Post-Cold War Gender Performances in Central and Eastern European Film

BoryanaRossa

A review of Post-Cold War Gender Performances: Cross-Cultural Examination of Gender Performances Viewed through Film Reenactments by Boryana Dimitrova Dragoeva (a.k.a. Rossa).

Boryana Dimitrova Dragoeva (a.k.a. Rossa)’s dissertation consists of an analysis of gender performance in Central and Eastern European film, and also of the presentation of film reenactments for additional contextualization and cross-cultural insights. Rossa provides an extensive theoretical and historical framework for her comparative approach to gender performance in the Cold War and post-Cold War eras, while a six-piece, multichannel video installation comprises an intrinsic portion of her research project. The reenactments form the starting point of a participatory event for the viewer/reader. Detailed notes regarding Rossa’s artistic decisions and the filmmaking process are also available in the written dissertation. The complete video installation, After the Fall (which premiered on April 20-21, 2012 at Rensselaer, Troy, New York), is accessible online at http://boryanarossa.com/after-the-fall-2.

Rossa’s installation leads viewers chronologically from the height of Cold War rhetoric in the 1950s to post-Cold War responses in the late 2000s. Rossa collaborated on the project with co-director Oleg Mavromatti and a range of non-professional actors who serve as subjects in Rossa’s overall project. The reenactments are based on six Central and Eastern European films: Monday Morning (Ponedelnik sutrin, Bulgaria, 1967), Daisies (Sedmikrásky, Czechoslovakia, 1967), Ladies’ Choice (Dami kaniat, Bulgaria, 1980), Hammer and Sickle (Serp i molot, Russia, 1994), Hipsters (Stiliagi, Russia, 2008), and Mission London (Misija London, Bulgaria et al., 2010). Portions from the original scenes are edited together with reenacted scenes in a split-screen format that exposes differences between the source material and the adapted work. The reenactments spark viewer engagement with notions of gender performance from a range of political eras and intercultural perspectives. A full accompanying program for the installation is available in Appendix B (pp. 159-164) of the written dissertation.

Each multichannel film presents its subject matter in a wholly unique style that complements the other offerings to create a cohesive work of original art from previously seen cinematic material and innovative new performances. The first video provides a comparative approach to the rise of youth culture in the 1950s. It incorporates a black-and-white interrogation scene that directly assaults new elements of style. The second video explores female behavior during the sexual revolution of the 1960s. It grotesquely parodies a surrealist rebellion against gendered notions of propriety. The third video identifies leftist dissidence as a key component of 1960s culture. It recreates a nuanced situation of criticism that competes with the binaries of Cold War and post-Cold War rhetoric. The fourth video highlights the patriarchal framework of social interaction. It focuses on oppositional categorizations such as the “tender man” and the “manly girl.” The fifth video explores the backlash against women’s emancipation in post-Cold War society. It contends against the simplified equation: Soviet = Stalinist. The sixth video emphasizes the globalization of gender politics and the complexities of cross-cultural understandings of gender and power.

Rossa’s installation obtains its power through a direct confrontation of viewer biases and preconceptions. The performance aspect of gender takes center stage as current actions are placed in direct communication with past representations. Rossa’s justification of the theory behind her directorial approach pairs well with a viewing of the installation. Personal and historical contextualization is provided in the written dissertation to expose features of the production that elucidate further ideas of gender performance. Rossa identifies essential differences in cultural understandings of gender and gender performance through a reexamination of mainstream and dissident films of Central and Eastern Europe and relates these directly to the lived experiences of the viewers/readers/participants of the reenactments. Her work forces direct engagement with cross-cultural material and destabilizes traditional understandings of Cold War rhetoric and post-Cold War appropriations.

In the first chapter of her written dissertation, Rossa outlines the theoretical and historical framework for her project. She sets forth the limitations of representing the Soviet/socialist past in a post-Cold War era. She highlights the effects of cultural bias on viewer reaction: actions and events become negatively marked by association with socialist or capitalist ideals. Rossa’s work attempts to overcome the binary political cliches of the Cold War era by investigating the role of Western and Soviet propaganda equally and identifying shared value systems and beliefs, particularly with regard to gender. Rossa’s project identifies everyday practices of gender performance in films and subjects them to cross-cultural reenactment to highlight the discrepancies between ideological beliefs and social norms. Through her art, Rossa hopes to remove political binaries and replace them with cross-cultural understanding.

Rossa’s second chapter outlines the features of her artistic method, justifying her focus on the process of reenactment rather than a more traditional artistic product. Rossa is an established artist in her own right, having produced films in collaboration with Oleg Mavromatti and the art-actionist group Ultrafuturo since 2004. This experience gives her a unique perspective on the “experimental and counter-cultural tendencies” (p. 23) highlighted in this study and informs many of her decisions regarding the multi-channel presentation of the associated reenactments. For example, much of Rossa’s previous work emphasizes the process of physical trial, forcing onto the viewer a participatory function that heightens the artistic stakes. These same traits are expected of the performers in this project, who are to bring their own personal difficulties into their enactment of the roles; Rossa even highlights this aspect at numerous points in the films, intentionally blurring the lines between performer and character. In the dissertation, Rossa elucidates the artistic implications of her program. The actors were intentionally given only minimal preparation to create a genuine expression of “culture shock” that would highlight the role of misunderstanding in cross-cultural dialogue (p. 36). Rossa solidifies her project in a detailed history of reenactments, from early Soviet history through the present day. In doing so, Rossa roots her work in a universal foundation as a means of obtaining meaning through revisiting past performances through a different lens.

In her third chapter, Rossa takes on the massive project of categorizing all portrayals of gender in Central and Eastern European film. Particularly informative is her analysis of the relationship between women’s bodies and machines in what Rossa terms “Techno Utopias” (p. 38). She provides commentary on the input of technology on perceptions of gender performance through an analysis of the “transgender worker” in the post-Cold War film Hammer and Sickle (p. 50). Rossa observes a change in women’s roles from the start of socialism to its conclusion, while providing context for the reenactments through a thorough review of contemporary and historical cinema related to the topic of gender. Rossa’s analysis is calculated towards enhancing her own artistic reenactment project and maintaining cohesiveness in her references to films of the past alongside her own aesthetic inclinations. The destabilizing effect of Rossa’s written analytical work carries through to the installation pieces.

Rossa’s fourth chapter details her directorial method and the creation of the multichannel video installation. Excerpts from field interviews with famous Bulgarian filmmakers, actors, and film critics elucidate new understandings of the source material and instill fundamental insights into Rossa’s reworked ideas. The high degree of improvisation afforded to the performers infuses the reenactments with a unique and spontaneous flavor, which is paramount to Rossa’s project of outlining and exposing the cross-cultural negotiation of gender performance. While Rossa’s directorial methods remained constant throughout the project, her approach to editing altered significantly with regards to the subject matter, needs of the actors, and technical issues associated with each film. A detailed description of her reasoning for directorial decisions and editing choices adds significant value to the video installation and encourages a second viewing of the work.

Rossa successfully creates anxieties in the reader/viewer that effect a positive contribution towards the elaboration of gender performance in contemporary global society. The written dissertation and associated video installation renegotiate the history of Bulgarian, Czechoslovakian, Russian, and Soviet film through the lens of gender performance. Her perspective as both artist and researcher allows Rossa to investigate both the personal and political dynamics at work in film production. Rossa’s approach to the question of gender performance in rhetoric and propaganda provides a useful framework for understanding Cold War and post-Cold War social structures and intercultural biases. As a result, the project subjects the expectations and biases of viewers to a rigorously developed investigative reevaluation of cultural norms and subjective ideas.

Rossa’s fresh outlook renegotiates the boundaries of gender and sexuality, patriarchal structures and history, and technology and humanity. Three pages of acknowledgments (pp. vi-viii) highlight the amount of work and collaboration involved in this significant undertaking. The final result is a substantial artistic production in its own right, which reappraises and reintegrates previous cultural experiences into the present moment. The complete filmography that accompanies the dissertation (pp. 151-157) demonstrates a wealth of source material readymade for the application of Rossa’s techniques and insights. Rossa’s attention to this project will be sure to resonate throughout her future artistic work, thereby renewing its effect on future viewers and readers.

Joseph Schlegel
Ph.D. Candidate
Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures
University of Toronto
joseph.schlegel@mail.utoronto.ca

Primary Sources

Mission London (Misija London, 2010)
Hipsters (Stiliagi, 2008)
Hammer and Sickle (Serp i molot, 1994)
Ladies’ Choice (Dami kaniat, 1980)
Daisies (Sedmikrásky, 1967)
Monday Morning (Ponedelnik sutrin, 1967)

Dissertation Information

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. 2012. 164pp. Primary Advisor: Mary Anne Staniszweski.

Image: After the Fall, 2012. Multi-channel video installation. Reenactment of Daisies, 1967 (Czechoslovakia) with artist Angela Washko. Video still.

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