Neoliberal realism: eastern Europe’s doomed love affair with western values
Doesn’t eastern Europe, cinema as well, need to locate its identity in new ways to negotiate its history; the traumatic memory of the past included?
The first day of my tour of Lviv started with a call to battle: “Let’s go!” Ulyana, our spirited guide, shouted as she braved the drizzling rain to lead us to the first objective on our program, an underground pub situated on Rynok Square, the picturesque piazza adorning the centre of this medieval border town. Once a jewel of the Austro-Hungarian Empire made up of a mix of Ruthenian, Polish, Jewish, and Russian people, Lviv repeatedly changed hands between Poland and the Soviet Union to become in the age of anti-Russian sentiment that has dominated the country since the beginning of the war in 2014 a full-blown bastion of Ukrainian nationalism.
That we were in the middle of this bastion became apparent after we descended a staircase leading to a massive wooden gate on which our guide energetically beseeched us to knock. A bearded man in uniform wearing a prop rifle opened and, without missing a beat, asked us for what was apparently a password. “Tell him it’s ‘Slava Ukrayini!’” smiling Ulyana advised, and after the “guard” answered with a hearty ‘Heroyam slava!’, we were led down a maze of dimly lit stone corridors and into a no-frills underground restaurant, replete with wooden tables and military paraphernalia allegedly used by resistance fighters during WWII. To our amazement, the resistance in question did not entail, however, as in other European cities, the notorious fight to the death against Nazi aggression, but that staged by Ukrainian patriots against the Soviet Russians, hot in pursuit of retreating German troops.
Things could only get weirder still. On closer scrutiny of the lavishly decorated walls, it turned out that some of the photographs hanging next to beat-up Kalashnikovs and rusty AK-47s were not of anticommunist fighters, but of well-known fascist leaders. Dominant among these was the portrait of Stepan Bandera, who, while certainly a hero for post-socialist Ukrainians, was also a proven Nazi collaborator of international notoriety, and a criminal at whose behest tens of thousands of Polish, Jewish, and Russian civilians were murdered during and after the German occupation of the country.
As the remainder of my tour of Lviv showed, the city’s whitewashing of its Nazi past went hand in hand with a vituperous condemnation of Communism, apparent from the many memorials to Soviet terror our hosts advised those interested in Ukrainian history to definitely visit while in Lviv. No one doubts the usefulness of such monuments. Or the eagerness of our hosts to portray themselves as victims of communist aggression. But should the country’s communist history be blamed for the current stagnation in the region? Moreover, should anticommunism be made into a pillar of Ukraine’s emerging post-socialist identity?
Should the country’s communist history be blamed for the current stagnation in the region?
This brief encounter from the Ukraine is symptomatic of a larger trend that seems to characterize much of eastern Europe thirty years after the region’s refashioning as a western democracy. If museums similar to those in Lviv made anticommunism trendy in Budapest, Gdansk or Riga in the last decade, it is cinema that has started to popularize eastern Europe’s neoliberal, anticommunist orientation over recent years, and more effectively than many an architectural project. To this end, several eastern films mainly directed at western audiences started to emphasize the irreversible, western-bound course of the region, including Poland’s Mr. Jones, Ukraine’s Bitter Harvest, and Serbia’s Cinema Komunisto, to name but three.
While informing people about the communist-made famine in the Ukraine (as in two of these films) or about Tito’s monomania (as in the last) is important, the overzealous anticommunism of films dealing with post-socialist realities borders on the obsessive. Taking their cue from the deprecatory treatment of socialism promoted by historical films, young filmmakers born during the former socialist era increasingly paint eastern Europe’s present day as irremediably contaminated by its communist past. Leaving out the modernization of the region, which, under the communists experienced both unprecedented progress and, in the late socialist period, intense economic strain, these filmmakers are quick to leap to wholesale condemnation not only of communist crimes – which have certainly been committed – but of the entire recent history of the region at large.
Postsocialist Bulgaria mostly didn’t go in for anticommunist monuments, yet thanks to directors like Mina Mileva and Vesela Kazakova, Bulgarian cinema launched a desperate attempt to align the country’s political orientation with that of the West. In the unsubtly titled The Beast Is Still Alive (2016), two women returning from western Europe to the place they once called home (an increasingly familiar leitmotif in eastern European filmmaker practise) proceed to check out their grandfather’s secret police files in a bid to discover more about their family’s history. A veiled warning against institutionalized forgetting, the film apotheosizes the figure of the grandfather, who, not unlike the resistance fighters in Ukrainian depictions, is portrayed as a staunch resistance fighter and anticommunist. The film appropriates this belligerent attitude toward Communism as a suggested remedy not only for Bulgaria’s alleged incapacity to leave the past behind her, but also for the two directors’ failure to successfully define their transnational selves.
This identity crisis plagues the documentary of another Bulgarian director who, with unprecedented chutzpa, goes so far as to investigate what she believes is the suspicious past of her own parents. Using on-camera techniques reminiscent of those of children who, under early communist regimes, turned in their parents as counter-revolutionaries, Bojina Panayotova’s I See Red People (2018) attempts to establish a clear rupture between her parents’ lives – whom she suspects of having collaborated with the secret police – and her westernized, liberal self. Portraying her onscreen character as a paeon of enlightened western thinking, Panayotova castigates her parents for not having fled socialist Bulgaria, and for cooperating with a regime which – for unstated reasons – she condemns for having negatively affected her life.
While these films attempt to root out a certain communist “mentality” that allegedly keeps Bulgaria from fully embracing democratic values, they at the same time betray a one-sided love affair with western capitalism. In fact, this worship of an otherwise disinterested West makes the films as political in their aims as any of the early socialist realist genre, which used anti-western propaganda to advance the values of Communism, and which these directors compellingly reject.
This worship of an otherwise disinterested West makes the films as political in their aims as any of the early socialist realist genre.
Instead of enriching discursive practices by featuring critical, locally-construed takes on the history of the region, these artists perpetuate western Cold War-era clichés that cannot but impoverish the aesthetics of cinematic expression, leading to a filmmaking style, which, for lack of a better term we may call “neoliberal realism.”
Conceived as the exact opposite of its disparaged cousin, neoliberal realism features gloomy eastern landscapes destined for eternal damnation, and a dark recasting of the socialist past now seen as an inevitable culprit for the political impasse of the region. The narrative is usually filtered through the consciousness of self-obsessed characters, unable to overcome their fixation with western values, or to paint a more complex, multi-sided view of contemporary eastern societies. Financed by western money, what we are witnessing in recent eastern European cinema in other words, is not only a fierce denial of eastern Europe’s own past which makes the region directly subservient to western interests, but the promotion of a selective memory of this past. It is one that always privileges western influence as invariably superior to any local accomplishments that Communism may have achieved in the region in cultural, economic or political spheres.
In recent decades the European Union has indeed stimulated film production in eastern Europe by sponsoring screenwriting and development workshops, which these films inevitably “tour” before making it to the big screen. This investment also encourages the flourishing of neoliberal realism by suffusing locally-produced works with the ideological markers of feminism, transnationalism, and anti-totalitarianism. Western-funded films in eastern Europe that don’t adhere to this aesthetic neoliberal troika are increasingly difficult to produce. And while feminist and transnationalist agendas in the hands of directors like Mileva, Kazakova, and Panayotova have their value of course, the uniformity of these practices can be as stifling as the authoritarianism that these directors vehemently reject.
By portraying the East as backward, forever trying to catch up to superior western standards, films made in eastern Europe effect a stigmatization of the East, which is cast as an “Other” in relation to western democracy. While these films turn Communism into a convenient scapegoat meant to explain the democratic shortfall of the region, little thought is given to whether liberalism itself could be to blame for the lack of progress eastern societies have experienced in the last thirty years. The univocal consensus thus created under the aegis of liberalism is grist to the West’s mill, and endorses the latter’s ongoing condescension toward the East.
Someone once said that those who can’t do anything with their lives blame the past for their failures. Blaming Communist crimes for the stagnation of eastern Europe betrays a puerile, self-victimizing attitude among eastern European filmmakers, an attitude which is unfortunately supported and encouraged by western institutions.
Instead of taking a cultural and political course that uniquely promotes western liberalism, doesn’t eastern Europe need to locate its identity in new ways to negotiate its history; the debilitating, tormenting, traumatic memory of the past included. Morbid obsessing over its dolorous past does not produce more knowledge. It only increases anxiety, eastern Europe’s deep-seated anxiety about its future, all the while exposing the region’s inability to creatively refashion itself into anything but a new cultural colony of the West.
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