Just as Soviet film makers were savoring the new freedom brought by the reforms of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the country’s film industry has become a major battleground in the struggle between conservatives and those pressing for more radical changes.
“We are truly on the front line, with every studio a virtual war front,” Eldar Ryazanov, a leading Soviet producer, said at the Union of Cinematographers last week. “And I must tell you that we are taking a lot of fire and suffering casualties. . . . We are engaged in a tremendous struggle.”
Although particularly sharp in the film industry, the struggle outlined by Ryazanov and other leading members of the cinematographers union is raging throughout the literary and art world, and in most other spheres of Soviet life as well, as the reformers attempt to broaden the changes begun under Gorbachev and to accelerate them in the face of strong resistance from conservatives.
“The country and the people have split, and we can say that applies generally to our society today,” Ryazanov said, explaining the background against which Soviet film makers, regarded as political trailblazers over the past three years, are now working.
“We have a rather pronounced conservative tendency and a progressive, radical or even revolutionary one, if you will. . . . The conflict is here, right here, and we are in the thick of it.”
Films on controversial themes--the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, bureaucrats’ efforts to block the political and economic reforms, the years of Stalinism, political corruption and even the long taboo subjects of prostitution and homosexuality--are being made.
But frequently the producer and director must fight to have them released, according to Ryazanov and other film makers, who say that Communist Party officials, government bureaucrats and sometimes their own studio managements often try to suppress controversial works.
“Under glasnost, we may have a right to speak but not to be heard, at least according to some of these people,” Anatoly Grebnev, a screen writer, said, referring to Gorbachev’s policy of political openness.
Andrei S. Smirnov, the union’s acting first secretary, said he frequently needs to go to the chairman or deputy chairman of the State Committee for Cinematography to get controversial films screened--and that he is not always successful.
Rustam Ibragimbekov, another union official, said that film makers are often encountering tougher opposition from local authorities, whose autonomy has been enhanced under the reforms, rather than from conservatives in the major cities when they attempt to “provide an objective reflection on the screen not only of the problems of perestroika but also the development of inter-ethnic relations.”
“We have a fight on our hands, no doubt about it,” he said, “but we are determined not to yield as we did in the past.”
A new film entitled “Pain,” for example, attempts to portray the suffering of Soviet mothers whose sons went off to war and something about the Afghan veterans themselves on their return, but authorities in the Soviet republic of Byelorussia where it was made attempted to suppress it.
“The film deals with our national pain from the war in Afghanistan, and this is something we must come to terms with,” said Alexei K. Simonov, a prominent producer and the son of the late Konstantin M. Simonov, a leading Soviet novelist.
Simonov recounted a trip that union officials made to Byelorussia to get the film released for public showing.
“We were told the film was unacceptable, that the theme was unacceptable, that the public rejected it. We argued and argued and argued, and finally it was accepted for release. But then there was still opposition, and when they tried to show it in Grodno (a Byelorussian city) there were calls from some higher-ups to take it off the screen.”
A documentary, “The Theater of the Time of Perestroika and Openness,” satirizing bureaucratic resistance to perestroika, as Gorbachev’s reform program is known, was locked away in the Byelorussian film studio so that the director could not finish it, Simonov said, adding that his group was told that it did not exist.
When his group saw a videotape that had been made secretly to prevent total loss of the film if the studio management carried out a threat to destroy it, they thought it “talented and brilliant.” They eventually persuaded local officials to allow the director to finish it by arranging for its showing at an upcoming film festival featuring documentaries. They also arranged its national distribution.
A third Byelorussian film was also “liberated,” Simonov said, after “encountering colossal opposition” not only from local officials but from the studio and the local branch of the cinematographers union. The clashes were of a “particular force,” he said.
“We had big battles,” he said, “but winning those battles is important for perestroika, for glasnost, for demokratizatsiya . . . . We are not fighting just for ourselves and the future of film making, but for the future of the country.”
The scope of the battle and the relative strength of the opposing sides became apparent at a film festival in the southern port city of Odessa last month when participants, mostly artists and intellectuals, adopted a statement at an extraordinary press conference that turned into a political forum and lasted until 3 a.m. as they denounced what they saw as attempts to curb the reforms.
A statement appealing to the Soviet cultural figures to resist moves by conservatives to slow the reforms or reduce their scope was drafted and approved by all but two of the estimated 600 people present, according to Ryazanov, who was chairman of the jury judging entries at the festival.
But local authorities prevented it from being read to the festival’s closing session, according to Ryazanov, and even locked the jury in a back room for a time to ensure that it was not read. No central paper has published anything about it despite the prominence of the writers, actors, directors and others involved.
The appeal calls on progressive forces in the country to unite in furthering perestroika and opposing the conservative “counterattack.” “ Glasnost is suffering heavy blows,” the statement says, and moves to curb or roll back perestroika are multiplying.
“Referendums as the most important element of democracy must become a rule of our political life,” says the appeal, a virtual manifesto for the liberals.
It calls for the creation of a national “Popular Front for Perestroika " and demands continuation of “the fight against Stalinism until all the guilty are named.” It asks for the rehabilitation of “the slandered,” notably the many artists forced into exile during the 1970s under the late President Leonid I. Brezhnev, and calls for their return. And it denounces the strongly nationalistic, anti-Semitic group Pamyat.
“We adopted the appeal almost unanimously,” Ryazanov recalled. “Only two people out of the hundreds who were present objected. And this statement was very important as a political development. Yet we were silenced.”
Smirnov called its suppression in Odessa “a real scandal,” but said it was typical of the political struggle that now characterizes the cinema and most Soviet arts.
“The cinema has become a forum for the political and social passions that are raging in our society,” Smirnov said. “Accordingly, we have to resolve some problems even though society as a whole has not resolved them.”
But Ryazanov said that the recent realignment of the Soviet leadership, strengthening Gorbachev’s position, had encouraged many artists and intellectuals.
After the special Communist Party conference in late June that reviewed the course of the reforms, he said, “each side believed it had won.”
But the changes in the ruling Politburo that were announced earlier this month along with steps toward reorganizing the party’s central committee constituted “a strong blow at the right-wing, reactionary forces,” he said.
Liberals in the cinematographers union want to take the offensive, pressing their case for full artistic freedom and the right of political expression, when the group holds a special plenary meeting next month.
Recent articles in the Soviet press have given many members the feeling that the country’s political leadership believes they have gone too far, too fast and ought to pause or even step back.
“If yesterday we took a step forward, these people think, today we should retreat a bit,” Grebnev said. “This syndrome of the ‘necessary regression’ is so peculiar to our politics. . . .
“We also see the same old bureaucratic thinking being reflected--us versus them,” he continued, recalling how the union was denounced by novelist Yuri Bondarev during the party conference as “headed by extremists.”
“Somehow that allegation has stuck in people’s minds,” Grebnev said. “In the press, there is the suggestion, over and over, that some of these young ‘extremists’ have pushed aside the experienced masters of our craft. . . .
“But what of these ‘old masters’ Theirs were the films that branded Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Galich as CIA agents. They glorified Brezhnev. It would be a nice to learn how they view their actions now, what they think today.”
In the 1970s, Soviet film makers frequently produced documentaries supporting the party line of the time with great enthusiasm. Sakharov, the nuclear physicist who was awarded the Nobel Peace Price for his human rights activities, and Alexander Galich, a poet and singer who died in exile, were the subjects of two of these films.
But there is also a great deal of rivalry, jealousy and in-fighting within the 6,500-member union that has less to do with politics than with who will get the financing necessary to proceed with his or her next picture.
Alexander Askoldov, director of the much-praised film “Commissar,” is feuding with the union leadership, charging it with refusing to back new works by him.
The quarrel has turned nasty, with Askoldov accusing the union officials of bureaucracy, favoritism, political conservatism and even something that sounds like neo-Stalinism.
“Look, Askoldov is a friend, but I must disavow him for all this rubbish he is speaking,” Smirnov told a Soviet journalist questioning him during a press conference about Askoldov’s latest interview. “The greatest merit of ‘Commissar’ is in its politics, not its art. The politics are good, ahead of their time and quite right, but the film is just so-so. He can do better, we all can do better, and what we want is the chance to do so.”