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Films By Jove Launches Animated Soviet Propaganda Series

Films by Jove has begun delivery of the much anticipated ANIMATED SOVIET PROPAGANDA series. The unique anthology is based on more than three dozen anti-American, anti-German, anti-British, anti-Japanese, anti-Capitalist and anti-Imperialist animated shorts produced by the Soviets from 1924-1984.

I first discovered that the USSR had animated propaganda in 1995, three years after our company acquired worldwide distribution rights to much of the library of Moscows Soyuzmultfilm Studio, said Joan Borsten, president of Films by Jove. We were compiling the MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOVS STORIES FROM MY CHILDHOOD anthology. We found, buried among the award-winning animated classics for children, and the equally lauded auteur animated shorts which would become the series known as MASTERS OF RUSSIAN ANIMATION, several dozen films that were, well, clearly of another genre.

They were ideological in content and although the hallmark of the Soyuzmultfilm library is that the films, by design, are non-violent, these films were filled with images of guns, tanks, war and destruction.

Borsten then found copies of animated propaganda films made in the 20s and early 30s, before Soyuzmultfilm Studio was founded, including SOVIET TOYS, the very first Soviet animated film, which was made in 1924 by acclaimed documentary director Dziga Vertov. Artistically influenced by avant-garde art of the 20s and the posters of the Bolshevik Revolution, they ranged in style from simple line drawings, to cut-outs. Combined with the Soyuzmultfilm propaganda shorts, which were mostly made using Disney-style 2D animation, Borsten realized that collectively the animated propaganda not only chronicled the history of the USSR, but the history of Soviet animations artistic development.

Unfortunately my husband [Russian actor Oleg Vidov who defected in 1985] apparently slept through the courses in SCIENTIFIC COMMUNISM and HISTORY OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY that all Soviet students were required to take, she said. He was of no help. So I began asking Soviet animation historians about these ideological films, again with disappointing results. Apparently no one had ever before looked at these films as a genre. Then one day in 2000, by chance, we showed some of them to our house guest, Igor Kokarev, a professor of film sociology at the Russian State Film Institute. Igor, who once worked for the USSRs US-Canada Institute, had studied Soviet propaganda for years. He immediately put them into context and philosophically and politically.

Borsten began by dividing the films into four categories: The American Imperialists, The Fascist Barbarians, The Capitalist Sharks, and The Shining Soviet Future. For each category, she created a 26-minute overview, which combines film clips with narration and interviews. Throughout the overviews Kokarev explains the Soviet political system, while Fyodor Khitruk one of Soyuzmultfilms leading film directors explains the films within context of Soviet animation.

Others commentators include: Vladimir Tarasov, who directed two of the films and worked as an artist on a third; caricaturist Boris Yefimov, who worked on three of the films as an artist and writer; Vladimir Paperny, a former Soviet writer, designer and cultural historian; Sofia Marshak whose great grandfather Samuel Marshak wrote MISTER TWISTER, the poem about an American racist which Soyuzmultfilm animated in 1963.

It took Borsten, a former journalist, several years to complete the historical and political research.

A minority party with approximately 200,000 members, in 1917 the Bolsheviks assumed the leadership of 160 million people, she said. Scattered across the worlds largest continuous land mass, they spoke more than 100 languages and were for the most part illiterate. Masters of visual propaganda, after seizing power the Bolsheviks produced tens of thousands of political posters. Striking pictures and stirring slogans communicated party ideology. Lenin considered cinema the most important art for promoting the Bolshevik party line. Animation in particular was a quick and easy way to explain to the general public who their new leaders considered good and bad. The stereotypes of capitalists and imperialists, developed by animation collectives in the mid 20s, were still being used in the 70s and 80s.

Subtitling 38 films, as well as the lyrics of the stirring patriotic songs which underscored many of the films, was a monumental task, Borsten noted, requiring the help of professional translators who were specifically familiar with Bolshevik Party slogans and Soviet-speak.

Additionally, the films made in the 20s were silents; new musical tracks had to be created.

Many of the film materials, ferreted out of dusty corners of the former Soviet film archives, were very old and neglected. The colors were faded and the sound warped. Some sound tracks had been lost entirely.

We restored them as best we could, keeping in mind that they are, after all, propaganda, said Borsten. Some of these films are just amazing.The earliest films are very strident politically. The later films are artistically beautiful and often based on the Soviet version of history which was dispelled after perestroika.:

The USSR was not the only country to animate propaganda. During World War II, Warner Bros. and Disney turned out dozen of animated films, for use in the U.S. and Canada, which used Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Mickey Mouse to deliver propagandistic and educational ideas in a seemingly innocuous manner. But the U.S. effort was short lived; it ended with D-Day. The USSR animated propaganda for 60 years.

The series is formatted for TV broadcast in two one-hour episodes. The DVD format is 8 hours. Each overview is followed by bonus material in the form of entire movies.

Films by Jove acquired worldwide distribution rights to much of the Soyuzmultfilm Studio library in 1992, and since then has digitally restored approximately 50 hours of film. The series include: FAIRY TALES FROM FAR OFF LANDS: THE ANIMATED CLASSIC SHOWCASE; MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOVS STORIES FROM MY CHILDHOOD, THE JUNGLE BOOK, MASTERS OF RUSSIAN ANIMATION, THE ADVENTURES OF CHEBURASHKA & FRIENDS, the MYTHOLOGY OF GREECE and ANIMATED SOVIET PROPAGANDA.

In 1999 the Russian government tried to expropriate the copyrights and Joves investment by creating a new state-owned studio. After three U.S. Federal Court rulings in favor of Films by Jove, during MIPCOM 2005 the state-studio signed a Memorandum of Understanding formally recognizing the terms and conditions Joves long term contract.

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Rick DeMott
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