Saturday, May 13, 2006

Syrian filmmaking

The piece isn't available online (though there's an interesting slide-show at the website), but Lawrence Wright has a great article on dissident filmmaking in Syria in this week's New Yorker. The whole thing is well worth reading, but here's the paragraph that especially stuck with me:

Although the filmmakers often talked about freedom, they revealed a perverse desire to romanticize the artistic constraints of dictatorship. "The most beautiful Soviet films were produced in the era of Stalin," Abdulhamid told me. "When the Soviet Union collapsed and suddenly you could say whatever you wanted, the Russians began producing the most trivial films. Nobody should be forbidden to say what he wants, but it is a phenomenon that dazzles me: when you're suppressed, you think better."

How perverse is this really, though? I have no desire to romanticize the artistic constraints of dictatorship: indeed I was reading this piece and thinking with huge gratitude of the fact that I do not really have to worry about such things in my own life. (Another article that gave me the same piercing sense of my own not-often-enough-remembered good fortune was Laura Secor's excellent piece in the magazine last year about young Iranian bloggers.) I don't know much about film, but it's not just a glib truism to talk of literature's succumbing to near-oblivion in Russia and former Eastern bloc countries after the fall of communism. That older generation of Russian readers and writers are really, really depressed thinking about the way that now you can read them without penalty the writings of (fill in your favorite dissident writer) hold little appeal for the young. So that the quotation in the article may include components of rationalization or self-justification or consolation and yet have an element of truthfulness as well.


  1. Hello there,

    People say this everywhere - in my native East Bloc, as you call it, in Iran, in China. They think it is because oppression requires them to struggle (politically), and that it is the struggle which imbues their films with meaning.

    I think something else is true: one reason why many people feel film-making was better then is the existence of censorship which required the filmmakers to speak in a sort of secret code. Such a code amounts to an aesthetic artifice, something that every art requires for its success.

    Another reason may be that the oppressive regimes usually suppress Hollywood distribution. Without Hollywood, the local film-makers have to rely on their own artistic traditions. Once freedom comes, Hollywood comes with its huge marketing muscle and lays everybody flat with the (perverse) result that those who COULD be making good films, feel that they have to compete with Hollywood by producing Hollywood type films instead.

    But this is a misperception: Hollywood success is not entirely due to its presumed natural appeal to the common taste. In Poland, for example, theaters were bankrupt upon liberation, and Hollywood distribuitors were able to lock up distribution by giving them credit in return for exclusive distribution. Other distributors found themselves, literally, locked out of the theater.

    I think there is market for good films, but it is stifled by abusive market practices on the one hand and the defeatist mentality of the non-Hollywood film-makers on the other.

  2. Hi, I linked to this post here:


  3. This is a case where perhaps a non-profit foundation would be necessary to help these filmmakers publish their works onto a medium that can be easily distributed. Filmmakers have to circumnavigate the main channels in order to get a better slice of the pie.

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