The Soviet View: A Major Archive Comes Online
Through a communist lens, the 20th Century looked quite different than it did through the eyes of the West. The British Film Institute is collaborating with an imprint of SAGE Publishing to issue a three-part set of rare film footage, Socialism on Film: The Cold War and International Propaganda.
The Socialist world did not see the great events of the second half of the 20th century quite the way the West did. Or, at least, it didn’t depict them the same way.
The footage in Socialism on Film: The Cold War and International Propaganda is designed to provide a sense of the Socialist view of life both at home, and abroad.
The BFI National Archive, and Adam Matthew, an imprint of SAGE Publishing, which issues digital primary source collections for the humanities and social sciences, to publish the series, have selected documentary films, features, and newsreels captured by film makers from the former USSR, Vietnam, Cuba, China, the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany), and Eastern Europe. Much of it has previously been unavailable in the West, some because it was banned from general release in Britain.
The films have been digitized from original 16mm and 35mm film reels in the BFI archives’ extensive ETV-Plato Films collection compiled by British communist Stanley Forman in the years after the Second World War. He had extensive contacts within the socialist world and almost all the films he collected were produced in the communist world and then issued in English-language versions in the West. Films from the collection were shown in private screenings by political groups and the like, but in many cases have had no broader public distribution.
Forman donated his collection to the British Film Institute upon his retirement in 2002, not long before he died.
BFI and Adam Matthew are issuing the films in three “modules,” through an online server, with accompanying full, searchable transcripts. Predictably, the material provides plenty of fodder for teachers of courses on propaganda in the twentieth century during political and social events that shaped life in the modern communist and non-communist worlds. Footage expresses, for example, Soviet fears on President Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ defence initiative. One selection shows interviews with imprisoned American pilots shot down and captured over Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Another shows Vanessa Redgrave’s emotional response to nuclear testing.
Other collection highlights include Lenin is Always with Us and other documentary films about the Communist leader; the documentary Feat of Moscow and fiction film On the Way to Berlin along with other depictions of the Russian experience of World War II; Ghetto Terezin, a Czech film about German war crimes; films about the Spanish Civil War such as Spanish Earth, narrated by Ernest Hemingway, and Save Spanish Children, about the plight of refugees from the war; Island Ablaze, a communist view of the Cuban Revolution, and Daughters of China, a drama about China’s fight against Japan.
The ETV-Plato Films collection at the BFI is extensive. Stanley Forman put it together in the years after the Second World War. Forman (1921-2013), a Londoner who was a major figure in British left-wing cinema, was a film maker, collector, and distributor, and longtime trade unionist and communist who traveled extensively in the Eastern bloc, principally in Russia, China, and East Germany.
After serving with British forces at the end of World War II, Forman ran a de-Nazification field office in the German city, Kiel, but the War Office dismissed him when it learned of his political commitments. Back in the UK, he distributed films from socialist countries for several decades to film societies, left-wing bodies, and language schools while working on behalf of various unionist and communist causes. A 2003 obituary in The Independent noted that “he spent weeks of his life in Russia and East Germany attending political gatherings and watching turgidly predictable documentaries, waiting for the occasional jewel to show up.”
He sold footage to British television series to keep his own film and film-distribution company going, so much so that it was able to “last longer than the socialist countries who had made the films,” the obituary observed.
Daniel Forman, wrote in an obituary in The Guardian that despite seeing the Soviet system’s flaws, his grandfather “remained committed to communism, although firmly on the side of liberalization.” His “proudest achievements,” his grandson wrote, “were probably the films he produced, particularly the Bafta-nominated Compañero,” his 1974 film about the celebrated Chilean folk singer Victor Jara, who was murdered by the Pinochet regime.
The three modules of Socialism on Film: The Cold War and International Propaganda are Wars & Revolutions (available now; trailer here), Newsreels & Magazines (to be issued in 2018), and Culture & Society (out in 2019). The films are fully transcribed and available to stream through an online video player. The material is available at a one-time purchase price based on such factors as size of institutions’ student enrollments, previous purchase history, and kind and size of institution (information at firstname.lastname@example.org; temporary access is available)