Does cinematic art have the power to create a society that is just and humane? Can art counterbalance government institutions with a cultural, civic-minded, social construct? When Sergei Eisenstein archivist Naum Kleiman established the Moscow State Central Cinema Museum and Cinematheque in the late 80s and became its director, his mission was to create a film forum and research center which would encourage the transformation of people and inspire them toward a growing empowerment and ownership of their society. It was a time of great freedom; it was the time of Perestroika.
Cinema: A Public Affair directed by Tatiana Brandrup chronicles the brilliant establishment and tragic demise of the popular social centerpiece of Moscow, the Cinema Museum which housed 150,000 film titles, a library, paintings, sketches and artwork from films, film costumes and other artifacts related to cinema. The museum’s evolution and destruction mirrors what is happening in Russia today as social and cultural restrictions awash in a sea of corrupt oligarchies and privileged entrenched bureaucrats continue to squeeze vibrance from Russian citizens.
Documentarian Tatiana Brandrup conducts extensive interviews with former museum director Kleiman, journalists, the Deputy Director of the Museum, staff members and others. She focuses on gleaning heady philosophical comments about the purpose of art and film, the vitality and popularity of the museum, and its devastation by shadowy political players who intended to exercise their own agendas, despite the museum’s success. Their statements are intercut with related footage of Moscow, the Museum site, various theaters and select film clips from Eisenstein’s films (Ivan the Terrible Part II, October, The Battleship Potempkin, etc., and other international films by iconic directors like Jean-Luc Godard, Ingmar Bergman, and Kurosawa to name a few.
Some of the clips are used to reflect the ironic events in the chronicle of the Cinema Museum’s downward spiral and its struggle to remain aloft. One segment of Brandrup’s music selection (with a single piano), is ironic, simple, and haunting. Such music underscores interludes between important events in the Cinema Museum’s history. In its “laid back” presentation, the music reinforces the understated theme circling just below the surface that many do not acknowledge: politics and power struggles are on the rise, while a rich and open cultural life and art are in decline, overrun by the superficial tenets of consumable, profitable entertainments.
Film scholars and international cinema mavens will be thrilled to see rare film clips and to learn about this legendary museum and director who was supported by global film societies and the international film critics association in his quest to keep the Museum viable. Kleiman’s vision of art and the museum are inspiring ones laden with democratic ideals borne out of Perestroika. At the height of the Cinema Museum’s powers, there were twenty daily screenings of films which would provoke discussion and talk backs. Kleiman says like all quality art, the films would draw in audience members and touch their souls for the better. The artifacts, artwork, costumes, and books were used by filmmakers for research on their own films. The Cinema Museum was a hub for aspiring and professional filmmakers, scholars, directors, intellectuals, artists, musicians, journalists and others who came to have their souls nourished in a social forum.
During the time of Boris Yeltsin, interviewees state that the circumstances were “chaotic,” but there was the freedom to expand and innovate. The collection of art and film exploded and items were donated to the museum. Jean-Luc Godard donated a Dolby system unknown to the Russians at the time and Godard showed two of his films using the system. There was a cross cultural exchange with Germany, specifically Berlin via Kleiman’s friendship with Erika and Ulrich Gregor, founders of the Arsenal Cinema. Russia was becoming culturally open with other countries and their influences benefited citizens.
Journalists and filmmakers indicate that things started to go bad when Yeltsin became sick and the power dynamic shifted away from Perestroika and openness. Around 2005, the building unbeknownst to Kleiman and the Cinema Museum staff was sold in a shady deal. The Chairman of the Russian Filmmaker’s Union, Nikolai Mikhalkov, in footage taken at the Moscow Film Festival claims he called in Dmitry Medvedev to save the museum. Instead, the building was sold to anonymous owners and the artifacts and archives and library had to be moved to Mosfilm. Clips of the move are included as staff members transfer the piles of 35 mm canisters, film memorabilia, costumes, all public items, over to the storage area at Mosfilm. The sad fact is that there, they remain inaccessible to the public. Artists, filmmakers, and costume designers cannot do research because these items are now in private hands.
But the struggle to continue the museum’s mission of civic and social enlightenment despite the overwhelming obstacle of homelessness was borne by Kleiman and his dedicated staff. They continued to hold film screenings, talk backs, and discussions in various venues around Moscow. Their loyal followers continued to support the Museum.
When there were demonstrations against Putin’s being elected again in 2012, the handwriting was on the wall. In a clip Brandrup includes of Kleiman giving his speech at the 25th anniversary celebration of the Cinema Museum, he cannily states that he may not be allowed to be the director for much longer. In 2014, Kleiman is stripped of his position and power and made a mere functionary with an empty title. The Ministry of Culture replaces him with a puppet who lacks his expertise, passion and professionalism.
Though Kleiman resigns, he convinces his staff who also resigned, to go back and protect the films, artifacts, and artwork from being thrown out. He encourages them to hold the Museum’s banner high, though it is merely a shadow memory of what once was. The staff’s protection is necessary because of the new winds of political change that disappeared the Museum’s building and rendered its artifacts unfit for public consumption. Indeed, when the museum’s library and contents were moved to Mosfilm for storage, many of the valuable film-related paintings by famous artists, sketches, etc. had to be retrieved from the garbage; no one understood their value or provenance. Without the staff’s vigilance, Kleiman knew that these dark winds might completely obliterate what was left of the Cinema Museum’s treasures.
The filmmaker reveals that Kleiman has stoically moved on from the controversy and is the director of the Eisenstein Center sharing his acumen as one of the foremost scholars of Eisenstein in the world. It is an irony that his vision of a civic forum embodied by the Cinema Museum remains in the limbo of an unfulfilled dream as the artifacts molder at Mosfilm.
Cinema: A Public Affair is a powerful tale of liberation found and shared then snuffed out by cultural mediocrity, power struggles, restrictions, and corruptions. The state’s deliberate measures to control and dumb-down a citizenry away from civic awareness and justice are obvious. Indeed, Brandrup points out that the multi-award winning film Leviathan about a corrupt mayor in Russia cannot be shown in its original form today because there are curses in the film: films with curses are banned in Russia. Meanwhile, the film’s themes have the power to open individuals’ hearts and minds to see what is happening all too frequently around them. Are curses more dangerous than the film’s themes?
Brandrup’s main thrust is to reinforce the idea that the less one is aware, the more one is controlled, the more one is enslaved. Kleiman remains passionate that art can liberate individuals to realize they need to free themselves from inner slavery. That is why this amazing curator continues his work on Eisenstein, the brilliant filmmaker whose themes encompass our yearning for freedom and the end of violence. In recording the events that occurred with the Moscow Cinema Museum, Brandrup reveals that she, too, believes art can bring justice and freedom. Perhaps that is why governments which would oppress and control as Russia’s does will not encourage art that enlightens or encourages civic empowerment, nor encourages Cinema Museums to provide democratic forums for that end.