Speak, memory

Speak, memory

The director of a groundbreaking documentary about the Siege of Leningrad is in town to present her work.

Published: January 30, 2013 (Issue # 1744)


The late painter Lenina Nikitina translated her memory of eating a pet cat during the siege into her artwork.

As St. Petersburg marked the 69th anniversary of the lifting of the Siege of Leningrad this weekend, Dutch film director Jessica Gorter came to St. Petersburg for several screenings of her award-winning documentary on the subject.

Called “900 Days: The Myth and Reality of the Leningrad Blockade,” the documentary features several survivors of the 1941 to 1944 Siege of Leningrad, giving personal accounts of their lives as children during the siege and sharing their views, which frequently contradict the official propagandist line.

“In ‘900 Days’ I touch on a universal theme: How do personal memories relate to collective commemorations, and the power of propaganda,” Gorter wrote in her director’s statement for the film.

“The film poses the uncomfortable question of whether it is better to know a gruesome truth or to embrace the comfort of a myth. The film does not give unequivocal answers, but tries to address these complex problems individually.”

The St. Petersburg Times spoke with Gorter during a screening of her film at the city’s European University on Saturday.

Q: The subtitle of the film contains a conflict or juxtaposition. What did you mean?

A: I think the subtitle is a little bit simplified, “myth and reality.” I mean wherever there’s history, many myths are created, and also, what exactly is reality? In people’s memory what happened is always different for everyone, but at least what I found about the blockade of Leningrad, there’s an official version, the so-called “heroic version,” but when you really start to talk to blokadniki [the Russian term for Siege of Leningrad survivors], there’s also a lot of other things going on, there’s also many other views on this history that you don’t hear so often. That’s why I decided to put this subtitle there.

Also, to give it a context, because the film is not only about the blockade; it’s also about the way people memorize the blockade.

Q: The film starts with a victory parade being shown on television and then-president Dmitry Medvedev talking in clichés about the heroic victory, and the family of siege survivors switches off the television because they feel that what he is saying is fake.

A: I wouldn’t directly call it “fake” what Medvedev is telling; it’s one side of the history and people who react to it strongly, saying his words are bullshit, they feel the history is different and they don’t just want to have this one side.

Q: It is refreshing to see the Siege of Leningrad survivors speaking frankly, without resorting to standard propaganda clichés. How did you select who to show in the film?

A: I spent a lot of time talking to a lot of different blokadniki, and from the beginning I knew I wanted to make a film where people had different opinions of what happened, so my main search was to find people with different views on the history.

It depends a little bit, but mostly it takes a while before people start to speak openly, you really have to have trust. So even the people who are telling it in a different way than you usually hear it, it was not on the first day I met them that they would speak this way, it would take a lot of time, and I had also to figure out what kind of questions I had to ask in order to reach this. Because actually I asked them questions that nobody had really asked them before, or at least they’re not really often asked.

Q: What kind of questions were they?

A: Like how they felt about the censorship up until perestroika to talk about what really happened during the blockade. Or how they looked upon the Leningrad Case after the blockade. The war was won, the blockade was over, and then Stalin started a case against the local city authorities, heroes who had managed Leningrad through the siege. So these are very painful questions. And I found that not so many people were used to [them]. This is not a subject that is raised very often I think, because it’s painful.

The process of making the film wasn’t always easy, because sometimes I thought, “I am digging in such a painful past!” First of all, we cannot imagine even what the blockade was like, even if you see the film, it’s just incredible what happened. But secondly, because of all these controversies and people having different opinions, it’s also painful to dig into it. At some point I thought, “Should I be doing this?” But then I realized that they’re so old, and this generation will not be here so long. I also thought that the people who don’t have the general view, they also should be heard. They also should have a voice. That’s why I thought, “No, I think I have to do it.”

Q: What did you know about the Siege of Leningrad before coming to St. Petersburg?

A: I have been coming to, actually Leningrad, since 1989, when I was a 19-year-old myself, so I heard about the blockade quite early, because you cannot come here without hearing about it. Almost every family is connected to it. But to tell the truth, in Holland I learned hardly anything about the blockade of Leningrad before I came here. The blockade of Leningrad or the Battle of Stalingrad, it was the same, you know, I mixed them up. And when I was telling people I’m working on a film about the blockade of Leningrad, people went, “Ah, Stalingrad!” In the West, people know very little about it, not much was taught in school. I mean I learned in school that we were freed by the Allies — the French, the Americans, the English. Of course, I was told the Russians also fought very hard, but there’s not much attention put on that in our education, we know very little about what happened in Russia during the war.

Q: Did you see any other documentaries about the Siege of Leningrad before starting to work on “900 Days?”


Dutch filmmaker Jessica Gorter.

A: Yes, I tried to watch everything I could get my hands on, but apart from one German film made in the beginning of the 1990s I could find nothing that had a similar topic. Most of it is about exactly what happened in the 900 days matter-of-factly and with an emphasis on the heroic defeat of the Nazis. But of course in those films you don’t see a lot of blokadniki themselves, really, talking about it, you don’t see them in their daily lives. Also there is, to my mind, a fantastic film made by Sergei Loznitsa, with only archive material, but it’s a completely different film. It shows the city, how it changes from a living city with people walking and shops to this completely frozen dead city.

Q: Perhaps the most memorable person in the film is the artist Lenina Nikitina, whose mother and sister did not survive the siege. She recalls killing a cat named Stripey, which came to ask for food, in order to make soup — a scene that she would make into a haunting painting decades later. How did you meet her?

A: I was driving with a photographer, I was also making another film with him. I told him I was also making a film about the siege, and he told me, “Oh, I remember, 10 years ago there was an exhibition of Leningrad unofficial artists and there was one picture by Lenina that was so strong, and for me it became the image of the blockade. Unfortunately that was 10 years ago and she was really old, she must have passed away.” So we went to her apartment to check and there she was! She opened the door and she was very alive. That’s how I found her. And she was quite something. She died, by the way, on May 9, 2011, on [Russian] Victory Day, it’s quite incredible.

She was 79 when we filmed her, she turned 80 in April 2011. She is quite well-known on the unofficial art scene, she’s a good painter. She did not make a lot of work but what she made was very impressive.

Q: She kept a lot of cats, who would come in and out through the window. How many did she have?

A: Every time I saw her, there was a different number, but I think 10, 15 sometimes. And there were four or five dogs, and she walked the dogs every day, but it was dangerous, because she could run into another stray dog, and it was always welcome in her house. But you can imagine the neighbors did not really like it.

Q: Since the film was made, you have taken it to many places around the world. What kind of reactions have you seen?

A: It was incredible how much interest there was in the film, because when I made it I didn’t think the regular audience in Holland would be interested. But somehow when it came out in Holland, it was in Dutch cinemas. Usually documentaries go off the screen very quickly, but it was [there] for many weeks, it was shown in more than 30 cities in Holland.

People who see the film, first of all they’re surprised and sometimes shocked that they know so little, so they’re interested to learn more about the Siege of Leningrad, and it also makes them think about their own history — not only about the siege, but also about the way memory works, the way we deal with history, so people find it interesting also to discuss their own version of history that they have.

But what was really interesting for me, because right after it premiered at IDFA, a documentary festival in Amsterdam, it was shown at ArtDocFest in Moscow, and I really thought I would get some angry or difficult reactions, but it turned out that the audience was really… It seemed like it was the right time to show it here. Also it was shown at Message to Man [a documentary film festival in St. Petersburg], and the same thing happened here.

In the audience, there are people who really like it and people who find it very difficult, but what I see, especially here in Russia, [is that] the audience starts to talk with each other. So I was there to answer questions, so I could answer some questions, but people were not so much talking to me about it; they started to talk more to each other, which of course for me is great to see.

Q: Has there been any negative reaction?

A: I had several reactions from Russians in the audience in Holland and also here, when people were saying, “This is not true, this can’t be true.” “These people who were giving you the medal, or this Lenina, maybe she’s lying, [because] she wants attention or maybe she’s never been through the blockade, she’s a psychiatric patient…” But then usually, when that happens, other people in the audience get up and say, “Why do you think it’s not true?” and then the whole discussion starts.

Actually it’s not that negative, I would say; people seem to be confused sometimes, when they see it. And I have never encountered that anyone was very angry personally at me, not that I saw. Maybe they are, but they didn’t tell me.

Maybe it has to do with the fact that I don’t think I made a film where I made one opinion. I am not saying, “This is the truth, this is the way you have to look at it.” There are different views, there are different ways of looking at it, and you can judge for yourself how you want to deal with it.

I tried to understand everyone and I have respect for everyone in my film, absolutely equally, whatever they think or feel.

Q: The subject of cannibalism touched upon by some interviewees can produce strong reactions, can’t it? Even if it is supported in the film by the once-secret Soviet statistics of cannibalism cases, citing 26 in December 1941, 366 in January 1942 and 494 in the first half of February 1942.

A: Yes, that’s the other thing that sometimes makes them get up and say, “It wasn’t true.” Of course there was some, but only really crazy people did it. [Such a reaction] is understandable, because it’s really a very difficult and painful subject, but the figures [of people convicted for cannibalism in the film] are from the NKVD archives; they wrote them down themselves.

I read a lot about it, I did a lot of research, and I also talked to historians about it. Cannibalism was not that much. It was absolutely not my aim to focus on it in the film, but of course, when you make a film about the siege and the things people went through, that’s a part of it and it came up. Actually, none of the time did I ask directly about it, it just came up, so I can’t leave it out; it would be strange. And from the research that I did, cannibalism wasn’t huge, considering the horrible situation the city was in. But yes, it happened, and of course, it happens that people turn on each other when they are in such a terrible situation. It happened, and I understand perfectly well, for people who went through it themselves. I understand that many might not have seen it, or not have encountered it, which doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. And also it’s so painful that maybe it’s better to stay away from it in order to be able to sleep or stay sane. That’s why I’ve never pressured anyone on this, because, you know, who am I to [do that]?

“900 Days: The Myth and Reality of the Leningrad Blockade” will be shown and followed by a QA session with Jessica Gorter at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 31 at Dom Kino, 12 Karavannaya Ulitsa, tel: 314 5614, and at 1 p.m. on Friday, February 1 at ON Theater, 18 Ulitsa Zhukovskogo, tel: 929 6692. www.900days.nl

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