The history of amateur cinema in the Soviet Union is an intricate subject, as is the place of amateur cinema in any culture. Highly valued by some for its freedom from what we conventionally call professionalism, it is also derided and neglected by others for the same reason of the lack of professionalism and ultimate vulgarity. In the Soviet Union amateur filmmaking is a special case: its scale and degree of institutionalization is hardly imaginable in any other country, modern Russia included. The system of amateur film studios that existed in the Soviet Union from the late 1950s until the early 1990s resulted in development of a broad community of amateur filmmakers who had a variety of reasons to take up this occupation: from the desire to document family events to more experimental efforts.
The way the amateur film movement grew and developed in Leningrad is both typical—the network of amateur film studios there was based on the same organizational principles as everywhere else in the Soviet Union—and unique—because it achieved an unprecedented scale by the 1970s: in different years there were 183 to 186 amateur film studios in the city. By the 1980s amateur film movement could not remain unaffected by the atmosphere of overall liberation that manifested itself especially acutely in Leningrad. Underground art movements flourished in cinema alongside art, music and theatre. The availability of resources provided by the system of amateur film studios resulted in creation of remarkably artistic works. For these reasons, I will focus on the work of Leningrad Amateur Film Club after giving general information on the national studio network.
Independent cinema as we know it internationally could not exist in the Soviet Union in the professional 35-mm format, because all cinema production was controlled by the state that truncated any attempts at non-conformism. In addition, film schools, albeit among the world’s best, were scarce and nearly impossible to get into. The Leningrad Institute of Film Engineers (LIKI) mainly prepared staff to deal with technical tasks and could not compare with VGIK, the main film school in Moscow, in scale and recognition. Smaller provincial film schools gave their graduates equally small chances. The nationwide system of amateur film studios created in 1957 offered both instruction in technical skills and drama, and free access to materials and equipment to anyone interested, being thereby an alternative way to learn filmmaking. To conclude that the amateur film community was comprised of nonconformists and dissidents alone would be misleading, yet it resulted in a number of very successful artistic works and transitions into professional cinema.
The history of amateur cinema in the Soviet Union is about as old as the Soviet Union itself. Amateur newsreels and documentations of local events were shot as early as 1918, and amateur filmmaking was widely encouraged among the masses. Amateur arts corresponded with the avant-garde project of the 1920s and early 1930s that opposed the figure of creator in motion and experiment to the earlier bourgeois, essentially consumerist values. At the same time, the new image of the working class assumed the opportunity for personal development to be an unalienable right of each citizen. It should not be forgotten that cinema occupied a special position in the hierarchy of arts in the young Soviet state. Proclaimed as “the most important of all arts” by Lenin, cinema enjoyed generous state support not only at the professional but also at the amateur level.
These two factors—the development of amateur arts in general and the special role of cinema in the Soviet Union—led to the creation of a comprehensive nationwide system of amateur film studios in 1957. The key figure in creation of the nationwide studio system was Grigorii Roshal’. A professional film director himself, he was a huge enthusiast of amateur cinema, and strongly believed in its potential. He believed that making cinema accessible to non-professionals would revitalize professional cinema itself whose experience was sometime tainted by the overly rigorous film school training.
The new amateur film studio system was subordinated to the trade unions (profsoiuzy), not the Ministry of Culture. Essentially it was a network of community centers. In each big city or regional entity, there was a film club that guided the work of amateur film studios and distributed materials and equipment on application basis. Film proposals were directed to the club that regarded each proposal and made a decision on whether to provide film stock for the project, and in what ratio. Film developing facilities were available as a part of utility services, and were about as widespread as drycleaner’s. This network was specially designed to serve the needs of film amateurs.
Another characteristic feature of the amateur film movement in the Soviet Union was the strong collaboration with and support from professional filmmakers. As has already been mentioned above, amateur film studios were subject to the unions, not the Ministry of Culture or the professional Filmmakers’ Union. However, each regional branch of the Filmmakers’ Union had a section responsible for working with amateurs. Professional filmmakers often sat in the juries of amateur film festivals.
In 1972, three special academic programs aimed at the preparation of specialists for working with amateur filmmakers opened in the Soviet Union, one of which was at Leningrad Institute of Culture. Students were trained in various aspects of filmmaking, but not encouraged to make films when they graduate. Among the first graduates of the program was Valerii Volkov who took up the post of the director of Leningrad Club of Film Amateurs in 1978, and remains there until the present, although it has been 18 years since the organization disintegrated and was transformed.
In addition to the system of amateur films studios, there was also a system of amateur film festivals, local as well as nationwide, to showcase the films produced by these studios. However, the situation with amateur film festivals was not always creatively stimulating. Since most festivals were dedicated to some event (50th anniversary of the Communist Revolution, 45 years of industrialization, 26th Communist Party assembly etc.), prize-winning films were often the ones that presented the most loyal and affected response to the event in question, not the ones marked by experimentation or particular expression. This situation also restricted filmmakers, since their work was subject to double censorship: in addition to state censorship, factories that studios were attached to also had a say. The management of these factories was interested in getting prizes at festivals, and often dictated the filmmakers what scenes to delete and what had to be added in order to respond better to the motto of the festival for which a film was intended. There were a few festivals where this political agenda was less articulate, and films could be judged on their own merits. One of the best such festivals was the festival White Nights started by Valerii Volkov in Leningrad. However, the real place to be were the Baltic festivals that encouraged experimentation and valued artistic qualities in amateur films. For these reasons Baltic festivals always had a great significance for their participants—the programs of these festivals were always diverse and the festivals themselves set standards for amateur cinema of the Baltic republics and Leningrad, while also being a creative catalyst for filmmakers.
Necrorealism, Evgenii Iufit, and the Amateur Auteurs of Parallel Cinema
In the 1980s the quality of amateur films in Leningrad was higher than ever—according to the testimonies of contemporaries, there was a shift towards more experimentation and creativity. The 1980s were also the time of Perestroika and liberation when the art scene in Leningrad was booming. Avant-garde was not welcome yet officially, and censorship still took place, but control was certainly more loose compared to the 1950s–70s. The artistic community was so tightly knit that non-official art events did not need to be announced in media to achieve visibility: word of mouth was the most efficient way of mass communication that kept attendance at these events exceptionally high.
It is in this period that the phenomenon known as Parallel Cinema emerged. Up until 1991 all audiovisual production was controlled by the state, and no cinema was produced outside the state system. The underground cinema that came to be was dubbed “Parallel” as it did not seem to exist anywhere – neither in the professional studio system nor within amateur cinema.
Parallel Cinema in Leningrad yielded such an important movement as necrorealism. The Necrorealists led by Evgenii Iufit were a Leningrad outgrowth of DIY punk culture. Iufit was a construction engineer by education. He began to paint and draw in the late 1970s, and making 8 mm films appeared for him as extension of photography. Early necrorealist films were fixations of happenings, a wild leisure time activity. A group of young men would go to the country side where they dressed in medical or marine uniforms and performed some wild actions where there was literally no idea… yet, there was. The Necrorealist idea was about doing the opposite of what was valued in the Soviet totalitarian society. Necrorealist art revealed the idiocy of heroism and death for the sake of ideals. In necrorealist films death came for no ideal, it was as senseless as the heroism it was meant to mock. The word “necrorealism” came as a combination of two mutually excluding terms—“realism” that implied vitality, and “necro”—death; in other words, it appeared as an antithesis of social realist pathos. Stylistically these films ascended to the avant-garde of the 1920s—short films by Bunuel, René Clair, Fernand Léger. At this point (until about 1986) these young people did not perceive what they were doing as art, being at first film amateurs, although their motivations were different from those of the mainstream amateur film community.
The first films by Evgenii Iufit were shot on 8mm film, and he made them independently using a camera and film stock that he bought at a secondhand shop. However, when he felt the need to move to the 16-mm film format that was technically more demanding, he needed to use more sophisticated technologies that were not accessible at home. Around 1985-86 Iufit got to know Valerii Volkov. Volkov, a strong adept of amateur filmmaking as a recreational activity accessible to many, has never been particularly appreciative of any underground movements. At the same time, he respected avant-garde and underground artistic practices that were for him more of a “necessary evil” to prevent sleepiness in the more loyal amateur filmmakers. Recognizing a certain potential in the young artist, he directed Iufit to the most appropriate place for people with counter-establishment attitudes—the film studio attached to Leningrad Optico-Mechanical Factory, now famous for its LOMO Compact cameras. This studio was guided by Vasilii Basilevich, a very democratic and intellectual director who had a deep understanding of cinema and who made films himself; he was not just a bureaucrat in culture. Among people working at LOMO, there were a lot of specialists in photography, and this fact probably contributed into the quality of films made by the studio, which were among the most respected. Besides providing the necessary material base, Basilevich hosted the first festival of parallel cinema that was widely discussed at the time and was certainly a turning point in the development of this movement.
Besides the famous studios such as the one at LOMO, parallel cinema also benefitted from smaller studios. Thus, Evgenii Iufit told an almost anecdotal story of how a friend of his was offered a position of director of a small studio for children and youth that no one ever attended, and this way he could do whatever he needed to do there.
One of the best known names in necrorealism is Evgenii Kondrat’ev, or “Debil” (“imbecile”), who began as a film amateur doing relatively “harmless” films at the studio attached to the main Leningrad Club. Later, when he became integrated into the necrorealist group, he began to make wild films based on mix of documentation of happenings and archive footage. Other names associated with the movement are Andrei Mertvyi (the “dead”), most famously, with his film Urine-Crazed Body Snatchers (Mocheubiitsy-trupolovy), and Aleksei Trupyr, Iurii Tsirkul and Oleg Kotel’nikov.
From 1991, when the Soviet Union ceased to exist, the system of amateur studios began to disintegrate quickly. Many of the Palaces of Culture became private property and were used for different purposes. A lot of film stock and equipment was either sold illegally or simply thrown away. That film stock circulated approximately until the late 1990s, and some of its leftovers can still be found in home studios. Unlike generally believed, the Soviet system of amateur film studios did not exclude free sale of film stock and chemicals. What is more important is the huge scale on which film was demanded by these studios. Since film was in constant demand, it was also produced in vast amounts, due to which it was very cheap. When such a major consumer as the amateur film studio network disintegrated, many manufacturers stopped to exist as well, and consequently, the price of 16-mm film stock (mainly produced by Svema, but also by Tasma) rocketed. The end of this production system for the most part was the end of parallel cinema as it was known in the 1980s. Iufit was the only filmmaker from the circle who continued making films, and he moved on to professional 35-mm format working at the studio СТВ. Evgenii Kondrat’ev continued making films until 1995 when he moved to Germany. Other filmmakers associated with necrorealism took up different occupations.
Intellectuals in the Amateur Film Movement: Irina Evteeva and Amateur Film Studio at LOMO
While films of the necrorealist movement are a good example of how the system of amateur film studios became a material base for parallel cinema, other distinguished filmmakers grew from within the system of amateur film studios. The most interesting example is probably that of Irina Evteeva who started as a graphic artist and painter. After two years of art school she dropped out and became one of the first students of the aforementioned program at Leningrad Institute of Culture for preparation of specialists working with amateur filmmakers, one of whose graduates was Valerii Volkov. Evteeva’s choice to change her field was dictated rather by her fondness of cinema in general than by any particular enthusiasm about amateur cinema. The program at the Institute of Culture turned out to be a good alternative for those who could not enter VGIK, the major film school in Moscow. Students could learn all aspects of filmmaking, and graduates of this program were by no means film amateurs, but nevertheless, it was still hard for them to make a transition into professional cinema, which was discouraged at school. Irina Evteeva was offered a position of assistant animator at Leningrad Popular Science Film Studio (Lennauchfilm). For a person capable of making cinema herself this job was not particularly exciting, and upon having worked there for a while she made a decision to transfer into amateur cinema. Evteeva took the lead of the amateur studio attached to Vyborg Palace of Culture while simultaneously working on her PhD dissertation at Leningrad State University of Theatre, Music and Cinematography (LGITMiK). Around the same time she shot her animated film Ratcatcher (Krysolov) that won a number of important awards. In 1982 Evteeva met Oleg Basilevich, the director of studio at LOMO. Not long thereafter Basilevich offered Evteeva to transfer to his studio, which she accepted, and moved to the LOMO studio together with her workgroup from the Vyborg Palace.
Unlike in the case with the filmmakers of parallel cinema, the amateur film studio for Irina Evteeva was more than a source of available materials and equipment. She remembers it as an active platform for intellectual and creative exchange with lectures and discussions as an essential part of the work of this studio. Evteeva herself lectured on semiotics, theory of film directing, and other pertinent subjects. The combination of productive atmosphere at the studio and the overall liberation in the 80s allowed Irina Evteeva to work in a relatively unconstrained situation, which resulted in the development of her unique style.
Each frame in Evteeva’s films is carefully constructed in tandem with her constant camera operator Genrikh Marandzhyan. They first discuss the image that they want to achieve, and then create this image by overlaying film projections on a glass pane. Having created the composition this way, Evteeva paints over these projections on the glass manually. She developed this aesthetic in 1991 while working on her film The Horse, The Violin, and a Little Nervously (Loshad’, skripka… i nemnozhko nervno) and has been using it in most of her films since that time to a great critical acclaim: among the many accolades garnered through her career is a Silver Lion from Venice Film Festival for her film Elixir (1995). As Evteeva wrote in an article, she takes animation very seriously, as in this kind of cinema the notions of abstract and concrete image are always evident and, therefore, acute. The same applies to manipulations with the actual and depicted reality. This is why she has been working so much with citation and archival footage, which means for her an attempt to come into contact with time already captured (Evteeva). Evteeva’s images have a painterly quality to them, and her recognizable collage technique aims to “desynchronize the rhythm of motion of characters and the background.” (Evteeva)
In her work Irina Evteeva combines all the knowledge that she derived from her cross-disciplinary interests: film, painting, graphic design, and visual and performing arts theory. It would not be an exaggeration to say that filmmaking resources available at amateur film studios facilitated the development of her unique style: on the one hand, they made filmmaking resources accessible, and on the other, they spared her from the pressure of the major professional studios, allowing her to work on a smaller scale and explore the diverse areas of her interests. Evteeva’s transition into professional cinema, alongside a few other successful cases of the late 1970s—1980s shows that at that time borders between the two cinemas—amateur and professional—became more fluid compared to the previous two decades.
Igor and Oleg Plaksin: From Amateurs to the Top Industry Professionals
Another example to illustrate this penetrability is that of Igor and Oleg Plaksin, currently the top special effects and process shooting masters at Lenfilm. The twin brothers came to the amateur film studio attached to Professional Technical Community College, where they studied from the age of 15. They went to technical community college to learn the profession of lathe hand, having been expelled from their high school for bad behavior in 1969. This kind of career choice was usually not for the well-to-do young people who tended to have disciplinary problems. The school and the union were trying to get them involved into some creative or recreational activities, one of which was filmmaking. Evgeniia Voskova, the director of that school’s studio, was the person to bring them there. They were immediately treated as adults, as Oleg Plaksin recalls, and given a 35-mm camera. Nothing worked out of that, so they switched to the 16-mm format. For four years, before the army service, they had participated in many interesting projects. Vadim Smirnov, who also worked as a camera operator at Lennauchfilm, taught them the art and craft of filmmaking. After the army, the Plaksin brothers called Smirnov to inquire if there was any work for them at Lennauchfilm. He hired them immediately for the process shooting department. They learnt everything very quickly, and in the mid-1980s transferred to Lenfilm, the main film studio in the city. In the early 1980s Oleg Plaksin also began to teach at the amateur studio attached to the main Leningrad Club of Film Amateurs. Igor and Oleg Plaksin were later educated at VGIK, and continue to work at Lenfilm.
In the Soviet Union professional and amateur cinema existed at the two ends of the scale of filmmaking: one featuring grand achievements with exclusiveness on its flipside (VGIK, the holy cow of the Soviet filmmaking, was virtually the only film school that could give access into the world of professional cinema, and it was nearly impossible to get into); another, accessible to everyone, but ultimately designed to serve a utilitarian purpose: to seal the community and make it an active propagandist of the pro-establishment values. Valerii Volkov, for instance, recalls a situation when he, as a director of the regional amateur filmmaker club, was reproached for the low involvement of working class within the work of the regional film studios. However, in the atmosphere of loosened state control in the late 1970s and 1980s, some of these amateur film studios developed accordingly: provided they had a savvy and responsive management, some of them were able not only provide state-of-the-art facilities to their participants, but also put together some highly efficient teams whose work was marked by a high degree of creativity. This was the case at LOMO and some other studios. However, the legacy of these studios rarely stretches beyond those who became successful in professional cinema or art world. The “closeness” of professional and amateur filmmakers from the early days of the inception of amateur film studios manifested itself in a mostly patronizing attitude on the part of the former. The community of amateur filmmakers was broad, but mostly remained within itself: amateur films were screened at special festivals, but rarely at cinemas or on television. As a result, they are currently remembered only by those who were a part of the community at the time. All that we know now are the achievements of those who grew out of the system, but the other films are difficult to access, mostly due to the poor state of archives. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many DKs (Palaces of Culture) were privatized, and funding for amateur film studios at these DKs ceased. Unable to provide storage facilities for the films, these studios returned some films to their creators; other films disappeared. Up until recently, some award-winning films were available at the central archives at the Moscow Club of Film Amateurs, but the club was closed a few years ago. In addition, the value of prizes at many of amateur festivals was doubtful (as it has already been mentioned, they tended to value loyalty well above creativity and experimentation), and it may be that tracking other, less famous films would result in some interesting finds. Simultaneously, studying films without applying any rigid selection criteria would be useful to historians in understanding the society that is becoming increasingly remote and incomprehensible.
The aim of this article is to give the general background information to the system of amateur film studios in the Soviet Union, in particular, in the 1970s-80s in Leningrad; it is mainly based on interviews. Little has been written on the subject since the 1990s. Earlier alongside the more recent authors have mainly dealt with the history of the Soviet amateur cinema from within the movement, and the only external context where it has been placed is international amateur cinema. An attempt to place Soviet amateur filmmaking into a broader range of contexts, first of all, those contexts into which minor cinema practices are traditionally placed internationally, i.e. media and public sphere, appears logical in approaching this subject.