Russia Behind the Camera: Archives, Art and Revolution

Students in Leningrad prepare banners for the 1917 revolution in a dramatised re-enactment for Margy Kinmonth’s film Revolution: New Art for a New World (With kind permission from Foxtrot Films)

Film making in Russia – a masterclass by Margy Kinmonth  at Pushkin House


DOCUMENTARY film maker Margy Kinmonth gave a masterclass on the theme of ‘Russia behind the Camera’ at Pushkin House, the Russian arts promotion centre on Bloomsbury Square in London on Saturday.
She has completed four arts documentaries and a fifth is in production, all based in what is now St Petersburg.
The challenges and rewards of her collaborative approach since 2008 have brought a richness of detail to her screenwork, with access to curatorial staff at the great museums and their archive vaults and at the Mariinsky Theatre, where she worked directly with its world renowned music director, Valeriy Gergiev, and interviewed the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the bass-baritone, whose voice enraptured audiences across the world.
Kinmonth showed two of her films in full, with Q&A sessions in the breaks.
What emerged was a fascinating sense of Russia today and its history from Catherine the Great through to the Revolution of 1917 and the USSR through the prism of music and the arts.
What is a director to do, when in the middle of two years of filming ‘Mariinsky Theatre 1783-2000’, Vladimir Putin pops up on a state visit?
Kinmonth was working at the time with four Russian film crews, ‘who had their own way of working’, and her own hand-held steadicam, when she was warned by the theatre directors that it was about to be taken over by marksmen on the roof, metal detectors and large flower arrangements.
She and her crews caught the whole thing. Putin arrived through the secret passage under the theatre that the tsars used, she recalled, and also in the discussion which followed pointed out that such cultural appreciation from political leaders is practically unknown in Britain, whereas in the USSR under Stalin and today too a trip to these beacons of Russian excellence was obligatory: everyone went to the Mariinsky to see Swan Lake.
Of Putin’s arrival, Kinmonth observed, ‘the audience loved him: you see the applause’.
Gergiev and Putin are great friends, and the conductor took the Mariinsky Orchestra to the ruins of Palmyra in Syria as an ambassador for Russian art and in solidarity with the Syrian people and army. He is a man who sticks his neck out.
The BBC would have nothing to do with funding Kinmonth’s projects in Russia, fearing the Gergiev connection would be seen as backing for Putin. The background of a new ‘Cold War’ was a constant thread throughout the day, because funding is restricted on the Western side and the counter-sanctions from Russia make the form-filling to get into Russia very slow and bureaucratic.
It has proved difficult to make headway on Kinmonth’s latest project, ‘The Magic Staircase’, based around the Theatre Museum in St Petersburg, ‘because of problems after Salisbury and the Cold War,’ as she puts it.
Another factor is that TV companies view arts documentaries as ‘tumbleweed’ (her term) – they are at the bottom of their agenda because of low audience ratings, especially without star presenters (Kinmonth uses relatives of revolutionary artists to tell their stories, as well as contributions from very knowledgeable curatorial staff).
This tumbleweed assessment devalues Kinmonth’s work, which is artwork itself, with its meticulous imagery, flowing chases through the bowels of archives and costume storage and interjections of Russian cityscapes. The sudden appearance of a rickety tram in the Mariinsky project was not to Gergiev’s liking apparently, but he let it go.
The films themselves need to be seen to be appreciated.
They are available from Foxtrot Films as DVDs, though Kinmonth prefers them seen in the cinema as a shared experience, particularly the feature-length ‘Hermitage Revealed’.
One point which emerges strongly from ‘Mariinsky Theatre 1873-2008’ is the lasting legacy of Catherine the Great’s foundation of St Petersburg as a fantastic imperial capital for the Russian empire and a jewel city of the world. It is at the core of the Russian soul – ‘without culture, Russia is so poor’ bewails one commentator. In the destructive wake of Perestroika and Glasnost on the arts in the late 80s, Gergiev points out that ‘ticket sales fell into the hands of criminals’, but while the salaries of musicians plunged, ‘the quality of the music saves us.’
The theatre kept going right through the siege of Leningrad. Maxim Shostakovich, son of the leading Soviet composer Dmitri, whose Seventh Symphony was premiered under frozen conditions in the middle of it, relates with sadness the social upheavals of Russia.
However, he says in the film, ‘Art helps. This music helped them. The final movement is prediction: they receive energy from art.’
That theme of art as inspiration with its peculiar Russian sensibility is one that haunts the second of Kinmonth’s films, made for the anniversary of the Russian Revolution of 1917.
It is called ‘Revolution: New Art for a New World’ and deals with the mobilisation of a generation of young artists both in generating a new language in the visual arts and advancing the propaganda and educational ends of the leadership of the Bolshevik Party under Lenin.
‘The revolution unlocked the creativity of the artistic generation of the revolution,’ says the narrator.
Kazimir Malevich and his 1915 Black Square announced the rejection of previous norms even as World War I was sweeping Russia towards revolution, and his cosmic pronouncements about Suprematism opened the door to the new world.
Lenin was all for a ‘marriage of convenience with the arts’, and appointed, through education minister Lunacharsky, Nicolay Punin as Commissar for the Arts. Punin was an enthusiastic promoter of the new modernism and moved amongst such luminaries as Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin with ease.
The film shows paintings by Pavel Filonov, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Marc Chagall, Lyubov Popova, the graphic design of Aleksander Rodchenko, the innovative stage direction of Vsevolod Meyerhold and the brilliant cinematography of Dziga Vertov.
Rodchenko and Vertov travelled the continent on the educational trains that brought the message of the revolution to the masses and advanced the cause of literacy.
These are some of the most enduring images of the 20th century and to this day.
Kinmonth pulls no punches about the consequences of the isolation of the revolution, the imperialist encirclement and civil war, nor the ensuing degeneration and betrayal after Lenin’s death under Stalin’s artistic imposition of Socialist Realism, which Malevich could not bring himself to endorse, leading him to design Suprematist decorations for tea sets in ceramic factories, hiding in plain sight as it were.
The fate of many of those who had joined the Bolshevik Party in the revolutionary period is also unflinchingly dealt with, none more unhappy than that of the inventor of Russian photomontage Gustav Klutsis, who had once ridden with Lenin in his car as a proud Bolshevik and was tortured to death by the NKVD in 1938, having no idea what he had done wrong.
Punin too was sent to a gulag and died there.
Meyerhold was shot by firing squad in 1939.
Their art outlived them all as an inspiration to the modern world and a rallying call to complete the World October in the present universal crisis.
Kinmonth is an enthusiastic promoter of Russian culture, swimming against the current political tide and Pushkin House did us all a service in inviting her to reach out to an attentive audience and share insights into her own creative process and the vexations and pleasures it involves.