Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Potter at MoMA: I Am an Ox . . .

During World War II, Soviet Cinema propaganda often targeted women, exhorting them to do their part for the war effort. As a result, films from the era feature women willing working, fighting, and most of all suffering for the sake of the Soviet homeland. Taking its title from a period political poster, Sally Potter surveyed the contributions of women filmmakers to Soviet cinema for British television in I Am an Ox, I Am a Horse, I Am a Man, I Am a Woman: Women in Russian Cinema (trailer here), which screens as part of the MoMA’s current Potter retrospective.

Produced in 1990 for the British television series Women Call the Shots, Ox is definitely a product of Glasnost-induced optimism. One assumes that Potter and her crew considered the privilege of shooting in the USSR significant in its own right, because the questions she asks are distinctly of the softball variety. When one Russian cinematographer mentions the stringent ideological requirements of the Soviet film authorities, Potter lets this important and telling avenue of inquiry die on the vine. Not wanting to antagonize her subjects is a reasonable concern, but she could have at least politely asked the obvious follow-up questions.

Instead, we largely hear age old questions about whether they specifically identify themselves as women filmmakers or if they consider such terms condescending. Even in that great egalitarian workers’ paradise, Ina Churikova suggests that once actresses reach a certain age, as she had, they find it increasingly difficult to find meaningful work. Evidently, Hollywood is like the old USSR in more ways than we realized.

Throughout Ox, Potter presents many intriguing movie clips that seem ripe for feminist deconstruction. In one film’s climax, a matronly commissar abandons her newborn so she can continue the fight to protect the revolution. One could easily ask if Soviet films similarly urge men to abdicate their claims to fatherhood for the sake of the Bolshevik cause. Indeed, based on the scenes seen in Ox, one could argue Soviet cinema seems to revel in the suffering of women. After all, the slogan which supplied the film’s title establishes a pretty clear hierarchy, with the ox on top and women at the end.

Yet Potter eschews any provocative analysis or interpretations. Scrupulously avoiding macro-controversies, she largely interviews her subjects about the specifics of their own careers. Of course, for those viewers unfamiliar with filmmakers like Kira Muratova, such an approach will most likely be disappointing.

Ox might have been a notable undertaking at the time, but it already feels like a dated artifact that willfully ignores the huge elephants of state censorship and repression still lumbering through the room. Only of historical interest to those studying Potter’s oeuvre, Ox screens at MoMA tomorrow (7/21).