Oleksandr Makhanets: “Amateur films enhance our view of the past”

29 March 2021

“Film Troubadours: Scotland and Ukraine” is an interactive retrospective program of amateur and vernacular films. Anna Onufriienko has discussed the amateur filmmaking movement, the ideas by Jonas Mekas, the colonial view, Soviet imperatives, and the issues of film tape preservation with Oleksandr Makhanets, curator of the Ukrainian part of the selection and head of the Urban Media Archive at the Centre for Urban History (Lviv).

Please tell me what “vernacular cinema” is? As far as I know, this notion comes from linguistics and dialect research and is often used with regard to architecture, non-academic music, and photography. Since this term has a particular meaning in every sphere, how is it used in the context of cinema?

The term “vernacular” helps distinguish between professional and non-professional art, or artworks without an identified author. This is a broad term, and its meaning depends on the researcher’s perspective. One might say that “vernacular cinema” is a more specific term than “amateur cinema”, as it refers to non-narrative, homemade videos that are shot without the aim of creating a completed film. This visual material is often created spontaneously; as a rule, it has several authors or no author at all, and the camera is being passed from one person to another. There was a period when independent avant-garde films were also defined as amateur.

In this program, we wanted to feature the widest range of vernacular, or amateur films – from the simplest footage to sophisticated and thoroughly edited independent films.

The Scottish part of the retrospective has given me an impression that vernacular cinema is a broader concept than amateur cinema. Almost all of them are completed, semi-professional films created by some mini-crews or amateur studios. In some studies, this concept is used even more widely – for instance, when we discuss vernacular cinema as non-Hollywood, auteur films.

Indeed, the terms “amateur” and “vernacular” are very close; they are used differently, but the easiest way to explain them is through non-professional cinema. There are many types of vernacular films, depending on the production methods, goals, and formats of shooting.

There is a difference between individual and group amateurs. Films made individually, without the desire to screen them for a broader audience, were typically shot in an informal environment, with friends and like-minded people. But there were also amateur movements, amateur film festivals, various competitions, and amateur film clubs at enterprises and trade unions.

Since the 1960s, amateur cinema has been a part of leisure activities in the Soviet Union. If the enterprise had an amateur film studio or club, it could order him to cover a certain topic from the life of the plant. These films were being censored, especially if they were to be submitted to a competition or broadcasted on television. Our program includes both individual and group amateur films.

The title of the retrospective, Film Troubadours, is derived from avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas. For him, film troubadours are communities brought together by their passion. What is his connection to amateur cinema?

Jonas Mekas' method can also be referred to as amateur cinema: he used this format of shooting and similar aesthetics. Mekas speaks of amateur cinema as a type of visual folk poetry and folklore. For Mekas, visual poetry, dynamics, movement, and spontaneity of shooting are important in films. He proclaims the idea of the importance and poetic nature of these materials, supporting the amateur filmmakers movement. The aesthetics and visual element of his films go in line with amateur cinema.

Characterizing such films, Mekas preferred the term “underground cinema” as opposed to “industrial cinema”. He hoped that one day, filmmaking would become more accessible. In one of his interviews he predicted, “We will take cinema away from the industry and give it to the domiciles”. Mekas believed this would result in new quality, as filmmaking will become accessible to more people. In your view, have greater accessibility and quantity of films influenced their quality?

In his context, there is a strong tension and opposition between Hollywood filmmaking, with its powerful film industry, and amateur cinema. This view is to some extent cinematic. As for me, I consider evaluation of the films’ quality a faulty approach in this situation.

I view amateur films as a historical phenomenon, which should not be assessed within the framework of ordinary cinema. This is something completely different, both in terms of production, shooting method, and idea, and in terms of viewers’ experience. They provide a completely different visual experience. Our experience of film viewing is well-established, so it can be difficult for us to watch amateur movies. They often lack narrative; they have varying dynamics; in fact, they haven’t been created according to the structural principles of the films we know.

It is interesting to follow the interaction of amateur and professional films, when amateur directors begin to borrow such filmmaking techniques as editing and captions, or come up with a specific structure of the film that would guide the viewer. They understand that their film should grab the audience's attention, so they thrive to make the narrative more structured. Our program is designed in a way that allows the viewer imagine an amateur filmmaker who starts with simple shooting and intertwines it with more and more elements of professional cinema, creating a completed film that has a beginning, an end, and a narrative structure. This shows the interaction between different types of cinema and the development of amateur filmmaking.

I love the type of amateur films where the authors enact specific genres (thrillers, horrors etc.), cosplaying their characters.

Indeed, there are many such films; however, in this program, we wanted to showcase non-fiction works, because Docudays UA is a documentary film festival. It is not entirely correct to define these films as documentaries, although the author himself calls one of the films in the program “a documentary”. This is the 1977 film Son, which consists of childhood videos of the author's son, family holidays, and other family chronicles.

Adventure movies, crime genres, and detective stories are really very popular among amateurs. This is probably due to their dynamics and success with the audience. The protagonists of these films are often criminals or spies. Our collection comprises several such films. They are always very dynamic and funny, because their creation was a part of leisure, a form of entertainment.

You’ve dedicated a lot of effort to make this retrospective more interactive, and you’ve collected extremely interesting audial commentaries from the authors. Please tell more about this aspect of work on the retrospective.

Amateur films were usually silent, because the format of 8 and 16-mm film tapes did not involve recording an audio track. Sometimes, the authors recorded soundtracks separately or selected music from another medium - a reel, a cassette, or a vinyl record that was supposed to play during the screening. Thus, we’ve asked the authors to comment on the events on the screen and recorded interviews with them. This format was inspired by the Home Movies Days that take place at the Centre for Urban History for five years in a row. During these screenings, the filmmakers or members of their families are commenting on their films in real time. Especially for this program, we’ve recorded live comments from the authors and characters of the films. These films often trigger memories that people start sharing. Some of these comments come from people who’ve watched a film for the first time in many years, or even for the first time in their lives. For example, Yuriy Kondratenko's film was commented on by his wife, who’s watched the film for the first time in several decades. Sometimes, people who bring us film tapes don’t even realize what they contain. Some of the films had an original soundtrack, which was digitized from other media, usually the cassettes. For example, Viktor Kyzyma’s film has an original audio recording of the main character’s story, which was edited together with the music. Orest Bachmaga's film My Weekend also includes his recordings of the sounds of nature, which he’d edited himself and would turn on synchronously with the projections of his films.

In addition to the audio commentary, we have created interactive comments. By pressing the button on the screen, you’ll be able to read information about a scene from the film, its historical context, technical and other aspects. 

Are you planning on recording such commentaries for the rest of the films in your archive?

I am regularly interviewing the authors who share their films with us. Their comments are not always synced with the screening – this is just one of the methods. It is very important to interview and question these people, because they are the only sources of knowledge and memory about these media and footage. They help to identify important details and tell about their own filming practices that are often associated with numerous interesting stories from their private lives. Thus, in parallel, we are collecting an archive of oral history recollections to be able to describe these materials, understand their context, and use them in further research.

These comments and the films themselves are perceived very emotionally. In general, vernacular cinema is associated with affections and intensity of sensations. Amateur filmmakers often lack a specific purpose for making a movie; instead, they take their cameras when something shocks them, even though they might not understand what exactly has impressed them. What “grabs” you in these films and why are you working with this theme, collecting the archive?

My personal emotional attachment lies in the reactions and vivid emotions of people watching their digitized films, as well as the unpredictability of the materials we receive. The other side of my interest is more practical: we archive and store these materials for the Urban Media Archive, because they are unique. Amateur film formats - 8 and 16 millimeters - did not provide for mass copying, so they exist in only one copy. Analogue filming technology is very outdated today, and there is almost no possibility of reproducing these film tapes. They are often stored in extreme conditions, which endangers their further archiving.

The historical significance of amateur cinema is primarily that it expands our view of the past. The Urban Media Archive does not conserve the film tapes, but returns them to their owners. More than once, people brought us records, we digitized them, after which they said, “Now we will throw them away, because we already have a digital copy.” Therefore, we are forced to keep these tapes, although we can only store them temporarily: we are a digital archive.

The historical significance of amateur cinema is primarily that it expands our view of the past.

In many films of the Ukrainian section of the program, there are visible “traces of time” that reflect the impact of improper storage conditions on the film. They look like very interesting visual effects that are envied by many modern experimental directors who try to achieve a similar result by various manipulations with the image or the film tape. While being extremely impressive, such effects indicate problems with the preservation of these films.

That’s right, although in fact film tape can be preserved for a very long time. There is a popular belief that digital format allows for unlimited storage, but film tapes can last much longer. Viktor Kyzyma’s The Tree is an example of how film tape can be destroyed due to natural environment or certain chemical reactions. When we’ve found this film, it was already badly damaged with lime. When we submitted it for digitization, our contractor refused to work with it, saying that the image has been destoryed for good. We’ve managed to convince him. My colleague Bohdan Shumylovych and I were greatly inspired by Bill Morrison's film Decasia: The State of Decay (2002), in which the director experimented with nitrate film tapes that also lose their properties very quickly. We expected to see similar visual effects, which eventually happened. For us, it became a metaphor of the functioning of memory and the impact of time on archives. The protagonist of this film tells about his connection with the tree and about the way nature imposes the shape of the future handiwork on him. Nature becomes an agent in this creative process, influencing the preservation.

It became a metaphor of the functioning of memory and the impact of time on archives. 

Other films evience that these visual effects and damage may occur due to unprofessional processing of film tapes. They are often related to poor wash, development, and quality of film tape, which was very common in the Soviet Union. While in Western countries, companies like Kodak offered professional services and developed the films in their laboratories, in the USSR, people would process their films by themselves. This is a rather complicated process, especially in the case of color films.

In amateur films, we often see double exposure: this means that the same film was mistakenly used several times. These damages are very characteristic of amateur films, but there are also examples of high-quality shooting and prolonged, meticulous work with the film. In particular, I mean Lilia Volkova's film Profession: Restorer and Orest Bachmaga's My Weekend that are technically perfect, sophisticated, given the quality of film tape and equipment of the time. Orest Bachmaga is an absolutely unique author, who would personally manufacture cameras and all the details for them; he’s created two film projectors on his own. His films are some of our most interesting discoveries of the past year, so I am very glad that more people will be able to see them.

The value of amateur films is often attributed to the fact that they offer a different, non-colonial view, telling the story from the standpoint of individual local communities rather than the metropolis. They dedicate screen time to phenomena that are invisible to the official cinema. How did such tendencies reflect in Ukrainian amateur cinema?

The history of amateur cinema can be divided into two periods. In the first half of the 20th century, filming equipment was available to fairly affluent people from the upper middle class, who could afford technology and travel. Sofia Yablonska was one of these people. They often made films while traveling to various exotic countries or colonies. Sometimes, employees of various companies would come to these countries to film the local population for some practical purpose. Such films reflect a colonial view. But already in the second half of the 20th century, when amateur cinema became more widespread, there appeared a noticeable trend towards democratization. Even though not everything could be shot due to the conventional and ethical frameworks of the time, now these films are a very valuable historical source. In the American context, however, amateur cinema was more widespread and associated with emancipatory movements; presently, those films are often being researched within the context of struggle for human rights.

Since we’ve mentioned Sofia Yablonska, what is your view on the role of women in amateur cinema? Annamaria Motrescu-Mayes, curator of the Scottish section of the retrospective, has done a lot of research on female optics in amateur cinema and on the role of women as authors, producers, tutors, and organizers of film production process. How many films created by women do you encounter in Ukraine? Did local women organize film circles or festivals?  

Women are definitely less represented in amateur cinema. The amateur environment was mostly male, although this does not mean filmmaking activities were inaccessible to women. In their interviews, female authors of amateur films mention they did not encounter any special attitude towards them during filmmaking process. This was most likely due to lack of free time, since amateur filmmaking was a leisure activity. For instance, many people immersed themselves into filmmaking after the birth of their children, realizing their parental role. Men, who were less involved in day-to-day childcare, fulfilled their role as fathers by documenting their children as they were growing up.

Our program features one film by a female author: Profession: Restorer by Lilia Volkova. Overall, only two films in our collection of seventy movies were made by women. Lilia Volkova worked at an art gallery in Lviv and created a film about her colleague – the restorer who’d been restoring a newly discovered icon from the 15th century for a long time.

The collection by another female author in our archive is mostly related to travels. These films were shot by a film amateur who has purchased a camera in her student years, yet she had no projector or other means of film tape processing. 

Perhaps less active participation of women in film amateur movement is also related to stereotypical view on technology as “men’s business”. One of the female organizers in this sphere I can recall is Iryna Zhoresivna Faustova, who, after the death of her husband, the founder of the amateur KhPI Film Studio, became its leader and filmmaker. How often do you get films created at such amateur studios that were organized at enterprises or educational establishments? What are these films like?

As we collect films via the Home Movies Days, our collection mostly represents individual film amateurs. The authors of these films often did not belong to any film circles and did not screen their films at festivals or other public events. One of the examples of group amateur creativity is The Tree: it was created at the “Symbol” Film Studio in Ulyanivka town at the sugar processing plant, which was quite a wealthy enterprise, capable of investing into this type of leisure for its workers. Recently, we’ve digitized some materials from the film studio at the Azovmash Plant in Mariupol. These materials surprised us, as they were shot with absolutely professional equipment on 35-mm film tape. TV studios and independent film amateurs could only dream of such equipment and infrastructure. 

The network of film amateurs was being organized at enterprises, cultural centers, or via trade unions. In the Soviet Union, this movement became widespread after 1957, when a government directive was issued to encourage the development of appropriate infrastructure and production of film equipment and tapes. Prior to that, there were only individual film amateurs.

What happens to the films after they’ve been archived? Who refers to them?

Besides providing access to our archive materials to researchers, we’ve decided to publicize them as well. We’ve initiated the unarchiving project, which includes public screenings and other informal ways of using these materials – for instance, at exhibitions or through cooperation with artists and filmmakers, who create their own pieces on the basis of archival visual materials or help revitalizing them. 

Film The Tree, which I’ve already mentioned, received a new author’s interpretation from filmmaker Oleh Chornyi, who has created a new soundtrack and a new cut of this film. Instead of significantly changing its content, they’ve found new forms for this work. For the last year and a half, this film has been traveling to festivals all over the world; last autumn, it unexpectedly received the Honorary Award at the Focal International Competition in London. This is a competition for films that use archive materials. Several years ago, one of the films of the retrospective, Son, was voiced by Yuriy Duda, whom we see on the screen as a child. The film’s author, Volodymyr Duda, was a musician who’d filmed his son, and this son has also become a musician who played in “Plach Yeremii” band. The viewers of Docudays UA program will hear this soundtrack.

We've recently digitized and ordered new soundtracks for Orest Bachmaga’s films, similarly to what the Dovzhenko Centre does with the films from the 1920s. We’ve screened the films by this author with new sound. This type of events helps revitalize the material and raise the historical themes related to it, as well as show people that their personal stories, memories, and archives can turn into important historical sources that deserve sharing and rethinking.

How many materials have you collected so far?

We’ve been actively working on this project for five years, and each year accounts for about 1500 minutes of processed material. Our archive comprises 70 collections, and they are all very different: sometimes the entire collection consists of a footage from one’s wedding, and sometimes it may contain 90 film tapes. 

Geographically, our collection has expanded far beyond Lviv and its surroundings. This year, we are actively collecting videos and photos in Donetsk region as part of a project researching industrial heritage of this region. We already have several collections from that area, for instance, from Kramatorsk and Mariupol. We plan to publish some of the materials online before this year’s exhibition on amateur cinema, which we are currently preparing.

Stills from The Tree, My Weekend, Profession: Restorer.

25 – 
April 2022