Watching “Cinema: A Public Affair,” a new documentary by the German-Russian filmmaker Tatiana Brandrup that is playing in the New York Jewish Film Festival, I was reminded immediately of something that Aviva Weintraub, the festival director, said in an interview with this newspaper two weeks ago.
“There is something irreplaceable about going into a room at the same time as a group of other people, seeing a film and discussing it with them afterwards,” Weintraub told me.
Naum Kleiman, former director of the Moscow Film Museum, says something similar early in the film: “A film begins when it ends. It begins in the conversation and exchange of opinion about it. That’s when the dream of what we’ve just seen crystallizes into reality. And in this process, we become better people, a little more free and open.”
That last observation is not the usual self-congratulatory eyewash that sluiced out of your television set from the Golden Globe Awards last weekend. As Kleiman rightly observes, Russia has no tradition of civil society to speak of, and a safe space for open debate such as the film museum “can raise civic awareness and transform inhabitants into citizens.”
Kleiman, who manages the estate and library of Sergei Eisenstein, founded the museum in 1989. It was one of the splendid blossoms to emerge from the soil of perestroika, and until 2005, when it was evicted from his home, the institution provided precisely the sort of haven for debate that its creator had envisioned. The first film shown was “The Great Dictator,” in a print donated by Oona Chaplin. When Jean-Luc Godard came for a series of screenings of his ambitious “Histoire(s) du Cinema” a few years later, he brought with him a Dolby sound system that he gave the museum. The museum accumulated a collection that includes over 450,000 objects and celluloid prints of over 3,000 films.
But as a spokesman for free, democratic discussion, an advocate for uncensored and unbiased film history and a Jew, Kleiman was exactly the sort of public nuisance that Vladimir Putin didn’t want hanging around. Brandrup sums it up nicely in the film’s opening image, a close-up of Kleiman’s shadow stretching across a damp Moscow sidewalk, the camera then panning up to show us an ordinary man whose shadow is considerably larger than he is.
Perhaps that is why Naum Kleiman emerges from the film as a powerful beacon of optimism. One hopes that optimism is not misplaced, given Kleiman’s November 2014 replacement as museum director. His successor, Larissa Ottovna Solonitsyna, is an apparatchik of Nikita Mikhalkov, the self-proclaimed monarchist and ultra-nationalist Slavophile who is currently head of the Russian Filmmakers’ Union. The director of such nostalgia-drenched treacle as “Burnt by the Sun” and “Dark Eyes,” Mikhalkov is also a staunch supporter of Vladimir Putin, whose leadership style he has freely mimicked as union president.
Somehow one is not surprised that anti-democratic governments are unusually tenacious in their persecution of cinema. Film is a language that almost everyone, literate or not, can understand. Its history is full of defiant characters like Eisenstein, frequently invoked by Brandrup. Most important, movie going remains a communal activity, one reason to fear the encroachments of “home cinema” almost as much as the unfriendly interventions of dictators. As recent history reminds us repetitively, cultural heritage is a convenient battleground for true believers.
“Cinema: A Public Affair” is a good film, not a great one. Its timeframe is not always clear and Brandrup could easily lose 10 minutes of its 104-minute running time. But it is chastening for an American moviegoer to be reminded that for most of the world there is more to cinema than a machine for selling popcorn, soda and toys. Once you get outside the gravitational pull of the cinematic equivalent of Brecht’s “culinary theater” — you ingest it, excrete it and retain nothing — there are still places where movies can matter — aesthetically, socially or politically.
George Robinson’s column appears monthly. The New York Jewish Film Festival runs through Jan. 26 (nyjff.org).