New East Cinema, a collective bringing cinema from the post-soviet territories to the UK, is trying to redress the gender imbalance in films coming from the ‘New East’. It does so by showing a series of four short films about women – two of them by women – in a programme called ‘Would You Look at Her’. Ground-breaking work was done by female directors in the Soviet Union, and women are still at the forefront of rebellious, subversive filmmaking in Russia and ex-soviet countries – and yet, recognition’s lacking for them and their stories. In this light, Events like ‘Would You Look at Her’ are incredibly important for bringing relatively unknown voices to the fore.
Two recent graduates of the Rodchenko Art School, Vladlena Sandu and Alina Kotova engage in confrontational filmmaking with their excellent short Eight Images from the Life of Nastya Sokolova (2018). The film recounts important ‘milestones’ in the life of Nastya, a recent journalism graduate, through nine static, highly theatrical shots. She’s in a typical office for her first job – as a debt collector. In deadpan tones, a male voice tells us that her conscience made her quit. It wasn’t a great idea. By the next bizarre shot – in which Nastya and others stand next to a waterfall, looking bored in their swimming gear – we’re told she’s bored, drinking too much, sleeping around with guys she’s not sure about, becoming depressed… Her dream was to become an actress. Instead, she’s going nowhere and soon she’s working in retail. The image of Nastya in a supermarket, recalling a young, angry Cindy Sherman, the aisle disappearing into the distance behind her, is full of silent despair. In fact, we never get to hear Nastya speak. She’s cut off in the last scene, on the verge of finally saying something on her own terms. Nastya, alongside the rest of Russia’s overqualified university graduates, has no voice. Nastya Sokolova is overtly political, even quoting prime minister Dmitry Medvedev’s famous words ‘There’s no money, but you hang on in there!’ With politicians like these, who’s going to make it in Russia?
The three other films in the programme were more conventional, though nonetheless interesting. In Would You Look at Her (2017), Aneta, growing up in a small village in Macedonia, is bullied by her male peers for her relationship with another girl. She can pull off many feats of strength and bravery, though, as she soon proves to everyone. The film has good photography, and tense, tender moments, but Aneta’s gender and her sexual orientation felt almost tokenistic and the film suffered somewhat as a result.
Seide (2015), by Elnura Osmonaileva, is about a young woman in Kyrgyzstan who’s going to be married to the son of a family friend. Up until then, she’d been free to roam the steppe on her beloved horse, who’ll also be sacrificed in honour of the marriage. The loss of freedom’s compounded in this act of cruelty, incomprehensible to Seide. Although she’s bound by the traditions of her culture, she can’t help one small act of rebellion before the wedding…
The fourth short, Kalendar (2018), also by a student from the Rodchenko Art School, Igor Poplauhin, is mysterious and suspenseful. A kind and gentle woman’s on a journey and not even her family knows where she’s going; she keeps picking up the phone and telling them she’s at work. It becomes clear at some point that she’s never before met the man she visits for sex at a men’s prison and will never see him again. Her desire for novelty and freedom from the mundanity of everyday life in the outskirts of a big Russian city takes the form of dark escapism. In this sense, Kalendar picks up from Nastya Sokolova, implying that in Russia today, some form of escapism is necessary to survive. The final scene, in which the woman plays a VR game in a headset borrowed from her son, is the surreal and beautiful climax to an eye-opening evening.
New East Cinema often brings compelling, unusual films from Central and Eastern Europe to the UK and I’d encourage anyone to go to one of their screenings. This event, however, was particularly thought-provoking in that it showed how young artists and filmmakers are responding to the issues in the region today.