Propaganda or art?
Dzhanik Fayziev's film August Eighth caused an ambiguous reaction among the audience. Experts pointed out its political commitment and blamed the director for copying Hollywood clichés. Nevertheless, experts Vladimir Menshov, Alexei Mukhin and Alexander Kots liked the film.
Dzhanik Fayziev, director and producer
Not only in the name of the topic but also in people’s minds there is a strange general understanding of the subject. When they speak for instance about “August the Eighth” and say that it is propaganda, I always ask them what they mean. “You propagate some ideas translated by the state.” I reply “Where did you see that I retranslate the state? What if these are my personal beliefs? Is it propaganda or not?” They go silent. When these are my personal ideas, it is not propaganda, it is the personal position of a specific citizen of the Russian Federation, Dzhanik Fayziev. But if somebody brings me these ideas on a piece of paper, and if I disagree with them, then it is propaganda. It was very strange. When I added that the word “propaganda” is translated from Latin as 'meant for distribution', we completely lose our direction, and the consensus about terminology becomes very important. As for the subject, any art, theatre, painting, cinema, will not resonate and attract attention if it does not speak about topics interesting for the audience. For instance, I really like the book “Auto-da-Fe” of Elias Canetti, he wrote it when he was 26 and got the Nobel Prize for it when he was 75. If you read it now, you will be surprised by its very contemporary and difficult language. And I guess that when this book appeared most of the readers could simply not understand what it was. Time passed and it got accepted. This is almost impossible with cinema. A book can lie on the shelf for 20 years until somebody picks it up. A film gets older much quicker, because the costumes, habits and simply technical skills of narration change, and this is important. The life of a film is 50-80 years, in the most ideal case. And in this case cinema should , maybe more than any other art, be interesting to the contemporary audience. It does not matter what you talk about. Be it Shakespeare, you know Ralph Fiennes adopted Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, he used contemporary costumes and it turned out that if you get through the poetic text the collision remains clear – there are terrorists, there are people who want to remove the rulers, there are people who manipulate politics. From this point of view, it is a very political film because it describes the current political situation, although with the language of Shakespeare.
Vladimir Menshov, Head of the selection group of the Russian Oscar Committee
Cinema was always seen as important, because it is the struggle for minds in your country. One of the first people to recognize this was Goebbels, he had a powerful cinema that promoted Hitler’s regime. Stalin also understood it, and so did the Americans. And now we can see that any American movie has an explicit or implicit glorification of America. Yesterday I accidentally watched some film , “Contact”, about space, I was attracted by Robert Zemeckis. But it is amazingly biased towards Americans, who organize this flight, get this message, they allegedly choose from 20 candidates from Earth, but we see only the American ones, the American president, and you get it into your being that America is the best. They know how to do it, and we also used to know it. Think about the war, how much attention was given to the cinema, and how much the war films meant to us. And think about the pictures, by the way very good, made during the war – “Two Soldiers”, I am amazed by Pyriev and the scriptwriter, “Six o’clock After the War” – a film from 1944! It means it was made in 1943, when the outcome was not clear at all. And it must have been written in 1942. It is breathing with optimism, absolute confidence, as we see it from the title, that almost became a proverb. It was a powerful move and a real combination of art and politics. We were all following their destinies – will they meet or not. And the audience was leaving the movie theater – I was not there, I was too small – but I am sure that everybody was inspired and maybe went to the front. So for me this question is rhetorical, if it is necessary to separate cinema and politics. Moreover, I can say that my youth was in times when we were looking for politics everywhere, we went to every performance and film, and this is what our youth was about, to understand that when he speaks about the factory he in fact speaks about the Soviet power, that by collective farm he means an entire rotten system. This is how creative biographies were built. The “Sovremennik” theatre was based on this, on political acuteness. Now it is going away. It is dangerous to combine cinema, or any art, and politics. When this political component goes away, only the naked art remains, and it often turns out that without this political component it is not that impressive. I think that Dzhnik’s film is first of all a great picture, it should be noted. Although he took this political topic that is very slippery and difficult for contemporary liberal thinking, for the liberal tastes in our society that interpret this story as our mistake or our crime, although it is not common to say it out loud, or not anymore. It is hard to touch upon this topic. The fact that he wanted to touch it, is a big civil endeavour. There are many steps – how he shows the president and his surroundings, with this absolutely new language that I like very much, because these are new young interesting people who argue. I can guess some forces behind it, but it is curious. Starting from the episode when the president is woken up in his bed by a call, and the mechanism of decision-making is very interestingly presented. I really like the way the plot is arranged around a mother and a child, although it seems a little far-fetched to me, but still. We observe and sympathize because the strongest emotions are connected to the mother and child, when the mind is lost and only instincts work. His representation of war is very dear to me. Because the word “Georgian” does not even appear, they are not there, there is only a tank, everything is blurred, and I like this artistic delicate approach. It is not about “killing the Nazis” as we used to say in 1941, kill him as many times as you see him, as Simonov writes in his famous poem. Here it is presented as a tragic and scary misunderstanding, although this is the wrong word. Some haze that covered all of us and led to this tragic event and the deaths of people. But in the end it is a film that justifies our invasion. If the Americans made anything like that, it would have been fine, but we are not allowed to do so, this is why there was such a reaction in the world, so we risked it. It was a strong political step, and I hope we will get credit for it at some point.
Alexei Mukhin, General Director, Center of political information
Did we lose the information war? No, this is the first time that we did not lose the information war. We lost it in the 1990s, when we started thinking with our belly and not with our head and heart. This is when all these films that Vladimir Menshov mentioned entered our society, saying that it is good to live when the life is good, without mentioning that this life has to be built with your own hands. Better if somebody helps to do it. This is the psychology that allows society to be governed from outside. The aim of the information war is to soften brains so that they can easily be governed from outside. This is what the Hollywood industry is based on. It pushes the idea that the world will collapse without the US. That's fine if you understand it. It's good that if you understand the laws of the information war, the attacks on your worldview stop working. Similarly, the fact that the Russian government did not react to the pictures drawn by the Georgian and American leadership, didn't mean defeat in the information war, but waiting. Time has put everything in the right place. The Europeans who were completely misinformed about the Georgian war… My French friends were asking me why we invaded Georgia… I just clenched my teeth and remained silent, because I knew that the time will come and they will understand that it was not us who invaded Georgia. And we definitely did not want to annexe it, because in that case we would have gone to Tbilisi, but we did not. There was a military operation that in a balanced manner showed the place of Russian in the region and placed the right accents and in this case not a single military or information mistake was made. Why did we get the impression that the war is lost? Our resources are much smaller than those of the USA or Europe. Media resources. They managed to create a virtual picture in which we were evil. Then it dissolved because the truth always appears. The "i's" were dotted on time. I absolutely disagree with the statement that politics are a priori dirty, it is a stereotype. And I disagree that we lost the information war. And the film is simply a confirmation that this war was just.
Alexandr Kots, Special reporter, “Komsomolskaya Pravda”
Let me disagree with Alexei and his point that time put everything in its place. In November 2008 I was invited to London to present in the famous and important for any military journalist Frontline club, about 50 British journalists were there, and from their questions I saw how narrow their understanding was. They came to conclusions from the very first days of war. There was some change after my presentation, I answered the questions, and the questions were something like “Why did you send 800 tanks to Georgia?” Ladies and gentlemen, the 58th army never had so many tanks. These were the questions. They drew conclusions from the BBC coverage and did not plan to change their opinion, one girl from the BBC came to me and said that in these days they were calling CNN “Saakashvili-TV” and apologized for the bias they had on the BBC. I cannot understand what prevented the Russian government from commenting in the first days of war. We remember that the first interview of Dmitry Medvedev was given almost a month afterwards or maybe even after the recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. I do not think that CNN or the BBC would deny the airtime to the Russian president or prime-minister. In this sense we lost the war, because what stayed in the people’s consciousness were those texts and reportages that appeared in the first days. You were lucky with your French friends, I was also lucky with some of my foreign friends, whom I managed to persuade that not everything is black and white. Moreover, let’s remember that the BBC showed the film that appeared on the results of the Der Spiegel investigation that was probably the first one in the Western media that supported the Russian version of events in South Ossetia. So this film based on this publication, I think it had five parts, although not supporting the Russian point of view, was not pro-Georgian either. As for our current topic and cinema… I think that if a film is forbidden because it shows some reality that the government of the country does not like, this is politics. When we have on the screens such a disgusting Georgian-American thing as “Five Days in August” that makes you sick, this double-dyed propaganda, it is politics. When the Russian documentary film appears “War 08.08.08”, let’s be honest, it is also politics and propaganda. When the film “Olympus Inferno” comes, that I started to watch only because my military journalist friend from the first channel Anton Stepanenko participated in writing the script, he was trying to protect himself and the audience from falling into this propaganda trap, but he did not manage it. When I started to watch “August the Eighth” I was afraid that it would fall into this double-dyed propaganda. I did not expect from this film that it would be “The Thin Red Line”, “Apocalypse Now” or “Lord of the Flies”. But I started watching this film knowing that the military consultant there was a man whom I know very well, Russian hero Alexei Ukhvatov, the prototype of the main hero. I know that another prototype was a man who once saved my life, Russian hero posthumously Denis Vetchinov. I had my personal and subjective view. I am a simple person and do not know much about art, I am a military journalist. When I go to war, I try to show it in some virtual numbers of killed and wounded, I am trying to show the people who participate in this war. And sometimes I succeed. After the war, in autumn of that year, I went to Georgia and gathered material about a Georgian soldier wounded in that very campaign. When I set to watch the film… Dzhanik said that the cinema gets older faster than books, and newspapers get older even faster. It is important for me that the heroes of my publications lived as long as possible, because these are simple people like us who do a very difficult job. I think that Dzhanik’s film prolonged the life of the heroes I was writing about. Not many people know, but I saw some real stories there, even the tankman Yasha is a real person. Alexei Ukhvatov with his battalion, who rescued more than 100 civilians and 300 peace-makers who were attacked by the Georgian tanks. These are real events, and it is good that it was not said that the film is based on real events, as it was with the “Ninth Legion”, although the ninth legion in reality survived, there were only three or four victims. This was the reproach to the film of Fyodor Bondarchuk. We do not have it here, fortunately. We have real events, real deeds of these people. You can see the work of the military consultants. There were no grenades producing an explosion like from nuclear bombs. Everything is clear and almost as if in reality. Any man can find some mistakes. I left on a plane of one air company and arrived on another. My friend Yuri Snigirev, the military journalist from “Russian Gazette”, was posting numerous comments on Facebook that this and this did not happen… But you have to perceive this film as an artistic work, that did not fall into hard-core propaganda and spoke about normal human values. It is visible even from the ending, which positively surprised me, where Georgian soldiers were shown in a very human manner, they are also people, and all the killed Georgians are human tragedies. I came to that guy who was throwing grenades at me and remained crippled for the rest of his life, it is a tragedy of the young Georgian generation for whom this war, covered with blood and sun, remained black and white, as a result of films like “Five Days in August”.