International Scholarly Symposium “The Emergence of Cinema at the Imperial Borderlands of Central-Eastern Europe”

International Scholarly Symposium1
The Emergence of Cinema at the Imperial Borderlands of Central-Eastern Europe
July 5, Sinemateka (Ground floor, Goštauto str. 2, Vilnius, Lithuania) Or Online

This is a hybrid event.

The record of the symposium.

In this one-day symposium, we turned to the history of early and silent cinema of the Central-Eastern Europe. In the recent context of active discussions on the decolonisation of Eastern European culture and history, we will be paying greatest attention to the countries whose cinema history has been sparsely debated in the international historiography. We will consider the characteristics of the cinema of this region, the emergence and development of which depended on the empires, i.e., Russia, Habsburg. While trying to liberate ourselves from the unified concept of the Central-Eastern Europe, we will delve into the unique and highly diverse cinema history of Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and the Czech Republic. Judith Thissen (Utrecht university, the Netherlands), Oleksandr Teliuk, Anna Onufriienko (Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre, Ukraine), Łukasz Biskupski (University of Łódź, Poland), Lina Kaminskaitė-Jančorienė (Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre), Martin Kos (Masaryk University, the Czech Republic), Inga Pērkone (Latvian Academy of Culture) will give their presentations on the topic.

The symposium has been organised by the media education and research centre Meno Avilys, the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre. The event will also be accompanied by free of charge live music and Ukrainian silent cinema events held under the Liubartas Bridge (Vilnius, Lithuania).

Symposium programme

10:00–10:10 Greetings
Lina Kaminskaitė-Jančorienė, Juozapas Paškauskas (organisers)

10:10–12:00 Early Cinema and Transnational Contexts

Keynote speech
Eastern European Jews, Movies and Transnational Cultural Migration
Judith Thissen (Utrecht University, Netherlands)

Regional/Economic Approach to Early Cinema as a Solution to Perplexities of Postimperial Historiography in Central-Eastern Europe
Łukasz Biskupski (University of Łódź, Poland)

The Beginning of Early Cinema in Lithuania from Socio-Technical and Transnational Perspectives
Lina Kaminskaitė-Jančorienė (Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre)

Discussion (moderator Juozapas Paškauskas)

Break 12:00–12:30

12:30 – 14:30 Silent Film Production

Workshop of Pioneers: a Collaborative Authorship and Professionalism in the Czech Silent Cinema of 1917–1922
Martin Kos (Masaryk University, Brno, the Czech Republic)

Film Production in Latvia: Silent Era
Inga Pērkone (Latvian Academy of Culture)

The Phenomenon of VUFKU between Bolsheviks’ Nationalization and Ukrainian Cultural Autonomy of the 1920s
Oleksandr Teliuk (Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Center, Ukraine)

Ukrainian Documentaries in the 1920s: Between Avant-Guard and Propaganda
Anna Onufriienko (Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre, Ukraine)

Discussion (moderator Narius Kairys)

21:30 Opening of film screenings “Ukrainian Avant-Garde Cinema”
Under the Liubartas Bridge, Deep Rivers Run Silent
Unprecedented Campaign / Nebuvalyi Pokhid (dir. Mіkhail Kaufman, 1931, USSR, Kyiv Film Studio Ukrainfilm, 71 min.)

The film will be accompanied by live music composed by the Ukrainian composer Anton Baibakov. Film will be presented by film researcher Anna Onufriienko and composer Baibakov.

Symposium programme: Lina Kaminskaitė-Jančorienė
Film programme: Anna Burdina, Lina Kaminskaitė-Jančorienė, Žygimantas Jančoras
Organisers: Media education and research centre “Meno avilys“, Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theater
Partners: Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre, Research Council of Lithuania, Lithuanian Council for Culture


Eastern European Jews, Movies and Transnational Cultural Migration
Judith Thissen (Utrecht University)

In the Lithuanian town of Eišiškės (Eishyshok in Yiddish), some of the first reports about the new phenomenon of moving pictures came from Jewish inhabitants who returned from the United States to their shtetl. Stories about the “wonders of America” circulated widely in Eastern Europe and often functioned as an incentive to emigrate. Early movies featuring New York City – the main destination of these immigrants – may also have encouraged some people to purchase a ship ticket. Altogether over two million Eastern European Jews (about a third of the total Jewish population) migrated to the United States between 1880 and 1924. This mass migration not only dramatically changed the global geography of Judaism but also turned New York into one of the most dynamic Jewish centres in the world. The city became a place where new cultural practices emerged, many of which were replicated by other Jewish communities in the United States and also exported back to Eastern Europe. However, not everyone was excited about what they found on the other shore. One immigrant who returned to Eišiškės in the early 1900s even blamed the movies for his failure to adjust to the New World, “How can one trust a country where people walk on the walls?” [Eliach 1998:542].

Adapting to the New World’s abundance of mass-produced commodities and such cheap forms of entertainment as moving pictures and vaudeville shows played an important role in the acculturation of Jewish newcomers to the United States. At the same time, these cheap amusement venues could also be turned into a platform for ethnic group formation based on a shared history, language and culture rooted in Eastern Europe. The impact of immigrant entertainment should not be underestimated. While it was not until 1931 that Eišiškės got a permanent movie house – tellingly named Swiat (The World), the Jewish immigrant neighbourhoods in New York had already had dozens of nickelodeons since as early as 1908. What imaginary world did these five-cent picture houses and their successors in the late silent era offer to Jewish immigrants? How were their experiences of cinemagoing in New York shaped by the Old-World patterns of sociability and traditional notions of Jewishness? How did this vibrant early American-Jewish film culture pave the way for the success of the Jewish moguls and Hollywood’s understanding of a mass audience for the movies? Last but not least, what traces can we find of transnational cinematographic exchange between the United States and the regions where these Jewish immigrants came from? By addressing these questions, I want to break away from the monolithic view of American cinema as a unilateral homogenizing force and to generate new ways of thinking about the patterns of inclusion and exclusion in cinema history.

Judith Thissen is an associate professor of film history at Utrecht University, the Department of Media and Culture, the Netherlands. She is a specialist of Jewish immigrant leisure culture in New York City in the early twentieth century. Her research has been published in leading international journals including Film History, CiNéMAS, Théorème, and Theatre Survey as well as in many anthologies. Over the past few years, the focus of Thissen’s research has partly shifted to the questions regarding the relationship between cinemagoing and rural modernization. Together with Clemens Zimmermann she edited Cinema Beyond the City: Small-town and Rural Film Culture in Europe (British Film Institute 2016).

Regional/Economic Approach to Early Cinema as a Solution to Perplexities of Postimperial Historiography in Central Eastern Europe
Łukasz Biskupski (University of Łódź, Poland)

Taking advantage of the focus of this symposium I would like to focus on an issue that, in my view, is not easy to address in the mainstream global academic network. What kind of conceptual historiographic framework should be applied to the regions – in this case Central- Eastern Europe – with a turbulent political history that has rendered the perspective of a nation-state inadequate? To be more specific, how can we talk about the history of early cinema in our region, when none of our countries existed at the time? In recent decades, general historiography has approached this issue in various productive ways. However, as regards early cinema history, there is still a lot to be clarified.

The case of Eastern Europe demonstrates the limitations of historiographic narratives that are – often in a non-reflexive manner – tied to the paradigm of national cinema. The category of early national cinema, which is unproblematic in the case of “central” or “core” countries with relatively stable borders and unified communities, has turned out to be a cognitive obstruction in researching early cinema in Central – Eastern Europe. In my area of professional interest, I have doubts whether it is legitimate to frame the problem as “early cinema in Poland.” Since Poland did not exist in the period that we refer to as “early cinema,” what “object” are we discussing? Poland in the 18th century before imperial colonization? Or the independent Republic of Poland after 1918? No matter which perspective we take, what about, for example, Vilnius/Wilno or Lwiw/Lwów? Which historical narrative do these cities belong to: Polish or Lithuanian, Polish or Ukrainian? Moreover, if early cinema can be considered predominantly a generic commercial product of film industry, can we even talk about national early film culture in Poland?

In my view, these questions expose aporias of post imperial historiography and demonstrate a need for a different perspective. My solution would be that we should leave the national perspective and take a regional and economic approach instead. If we start tracing networks of distribution and juxtapose them with specific local contexts, we will be able to develop a much more productive model. In my presentation, I will focus on the Russian part of the region with a contested identity to demonstrate how I attempt to evade the limitations of national cinema discourse. In doing so I hope that I will be able to contribute to the discussion about comparative regional perspective on early cinema in Central Eastern Europe which, I believe, has not yet been established.

Łukasz Biskupski, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Cultural Research at the University of Łódź. He specialises in cultural and economic history of Poland, specifically in early local cinema and economic history of Polish cinema in the 1920s and 1930s.

Workshop of Pioneers: Collaborative Authorship and Professionalism in the Czech Silent Cinema of 1917-1922
Martin Kos (Masaryk University, Brno, the Czech Republic)

The paper focuses on the models of filmmaking practice in the Czech silent cinema in relation to the socio-political transformation as well as industrial transition from shooting one-reelers to the production of feature-length pictures in 1917-1922. Under these circumstances, a new generation of the local film “pioneers,” who represented a vital creative force, emerged in Czechoslovakia. Despite a valuable insight into the careers of such important representatives as Gustav Machatý or Karel Lamač, scholars tend to neglect the collective dimension of their practice in favour of their individual style. Drawing on the concept of the Renaissance bottega, this paper seeks to show that creativity was regularly shared and negotiated by multiple agents who made their films together in a “workshop” environment, while learning cinematic techniques and establishing standards of professionalism. Therefore, filmmakers usually cooperated without clear division of labour and with overlapping competences and responsibilities. Thus, such pictures prove to be the result of highly collaborative decision-making processes and mediated group styles.

Based on the records of personal testimony and other archival evidence, the paper covers the general models of such practice in the Czech filmmaking community. Special attention is paid to the case of the production company Weteb that functioned, to a great extent, in a workshop-like fashion under the supervision of its owner and “master” who guaranteed final products with his directorial signature. In doing so, the paper reorientates our attention from the role of individual geniuses to wider and more complex problems of hierarchy of power, authorship and authority in peripheral cinema of a small nation during a quintessentially formative period.

Martin Kos is a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Film Studies and Audio-Visual Culture at the Masaryk University in Brno, the Czech Republic. His main research interests concern silent era in the Czech cinema, analysis of narrative techniques and film authorship. Currently, he is focusing on the development and screenwriting process of the Czech silent epic drama St. Wenceslas from 1926 to 1929 for his Ph.D. thesis. In 2015, he contributed to the collection of essays on Jiří Trnka’s Old Czech Legends; three years later he cooperated with the National Film Archive in Prague on the special DVD edition of Jan Stanislav Kolár’s films. He frequently publishes his research results in the Czech peer-reviewed film studies journal Iluminace, his articles on the Czech screenwriting practice in the silent era were also published in special issues of Journal of Screenwriting and Studies in Eastern European Cinema.

Film Production in Latvia: Silent Era
Inga Pērkone (Latvian Academy of Culture)

Just as elsewhere in the Western world, cinema emerged in the territory of Latvia at the end of the 19th century. After the founding of the Republic of Latvia (1918) – in the 1920s and 1930s – Riga was the film distribution centre of the Baltic countries. Audiences were offered the same films as the ones demonstrated elsewhere in the world and the tendencies of film reception were rather similar. Unsurprisingly, just as elsewhere in Europe, the repertoire of Latvian cinemas was dominated by German and American films.

Latvian national cinema developed along with the emergence of the national state. The premiere of the first Latvian feature film Es karā aiziedams (When I went Away to War) took place on November 9, 1920. The content of Latvian silent films was dominated by historically patriotic and national themes. The visual aspect of Latvian films was largely influenced by Latvian realistic fine arts of the 19th century as well as the aesthetic principles of Latvian photography. The beauty of the homeland became one of the main aesthetical and ethical subject matters of cinema. However, such films as Lāčplēsis (1930) from the late silent period shows that Latvian filmmakers creatively employed the characteristic stylistic tendencies of European cinema of their time. During the democratic period (1920-1934) of the Republic of Latvia, film industry was largely considered to be profitable business run by private individuals; the state gave indirect support to documentary films through legislation which obliged all film screenings to include a newsreel of local events as well as through taxe incentives offered to films of a cultural or educational value.

In my paper, I’d like to focus more on the Latvian fiction films of the silent cinema period, i.e., production contexts, genres, themes, and stylistic trends as well as personalities. It seems that the arrival film of professionals with considerable experience (e.g., Pyotr Chardynin (Пётр Чардынин), Aleksandrs Rusteiķis etc.) in Riga in the early 1920s may have served as an impulse for a relatively active development of film production in Latvia.

Inga Pērkone, PhD, is a professor and a principal researcher at the Latvian Academy of Culture. She is the author of the books Ekrāna skatuve. Par aktiermākslu Latvijas kino (Stage of the Screen: On Acting in Latvian Cinema, 2020), Latvijas pirmās filmas (First Latvian Films, 2016), Tu, lielā vakara saule! Esejas par modernismu Latvijas filmās (Essays on Modernism in Latvian Films, 2013), Es varu tikai mīlēt… Sievietes tēls Latvijas filmās (The Image of Woman in Latvian Films, 2008), Kino Latvijā: 1920- 1940 (Cinema in Latvia: 1920-1940, 2008) as well as a co-author and co-editor-in-chief of the books Latvijas kinomāksla. Jaunie laiki. 1990 – 2020 (Latvian Cinema: Recent History, 1990 – 2020, 2021), Inscenējumu realitāte: Latvijas aktierkino vēsture (History of the Latvian Fiction Films, 2011).

The Phenomenon of VUFKU between Bolsheviks’ Nationalization and Ukrainian Cultural Autonomy of the 1920s
Oleksandr Teliuk (Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre, Ukraine)

In my presentation, I would like to briefly describe the history of VUFKU in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic as well as its tremendous role in Ukrainian cultural life during the short national Renaissance of the 1920s. I’m going to go through the main stages of VUFKU’s founding and development: from the start of the All-Ukrainian Film Committee (1919-1922), through first years of the All-Ukrainian Photo and Cinema Administration (VUFKU, 1922-1926), to its powerful development (1926-1930) and final deprivation of autonomy.

Of all the political forces that propelled revolutionary competition in Ukraine in 1917-1922, the Bolsheviks went one step further than others in their attempt to organise their own film-making. Thus, it was only logical that they tried to organise a central body governing filmmaking in the Ukrainian SSR. In January 1919, the All-Ukrainian Film Committee – founded on the basis of the Agitation Film Section of the Kyiv Military District Administration of the People’s Commissariat – became the main cinema management agency of Ukraine. The new stage of Ukrainian cinema development began on March 13, 1922, when the All-Ukrainian Photo and Cinema Administration (VUFKU) was formed on the basis of the Committee, as a result of further centralisation and nationalisation of the Ukrainian film industry. However, the main paradox lies in the fact that further combination of the Bolsheviks’ centralisation of the film industry in the republic as well as the national revival and Ukrainization that occurred between 1923 and 1928 became the driving force behind VUFKU’s rapid development.

For VUFKU, this meant the monopoly rights to manage the Ukrainian film industry under the direct authority of the People’s Commissariat of Education of the Ukrainian SSR rather than Muscovite managers. At the same time, this meant sharing the cultural policies of Ukrainization from the People’s Commissariat of Education implemented under the supervision of Oleksandr Shumskyi and Mykola Skrypnyk. Run by the former “soldiers of the revolution” Zakhar Khelmno (the board chairman), Pavlo Neches, and Heorhii Tasin (the directors of the film factories in Odesa and Kyiv, respectively) VUFKU got great power yet remained flexible and faithful in their policy. This brought a sudden boom of VUFKU and made it the second largest cinema organisation in the USSR, which reached unprecedented success in the field of film production in Ukraine.

Oleksandr Teliuk is a film scholar, a director, and the head of the Film Archive Department at the Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre. He is also a co-curator of film programmes and exhibitions at the Film Museum of Dovzhenko Centre (VUFKU: Lost & Found (2019), To Cry! To Call! To Burn! (2020)); a co-editor of the books Cinematographic Revision of Donbas (2017, 2018), Chornobyl (In)Visible (2017), and Ukrainian Film Critic Anthology of the 1920s (2018-2022); a curator of numerous film programs.

Moreover, Teliuk is a co-founder and an editor of Cineticle, an online magazine on auteur cinema (2010-2015), and a co-creator of the art and film union “ruїns collective” (2017-2021). As a director, he took part at various international film festivals and exhibitions, and was a nominee of the PinchukArtCentre Prize 2020, i.e., a national award in contemporary art to young Ukrainian artists.

Ukrainian Documentaries in the 1920s: Between Avant-Guard and Propaganda
Anna Onufriienko (Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre, Ukraine)

The 1920s was one of the most fruitful and interesting periods in Ukrainian cinema, especially for documentary filmmaking. At this time, directors were working on creating a new cinematic language. They wrote manifestos and program texts, formed groups and held public debates in the press blending aesthetic and political arguments together. It was important for many filmmakers to distinguish themselves from the bourgeois cinema of earlier times. Documentary filmmakers resisted both capturing brand-new “proletarian” reality and creating illusions in fiction films of the previous era.

VUFKU, the All-Ukrainian Photo-Cinema Administration, was in charge of all film processes in Ukraine. VUFKU had a Newsreel Department run by the director Leonid Mohylevskyi. It was under his initiative that “timely and urgent” newsreels Kinotyzhden and Kinozhurnal VUFKU that filmed everyday life of the country were launched. In 1928, Mohylevskyi made an experimental montage film Documents of the Era using the discovered footage and archival material from 1917-1922. In 1927, Dzyha Vertov, his wife, and his brother Mykhail Kaufman were invited by VUFKU to work at a Ukrainian film studio after they had been fired from the Russian Sovkino.

Documentary filmmakers made a significant breakthrough in this time. Vertov and his team managed to fulfil a lot of their ideas manifested earlier and to develop further his experimental montage method. At Ukrainian studios, Vertov produced his first film without intertitles The Eleventh Year (1928) about industrialisation and electrification of the east and the south of Ukraine. After that, he made his film manifesto Man with a Movie Camera (1929), and the the following year he managed to shoot the first Ukrainian sound film Enthusiasm. The Symphony of Donbas (1930). His brother Mykhail Kaufman started his own director’s carrier, wrote a manifesto about his filming method, and developed a poetic documentary style. As one critic wrote about his film In Spring (1929), Kaufman’s “snail is as beautiful as Greta Garbo.”

Ukrainian documentary filmmakers not only captured the reality of the time but also introduced a lot of inventions that highly influenced further development of cinema. We’ll try to trace how Ukrainian documentaries developed during the 1920s, to focus on the most interesting productions of that time, and to think about how these filmmakers managed to create their own style and implement their own ideas despite all the ideological pressure and the need to obey propaganda orders.

Anna Onufriienko is a film researcher at the Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre, a co-curator of exhibitions and a co-editor of the books on Ukrainian cinema and art of the 1920s, a co-director of the montage films Atomograd. Assembling Utopia, Intervision-Lviv, and a programme coordinator of retrospective film programmes.

1 Symposium is part of the research project “Early cinema in Lithuania: National, Imperial and Global Connections” (Nr. S-LIP-19-72) funded by Research Council of Lithuania and carried out by Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theater.