Friday, January 15, 2016

NYJFF ’15: Cinema: a Public Affair

The Moscow State Central Cinema Museum was not just a vitally important Russian cultural institution. It was also the canary in the coal mine. During late Perestroika and the early Yeltsin years, the Museum’s cinematheque became a catalyst for open debate and the free exchange of ideas. Those days ended with Putin’s rise to power. Evicted from their stately building, the Museum’s legendary director Naum Kleiman valiantly held the Museum’s staff and programming together until he was pushed out by the cultural ministry. Kleiman takes stock of his losing battles and the grim outlook for Russian civil society in Tatiana Brandrup’s Cinema: a Public Affair (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 New York Jewish Film Festival.

Kleiman really gets to the nub of the issue in the film’s opening seconds, arguing Russia has always lacked social institutions strong enough to counterbalance the perennially domineering state. In its own small way, the Moscow Film Museum was instituted to address this imbalance. Initially, Kleiman only reluctantly accepted the directorship, hoping to return soon to his position with the Sergei Eisenstein archive.

You can’t get much more Soviet than “Eysen,” as they call him, but for Kleiman and several museum staffers, the notoriously banned Ivan the Terrible Part 2 is his true touchstone film. Frankly, it is a minor miracle Putin’s flunkies have not renewed Stalin’s prohibition. After all, they have forbidden the public exhibition of films with cursing.

Clearly, nobody understands the erosion of Russian freedoms of thought and expression as keenly as Kleiman, yet he remains a reasonably happy warrior. His enthusiasm for cinema remains infectious and undiminished. For obvious reasons, he is the focal point of Brandrup’s documentary, but he never gets dull. He often relates to films under discussion on multiple levels, simultaneously. The precise details of how the Museum was dispossessed remain murky, apparently as the parties involved intended. However, Brandrup and the Museum partisans openly identify one particularly duplicitous figure, besides Putin. That would be Nikita Mikhalkov, the chairman of the directors’ union.

Somehow Public Affair manages to be rapturously heady when addressing the transformational virtues of cinema and bracingly candid (if not downright depressing) when illuminating the state of Russian personal liberties (or the lack thereof). Arguably, Kleiman is lucky to be alive. If you doubt it, just ask Boris Nemtsov or Anna Politkovskaya. By turns charming, compelling, and deeply galling, Cinema: a Public Affair is the can’t-miss high point of this year’s NYJFF. Very highly recommended, it screens this coming Tuesday night (1/19) and Wednesday afternoon (1/20), at the Walter Reade Theater.