An impromptu history of the USSR

Four movies at the Jerusalem Film Festival tell the story of the former Soviet Union.

Filmgoers interested in Russia's past and present will find four gems at the 25th Jerusalem Film Festival: New Moscow (1938) by Aleksandr Medvedkin, Revue (2008) by Sergei Loznitsa, Durakovo: Village of Fools (2007) by Nino Kirtadze and Tulpan (2006) by Sergei Dvortsevoy. Scattered throughout various categories in the festival catalog, together these films form a loose history of the USSR and the development of its post-Soviet society, both in the Russian Federation and the ex-Soviet republics in Central Asia. Thanks in part to Chris Marker's The Last Bolshevik (1992), Medvedkin is known as the initiator of the kinopoezd (cinetrain), a train that traveled the countryside spreading Soviet propaganda. His approach was to use local talent to make new films in each town, often showing them the same or next day, with the aim of portraying problems in Sovietization. In the mid-1930s, Medvedkin turned to making satires with serious political messages, including his best-known Happiness (1935) and his much-lauded The Miracle Worker (1936). New Moscow (1938) tells the story of Alyosha (played by Jewish actor Daniil Sagal), a farmhand from Siberia, who imagines a completely redone Moscow that fulfills all Soviet ideals. He creates a mechanical architectural model of the city and sets out to propose his idea to the authorities. On the way he meets the lovely Zoya, with whom he falls in love, and befriends Fedya, a landscape painter who can't keep up his painting with the pace of the city's actual reconstruction. But the model doesn't work as expected - a comedic ploy that might have led the censors to ban Medvedkin's film. SINCE 2003, documentary filmmaker Loznitsa has presented four of his last five films at the Jerusalem Film Festival: Portrait, Landscape, Blockade and Artel. Loznitsa is a formalist who uses archival footage to make understated but extremely powerful films. His approach to editing, soundtrack and montage is as important to a film as the subject he chooses or the images he projects. Loznitsa studied engineering and mathematics at the Kiev Polytechnic Institute, and later studied film in Moscow, working in the studio of Georgian filmmaker Nana Dzhordzhadze. He has been hailed by Russian and international film critics for his mastery of conveying meaning through form, but remains an underdog for his subtlety. This year, Loznitsa brings Revue, a film about the idealized period of progress under Khrushchev, which included de-Stalinization and general demilitarization in favor of the production of consumer goods and public housing projects. Again, Loznitsa presents archival black-and-white newsreel clips, employing their original propagandistic soundtrack, but giving them new meaning by his careful arrangement. What emerges is a picture of a government that spends an awful lot of energy and resources convincing its people - and itself - of society's "progress." WITH DOCUMENTARIAN Kirtadze we see a completely different approach. She navigates engaging and compromising contemporary circumstances without giving up her viewpoint. This ability may have something to do with her various tenures as university lecturer, adviser to the notorious Georgian president Edvard Shevardnadze, or a Caucus correspondent for the Agence France Press and The Associated Press. Interestingly, like Loznitsa, she also worked with Dzhordzhadze, playing the lead female role in Dzhordzhadze's A Chef in Love (1996). Kirtadze's new documentary, Durakovo: Village of Fools, focuses on changes within Russian society. With the fall of the Soviet Union came a great feeling of humiliation on the part of the Russian people covering everything from true disappointment in the failure of communism to anger at the West's condescending attitude toward the financially and socially bankrupt country. In response, businessman Mikhail Morozov takes over a castle south of Moscow and establishes the town of Durakovo, which comes from the Russian word "durak" or fool. It is a place where everyone must reject democracy. Some of the town's residents come voluntarily to live under Morozov's authoritarian rule, while others are brought by parents who hope to instill "respect" in their teenagers. Everyone there, including Kirtadze and her crew, lives in fear of Morozov. DVORTSEVOY, A documentarian from Kazakhstan, has a style that is simultaneously magnificent and humanistic. His use of lush color and picturesque framing never overshadows his subjects, which have included a group of pensioners living in a rural Russian town in Bread Day (1998), and a traveling family circus in Kazakhstan in Highway (1999). Like Loznitsa, Dvortsevoy came from the sciences, studying engineering and working for Aeroflot before turning to writing and directing films. Blurring the line between anthropology and pre-planned situations, Dvortsevoy seems to set the stage for those he portrays to express their honest humor and sincerity. Dvortsevoy's first narrative feature, Tulpan, is set in his native Kazakhstan. It portrays a young man returning from the navy to his rural town, where he starts helping on his sister's farm and looking for a wife. The nearest candidate, Tulpan, isn't interested in him on account of his jutting ears. In this film, Dvortsevoy turns on the charms in a way that recalls Highway. He inserts reality into a fable set against the poetic magic of the Kazakh Steppe. New Moscow plays on July 17 at 4:30 p.m. at the Cinematheque. Revue plays on July 13 at 11:30 a.m. at the Cinematheque and July 14 at 4:30 p.m. at the Begin Heritage Center. Durakovo: Village of Fools plays July 15 at 4:30 p.m. and July 16 at 2:45 p.m. at the Cinematheque. Tulpan plays on July 18 at 7 p.m. and July 19 at 5:30 p.m. at the Cinematheque.