The image of youth in late Soviet cinema: Real Youth?
‘The image of youth in late Soviet cinema’ is a series of articles exploring the ways youth was portrayed in Soviet films of perestroika period.
>> Read the previous article: Youth in Search
The 1980s slowly but purposefully were bringing the Soviet Union to its end. Inspired by liberalization tendencies and ideas of perestroika, documentary cinema was a field in which filmmakers were brave enough to explore new topics and offer their deep analysis. Thus documentary has become a vanguard of the Soviet film culture, and was tirelessly injecting truth and reality into the public consciousness. A lot of daring documentary films appeared at that time: Vlast’ Solovetskaia/The Solovki Power (1988), Ispoved’: Hronika otchuzhdeniia/Confession: The Chronicle of Alienation (1988), Stalin s nami?/Is Stalin With Us? (1988), Ploshad’ Revoluicii/Revolution Square (1989), and many more. Vai viegli būt jaunam?/Is it easy to be young?, a 1986 Soviet Latvian documentary film by Juris Podnieks that analyzes contemporary youth’s world view, feelings, life goals and values, could only appear in the mid-1980s. The unprecedented degree of openness offered by the film was a shock-like experience even in the present ideological setting.
The film’s starting point is the concert of Latvian hard-rock band “Pērkons” in Ogre, after which youth energy turns into aggression, and a suburban train is vandalized. The incident is followed by a show trial, during which several youngsters are charged with hooliganism on a selective basis, while the rest walk free. As put by the film’s critic Kiselev: ‘The injustice of the hearing, as presented by Podnieks, is even more striking than the grim sight of the ruined train. To pull one person out of the crowd and send him to jail as a scapegoat: Isn’t that an act of vandalism on the official level?’
The documentary is a patchwork of footage from the concert, the trial, as well as numerous conversations with young people who, to a greater or lesser extent, were affected by the incident. Podnieks films his heroes in the settings that are natural for them, talking to them about their values, fears and hopes for the future. Among them are an amateur film director who is trying to portray his generation with the help of visual metaphors, Afghanistan war veteran, a converted Krishnaite, and many others. The film’s composition is focused on one goal: to let the youth speak. In one episode a young girl sneaks a dress out of a theatre dressing room, puts it on and goes up to the roof where her boyfriend photographs her. Later she is shown being caught and charged with theft. During the questioning, she hides her face from the camera and cries, “I was going to return it that the same night. I just looked so good in it.” Other sequences present similarly poignant stories: A young man, working at the morgue, speaks about his dream of becoming a journalist. “How do you feel here?” asks Podnieks. “Fine,” the young man replies. A group of punk-rock fans is being expelled from the Academy of Fine Arts for “defiant behavior“, that is, for their extravagant clothing and hair styles. Teenagers dressed in long army overcoats and armed with fake rifles are guarding the monument of the Latvian Riflemen, a military formation who defended Lenin and the Soviets during the first communist years. “We’re so ashamed!” one of the youths says. “Everybody is staring at us. We feel like total idiots.” And only the Afghanistan veteran, when asked “Why aren’t you wearing your medal?“, cannot come up with anything to say.
As Lev Anninsky testified, quite unusual atmosphere ruled over the first public screening of the film. The director, Juris Podnieks, held the show at the Moscow Physicists’ Club. Right when the film finished, a cry coming from the audience was heard, “May I ask the director a question?” — “Yes, you may.” – “Do you consider yourself a naive person?” Juris Podnieks answered with an icy voice, “No, I don’t.” The question continued, “I wonder what you were thinking about? Do you really think this kind of film will ever be released?” The person who asked the question was explained that an Art Council meeting has already taken place, and the whole film with no cuts was approved. A heavy silence entered the room, as people were digesting the news. They had no idea how to react, they were not used to it. If the film had been banned, they wouldn’t not feel lost, they would be outraged and would demand glasnost’. But here it was, out in the open, a film about the ”negative phenomenon” of mad youth. The audience kept silent, shocked, and confused. Anninsky saw ”this vacuum of grown-up silence as a response to the wild honesty of the kids on the screen was taken into account by Juris Podnieks in his concept of the film”. He observed that it would have been easier if the authorities had suppressed the film. Then the audience could have complained then that the authorities took away our freedom of speech. But the film was released and there was no way out for the audience – they have to engage in a dialogue with this ”mad youth”.
In a visual motive that runs throughout the film, a man is wandering in a labyrinth of corridors. These images do not belong to Podnieks but to a short film within a film shot by one of his characters, an amateur filmmaker. In the finale, the two films coincide: the man finds light at the end of the labyrinth. Along with other people standing in water, we see a Baltic Sea sunset. The view stupefies the characters and the viewers, and we are not sure if we are to feel hope or despair. In the end, there are no answers to the questions raised by the film. Perhaps there are no answers at all.
Lev Anninsky, ‘Is it easy to be grown up?’ in Russian Critics on the Cinema of Glasnost (Cambridge University Press), pp. 63-65
Alexander Kiselev, ‘Deafening voids’ in Russian Critics on the Cinema of Glasnost (Cambridge University Press), pp. 65-68