26th Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival

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Translucent Being: Feliks Sobolev

Feliks Sobolev: Film as Discovery

Feliks Sobolev (1931-1984), who originally graduated as actor, first found himself at KyivNaukFilm (Kyiv Science Film) studio of documentary films by accident, yet in an ideal moment, in 1960. Khrushchev’s condemnation of Stalinism during the famous 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in 1956 and plans for a historically first manned space voyage had become indications of ideological unhinging and brought promises of new era in human evolution. Trust in limitless potential of science was a key feature of the “1960s generation” of intellectuals to whom Sobolev undoubtedly belonged, with the genre of popular scientific film being an ideal means of expression. The goal of each of Sobolev’s films was therefore making a discovery and, in this sense, he was soon to become unbeatable in his field in the whole of the USSR.

The core of Sobolev’s documentary revolution lay in presenting popular scientific film genre as an emotionally full spectacle, turning the audience into participants of a real-time experiment with unanticipated conclusions. His original documentaries developed into an artistically autonomous sphere with their extraordinary information values visualized in original form. Moreover, for each topic treated in his films, the director was searching for his own esthetic solutions, making the outcome truly original through the combination of documentary footage, animation, acting, hidden camera recordings, macro close-ups of scientific experiments and technical inventions of his own.

The maximum measure of intensive message was attained through a limited number of means. In his The Feat, he is telling an amazing story of war thanks to a single photograph and only a few handwritten letters. In his film essay Biosphere! Time for Conciousness, he complemented his reflections on the rise of life on Earth with associative and causal sequences of real-life and abstract images. This combination is intensified by polyphonic soundtrack including background noises, Bach’s music and repetitive pathetic monologue. Such search for transcendent expression became a manifestation of Sobolev’s composition courage par excellance.

Other from a series his revolutionary films include The Language of Animals and Can Animals Think?, both of which became blockbusters in the USSR. A curious (and difficult-to-make) insight into the animal kingdom brought about both topical and formal renaissance of Soviet documentary filmmaking. The search for links between the animal and human world came with disturbing questions of human responsibility for future development of the planet Earth that went on to become characteristic treats of Sobolev’s work.

Interest in the constitution of the human mind brought Sobolev to start making noteworthy psychological documentaries with the participation of both Soviet academic personalities and the country’s ordinary citizens. In his Seven Steps Beyond the Horizon, Sobolev attempts–despite the seeming existence of equality system in the USSR–to open up the topic of creating a superhuman entity, though not as a shock Stalinist-era worker, but as a carrier of the superbrain. The limitless boundaries of intellectual powers were explored suggestively by Sobolev through facilitation to overcome psychological barriers (Keep at It, You Are Talented!). The psychology of human behaviour brought the director to other topics viewed as controversial at the time. His film I and Others (1971), treating the principles of manipulation and social conformism, was perceived by thoughtful audiences as an antiregime provocation act. A perspective on the ways how easily people succumb to the opinions of others and, with no obligations, start labelling sweet as salty, black as white and a woman as a man, became an unprecedented “bomb” in Brezhnev’s Soviet normalization era.

However, Sobolev’s skits with politically explosive topics finally led to his fatal destiny. Expecting the reception of a state honorary award, the director started his project Kyiv Symphony (1982), which eventually turned into a politically biased pamphlet after interventions by censorship, which brought him abhorrence of many of his collaborators. Aged only fifty, amid wasted fame and shattered state of health, Sobolev set out making his last film The Target Is Your Brain on the mechanisms of the U.S. propaganda, aiming to express views of both ideological camps with the same measure of stringency as in his model work, Mikhail Romm’s Ordinary Fascism (1965).

Kamila Dolotina

Films of the program were provided by Oleksandr Dovzhenko and National Cinematheque of Ukraine.

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