Target audience

Viewers interested in African history, Soviet history, and the history of the Cold War, and fans of found footage as well.

Logline

A Soviet filmmakers created socialism in Africa on celluloid.

Film Festivals and Awards

Alexander Markov about film

In 1960, seventeen African countries gained their independence. For the two superpowers, competing for influence in the Cold War, these “new” countries were obvious opportunities for deploying their own power. Under Khrushchev’s Thaw, Soviet foreign policy increasingly focused on Africa and the Arab world, which became priorities for proactive Soviet diplomacy.

The 1960s thus witnessed the heyday of African studies in the Soviet Union.

A number of Soviet filmmakers were dispatched to the continent to produce newsreels and documentary films whose mission was to record the “friendships” between the Soviet socialist specialists at the helm of scientific progress and the African socialist hopefuls who had just broken free from the yoke of colonialism.

The films were given titles such as Hello, Africa!, We Are with You, Africa!, and Good Luck to You, Africa!, to convey that desire for friendship unambiguously, and to contrast starkly with films produced on the other side of the Iron Curtain, such as the notorious Italian documentary about the “dark continent,” Farewell Africa (Addio Africa, 1966), which speculated that civil wars and bloody conflict would set the continent ablaze after the European colonialists exited it.

Despite the fact that Soviet film production was centralized in Moscow and Leningrad, studios in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine, Belorussia, Georgia, and Uzbekistan also produced documentaries about Africa.
There was also an interest among Soviet filmmakers in documenting wars of independence and armed conflicts (Ethiopia, Libya, Algeria, Congo, Egypt, Chad, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Angola, and Namibia), but such films were produced differently. Only cameramen were dispatched to film on location, and most of them were veteran WWII cinematographers.

Nearly half of the Soviet documentary and newsreel films about Africa recorded official visits by Party leaders, government officials, and heads of states. The other half presented partly imaginary Soviet constructions of African reality.

On the one hand, the filmmakers were under the spell of a revolutionary romanticism. In factories, schools, and universities, in streets and in squares, Soviet citizens had marched and rallied in support of the aspirations of their African comrades for liberation from colonial rule and the right to self-determination. On the other hand, Khrushchev’s Thaw itself contained a promise for better times for Soviet citizens themselves that echoed the hopefulness of the newly sovereign African countries. The imaginary construction of socialist Africa was fashioned according to Soviet paradigms, with soldiers and youth on the march, collective farms, and one-party rule.

The documentaries produced during the Thaw are peculiar, because while they toe the ideological line, they are nonetheless imbued with the loosening of inhibitions that permeated Soviet society at the time. So while an ideologically motivated eye will only see what it wants to see, in these films, the cinematographer’s lens betrays a tangibly genuine curiosity about the “otherness” of African reality that would be impossible to counterfeit.

In contrast with the footage of official parades and collective farms, the films also capture ordinary people going about their everyday lives. The camera conveys the contradictory emotions and mindset of the people standing behind them, in which simple, unfiltered affection and enthusiasm blend with the cinematic idioms of the era.

Ordinary Africans were shown at the helm of a historical transformation, thus embodying the journey toward the “radiant future.” This was another echo with the spirit of the Thaw that, paradoxically, made Soviets more congenial to Africans. It was a seemingly naïve illusion in retrospect, but it was emblematic of the period.

The dramatic structure of these Soviet documentaries about Africa produced in the 1960s and 1970s is perhaps where the ideological conditioning is most palpable. Almost all fit into a particular generic scheme or pattern, because they were commissioned by a state that valued ideology more than the art of documentary cinema.

The footage was edited to fit a script, drafted in the studio back in Moscow or Leningrad, and narrated in a voiceover. Soviet composers were also commissioned to provide the musical scores. In other words, the soundtracks rarely featured sound from the locations where they were filmed, and the voices of everyday Africans were almost entirely absent. Instead, the Soviet narrative carefully guided the viewer’s experience of the moving images.

My film is a whirlwind overview of the views, desires, and policies embodied in the systematic work of Soviet film crews in Africa from 1960 to 1990.

I see no point in duplicating and promoting propaganda. My idea is to deepen the poignancy of Soviet newsreels and documentary films about Africa, to render the propaganda even more propagandistic, and thus сall its bluff in certain excerpts and extinguish its “bold flame” in others.

My research involves shifting the emphasis by undertaking a fast-paced review of the entire corpus of Soviet films about Africa in which I identify the most important and recurrent themes and motifs. In the process of this research, I trace how Soviet views of Africa and plans for Africa evolved over three decades, finally vanishing into oblivion altogether.

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Questions

From http://camerainthesun.com/?p=17122

1. Where would Russians have originally seen the film footage used in Our Africa?

They showed in the cinema. The usual experience in the Soviet Union was that before the feature film they showed a short documentary film. And I know people that would wait for Soviet films about Africa. Why? It’s very interesting, because the Soviet Union was very closed, so the film was a view on the world. So the people would wait — probably some people more than for the feature films. This was in the 60s, 70s and 80s. And when I was a child, I had this experience also. I watched some films, I remember from Indonesia, before some French film about musketeers. They also showed on TV. I know the Russian TV archive in Moscow also, but this archive is very political. So in the Russian Film Archive, you can watch the country. In the TV archive, it’s just politics. For example, in this film about Angola that I saw in the Russian TV archive, it was a very strange political view. It was like a newsreel. So I think the footage from the Russian film archive were very open to the people to look at the country, and not just politics. Of course, there was also politics, because it was the curse of the government. And you know, it was a big problem that the Soviet filmmakers weren’t free. Because they got money from the government, and the government pressed and pressed, until the 1960s — when it was a little more free.

The Soviet people and post-Soviet people know nothing about the African filmmakers. It’s terrible, but it’s the truth. Because the school in Moscow was and is very closed. So the people taught the films, and went to Africa and Europe. But the problem of this Moscow film school is they have a good archives, but you can only see these films in some festivals in special programs. And these diploma films are just show in school — and that’s a lot of filmmakers from East Germany, from Vietnam. And these are treasures that I would like to know about, and the people also, so people can understand how close Africa was to the Soviet Union. This would be a very good thing for me, and for other people also. But I think we as enthusiasts can do it. We can go to the film school in Moscow, take these films, and show them to the public.

2. How were African film students treated in Russia during the Soviet era, and then after?

The Soviet Union, I think, was very comfortable for the students to study film, to study technique. But after the Soviet Union collapsed, a lot of foreign people had a lot of problems. And during this good relationship that was like an ideology of the Soviet Union — the international friendship between countries — I think African students hadn’t had a problem with integrating into Soviet society. But after the Soviet Union collapsed, it was hard. And now, it seems to me, that we are step-by-step moving toward integration and the good relationship that was during the Soviet Union. Because we lost this good relationship between 1992 and 2005-08. Because I watched a lot of footage for my film. and you can see the open faces of Soviet people, and the open faces of African people who really feel like friends. And I think this was the politics of the Soviet Union. This was a very, very good thing. But after Perestroika, after the Soviet Union collapsed, all was not so good for all foreign students. Not just for the students from Africa, but students from Soviet countries, and from other countries.

I’d like to mention this terrible story about the St. Petersburg scientist, Nikolai Girenko, who was killed by skinheads because he supported African students who were attacked by nationalists during that period. It was a terrible situation in St. Petersburg — not only for students from Africa, but students from Asia, Latin America and other countries during the three terrible years between 2005 and 2008. In a trial, Girenko supported the students, and was killed in his flat with a gun. That’s unbelievable.

For me as a child, it was very normal and good to have people who were another color. For example, we had a toy that was a small Black guy. I kept it in my room, and I gave it to my child to play with. So we had a lot of that. I think it was the international policy of the government. And some of that was destroyed after the Soviet Union collapsed. It’s my view, it’s my life and my experience. In my class, for example, we didn’t have African people. But we had people from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. It was part of the empire. They were our brothers. So, we lived together with friendship. It’s the truth.

3. What inspired you to use Soviet newsreels to construct Our Africa?

The director of the New York African Film Festival, Mahen Bonetti met me seven years ago in Poughkeepsie and asked me about some Soviet films from Moscow. Her father had worked in Moscow, and she knew that Soviet filmmakers made a lot of films about Africa. I knew nothing about it. But I said, “OK, I will try to find some films for you.” So I started with the Moscow film school. But they just had the diploma works of African students, filmed mostly in the Soviet Union, and some in Africa. The topic was Soviet documentary films about Africa, so I checked in the electronic catalog at the film archive, and found a lot of films — treasures for the history of the relationship between Africa and the Soviet Union. So it was amazing, because the quality of the films is mostly very good. It’s not black and white films. Remember, this was the 1960′s. It’s color. It’s Kodak or Fuji film. As I understand, the Soviet Union really put good money into these films so they could make good images.

The mentality of the Soviet government was they wished to look good for foreign people. That was their diplomatic style. “We are the best.” That was very important. And so for the citizens of the Soviet Union, they could look bad. But for the foreign people, they must look good. That was very important. And then they must represent the Soviet Union as a powerful country that can make good films, like Hollywood. I also watched some films about Indonesia that are very good quality, and about other countries. Not only Africa, but about the UK also, which was also good quality. It was all about the presentation in the Soviet Union. If you make a good film, you make a good presentation. Ideology was an export of the Soviet Union. They would put socialism in African countries — and its the presentation of good socialism, good style, good life.

The African films were very easy to find. You can check in an electronic catalog, find the numbers of the reels, then write a letter to the archive and travel there to watch it. Then you pay for it, and put it in your film. It’s very simple. I used footage sequences from Soviet films about countries like Guinea, Mali, Tanzania and Congo Brazzaville. And for me, these sequences show a classic style of the Soviet view on Africa. The archives have a lot of films, so I will also use other sequences. After I can find some support for my film as a work-in-progress, I would like to show other countries and their peoples. I’m also looking for the directors who made the films at that time in Africa. Of course it is hard, because a lot of people are not alive. But I tried to find some directors who are still alive, and are now 70 or 80 years old.

The Russian directors did this professionally. It was a good job, and it was also good to travel to other countries, and to Africa. Because the Soviet Union was very closed to its people. And if you were a filmmaker, then you could travel all over the world — but under the control of the KGB.

4. Do you have any favorite sequences?

A very interesting one is a song that is sung by a group of Tanzanian women about the leaders of Tanzania. On one side, it’s a really very good song and very good singers. On another side, it is just ideology. And that’s the marriage of ideology and a good style of singing that I like. That makes the image on the footage, and the image of that time also. Because the footage is like archives of time. They are alive for us.

Another sequence is from Congo in the 1980′s. Students are being educated near the ocean. They’re standing in the water and reading books, because they have a university examination. And I asked the director if it was staged, and he said, “No, it was the truth. We were very excited about it. But it was not propaganda or staged. The truth was that the people taught near the ocean.”

5. What other documentary films have you made?

In general, I make documentary films. And I really like to make films about ethnic groups. So for example, I made a film about Turks living in the south of Russia, and about Kurds who are not Muslims. It’s about the first religion of the Kurds, where the sun is like the eye of God. They are the people from Northern Iraq who traveled through Turkey and Armenia, and then immigrated to the South of Russia. And I also shot the film Russian Costa Rica, about students from Costa Rica who were educated in the Soviet Union, and about the women who married Costa Rican men and then made a career in Costa Rica. That’s an interesting relationship, because Costa Rica was a little bit friendly to the Soviet Union. So then the women could go to Costa Rica, and stay in Costa Rica.

With the Kurds, I was very curious about this sun religion. What is it, and why? It’s because these Kurdish people were monotheists before the Christians and before Muslims. And also, it’s a fusion between idols like the sun, and a real god. So that was really interesting, and then how these people can keep their religion. Because the Kurdish people there keep their religion very strongly. There was a lot problems with Muslims in Northern Iraq, and they were very closed originally — only, they saved this religion. Every morning they say, “Thank you, God for the sun” to the sun. And they also kiss the sunlight. This is very interesting.

In the Soviet era, these Kurdish people were based in Armenia, and it was OK with the religion. Because the Armenian people like the Kurds, and the Kurds like the Orthodox church. They don’t like the Muslims, because these Kurds have just one temple in Northern Iraq. And in their religion, these Kurds can’t build a church, but the people need it. So they like the Christian churches because there’s a lot of sun. And they pray in the Christian churches, and Armenia is a Christian country. But after the Soviet Union collapsed, Armenia became a poor country, so these Kurds immigrated to the south of Russia to the area of the city of Krasnodar. It’s a very rich part of Russia.

I have a lot of characters in my Russian Costa Rica film. And one woman was 17 years old when she fell in love with a student from Costa Rica. And after marrying him in Moscow, the family moved to Costa Rica. She was 18, and she was educated in law, and now she’s a famous lawyer in Costa Rica. The Costa Rican students would study at Patrice Lumumba University. A lot of foreign people studied at Patrice Lumumba University. For example, Costa Rica is a farming country, and they would be educated in the Soviet style about how to build a farm. Then, it is also very important for these people to be educated people in Costa Rica. It makes them different from poor people that are not educated. And it was really glorious for the people to have their Soviet Union education — to have some good social place. That was very important.

6. How do you finance your documentaries?

This is a big problem. Now, I am the producer of Our Africa, and I have a team, and we made this film just with our own funds. So of course I’ve tried to find a co-producer, and it’s a normal problem for all filmmakers all over the world. But I think it’s possible if you have something special. I’m not sure that I can find it in Russia, because it’s too complicated. We don’t have a lot of private producers, and it’s not easy to receive government funds.

In St. Petersburg, we have the RosBalt news agency — ‘Ros’ is Russia and ‘Balt’ is Baltic. They have a project of small films about groups of people who are now based in Russia. They supported the Kurds film, and invited me to do it, and also a film about Meskhetian Turks. It’s a dramatic history of the Meskhetian turks in the Soviet Union. Because Stalin took them out of Georgia, and put them in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. So during World War II, Stalin thought that the Meskhetian Turks supported Hitler, because Turkey supported Hitler. And he was afraid of this, so he put them in other countries. It was terrible and a tragedy. And as of yet, the people don’t have a motherland. Some Meskhetian Turks live in the USA also. After 2005, the USA took some families. They are like a motherless people. Of course, they don’t have a very good relationship with ethnic Russians based in the south of Russia. That’s also the drama of this fight. As I traveled from country to country, I felt the tragedy of these people, and I wanted to show it. But these people are very good and very simple. They have a lot of energy and a good style of life. I filmed them in the south of Russia. Because after Perestroika and the Soviet Union collapsed, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan had a lot of national conflicts with Meskhetian Turks. It’s terrible what they did. They didn’t want them, so they immigrated to the south of Russia, and had a conflict with the south of Russia’s people.

 

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