ELEM KLIMOV: Film Revolutionary

Six weeks before before the short-lived military coup in the Soviet Union, noted Soviet filmmaker Elem Klimov (“Come and See,” “Larissa”) was in Los Angeles discussing the enormous changes in the Soviet film industry since President Mikhail Gorbachev took power six years ago.

Klimov, the former president of the Soviet Filmmakers Union, was instrumental in bringing glasnost to the once-censored film industry. He was one of the major players behind the release of “Repentence,” a banned 1984 anti-Stalin allegory produced during Konstantin Chernenko’s reign.

The director is featured prominently in the new Discovery Channel/BBC six-part series “The Second Russian Revolution,” which exams the Union’s political, economic and social changes since 1985. The sixth episode will feature footage leading up to the military coup and a seventh episode will air later this fall, when the series repeats, chronicling what has happened in the country since the coup failed.

Through an interpreter, Klimov discussed with Susan King the status of filmmaking in the Soviet Union.


How has glasnost changed the movie industry?

You have to understand what it was like before. The (film industry) was owned by the state. All the films were made with state money.

The only producer we had was the state, and the state was in charge of producing censorship and deciding who will direct what movie. There was a lot of pressure. That is the main thing that we managed to bring down. We managed to get rid of censorship.

Now movie-making has many shapes and forms. The big studios still belong to the state. But there are also some studios which are independent.


How did censorship work?

The scripts were checked for every word by the censor, even the development notes. (The censors) were also present in the editing room. Films were banned that were already made. In 1986, they discovered in these archives there were 300 finished films that were banned. One of my films, “Rasputin,” was shelved for 10 years.

What genre of films did the government produce?

They were “needniks"--those that were needed in their mind for the masses. Those movies were not necessarily the best. They were not considered the best.


Were banned filmmakers arrested by the government?

It wasn’t on a regular basis. But some would suffer. Like (Sergey) Paradjanov, one of the best movie-makers. He was constantly in trouble with the state. Of course, trumped-up charges were made against him and he spent five years in prison basically because they wanted to get at him. He is one of the greatest directors. He is dead. (He died last year at 66.)

Was “Repentence” the first banned film you got released?



Was it difficult to persuade the government to release the picture?

It took six months to persuade the government. The Congress of the Soviet Filmmakers Union formed some kind of committee to plea to the officials to release the banned films. When they took this case upon themselves, they wanted to write letters to several officials. I said, “No. We will take a different approach. It’s such a powerful film we have to go to the very top, so let me handle it.” So I went to the secretary of the party, a powerful boss.

At that time, the Politburo split over this issue. But Gorbachev took the side of the progressives and made the decision it should be released.

Have the other banned films been released?


All 300. It wasn’t like it was overnight. It took some time. Some films they still have to fight (to get released).

How many filmmakers are in the Soviet Union now?

There are 7,000 members in the Filmmakers Union. It’s not necessarily all of the filmmakers. It is quite difficult to get membership in the union. The studios used to make 150 movies a year; now they make 450 movies a year. Most film studios in Moscow release 50 movies a year, though they are smaller in size than Universal or Paramount.

Were American and other foreign films shown in your country before 1986?


Not very many. The good films almost never before 1986. Now there are too many American movies shown. A lot are bad.

The greatest success at the moment is enjoyed by “Gone With the Wind.” For more than six months it was shown at one of the biggest movie theaters in Moscow. It was crowded all the time, sold out. Now it is shown widely across the country.

Milos Forman movies have been shown and “Star Wars.” There is a state-owned organization that is in charge of buying foreign films and they are trying to bring better quality films. There are some dealers who will buy very cheap, very bad of low quality Third World consumption-type movies--all these karate operas and stuff like that.

A large percentage of people are (going to) video cafes, video showrooms, video vans, video apartments, where they show pirated videos. That takes some of the audiences out of the movie theater. The pirates make about 20 billion rubles a year. None of them are licensed, none of them.


“The Second Russian Revolution” airs tonight at 6 and 10 , Monday at 7 p.m. , Wednesday at 7 p.m. and Thursday at 7 p.m. on the Discovery Channel.