Friday, 10 February 2017

Special relationships… Salt for Svanetia (1930), Kennington Bioscope with Jeff Rapsis

“Our economic plan is stronger than religion and custom…” cheer inappropriately dressed soviet workers – think that first Boyzone TV appearance or In the Navvy… as they sing their way to Svanetia crashing a road through forest, mountain and unproductive agricultural landscapes.

Salt is so scarce in isolated Svanetia that cows gather round urinating farm hands in order to drink the salty outpourings whilst wolves lick the salt from new born babes rather than eating them… This is all to be found in Mikhail Kalatozov’s remarkable docu-drama, which starts off with history and ends up with hysteria as if the makers had suddenly remembered their brief and tried to cram an hour’s worth of propaganda into ten minutes.

Salt for Svanetia is a superbly-crafted film with outstanding cinematography from Shalva Gegelashvili and Mikhail Kalatozov showing the extraordinary lifestyle of the rural communities of the Svan people in remote mountain village of Ushguli in Svanetia – somewhere to the far North-East of Josef Stalin’s home state of Georgia. The Svan live off the land in huge towers that have traditionally been a defence against incursions and now they stand as a monument to their splendid isolation from the rapid industrialisation and social engineering of Stalin’s Republic.

Whilst the state was starving the land to feed growing cities, the Svan are shown making their own clothes, painfully cutting wool from goats, spinning it and making felt hats. They work the land using archaic tools and initially their life seems peaceful and calm. And yet… there is no salt and the men have to risk their lives clambering over mountains to bring salt to the people…

Maybe salt depravation affects the mind… as the Svan suddenly appear in the grip of religious mania as they form a long deranged line burying “a rich man”. They throw their money and themselves into his grave, slaughter cattle and horses in tribute to their archaic gods then callously exile a woman about to break the ban on giving birth during funerals…

The women don’t actually want to give birth and would rather die… if only there was salt. If only there was a road! …and some muscular singing workmen!!

Worry not as the camp constructionists are on their way…

In the Navvy...
None of this detracts from the film’s power and with its Flaherty-styled set pieces it not only showcases a disappearing way of life but entertains with forceful imagery in this stunning setting. No wonder Andrei Tarkovsky thought it amazing.

This was the second year of the first Five Year Plan which, if memory serves, took seven years with more misery to follow with the second Plan – millions died of starvation as Stalin focused on industrialisation and Dekulakization, the process of removing the wealthier peasants from the land with or without salt.

The Bioscope welcomed a guest accompanist Jeff Rapsis who had flown in from Boston in the morning. There was little sign of jet lag as he worked the keys with expert ease throughout helping to underscore the scale and wonders of the visuals whilst tracking the cock-eyed narrative moods. There’s something special about the relationship between live music and film…

David Shepard
Given the recent death of silent film historian David Shepard it was good to have one of his fellow countrymen playing and one who knew him personally. Mr Shepard was passionate about live screenings and, as Amran Vance reminded us in his moving tribute, helped preserve many of the films we have been lucky enough to see at the Bioscope. Another one of those relationships that go way beyond the bounds of the less than exceptional.

If Salt was a bright and shiny Russian doll, there should be no surprise in finding three smaller but equally wondrous ones underneath it.

The Voice of the Nightingale (1923)
The evening began with a remarkable stencil-coloured short, The Voice of the Nightingale (1923) from Wladyslaw Starewicz – a fable of young girl who accidentally traps a nightingale and then is driven by dreams to let him free. Who knows why the nightingale sings? He sings for thee my friend…

Then Chris Bird introduced two films he has helped preserve and propagate with the aid of the increasingly legendary Fritzi Kramer who runs the outrageously excellent blog MoviesSilently. Both films were made by Russian emigres, who had escaped to France on a ship called The Albatross after the revolution.  They named their production company after their ship and from which they made The House of Mystery, Le Brasier Ardent (1923), Kean (1924) and so many excellent features.

Ivan in L’Enfant du carnaval - screen grab from Movies Silently
The first tonight was Child of the Carnival (1921) featured Fritzi’s main man, Ivan Mosjoukine. It only survives as a 9.5mm home cinema version which compressed five reels into one often cutting out key scenes and characters to speed up the story telling. Still, there was enough to see the debonair M. ease his way with trademark charm through forced adoption of a child he presumes to be the result of a wayward dalliance. The baby’s mother is brought in by his scheming manservant – clearly trying to make a man out of him - and, waddaya know, it just might work.

Lillian Henley played along for these films and borrowed some melodies from the nightingale and effortless elegance from Ivan.

The KB poster using artwork from Fritzi Kramer - follow the link for Fritzi's review
Next was Tales of the One Thousand and One Nights (1921) directed by the inestimable V. Tourjansky and starring his partner Nathalie Kovanko and Nicholas Rimsky. Shot extensively in Tunisia the film looked grand despite again being from an incomplete copy – again 9.5mm and tinted. It’s such a joy to hear the projector whirl round 80-year old celluloid: so much warmer than digital, new light casting old shadows… actual magic!

The story is the familiar one of Scheherazade telling tales to prevent herself falling victim to the Sheik’s habit of killing his brides on their wedding night (something tells me he’s missed the whole point…). Her stories feature young lovers, Kovanko and Rimsky and their efforts to remain faithful to each other and Allah… an unbeatable combination or at least they need to be...

Meg Morley accompanied with some lovely Arabian flavours and romantic major chords; there’s something primal about the Arabian Nights both in terms of the form and the appeal, and she caught it perfectly with misirlou minims and sandy semibreves...

Another excellent programme from the Bioscope and films you simply won’t see screened anywhere else anytime soon!

Both of these films are available to view online via YouTube and you can see more of the extraordinary work Bird and Kramer are doing on Chris Bird's channel here as well as Movies Silently for which my blog envy knows no bounds!

You can also find out more about Jeff Rapsis' music on his website here.

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