Andrii Donchyk’s debut fiction feature Oxygen Starvation (1991), a devastating vision of military service in the Soviet army, was one of the first non-state-funded films of independent Ukraine, made as the USSR collapsed. I saw it in April, at the GoEast Festival of Central and Eastern European Film in the German city of Wiesbaden, in a programme accompanying the symposium “Decolonising the (Post-) Soviet Screen.” Two things struck me, aside from the fact it hasn’t been shown more. First, while the recruit at its heart, Bilyk (Taras Denysenko), is a hero of strong-willed integrity, he’s the polar antithesis of the kind of self-sacrificing soldier idealised by Soviet propaganda, who is only too happy to submerge his individuated self into a mobilised mass fighting to protect Mother Russia. Bilyk speaks Ukrainian, and refuses to hide his national identity, or submit to the routine humiliations and hierarchies of abuse designed to ensure sheep-like cohesion in the military killing machine — a refusal met with escalating brutality from peers and commanders. Secondly, the system of hazing (dedovshchina) that is set out in Oxygen, and the way it works to break free thinking in the army, is remarkably similar to the one documented more than three decades later in Motherland (2023) by Alexander Mihalkovich and Hanna Badziaka, which screened in GoEast’s competition program, and examines military service in today’s Belarus. This echo between films suggests that, though the Soviet empire has collapsed, its structures of control live on in a totalitarianism that has reformulated, and in the violence facing those that refuse to submit to the idea of a dominant, monolithic Russian culture.

Oxygen Starvation and Motherland show forced conformity to an idea of Russian power, greatness and homogeneity at its most bare, literal and militaristic. War was everywhere as a theme in this year’s GoEast, under the shadow of a full-scale imperialistic invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s regime that is ongoing. But perhaps the most bracing aspect of GoEast’s program was the room it opened up for questioning assumptions around cultural soft power — the more insidious ways that cinema, never just entertainment and always political, can be a space of seduction, exclusion, coercion and complicity. In ways that may not be so soft at all. 

GoEast’s artistic director Heleen Gerritsen has said the festival is a forum for dialogue on an equal footing, “talking with Eastern Europe and not just about Eastern Europe.” There is conscious awareness and care taken around the potentially problematic nature of framing the region and its lived realities through the eyes of the West, and German institutions. And the need, more pressing than ever, to decentre Russia as its cultural heart in the Western imagination, as calls to de-platform Russian artists, in particular those aligned with the imperial war machine or funded by Russia’s Ministry of Culture, have gained momentum. If the “East” is a place we’ve invented or perpetuated, as a territory of the imagination or a category, whose voices have we welcomed into that space? Who has been overlooked, silenced or erased?

Aurora’s Sunrise

The festival launched with Aurora’s Sunrise (2022), Armenian director Inna Sahakyan’s beautifully rendered recreation, through animation and archival material, of the life of Aurora Mardiganian, a survivor of the Armenian genocide who became a Hollywood silent actress. It weaves in fragments of Auction of Souls (also known as Ravished Armenia), the 1919 film directed by Oscar Apfel based on her own experiences that was, for a time, considered lost. As a reflection on ethnonationalism and political oppression, trauma, the physical traces of history as legacy, and ownership over one’s personal story versus its exploitation by industry brokers hungry for star power and money, it was a fitting opener. 

A GoEast Portrait section focused on Bosnian film director Jasmila Žbanić, showing a number of her earlier works, as well as her devastating dramatisation of the Srebrenica massacre, Quo Vadis, Aida? (2020), a European Film Award winner. Cinema’s power as a memorial, a social intervention, and an actualisation of potentialities for the future, which is able to confront atrocities that still haunt the present and embody what cannot be said rationally, was discussed by Žbanić who offered a humble yet deep reflection on her approaches to filmmaking and activist engagement, in an on-stage conversation. Another focus, “Space Age Animation,” enabled audiences to get lost in strange dreamscapes of science-mad psychedelia from Hungary and Estonia, including Marcell Jankovics’s gorgeous, myth-inspired Son of the White Mare (1981) — welcome breaths of surrealistic escape amid the edition’s heavy, sad themes.

Russian-made films were not banned outright, but presumably had to meet a high bar for production independence and dissent. Angie Vinchito’s Manifesto (2022), a disturbing found-footage assemblage, showed a Russian live-streaming generation brainwashed by militarised education and normalised violence, with war abroad the corollary of civic breakdown.

The “Decolonising the (Post-) Soviet Screen” symposium consisted of three days of panels and lectures with an impressive roster of speakers. Among panel topics were the uncertain times for the Ukrainian film industry; and the establishment of the Belarusian Independent Film Academy, to circumvent state control and unite the voice of a film community as it integrates into Europe.


Inevitably, the need to decolonise the screen and industry from a Russian culture that still prevails in the post-Soviet space, giving prominence instead to peoples previously marginalised in former republics, and to indigenous minorities within Russia, proved less controversial as an idea than how this was to be done, and under whose guidance. The money trail was a particularly hot-button issue of debate (for instance, the degree to which a filmmaker critical of Putin is compromised, by having ever accepted funding from oligarchs or state-owned multinationals). So too, were cynical “friendship” models of education and support that gatekeep industry access via Moscow and the stamp of approval of prominent Russian auteurs and producers, and censor output. Instead of simple solutions, there was an acknowledgement of complexities in positioning practices and relationships within truthfulness and within a solidarity that avoids finger-pointing but includes accountability.

“Do the dreams belong to us, or are they someone else’s?” is a question that floats through an animated realm of sleep and amnesia in Asel Kadyrkhanova’s All the Dreams We Dream (2020), screened in a program of shorts by the Davra Collective of artists, poets, filmmakers and researchers from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. Alternate models for Central Asia were called for, that do not filter talent through a regressive and patriarchal stranglehold on teaching at VGIK (Moscow’s state film school), and that tap other funding avenues to sidestep the neo-colonial power of Russian producers over projects. Julia Shaginurova, producer and co-founder of the Tashkent Film School, outlined her efforts in creating independent institutional support for filmmakers within Uzbekistan, who are often resource-poor within an elitist industry that pushes them to leave the country to become skilled up. The pressure put on filmmakers, especially women, from Central Asia to self-exoticise their work for western festival audiences eager to see them as subjects of ethnographic fantasy also came up.

All The Dreams We Dream

Indoctrination and self-betrayal — the Soviet goal was to colonise not only territory but minds, after all — was discussed by Lithuanian filmmaker Giedrius Tamosevicius, whose sobering, well-crafted World War Two drama The Poet (co-directed with Vytautas V. Landsbergis) controversially deals with the NKVD (The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) collaboration, informing against partisans, of a famed writer. Amid what is always the same war, against citizens’ inner worlds, it is essential not to gloss over hard questions about ourselves, our nations, and our own unexamined loyalties, he argued.

Culture exists in language, and words matter. Many terms to define and group together the peoples of Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia and their artistic output are highly disputed (including some I’ve resorted to in this text) — a problem that also, inevitably, came up in panels. After all, a Europe divided into “East” and “West” is more a conceptual idea and a power game than a geographical reality. And “Post-Soviet” or “ex-Soviet” still uses the Soviet Union as a basis of definition, as if there is something essential about this domination that independent nations will never really be able to get away from. Talking about common experience from shared pain and finding solidarity can nevertheless be fruitful, and while nobody agrees on new terminology, awareness of how terms exclude, include, and confer assumptions, is something. 

Language is not only content for communication; it is embodied emotion and identity, and a way of being oneself in the world, as Bilyk’s stand in Oxygen conveyed with great force. In an inspired move, it was also inhabited through poetry, in a boat cruise on the Rhine that GoEast organised for its guests, where Nana Janelidze, Radu Jude, Dankhaiaa Kovalyg and Alisa Kovalenko read poems from their homelands in their original language, which were then translated. Kovalenko (whose film We Will Not Fade Away won the Best Documentary award at GoEast) chose a Ukrainian poem by Serhiy Zhadan, “Take Only What Is Most Important”, about war and displacement. In it, the only writings to check in the mornings are lists of the dead — a timely reminder that the possibility to create and talk about films at all is stolen from the invaded. 

26 April – 2 May 2023
Festival website: https://www.filmfestival-goeast.de/en/

About The Author

Carmen Gray grew up in New Zealand, and now lives in Berlin. She is a freelance journalist and film critic, and a programmer for the Berlin International Film Festival and the Winterthur International Short Film Festival.

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