A Book Review by Brandon Konecny.
The increasing visibility of Eastern European films—those of the Romanian New Wave, especially—in the United States has brought with it a corresponding rise in volumes published on the subject, including, most notably, East European Cinemas (2005), The BFI Companion to Eastern European and Russian Cinema (2008), and Directory of World Cinema: East Europe (2012). However, none of these texts, informative as they in fact are, come close to the impressive quality of Anikó Imre’s A Companion to Eastern European Cinemas. What distinguishes Imre’s volume from its counterparts? Well, a number of things, but above all she’s compiled and arranged twenty-six insightful chapters that don’t simply amalgamate to another recasting of Eastern European film, brimming with discussions of national auteurs, a few art-house successes in the West, and tales of subversive filmmaking practices behind the ideological stringency of the Iron Curtain. Rather, Imre is after something bigger, something more comprehensive; she wishes to represent the region’s involvement with the seventh art not as just a past phenomenon, but show it in all its diversity and multiplicity, possessing a remarkable past and promising present, its lauded works and deeply buried gems. From the well-known topics of the Czechoslovak New Wave and Yugoslav Black Wave to the obscure post-communist Latvian documentary, all find their appropriate place between these two covers.
Imre helpfully organizes her volume into four sections: New Theoretical and Critical Frameworks, Historical and Spatial Redefinitions, Aesthetic (Re)visions, and Industries and Institutions. The seven chapters that constitute the first section put forth a number of approaches that are remarkably diverse, encompassing such topics as post-colonial theory, Hjort and Petrie’s notion of “small cinemas,” Nietzschean and Bakhtinian thought as it applies to the carnivalesque films of ex-Yugoslav countries, regionalism and its attendant contradictions, and memory studies in relation to Jewish identity and the Holocaust, to name but a few. It’s a variegated lot, to say the least. But taken in their entirety, these chapters do in fact possess an evident commonality: they offer readers novel, up-to-day critical and theoretical frameworks with which to approach the region’s cinema, distinguishing these chapters from its predecessors who, by and large, rely on dated ideological criticism, which denies rather than illuminates the plurality of the region’s cinematic expressions.
The second section, which is perhaps the most impressive of Imre’s volume, brings together six chapters that collectively challenge outmoded historiographies and regional rubrics that have pervaded much of the literature available on the subject. Moreover, many contributors explore national cinemas that have, in the West, yet to garner the attention of international film scholars, as is the case in this volume’s standout chapter, Bruce Williams’ “Red Shift: New Albanian Cinema and its Dialogue with the Old.” Here, Williams takes readers through the history of this small nation’s cinema, “which has always been, like the country itself, a rara avis,” (224) and he covers everything from its largely propagandistic function under Enver Hoxha’s regime; activities immediately following the fall of the Iron Curtain; and the country’s cinematic output following the Albanian Rebellion of 1997, discussing such international successes as Fatmir Koçi’s Tirana Year Zero (2002). This chapter is a gem for those interested in this nation’s film history, and we can only hope that, in the near future, Williams will turn his research on this small yet fascinating cinema into a full-length study. Until then, we have this chapter.
The third portion focuses on the aesthetic dimension of Eastern European film and examines cinematic concepts such as shifting identities, new narrational approaches, genre studies, and identity politics in relation to nations’ film histories and select case studies. The application of many of these approaches to this region’s cinema have, curiously, yet to find their way into much of the relevant literature available, though there have been attempts in books like Baltic Cinemas After the 90s: Shifting (Hi)Stories and (Id)Entities (2010). We see this approach exemplarily on display in “Nation, Gender, and History in Latvian Genre Film” by Irina Novikova, a prolific scholar on Baltic cinema. In these pages, she conducts an impressively thorough historical overview of this nation’s film history, but unlike many efforts of this kind, she abandons the tightfisted fidelity to the fact-upon-fact approach that is typical of film-history texts, and instead interpolates insights on themes of nationalism, genre, gender, and even adaptation studies along the way.
The final section covers the film industries of this region and, as is of particular interest to many, shows some of the inventive ways its countries have adapted to the new economic and political conditions in the wake of communism. These filmmakers stepped foot onto a cinematic playing field whose existence had been masked by the Iron Curtain, abound with both numerous potentials and downsides; they had to formulate new approaches to maneuver within the international, largely capitalistic landscape, seeking new means of funding, distribution, and exhibitions. And while this has been a difficult, if not nearly impossible, undertaking for countries such as Moldova and Bulgaria, some have been reasonably successful. For instance, in Ioana Uricaru’s “Follow the Money: Financing Contemporary Cinema in Romania,” she explores the miracle of Romanian cinema. From its frightening state in 2000 wherein no domestic films were released that year (427), the Romantic country has emerged as one of the strongest forces in cinema today, producing films of startling originality and depth that have taken the festival circuit by storm. For those interested in the economic dimensions of international filmmaking, you may very well want to take a look at the chapters in this section.
It must be said that A Companion to Eastern European Cinemas is an almost perfect volume on the subject—in fact, it’s painfully close to being so. However, as with other publications in the range with which this reviewer is familiar, Imre’s volume shows itself not to be immune to the same shortcoming as its lackluster counterparts, namely the privileging of certain Eastern European countries’ cinemas on which it will focus with exclusion of others, particularly those who happen to be of low socio-economic status. And what’s particularly unfortunate about this regional selectivity is that it is seemingly contrastive to the text’s impressive breadth. While Imre prides her volume on its examination of unexplored cinematic territories such as the Baltic States, which have “received little international attention so far in film studies” (10), it nonetheless neglects countries that fall outside the coordinates of international film researchers’ cultural radars, making no mention of the marginalized cinemas of Belarus and, most importantly, Moldova, Europe’s poorest country and the possessor of the world’s second lowest theater attendance.1
Admittedly, one would be hard pressed to find research on either of these two cinemas, especially the latter, and perhaps this provides an explanation for their absence from Imre’s text. This concession doesn’t deter the aforesaid contention, however. Information on these cinemas, albeit meager, are available in Peter Rollberg’s extensively researched Historical Dictionary of Russian and Soviet Cinema (2008), so it is out there; and Imre was (miraculously) able to include chapters on the little known cinemas of Albania and Estonia, little of which has hitherto been available in English. And one can’t help but think that some deeper digging would have yielded some useful research on these cinemas for inclusion in Imre’s volume, perhaps through correspondence with institutions such as the Belarusian State Archives of Films, Photographs and Sound Recordings or the Academy of Theater, Music, and Fine arts in Chisinau, Moldova. A little more effort would have simply gone a long way here.
This exclusion, to be sure, doesn’t sully the entirety of Imre’s project; it’s just disappointing. It leaves Eastern European film enthusiasts wondering why she stopped her compilation of chapters just short of being the most complete overview of this region’s marvelous cinema available in English translation. This criticism notwithstanding, Imre’s A Companion to Eastern European Cinemas is still the best volume available on the subject, and it represents a major intervention in international film studies: It moves the field towards a more detailed and wide-ranging examination of this region’s fascinating activity in cinema, both in its past and present, and it urges us to rethink our past conceptions of it and see it anew. Imre’s volume will doubtlessly prove to be an indispensible resource scholars and educators alike, and one can only hope that the marvelous scholarship that abounds in the space of this volume will inspire further research into the cinema of the “other” Europe.
Brandon Konecny is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
1 Romania & Moldova (Lonely Planet Publications, 2004)