Life in Film: Deimantas Narkevičius
In an ongoing series, frieze asks artists and filmmakers to list the movies that have influences their practice Originally trained as a sculptor, Deimantas Narkevičius began working with film in the early 1990s. His films examine the relationship of personal memories to political histories, particularly those of his native Lithuania. Employing documentary footage, voice-overs, interviews, re-enactments and found photographs, Narkevičius’s films and videos submit historical events to the narrative structures of storytelling and cinema. His work was on view at the New Museum in New York in the recent exhibition ‘Ostalgia’, and his solo exhibition at gb agency in Paris, ‘Restricted Sensation’, runs until 22 October.
My first experience of cinema was watching movies with my parents in the theatre or at home on television as a child. Though I couldn’t adequately perceive what I saw, I sensed my parents’ emotions. They were moved by something I myself could not yet understand, just as I did not comprehend their emotional experiences. I tried to find the elements that affected them so much in those movies. One of the earliest memories of an evening spent with my parents that I can associate with a specific work was watching Sergei Bondarchuk’s shocking directorial debut, Sudba Cheloveka (Destiny of a Man, 1959). The film makes incredibly good use of the devices of flashback and of a story-within-a-story. It also very subtly reflects the political backdrop of its time, showing the protagonist, Andrei Sokholov (played by Bondarchuk himself), a brave soldier who spent most of the war imprisoned by the Nazis, being humiliated and enduring back-breaking work. In the film, destiny brings Sokholov together with the young boy Vaniushka, who he picks up at a rest stop. They are two lonely people, both deprived of everything, yet they find the promise of a better future in each other. I felt sympathy for the orphaned boy, who had nowhere to sleep and nothing to eat, although I completely failed to comprehend the drama of losing one’s parents in the war, with my own parents sitting beside me, eyes wide open, watching the war open a void in the fate of the protagonist.
Many of the masters of Soviet cinema chose the past as an alternative to the overly politicized environment of the present and the norms that regulated everyday life. In a time outside of the Soviet epoch, these directors were searching for more natural human relations, stronger cultural traditions, and, finally, a sense of the flow of history. One of Armenian director Sergei Parajanov’s most modest films, Hakob Hovnatanyan (1967), is an example of this trend. This short film, which is probably the only work by Parajanov that I remember seeing in early adolescence, does not have a narrative or dialogue, but the images and sound alone transported me to an entirely different age and environment unfamiliar to me. Having grown up with the tradition of realist cinema, I experienced this movie as a great leap from the films permeated by didactics and literary plot; its imagery acquired autonomous meaning and required extra effort to be understood. Parajanov’s montages of basic everyday objects and fragments of 19th-century paintings have stuck in my memory as synonyms of an exotic world, a dream. It was then that I became fascinated with the films produced in the studios of the Soviet republics, which revealed strong local identities, traditions and languages.
It might seem unbelievable, but around 1980 Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Die Ehe der Maria Braun (The Marriage of Maria Braun, 1978) was released in Soviet cinemas, and I watched it when I was 17. I guess this was the only one of Fassbinder’s films to have been shown widely in the Soviet Union, due to its critical attitude towards capitalism, which was seemingly congruous with that of the Soviets. It was unlike any other film I had seen before. It seemed that the actors were the characters, instead of impersonating them. They did not act out a drama set in postwar Germany, but rather went through it themselves in the 1970s. All our human vices and unbridled ambitions are integral parts of Hanna Schygulla’s personality. It looked as though this was cinema that had finally done away with the barrier of conditionality. In this sense, it was cinematic fiction that had a greater impact than that of documentary film.
Fassbinder’s film was immensely relevant in the 1980s era of late socialism, when the ideas that were supposed to unite the society became obsolete. Materialism and the pursuit of personal profit flourished in all spheres of life, and corruption became an integral part of the economy. Paradoxically, the environment of the economically prosperous Germany that Fassbinder recreated in his film, which legitimated human relations based on wealth-determined subordination, reflected the psychological environment of the decaying socialist society – the environment in which I would soon have to choose my future, and the choices were few. Die Ehe der Maria Braun seemed to challenge the dominant conviction, quite hard to realize under our particular circumstances, that the creation of wealth was the purpose of life.
It was only a decade ago that I became acquainted with the work of Peter Watkins. Since the beginning of the 1960s, each of his films has been a unique and varied discovery of cinematic form. His early work, The Forgotten Faces (1961), uses documentary techniques to reconstruct the failed 1956 Hungarian revolution against the Soviet government. This film, the language of which was anachronistic even for its time, literally explodes with the energy of the early Eisensteinian silent cinema; it spawned strategies that changed the notion of documentary cinema to blur the line between professional filmmaker and amateur participant. Watkins’s political engagement seems to push the artistic quality to the background in order to foreground the political goals of the film’s subjects, thereby turning the filmic process into a newly experienced, emotionally recharged repetition of a past event.
First published in Issue 142