Bear ahoy! 6 Moments of Soviet Kitsch
This week Culture & Society, the third and final module of Socialism on Film, launches. Comprising documentaries produced in states such as the Soviet Union, China, Cuba and Vietnam, it touches on themes including the arts, sport, everyday life, youth and education, providing Western audiences an unparalleled insight into life behind the Iron Curtain.
Rigorous and informative documentaries focussing on healthcare, womenâ€™s work, environmentalism and politics can also be found in this collection, but today, we hope youâ€™ll forgive us a few moments of glorious kitsch.
Singling out just one documentary to represent the entirety of socialist society and culture would be a struggle, so, in the spirit of collectivism, I turned to my comrades here at Adam Matthew to gather up the quirkiest and most delightful moments from the new module.
1. Film Director Sergei Yutkevich (1987)
Lenin doppelgangers, animated vodka bottles and a flammable bride â€“ whatâ€™s not to love? The arts were of particular importance to the Soviet leadership and Sergei Yutkevich was an honoured filmmaker, named both Peopleâ€™s Artists of the USSR and a Hero of Socialist Labour. I came to this documentary about the Cannes Award-winning Soviet film director blind; Iâ€™d never heard of Yutkevich or seen any of his work, but 20 minutes in I was hooked.
2. The Home on the Highway (c.1960-1965)
This film about the arts and social security could be easily overlooked, but really shouldnâ€™t be. The Home on the Highway is a (very dramatic) fictionalised feature about a Stage Veteransâ€™ retirement home in the USSR, which follows a former actor as she begins her stay in the community of thespians â€“ all of whom are prone to over-reaction.
3. Youth (1936)
â€śThanks for our happy childhood, Stalin!â€ť In this silent newsreel, the infamous Soviet leader attends a youth and sports parade on Red Square with top brass including Mikhail Kalinin. Intertitles reference the Stakhanovite movement and various sports schools, while the footage showcases acrobats twirling on floats and young athletes dragging banners proclaiming their gratitude across the famed Square.
4. [Performance of North Korea Songs and Dances] (1960)
If your interests include Leninism, East Asian history and modern ballet, boy, do I have the film for you! Think West Side Story meets M.A.S.H. relayed through a prism of emotive singing, dramatic lighting and flag-waving. Eat your heart out BTS. While itâ€™s easy to see the quirky side of this performance â€“ and intriguing to ponder the influence of modern dance on Pyongyang â€“ it is surprisingly moving to watch this display of devotion to Lenin and the communist cause knowing what we now do about the struggles of the North Korean people.
5. It Happened at Sea (c.1970-1985)
Unique amongst a collection of socialist propaganda, this cruise ship advertisement uses a striking marketing strategy. A shipwrecked bear! The fuzzy mite awakens in the sickbay and lollops around the ship, taking in the swimming pool, the sun deck and the restaurant. Capitalistic? Yes. Cute? Yes.
6. Transylvanian Wedding Songs (n.d.)
Weâ€™ve all seen someone bust out impressive dance moves at a wedding, but the skill and exuberance of the dancing in this short film takes things to a whole other level. (Watch out for an ode to poultry!) Nuptial celebrations are beautifully expressed here through traditional Transylvanian dance and dress â€“ just one example of the diverse Soviet cultures which are celebrated in this module.