny, almost ghoulish as times they will I am sure ring true to people who lived through those times and to those who still live in the grotesque shadow of those days. If you want to know what Homo Sovieticus was, and where he went in the aftermath of the collapse of communism there is no better place to look than in From Moscow to Pietushki, Dostoievski’s travels, and the film Tripping with Zhirinovsky. In a way that the corporate productions could never hope to accomplish, here you also discover the origins of Putinism – both the world he is trying to suppress and the forces that he has been harnessing.
Finally, we also wanted to show the tradition of public service investigative journalism, that the BBC also represents, at its blazing best. Angus McQueen’s first film in the ten-part ‘Death of Yugoslavia’ demonstrated just what the BBC can do when its funds, resources and reputation are brought into play. McQueen’s film used the style pioneered by his producer, the legendary Norma Percy, in which the events of the time are in effect reconstructed by the main actors through a gripping montage of detailed interview and footage from the time. In this case the series rested on getting interviews with the three presidents and Milosevic withstood all temptations. He insisted that if he gave an interview the BBC should transmit it entire, uncut. Percy, who was with Milosevic phoned the controller of BBC2 (Alan Yentob at the time) who agreed to the war-leader’s demands. What they did not tell Milosevic was that it would go out at 01.00 in the morning. Percy and McQueen were then free to use the edited material for their series (and the uncut interview provided a mass of historical treasures for those who cared to record it). This is the kind of thing that only a broadcaster of the scale, financial power and reputation of the BBC can pull off. We leave you to judge the final result.
Seventeen years after the fall of communism, it seems time to evaluate how the leading news and broadcast service in the world, the London-based BBC, has responded to the events and what kind of image has spread in the millions of British viewers of the last twenty years in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Welcome to this day’s films!
Dr. Michael Stewart
The Death Of Yugoslavia. Part 1: Enter The Nationalism
Director: Angus Macqueen, Paul Mitchell
Never before, during the course of a war, have all the heads of the rival states told the inside story of the decisive moments in the conflict.
From Moscow To Pietushki
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Pawlikowski's film evokes with humour and bitter insight the novel 'Moscow to Pietushi' by Vyenedict Yerefeyev, one of the finest Russian writers of the Khrushchev period, a time when hope for liberalisation faded, and an entire generation of Russians sought escape through alcoholism. A survivor of throat cancer, Yerefeyev needs mechanical assistance to speak, but his dry gallows humour survives intact.
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
In this documentary, set in Bosnia during the war, Pawlikowski steers clear of the usual cliches of war reporting. He takes on a more anthropological perspective relying not on commentary but on the power of images. Pawlikowski's most original and formally successful film was "Serbian Epics" (1992) which was made at the height of the Bosnian war. The oblique, ironic, imagistic, at times almost hypnotic study of myth-making and murder made aroused a storm of controversy and incomprehension at the time, but has now secured it something of a cult status.
Forgiving The Blood
Director: Melissa Llewlyn-Davis
Part one of a trilogy about passions in three European nations. In a village in Kosovo, an Albanian farmer faces a critical dilemma: Should he avenge the murder of his son by an Albanian neighbor, or, in light of the escalating conflict in Yugoslavia and the increasing threat of Serbian aggression toward Albanians, should he heed the call to bolster Albanian national unity and abandon the age-old honor code of retribution, the blood feud? Candid interviews reveal a complex web of personal dramas inextricably linked to turbulent political events.