Screenplay working group: Nikolai Oleynikov, Oleg Zhuravlev, Dmitry Vilensky and Kirill Medvedev
I was inspired to make this film after the police forced me to delete video footage of the OMON raid on our seminar in Nizhny Novgorod. I was struck by their brazen confidence that they could erase things from people’s memory as easily as you can delete a video image. This film is meant as a response to their challenge. It shows that we can not only document the crimes of the authorities for posterity, but also shape our own space of interpretation. We can recreate our own histories, in which the deeds of the police will be remembered as shameful acts against society. —Dmitry Vilensky
The “communal life” seminar unites four disciplines and four young activists, representatives of two self-organized leftist collectives:
Nikolai Oleynikov (artist, Chto Delat workgroup)
Alexei Penzin (philosopher, Chto Delat workgroup)
Ilya Budraitskis (historian, artists, and activist, Vpered Socialist Movement)
Kirill Medvedev (poet and activist, Vpered Socialist Movement)
May 9, 2009
Nizhny Novgorod, Russia
Gorky – Jagger
The following fictitious text appears over footage from the beginning of the seminar:
Center for Extremism Prevention
Nizhny Novgorod, May 2, 2009
Covert surveillance of members of a number of political groups (Vpered Socialist Movement, antifascists, ex-NBP, etc.) has produced intelligence that an unsanctioned organizational meeting will take place at 10 a.m., May 9, 2009, 24, Rozhdestvenskaya Street, under the cover of an art seminar. The meeting will be attended by the leaders of these organizations, who will arrive for this purpose from Moscow, and their most active members in Nizhny Novgorod.
It is possible that extremist literature will be distributed at this meeting and that its purpose is to organize provocations on Victory Day.
1. Carry out a preventive inspection of the meeting.
2. Establish the identities of meeting participants.
3. Search and seize illegal materials—weapons, narcotics, extremist literature.
4. Carry out preventive arrests if warranted.
A platoon of twelve special-forces police officers will be assigned to assist in the operational mission along with a bus for transportation of detainees (up to fifteen people).
Command of the operation has been assigned to Lieutenant-Colonel Trifonov.
The seminar began with a screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1968 film Sympathy for the Devil (One Plus One)
Documentary footage of the seminar:
Seminar participants watch Godard’s film. The camera pans back and forth several times from their faces to the screen. We hear the opening of the Rolling Stones song “Sympathy for the Devil.”
At some point, the participants began to daydream, replaying scenes from the film in their imaginations.
(Shooting location: the park in the Nizhny Novgorod Kremlin)
In our film, the young woman is the personification of common sense. She is probably liberal, but not in a politically conscious sense. More likely, she is apolitical. As in Godard’s film, the questions asked her resemble a questionnaire. They reproduce the thickheaded, senseless rhetoric of liberals. At the same time, this set of questions can been seen as testing the entire spectrum of questions discussed at the seminar.
It is important that the questionnaire is built around a dialectical play of paradoxes, where two contradictory statements converge in a simple yes/no reply. Some questions are directly lifted from the similar scene in Godard’s film. Our scene is a re-enactment of that scene, although unlike the original, we include subjective shots from “within the scene.”
The scene is performed by students from the contemporary art program at the Nizhny Novgorod branch of the National Center for Contemporary Art.
(Establishing shot: a young woman, Anya, is making a call on her mobile phone.)
– Who are you calling? Nikolai Oleynikov?
– Lieutenant-Colonel Trifonov?
– Vitaly Klichko?
– Roman Abramovich?
– Anna Markovna Gor?
– Alexei Penzin?
– And he’s not answering?
– Do you think that art is separate from politics?
– Mmm… yes.
– Is there a fundamental difference between the left and the right, or are they two sides of the same coin?
– Should the state control art and culture?
– Well, no.
– Is authentic revolutionary art figurative or abstract?
– Is the nuclear family the last bastion of authentic sexuality and sensuality, or is it an outdated machine for oppressing women and making them domestic slaves?
– And do you think that today’s businesswomen are wretched creatures?
– Probably not.
– Can one make love politically?
– What does that mean?
– Is there such a thing as leftist cuisine?
– What? (She smiles.)
– Is embroidery always a leftist practice because women continued to be oppressed?
– Most likely yes.
– Is the orgasm the only thing you don’t fake?
– Are you playing this part because you’re bored, or because you don’t know how to define yourself politically?
– Do you check your e-mail first thing in the morning?
– And only then do you take a shower?
– Do you think that young people in Russia are depoliticized?
– I don’t know. Probably yes.
– Will Russia have its own 1968?
– I don’t know. Probably not.
– Or will a new 1937 ensue?
– Really? When? (She is scared.)
– Will Putin again become president of Russia and serve two six-year terms?
– Yes, that will probably happen.
– And then ABBA will be commissioned to write the new Russian national anthem rather than Deep Purple?
– Yeah, yeah.
– Do the Americans refuse to leave Iraq because it’s psychologically impossible?
– And that’s why the Russians cannot hand the Caucasus over to the Americans?
– Do you think that Russia should be a country primarily for ethnic Russians?
– No. But then again, why not?
– Do you believe that political rights should be guaranteed to the citizens of Russia?
– Do you believe that radicals threaten the stability and moderate lifestyle of Russia’s citizens?
– I think they do.
– And that their activities are funded by western organizations seeking to destabilize our country?
– This doesn’t concern me.
– Will the Center for Extremism Prevention help solve the problems of young people?
– Are emus a threat to society?
– I’ve heard they are.
– Is it true that the Soviet Union’s achievements in industry, science, and culture do not justify the number of individuals whose lives were destroyed by the totalitarian regime?
– Do you agree that the nineties were a very important period that gave us freedom, the market, and western culture, even if certain individuals had to suffer?
– Is the west fighting against Russia because it’s the west?
– Is it an irony of history that as it struggles against Russian authoritarianism the west is becoming more and more undemocratic?
– Probably. (She smiles.)
– Is it also ironic that Russian liberalism is just the freedom of the authorities to do as they please?
– Do you really think that to stop being an artist you have to become a revolutionary artist?
– I don’t know.
– When love dies, will we be totally at the mercy of biopolitics?
– And the only thing you’ll understand after all those years is not to make love when you don’t feel like it?
– Yes, yes…
(She walks away.)
The camera returns us to the reality of the seminar, where the screening of Godard’s film continues. We’ve come to the scene where the young hipster dictates the text of Mein Kampf to a secretary. We segue to an imaginary scene in a fashionable bar, where Oleg (an activist sociologist and seminar participant) is giving a lecture accompanied by a propagandistic slide presentation. The slide show is a kind of collage based on the texts of Russian Eurasianist leader Alexander Dugin (a flagrantly proto-fascist politician and intellectual), the posters of artist Alexei Belyaev-Guintovt (who is the Eurasianist movement’s chief designer), and the covers of books by nationalist/right-wing Russian academics, who in recent times have been attempting to take control of philosophy and sociology departments in Russian universities.
Our young anti-hero is a “cool” activist with the Eurasian Youth Union (ESM). He reads passages from the ESM’s manifesto (penned by Dugin) and demonstrates their glam aesthetics and rhetoric. The camera captures him against the backdrop of the screen on which this propaganda collage is displayed.
In our film, this scene is played differently than in the Godard film, while at the same fulfilling its principal function—to show how fascistoid tendencies are rooted in the dominant academic discourse of fundamentalists and interwoven with an everyday visual kitschiness founded on violence, exploitation of the female body, and pseudo-populism.
The glam atmosphere of the bar reminds us that “populism” in the contemporary Russian educational system is also a peculiar element of the environment in which today’s gilded youth study—university departments privatized and thoroughly corrupted by conmen administrators.
The Experience of the Real (or, Meet Center “E”)
The camera returns again to the leftist seminar and focuses on the Godard film: the participants are watching one of the scenes where the Rolling Stones rehearse the song. Suddenly the screen goes blank and we hear the shouts of special-forces police (who walk in front of the white screen):
Everyone on your feet! Face the wall! Hands on your heads! Surrender your weapons and illegal items!
We then segue to the scene where police interrogations/negotiations with seminar participants are re-enacted and replayed.
Documentary footage of discussions at the seminar, which resumed after all the participants returned from the police precinct.
The themes of these conversations include: the legacy of the Russian avant-garde; issues of class structure in society and the place of the intellectual and artist within that structure; Russia and 1968; the connection between form and content; what it means to live in history, etc.
The scene opens with a continuation of the film screening, but then one of the characters (Nikolai) begins to daydream, imagining himself in the role of the Black Panther leader in the film. As in Godard’s work, our scene takes place in some kind of junky backyard. A group of young men dressed liked comic leftists (bandanas, keffiyehs) shoot toy pistols, paint graffiti on the walls, and drink. In the background, we see several young women painting the tall grass red and black with spray paint.
In this scene, we re-enact the interview with the Black Panther leader in Godard’s film. As in his film, two young women conduct the interview. We thus engage here in self-criticism and satiric teasing of ourselves, but at the same time we reprise Godard’s method for constructing dialogue, mixing absurd, superficial statements with important, thoughtful reflections.
In speaking of how Godard depicts the Black Panthers (although he is generally in solidarity with them, he criticizes them or shows how they are perceived by ordinary people), we imagine the archetype of the leftist radical, how he is perceived by “secular” critics, by common sense consciousness, which partly corresponds to what he really is. This perception boils down to two widespread notions of the radical: that of the terrorist, someone who is a threat to national security and the social peace, while at the same time being a “paid agent” of the west; and, simultaneously, that of the idler, bohemian, and hooligan. That is, he represents a threat to security, while also symbolizing a kind of sectarianism.
It is in this problematic that we find the connection between our film and Godard and his time, for the main object of his inquiry is alternative musicians and political activists as well-established media stars. And this is also the difference between our film and his: what happened to us in Nizhny Novgorod and similar incidents have only just begun to bring us media attention. Although in our film we will attempt to answer questions about our relationship to this honestly, this honesty will also contain a palpable element of satire and self-criticism.
Text of the scene:
Are you satisfied with the seminar and everything that happened?
Of course! The seminar was a success. For leftists like us, the combination of theory and praxis has an enormous, paramount significance. It is only through praxis that we can know history and create it, including cultural history. And so when the riot cops burst through the door, we definitely sensed that our cultural event, our appreciation of the past masterpieces of leftist culture, had acquired a practical and hence a historical dimension.
Chorus of Activists:
We all sensed, we all sensed
The historical dimension,
You scheduled your event for May 9 and placed announcements in the Internet where you deliberately underscored the connection with politics. Perhaps you were hoping for this effect? What did you hope to achieve?
I would speak here of the dialectic of the accidental and inevitable. We did not set out to attract the attention of the security forces. However, the presence at the seminar of political activists known for their participation in street actions definitely played a role. The fact of the matter is that exploitation in our contemporary, post-Fordist society is becoming total in nature: it is no longer limited to particular production sites and the workday.
Chorus of Activists:
In the post-Fordist society,
Is not limited, limited
In today’s world, the role of workers engaged in immaterial labor is becoming greater.
Chorus of Activists:
Role is becoming greater.
Today they are in the vanguard of the emancipatory process. It is they who produce new forms of cooperation opposed to the parasitic claims of capital. That is how we look at what happened—as an incursion by agents of corporate capital into the territory of the cooperative production and distribution of knowledge. And that is why we have no gripes with the riot cops themselves: they are just part of the spectacle that big business performs with support from a fascistoid society, first and foremost, with support from the middle class, which abides in a state of low-level consumerist frenzy, anabiosis, anemia, and amnesia.
How important is the role of repressions, police interference, and the subsequent media frenzy in building your organization, in constructing its self-identity, public image and so on?
Working with the media is of course part of our political and cultural work. We have to be extremely careful here, however. We need to remember the experience of 1968, when revolutionary transgression was consumed by a bloated media discourse, and the languages of the mainstream and the counterculture merged. The fact of the matter is that we speak a completely different language than today’s press does. Our language is the language of leftist intellectualism mixed with the language of leftist street politics, and it opposes the language of power’s repressive spectacle. These two languages are incompatible in contemporary Russia. This is a problem for us today insofar as it leads in part to our ghettoization, but over the long term it gives us a chance because confrontation between these languages and the material realities they represent is inevitable.
Chorus of Activists:
The language of power,
Is empty, empty
Is it true that your work is wholly funded by western institutions? Who paid for the seminar and the production of this film?
Whatever answer I give, you won’t be able to interpret it straight up. By talking about things in this way, we risk slipping into a one-dimensional approach to a complicated problem. We work in the production of contemporary art, a system that involves dealing with foundations and exhibition projects where private capital or state resources are used. As activist artists, however, we reserve the right to use this context as material for direct, merciless critique. To put it more bluntly: we bite hard the hand that feeds us. But I don’t agree with people who say that we get fed precisely because we bite and that along as we are fed, then we are not dangerous, we’re pets. No! We keep ourselves fed.
Chorus of Activists:
We are independent…
You’re considered the leader of your group. How do you deal, then, with the fact that leftists often appeal to democratic forms of organization?
Where you see inconsistency, we see the dialectic! First, someone really has to take responsibility for making organizational decisions. And perhaps the effective way of making those decisions is to delegate them to one person when the need arises. But you should keep in mind that we’re totally against all forms of leaderism. And second, we believe that the future belongs to organizations that creatively combine the principles of networked, participatory democracy with the tradition of democratic centralism. We stand for revolutionary leadership that is absolutely strictly controlled from below.
Chorus of Activists:
From below, from below
You often use the word “leftist”—leftist history, leftist philosophy, leftist poetry. Is there such a thing as leftist sex or leftist food? Or, for example, leftist yoga? Might there be leftist restaurants or leftist drug stores in the future?
I don’t see anything wrong with this. Nevertheless, I think that drug stores should serve everyone. Such is our vision.
But our group’s priority is to fight for the hegemony of leftist ideas in society. The discourse of the right, which is hierarchical and openly or secretly repressive, is practically total in contemporary society.
Chorus of Activists:
The discourse is total,
The discourse is hierarchical,
So when we attain hegemony, the greater part of both private and public processes in society will become leftist—that is, based on free discussion, cooperative immaterial labor, and egalitarian distribution. That is our agenda. But only a leftist biopolitical revolution can give a definitive answer to your questions and to the challenges of our time.
Chorus of Activists:
According to sociologists, male heterosexuals constitute the vast majority of members in organizations like yours. Can we speak of male dominance in such organizations?
With us it is totally the other way around. All the men in our organization define themselves as feminists. Only in this way do we feel we have the right and possibility to defend all the weak and oppressed people, including women, who need our defense and our support.
What is your social base? How do you stay in touch with the proletariat?
Workers like us expend all their strength in creating the kind of art that by rights should belong to the common man. That is why the distribution and socialization of our art is not effected through the channels of power and private galleries. The new communist art generates a new intellectual continuum on the streets, in cinema clubs, in universities, and in seminars. It is created primarily for students and activists, but this means only that its intellectual strength and formal, aesthetic precision are not the victims of intellectual propaganda. On the contrary, they raise the dialogue with the proletariat to a fundamentally new level, to a new stage of development. For it is only by entering the history of art that we can enter the history of the workers movement.
Chorus of Activists:
We will enter history
We will enter
We’re already in…
What are your relations with other representatives of the left wing?
I see that you’ve seen the Godard film, right? The same old question about factions. On the whole, we understand the need to consolidate all competent leftist forces, with the exception, of course, of certain ultra-marginal groupuscules like the Trotskyists, Maoists, Stalinists, anarchists, Eurocommunists, on the one hand, and, on the other, such outmoded, ideologically flabby walking corpses as the CPRF. So before we unite we need to distance ourselves decisively from all these phantoms of the past and form a genuinely new left front.
This will probably be my last question. What will leftists do when they come to power?
I see what you’re after. You know all the old questions, but it’s clear that for now you don’t know any new answers. I can tell you this. We stand on the threshold of a rediscovery of what power is in general. Our task cannot be boiled down to the seizure of power. Our task is to change the world without taking the kind of power that makes all liberals quiver and that our ideological enemies aim to seize. That is how I see it.
Thanks a lot. Thank you.
New Leftist Thought!
After the activists in the previous scene have painted the slogan “Leftist Thought” on a wall, the young woman who was painting the weeds red runs up to the wall and writes “New Leftist Thought” on it.