City Gallery Wellington hosted New Zealand International Film Festival’s showing of State Funeral at the beginning of August, broadcasting Stalin’s corpse in full colour to a well packed auditorium. Ukrainian Filmmaker, Sergei Loznitsa had organised over two hours of archival footage that document, in part, what four days worth of mourning the natural end to Stalin’s leadership looked like. My siblings and I were seated directly beneath these older women who I might best describe as “really Wellington”: they used words like “orchestrate” and “the aesthetics of fascism” and “propaganda” with biting urgency as they poked through the plot summary. One of them, notably, exclaimed “I know about this stuff. I’ll probably not stay for the whole thing.” Indeed, she left an hour later, rustled up with mere minutes of runtime remaining.
When I looked around at the audience after her, I was taken by the nodding heads. I saw viewers enter that particularly uncomfortable phase of dreams, rudely awakened to a slinging neck and a jerking head. Collective snoozing, darkly silhouetted against all of Soviet Russia. My brother Alex was among them. I laughed audibly, encouraged by the vocality of those in the audience who were still awake and groaning. Afterwards, Alex explained that was one of the greatest aspects of the movie: the lull of the loudspeaker complicatedly describing Stalin’s fatal stroke, the synchronised loyalty of the men and women witnessing and crying for the asymmetrical glob that was Stalin robed in red and florals. That’s the stuff our dreams are made of. When Vyacheslav Molotov sung “long live Marx and Engels and Lenin Stalin” into the crowd, which the camera traced through Moscow, Lvov, Almaty, Tallinn, I realised that some of the audience might be struggling to distinguish between his crowds and the one we were in, a few years later, in an antipodean film festival.
I felt a tingling in seeing the uniformed, grieving Muscovites trudge about on the concrete, all slightly different heights and shapes, but generally forming a flat layer of some form of living, breathing, cohesive sentiment. I thought of Mayakovsky’s agit-prop, shocked to realise, as if for the first time, that the earth is steadily being manipulated by beings that fit mostly below the two-meter mark. And how titillating to look at them all in sync like that.
Upon entry, the attendant told us that State Funeral paralleled abruptly, succinctly with the reality of Putin’s Russia. So we scrutinised the prim grins behind patterned shawls and heavy tear-drop shaped wreaths. I was stuck on how familiar it felt to me. The guards in green trod slowly around the square of the Kremlin with their crimped velveteen cushions, one of many inexplicable motifs that took my breath away under the cover of darkness in the gallery auditorium.
I thought about the word “propaganda” because I’d heard it whispered so hoarsely before the show. Broadly speaking, propaganda is the conscious production of an uncritical ideology.
I guess what Loznitsa did in “State Funeral” was showcase and exaggerate the highlights of what some may consider propaganda, what others might consider order. I don’t know what the audience thought about this. We were an audience watching another audience. Both audiences were similarly solemned by the sharp speeches: the implied grandeur of death, made vague in the shadow of Stalin’s reign. The monotonous, hyperbolic language smoothed over the atrocity of the Holodomor and forced labour that took place under Stalin’s fist: the audience could forget it all in the utter boredom of a heavy male voice. I don’t actually know if what I saw on screen is similar to life under Putin today. But I immediately likened the experience to my own social media use in 2020. I spend my hours tracking information that goes against my gut feeling so I can get on with everyday life. It felt weird to watch a bit of that in the City Gallery, footage, of Russian shit happening years and years ago, now broadcast to probably one of the only cities in the world that could comfortably host a film festival with live venues this year.
Sure, many New Zealanders can’t imagine sitting through a speech like Molotov’s in real time, crowded into a snowy concrete terrace. The optics are too highly saturated, the sound too dramatic. Sergei Loznitsa provided us with the voyeuristic parameters necessary for quick critical analysis: watch the film and maybe have a flat white afterwards. I don’t know why people walked out of the auditorium early, when I look in the mirror I look in it for ages.