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Splendid Artists: Central and East European Women Animators

Although women did not play the most prominent roles in the policy making bodies, they were particularly visible in all kinds of artistic activities blossoming in the years after the Revolution...

In the realm of communist regimes, theory and practice belonged to two different worlds: that of propaganda and that of harsh reality. The first pretended to be the universe of utopia, good will and justice. The second did not masquerade as anything but a patriarchal bureaucratic machine.

It was Lenin who stated after the success of the Revolution that, "In the land of the Soviets, every housewife must be able to rule the state." And it was also Lenin who announced that film was, "the most important of the arts." According to the logic of this rhetoric, Soviet cinema was supposed to be an oasis for women filmmakers in the male dominated ocean of the world's film industry.

Sfinga. Lucie Dvorakova (1989)

Actually, the beginnings were quite promising. Although women did not play the most prominent roles in the policy making bodies, they were particularly visible in all kinds of artistic activities blossoming in the years after the Revolution. Women painters, like Natalia Goncharova, Olga Rozanova, Lyubov Popova and Varvara Stepanova were among the leaders of the avant-garde. Poet Marina Tsvetaeva enjoyed a popularity equaled only by Mayakovsky's. Women filmmakers, Esfir Shub, Lili Brik and Olga Preobrazhenskaya, although working in the shadow of Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Dovzhenko or Vertov, contributed significantly to the Soviet cinema of the 1920s.

Too Good to Last

Even if men still prevailed in these domains, one can not deny that there was no other country where women artists achieved so much in such a short time. This was too good to last and soon many women shared the fate of the majority of the avant-garde community. There was no longer a place for progressive ideals. Those who did not conform to the requirements of Socialist Realism emigrated or spent the rest of their lives in oblivion. Many perished during the witch hunts of the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Vera Ermolaeva's story epitomizes the destiny of thousands of people, men and women, who suffered and died only because they happened to live in the wrong place at the wrong time. An abstract painter, a splendid illustrator and a stage designer, she was also one of the closest allies of Kazimir Malevich in Vitebsk and Petrograd. In 1934, she was arrested and deported because her brother had been involved in "suspect" political circles many years before. A progressive illness, which led to the amputation of her legs, did not persuade the authorities to release her from exile in Siberia, where she eventually died in 1938.

At the time when this extraordinary woman was suffering unspeakably in forced isolation, some of her former mates from the defunct avant-garde were producing countless pictures and posters attributing new roles to men and women in socialist society. The representations of the new Soviet woman were mainly confined to one area: agriculture. A woman on a tractor, with a sickle, resting after mowing, always smiling and happy. Women did not disappear entirely from the public life during the Stalinist years.

Little Giraffe by Teresa Badzian, Poland

One can recall Vera Muchina, one of the most prolific producers of idealized portrayals of Soviet people. It was she who sculpted the statue of the "Worker and Collective Farm Girl," which became the trademark of Soviet cinema. But in real life gender equality in the film industry no longer existed, not only under Stalin, but also in the years to come. Unfortunately, this is particularly evident in the field of animation.

None of the women animators in the Soviet Union achieved the international recognition enjoyed by some outstanding, although not numerous, female feature film directors, like Larisa Shepitko or Kira Muratova. It was only in recent times that animated films made by women in Russia (for example Tatyana Jitkovskaya and Natalia Orlova) started to appear regularly at film festivals.

As to my native country, it is worth mentioning that a woman actually inaugurated experimental filmmaking in Poland. Franciszka Themerson, together with her husband Stefan, made seven short films between 1930 and 1945. Among them she co-directed The Eye and the Ear, one of the most interesting abstract films ever done. (It was actually made in England at the end of World War II, for the Film Unit of the Polish Government in exile).

Hangman and Katharina by Katarzyna Latallo, Poland

Addressing Women's Issues

It would be unfair to say that women did not have any chance as animators/directors in communist Poland. The list of those who made significant films starts with Halina Bielinska (the co-author of an excellent and innovative Change of Guard in 1958) and ends at Ewa Bibanska, whose Incomplete Portrait (1982) is one of a very few films that directly addresses women's issues.

In between, to mention only some of the most important names, are Katarzyna Latallo, Zofia Oldak, Zofia Oraczewska, Alina Maliszewska, Alina Skiba, and Joanna Zamojdo. None of them has imprinted her presence in the deeper memory of foreign specialists on the subject. A situation that can be blamed, at least in part, on the male-oriented promotional policies of Film Polski, the state run film agency. And there were always women behind men, writing scripts for their husband-directors, helping them as art directors, and working as an army of anonymous aides.

The fact is, though, that there is no woman director in Poland who has gained as much recognition as the leading male animators: Lenica, Kijowicz, Szczechura or Giersz. Now, the situation is even worse, for with the collapse of the communist regime state funding for film production has dropped radically. The newly born capitalism is not ready yet to support cultural institutions and it is quite possible that it will never do so. As a result, the auteur form of animation is in jeopardy. Not a great prospect for animators of either gender. The outlook for other former communist countries looks very much the same.

Snezny Muz, Petra Fundova (1986)

The Czech Republic seems to be doing the best. Among the group of animators who still manage to pursue their own ideas are an impressive number of women. In a catalogue of an exhibition of Czechoslovak animators which took place in Prague in 1988, 31 out of 76 active animators listed were women. Many of them started their careers in the 1980s, including Lucie Dvorakova, Petra Fundova, Michaela Pavlatova, Milada Sukdolakova, Eva Sykorova, Zuzana Vorlickova, Sarlota Zahradkova and Sarka Zikova.

One has to remember, though, that women's animation has a strong tradition in the Czech and Slovak republics. One of the founders of animated film there after WWII was Hermina Tyrlova, a splendid puppeteer whose international fame would have been much greater, if she did not devote herself entirely to children's films.

Expressing Their Attitudes

The common attitude in the West that there are no important female directors in Central and Eastern Europe diminishes the role of those splendid artists who, despite obstacles, have made their way into the industry. What is absent, though, is the sort of distinct, personal, almost confessional current within women's animation, as represented in the U.S. by Susan Pitt, Kathy Rose, Caroline Leaf or Emily Hubley. The reason might be cultural: discussing problems of ones body and soul in public in Slavic countries can embarrassing. Instead, artists prefer to look for ways of expressing their attitudes by more universal metaphors.

Finally, when dealing with women's cinema in the former Soviet Bloc countries, feminist oriented critics in the West are inevitably surprised that so many women directors there do not want to be called feminists, even if they address women's issues. I might suggest a possible answer to this phenomenon.

Sixty odd years of communist propaganda in the Soviet Union (44 in the satellite countries) has led to a certain distrust in words, especially those associated with ideologically charged social theories. Listening to the postulates of the Polish Women's League, the only legal women's rights organization under communism, one could get the impression that it did not differ much from the agenda of feminist movements in the West. Representatives of the League were regularly sent to international conferences, where they spoke about the equality of men and women in the socialist world. Their words were not meant to represent reality, but to substitute for it. And they did. The regime was not afraid of big words and it knew how to manipulate them.

Borrowing terminology from post-modern discourse, one would say that what the communist regimes did not suffer from was a lack of "grand narrations." In fact, there were too many of them. At least for intellectuals who subconsciously developed an immune system to fight their omnipotent presence. In the post-modern world of post-communist societies, the feminist vocabulary sounds to some ears like one of these already known narrations.

Do not be bewildered, therefore, when a Russian, or Polish, or Hungarian filmmaker tells you: "I am not a feminist, but ..." They are not lesser artists just because they say this.

Marcin Gizycki is a Polish art historian, art critic and former Editor-In-Chief for Animafil

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