DAU. “Sometimes this space can hurt you.”

DAU. “Sometimes this space can hurt you.”

Author
Oleg Aronson, Amanda Barbour, Olga Bryukhovetska, Philip Cavendish, Natascha Drubek, Heleen Gerritsen, Nick Holdsworth, Kior Janev, Karol Jóźwiak, Catriona Kelly, Ilja Kukuj, John Leman Riley, Irina Schulzki, Taras Spivak, Denise J. Youngblood, Eugénie Zvonkine
Keywords
Ilya Khrzhanovsky; Vladimir Sorokin; Lev Landau; Soviet Union; Ukraine; Babyn Yar; DAU; ethics; ethical turn in film; non-professional actors; installation; film; experiment; immersion; performance; anthropology; discussion; authenticity; violence.
Abstract
DAU is an experimental project at the intersection of performance art and cinema, initiated and led by Ilya Khrzhanovsky, and taking as its subject the Soviet Nobel laureate Lev Landau (1908–1968), a theoretical physicist who worked in the Physico-Technical Institute (UFTI) in Kharkiv in the 1930s. It was originally planned as a biopic but gradually an immersive art installation developed alongside it. Khrzhanovsky established his film set in the Ukrainian city and, between 2009–2011, hundreds of participants - almost all non-professional actors - lived and worked at the ‘DAU Institute’, a simulation of Soviet life. The first films created from the material shot at the DAU Institute were released in Paris in January 2019, and an immersive DAU event took place in two Paris theatres and the Centre Pompidou, for which visitors had to obtain a DAU visa. Two more films – DAU. Natasha and DAU. Degeneration – were released in the 2020 Berlin Film Festival. In April 2020 several films became available online. In the light of ongoing controversies surrounding the production process of the DAU project and films, Apparatus Journal canvassed opinions from writers, academics and curators. We are publishing academic essays as well as artistic and personal responses, some addressing the writers’ experiences of DAU (the films and/or the events) and some the wider ethical questions surrounding them. Apparatus Journal regards this as a jumping-off point and a stimulus to the future debates that will undoubtedly unfold as the repercussions of DAU become clearer. Editors of this compilation: Natascha Drubek – John Leman Riley – Irina Schulzki. Thanks to Elizaveta Shishkina.

Моя личная граница с Институтом

Мне посчастливилось в 2019 году провести сутки на просмотрах ДАУ в стоявшем на ремонте парижском Théâtre de la Ville. Несмотря на то, что я постарался подготовиться к просмотру и прочитал имевшиеся к тому времени в сети материалы и отзывы, увиденное и испытанное, при внешнем соответствии ожиданиям, оказалось гораздо больше, чем просто сумма фильмов в странном антураже их презентации.

Главной чертой всего проекта стало для меня нежелание ДАУ вписываться в какие бы то ни было рамки. Казалось бы, трансгрессивностью сегодня вряд ли можно кого-либо удивить, но в случае ДАУ постоянный переход границ касается не столько показываемого, сколько самой природы происходящего и тебя лично как участника процесса. В Париже это включало в себя и характер презентации: вошедший в здание находился в перманентном состоянии дезориентации. Не было сразу понятно, куда идти и где залы; отсутствовал план показа; плейеры с переводом для не владеющих русским языком часто не работали; во всех трех залах фильмы начинались асинхронно и ты не знал, на какой фильм попал (если пришел не к началу фильма) или какой фильм будет следующим и когда он начнется (если остался в зале после конца предыдущего). Создавалось впечатление, что всё, буквально всё в этом проекте создано для того, чтобы подвергнуть зрителя испытанию. Собственно, так оно и было, и я не думаю, что мелкие и крупные неудобства создавались умышленно – они были генетически заложены в саму основу проекта. Впрочем, были и удобства: например, в какой-то момент я попал в ситуацию, когда во всех трех залах шли фильмы, которые я уже видел, и отправился в видеокабинки отсматривать не вошедший в фильм материал. Сопутствующие мероприятия также проходили без объявления: так, я до сих пор не знаю, концерт какого женского хора внезапно начался в главном зале, который я по какому-то наитию не покинул после просмотра очередного фильма и остался ждать следующего. Не могу не отметить и буфет, где всё – начиная от стопки водки и кончая миской с вареной картошкой и кабачковой икрой – стоило символический один евро. (Говорят, цены в зависимости от дня значительно менялись.)

При этом у меня не сложилось впечатления, что происходившее на экране носило характер отсеивания лишней, «неправильной» публики и создания узкого кружка адептов, как это часто бывает в трансгрессивных экспериментах. Любой отзыв о ДАУ, на мой взгляд, имеет под собой основания, и ни один не может считаться исчерпывающим. Но надо понимать, что те вопросы и ответы, которые ты даешь, касаются не ДАУ, а тебя самого: ты очерчиваешь ими свои собственные границы. Вопрос, возникший у меня на первом же фильме (это была Наташа) и так и оставшийся без ответа, касался границ искусства. То, что ДАУ представляет собой антропологический эксперимент, было понятно и до просмотра, но что именно позволяет нам в его случае говорить об эксперименте художественном? Подобный вопрос может показаться банальным, но с ситуацией, когда происходящее настолько последовательно отнимало у меня все возможные критерии его оценки с точки зрения культурного артефакта, я раньше не сталкивался и не уверен, что еще столкнусь.

Безусловно, сами обитатели ДАУ, от актеров до участников съемочной группы, находились в несравнимо более экстремальных условиях, чем зрители. Но, во-первых, они – насколько я знаком с условиями игры – в любой момент, как и зрители, могли покинуть Институт; и, во-вторых, в отличие от зрителей, они могли в силу непрописанности сценария вручную менять конфигурацию событий и испытывать на прочность границы создаваемых ими образов (в которые многие основательно вжились) и всего Института. Принципиальным кажется мне отсутствие скрытых камер: не контролируя в полной мере происходящее и находясь, на событийном уровне, в максимально широкой зоне неопределенности, участники в то же время каждую секунду знали, что этот мир условен – если сами не желали об этом забыть. В условности медиальных рамок и безусловности непосредственного переживания, характер которого крайне сложно, если вообще возможно определить, – главный конфликт ДАУ.

При всей беспрецедентности этого трансгрессивного проекта – и в первую очередь именно из-за его беспрецедентности – мне не кажется, что постоянно возникающие претензии к создателям имеют смысл. Было бы странно ожидать от ДАУ бережного отношения к своим обитателям и гостям, а конечная свобода выбора – выйти из проекта (и зала) и никогда больше туда не возвращаться – была соблюдена. Риск, который берет на себя участник, в том числе зритель, весьма велик, но заложен в самой основе проекта. Не могу пока сказать, какой эффект окажет ДАУ в качестве интернет-платформы, где усилия по выходу из «зала» минимальны (как и по входу). Не уверен также, что я хочу это знать: парижский опыт, пусть и неполный – хотя может ли он быть при масштабах ДАУ полным? – представляется мне слишком ценным, чтобы подвергать его еще одному испытанию. Возможно, именно здесь и пролегает моя личная граница с Институтом.

Илья Кукуй / Ilja Kukuj
Coordinator for Russian Language Studies
Ludwig-Maximilian-University Munich

A Potemkin Village in the Centre of Paris

For me, the turning of 2018 into 2019 in Paris brought an aura of apathy. From autumn onwards, the yellow-vest protests and university strikes had fed my rebellious excitement and cognitive curiosity. But the increasingly rainy and chilly weather was cooling any urge for an engaged observation of the surrounding and Christmas time, supposedly the most petty-bourgeois moment of Parisian life, utterly extinguished the will to empathise with current social emotions.

Up to the moment when I encountered the first announcements of the DAU project. A reconstruction of the Soviet world, a recreation of the experience of life in a totalitarian system, an experiment from the crossroads of art, film, social studies and ethnography. A colossal undertaking, happening 24/7 across Parisian theatres. Posters advertising DAU were increasingly filling Paris. Photomontage-merged black-and-white portraits stirred not only curiosity, but also a certain aura of anxiety, alienation, as well as invigilation and claustrophobia. The evocative and imposing advertising campaign heralded the true substance of the product. As the project authors themselves indicated, it was not to be an ordinary exhibition, performance, conference, or film screening, but a combination of all these elements into something that might be defined as continuous experience.

It didn't take long to convince me; I impatiently awaited the delayed opening and signed up for a visa entitling immediate entry. Apart from paying the hefty fee, you had to complete an extensive personal questionnaire. As far as I can remember, the questions were so formulated as to make it clear to the spectator that entering the DAU space meant renouncing their intimacy and opening fully to the experience bordering with exhibitionism. It would embrace themes including relations with loved ones, intimate relationships, betrayal, individual axiology, and hypothetical moral choices. I can't remember how seriously I treated those questions and how much I played with the convention, but already at that stage I had the feeling it wasn't just a common outing to a funfair. Following that “informational exposure”, you received a number entitling you to a visa from a kiosk - the DAU embassy - located in a square in front of the headquarters. Before the entrance itself, which resembled airport security control, you were required to leave your mobile phone, together with any other recording devices, in a locker.

Fulfilling the obligation was verified by guards equipped with metal detectors. On the other hand, it was worthwhile keeping your wallet or credit card on you, as right after the entrance there was a “Soviet souvenir” shop, though the prices were strictly Parisian. The remaining space was reminiscent of a crude-style music club. I can't remember if there was any music there, but the clamour of conversations created a club-like atmosphere, centred on consumption and having a good time. The smell was a significant element; it accompanied you from the very entrance, but explained itself only at the bar – it served potatoes and tinned meat in aluminium bowls. To me, the insipid odour, possibly unnoticed by most, was a flashback to my early childhood.

That's when I felt the first serious impropriety, looking at people who had just left their smartphones in the locker-room and were having fun playing with the convention, washing this peculiar treat down with vodka in period glasses. To me, the smell had a very concrete, though ambivalent sense; a mixture of nostalgia and revulsion, the memory of compulsory kindergarten, poor quality mass-catering and, at the same time, care-free childhood under communism. The impropriety I felt wasn't obviously connected to the use of the odour itself, but rather to transforming an experience which had been a bitter coercion for many people into a form of entertainment. I sensed a perverse fetishisation of Soviet reality, which reduced that experience to a few stereotypical clichés. This bitter impression was at times superimposed with the alluring poetics of tableaux created in intimate nooks of the building, reverently recreated premises from the soviet world. A cottage with a greybeard playing wistful folk melodies on a balalaika, next to an apparatchik's office where, for hours on end, scientists leisurely chatted about paranormal activities; further on, you could queue in front of a flat where a Siberian shaman carried out ritual fortune-telling, and finally, in the attic, a magnificent, monumental orchestra rehearsal, conducted by Teodor Currentzis himself.

In an enormous theatre, selected episodes from the DAU film were screened, to me the least impressive part of the project – the actors' stiffness, the lack of drama, and the schematism all clearly implied the film was secondary to another undertaking – an experiment with history, politics, and individual emotions, fear, lust, envy. The concentration of numerous different stories and narrations about the Soviet regime in one place brought to mind Yuri Slezkine’s scintillating The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution, similarly treating a building as an allegory of the USSR’s fortunes.

All these captivating situations only emphasised my earlier bitter impressions. At times, through the windows of the arranged spaces, I caught a glimpse of Parisian church towers and the commotion of the affluent, attractive city, reminding me that this was just a temporary carnival, a play with a convention. An unethical play inasmuch as it focused on a criminal regime whose victims are still occasionally relativised. The project seemed to completely disregard the murderous character of the Soviet regime, offering fetishising associations with sexual perversion, promiscuity, and sadism in return.

I can't say how much of the subversive method of Salò (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975, Italy/France) there is to it, but I have the impression that the effect is quite contrary. Whilst Pasolini, by exploiting sexuality, intended to shock the viewers and lead them towards an intensified assessment of social and political reality, the installation, to my mind, rather attempted to seduce, allure, and sedate them. That's why I found DAU a disappointment. I saw the flattery of petty-bourgeois tastes allowing the visitor, as in a fashionable escape room, to steal away from Paris for a cool outing to the Soviet regime.

Karol Jóźwiak
Assistant Professor, Cultural Studies Department
University of Łódź

Why I Don’t Want to Talk About DAU

Keynote for the 2020 GoEast panel “Blurred Lines –- An Ethical Approach to Working with Protagonists and Non-professional Actors” (Wiesbaden, 9 May 2020).

The inspiration for this panel comes from a film project which I did not want to program for goEast. And thus it shouldn’t be at the centre of this discussion panel. That wouldn’t be fair.

The film project I’m referring to is DAU by Russian director Ilya Khrzhanovsky. 14 films were created from 700 hrs of 35 mm footage shot between 2008 and 2011, mostly in Ukraine.

Before we start talking about the blurred lines of ethics with today’s panelists, I would like to say a few words, just to explain why I didn’t program the DAU films here at goEast and why I don’t think the project belongs in this discussion but did indeed make me realise how important ethical questions are in the filmmaking process.

For that, I would first like to talk about meat.

A number of newspaper articles were published in Germany in the past week about Romanian migrant workers employed in German meat factories. More than 600 of these workers became infected with the coronavirus. In the articles, among them in Der Spiegel, their working conditions were described: their long hours, their substandard wages. The workers live in cheap dorms where they share rooms.

The factory owners defended themselves, claiming that the Romanians chose to work in Germany voluntarily and all official health and safety rules had been followed. But, as the director of a poultry factory said in an interview: “The Romanians like to have a party and in their dorms, they hang out together all the time.”

The German factory owner neglects to mention that he brought these Romanian workers to Germany to do jobs Germans wouldn’t touch, for low wages and in substandard conditions. As a thank you they get blamed for their own coronavirus infections.

I trust the sources behind these articles, even though there were no court cases against the meat producers. But their justification in the articles I read is not satisfactory, so as a logical next step, until I have further information, I won’t touch the meat from those factories.

The same with DAU: until the production circumstances of DAU are cleared up and questions have been answered, I don’t want to touch this project.

DAU started out around 2005 as a regular biopic. It was meant to depict the life of Soviet physicist Lev Landau, focusing especially on his sexual escapades and run-ins with the Soviet regime. The production got well-respected French and German arthouse co-producers on board and financing from the CNC, Medienboard Berlin Brandenburg as well as the Russian Ministry of Culture.

However, at some point the director cast Vladimir Sorokin’s script aside, his Russian producer left the project, and there was no film. But there was a film set. And this film set became the stuff of legends. In eastern Ukraine, in the city of Kharkiv, around 200 people lived and worked on that set quasi-permanently between 2009 and 2011. The set was intended to function like the secret Moscow research facility that Landau once worked in. Everyone wore period costumes and had to obey a strict Soviet-style regimen where mobile phones and modern artefacts were forbidden. According to the director, around 250.000 non-professional actors and extras were cast. As in a reality show the participants, almost all of them non-professional actors, had agreed that they could be filmed at any moment. There was no script.

Moscow elitists coming to eastern Ukraine to set up shop with partly Western money and casting 250.000 extras? Much like the meat story, I think this has a colonial smell.

A few articles were published over the years, but the DAU project was mostly shrouded in secrecy. However, many of you might have heard rumours and accusations surrounding the project. A real discussion about DAU only started this year, after the premiere of two of the films at Berlinale, in February 2020.

Some of the accusations are:

  • In DAU. Natasha the director staged a torture scene with non-professional actors in which sexual assault took place for which the actress, who is naked in the scene, was not prepared.

  • The production used autistic adolescents, and babies from a local orphanage including at least one with Down’s syndrome for a scene about experiments in the institute.

  • A Neo-Nazi who was part of the cast slaughtered a live pig in front of extras who had not been informed about this.

  • The director intimidated female extras and crew members during casting interviews.

  • Several scenes were filmed with non-professional actors and actresses while they were drunk.

These are all serious accusations, though they have been denied by both the director and the producers. In interviews, they state that the cast all gave their consent, that all permits were given, and that the goal of the project justified the means.

The goal of the project, according to the director, was to expose the mechanisms of the repressive Soviet system and the way it still influences people today. In order to achieve this, Khrzhanovsky chose to recreate the historical circumstances under a repressive regime. The project website says: “Rooted in the top-secret, autonomous research facilities built for Soviet scientists by Moscow, the DAU Institute became an artistic and psychological playground on a massive scale.”

Khrzhanovsky hired former KGB officers to play themselves. Strict rules were in place and people indeed started writing denunciations against each other when someone broke those rules.

But if we want to examine and work through the traumas of the past, is it a good idea to repeat those patterns and inflict trauma on others? That, in essence, is the method Khrzhanovsky was using. What is confusing to me is that in some interviews, he claims that the project was a normal film, using artificial representations of events, while in others, he claims that everything

we see is authentic, including the torture.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether the hybrid DAU project was a normal fiction film with a script and professional actors or a documentary. I think Khrzhanovsky’s method of confronting the traumas of post-Soviet societies on an “artistic and psychological playground” is deeply flawed, which would have become clear from the beginning, had he, for example, consulted responsible producers (or a psychologist).

I have to say that I think the topic of DAU has a lot of social relevance. That’s not the issue here. But I’ve seen plenty of Russian documentaries which expose the mechanisms of repression in today’s society. Those films usually do not have a blockbuster-budget. The documentaries of Alina Rudnitskaya (Krov’ / Blood, 2013) or Sergey Dvortsevoy (Khlebnyi den’ / Bread Day, 1998) come to mind here.

DAU is a project about which I have a lot of ethical questions. So why don’t I want to discuss it on this panel? Apart from the fact that we are not providing the opportunity to watch the films at goEast, I have a few other reasons:

There has never been a thorough investigation, and so we don’t have enough facts. The discussion is now very much about consent and about whether the production abided by the laws and had permission from the authorities. The shoot happened a long time ago in Ukraine, before Maidan and the revolution. The project did, I’m sure, obtain permits. But how did they obtain them and what do the current authorities in Kharkiv have to say about the matter? The state prosecutor’s office is currently investigating how the production obtained permits for the use of orphans on set, for example. Nine years after the shoot finished.

It was difficult to start the investigation sooner because no one had seen the films and participants had signed NDAs. That is not uncommon for productions of this scale; it is a method to avoid spoilers, and the production behind DAU confirmed that these NDAs were only used to avoid any of the participants talking about the film’s story. But in this case, it meant participants also couldn’t speak about the set or the living and working conditions. There was no script for DAU: the set and the people on it were the script. So if a film doesn’t come out for nine years, that means nine years of silence.

Again, I think the accusations are serious enough to start an investigation and, apart from the court case I have mentioned, a group of Russian journalists in Ukraine has indeed taken the initiative to investigate further. Let’s see what comes out of it.

One aspect I would like to talk about at some point: the project’s European producers, with their colonial mindset, have, in my opinion, totally enabled this production. The director traveled from festival to festival and played the ‘wild Russian crazy genius’. Commissioning editors, funders and producers loved that image and gladly drank vodka with him. This seems to accord with the fact that a London-based Russian oligarch coming on board for the financing was not seen as a warning sign, but instead laughed off. Berlinale director Carlo Chatrian, who included two of the DAU films in his festival, said: “We don’t know where the money for the DAU project came from, and it’s probably better not to ask”. In my opinion, this is an astonishing display of double standards. As long as boundaries are being crossed by ‘Eastern Wildlings’ who fit our cliched image of Russia, the Western refined intellectual is fine with it.

Khrzhanovsky chose to cross ethical boundaries on purpose, so in a panel, about blurred lines, there’s nothing to discuss here, really.

For some people, the cult of the genius artist is clearly not dead. A lot of (mostly older ) Russian critics defend the project thus: the artistic merit justifies whatever happened on set. I don’t want to discuss this. I find the question of whether an artist is above the law uninteresting and archaic. Just because someone is a ‘genius’ he or she should be beyond good and evil? Please. Not even Nietzsche lived by those principles.

Last but not least, I didn’t want to get involved in the discussion that’s already going on, mostly in Russian language media. So far the discussion about DAU is led primarily by film critics. People who, for the most part, have never experienced how protagonists open up in front of the camera and often say and do things they normally wouldn’t. Most film critics have never in their life experienced the enormous responsibility for a film production. When you have more than 150 people, cast, and crew, and they all follow your lead and ideas – that’s powerful and it’s a heavy weight to carry. Ethics, in that situation and under such stresses, becomes a whole different story.

Most of the participants in the DAU discussion however don’t want to hear anything about the working conditions but instead focus only on what’s on screen and then ask moral questions.

Here there are two camps: on the one hand, the old-fashioned and often Christian moralists, who think the project is pornographic, violent, and “harmful to our children” (in Russia the Ministry of Culture refused to issue a screening permit, stating the film promoted pornography). And on the other hand, there are the old-school intellectuals who much like our Western ‘boomers’ and 68- generation state that all criticism of the project equates to censorship. If someone references the #MeToo movement, this group calls them prudes or tells them they have succumbed to the dictatorship of Western political correctness. A group of feminist film critics which published a public letter to Berlinale director Carlo Chatrian objecting to DAU was even accused of writing a донос (“donos”, in Russian = a denunciation). The word reminds one of the show trials used to discredit dissidents in the Soviet Union. And so it happens that critics of the film who question the treatment of cast and crew are called out for censorship.

In a way, this discussion, which unfortunately has developed into a mud-slinging fest between film critics and moralists makes it almost impossible to talk about the ethics of working with non-professional actors.

That is why I would like to suggest leaving DAU out of today’s discussion, to concentrate on the questions that should have been asked during the production process instead. Because one thing is clear: Filmmakers have a responsibility for their protagonists.

Heleen Gerritsen
Director, goEast Festival

Reflections on the DAU Controversy

Heleen Gerritsen covers the ethical issues related to the DAU controversy forcefully and well. In my view, questioning the ethics of the production’s treatment of its living subjects, both human and animal, does not equate to censorship – and I consider myself a fairly radical supporter of unpopular free speech in the current culture wars. Exempting this (or any) project from criticism because its makers are “wildlings” from the East (to borrow Gerritsen’s acerbic formulation) amounts to neo-Orientalism, with Russians once again being ‘orientalised’ by Western intellectuals. And it is jarring to think that artists (filmmakers in this case) should be excused from protocols protecting their living subjects that have been developed over the past 50 years in response to well-known abuses in human social research studies like the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment.

These issues are not confined to DAU, of course. It’s just that DAU is a particularly flamboyant and deliberately inflammatory example. Early documentary filmmakers like John Grierson and Dziga Vertov pretended (and sometimes stridently claimed, especially Vertov) that their films were entirely ‘real’ (actuality footage) when at least parts of them were naively ‘performed’ to appear to be ‘real’ (well known in the case of Grierson, less well known for Vertov). Today we have the popular television reality shows that purport to display the unscripted interactions of supposedly ordinary people, but which are sometimes (or even often) scripted, a fact that usually comes to light only after a tragedy with a cast member, like the May 2020 suicide of Hana Kimura (“Terrace House,” Japan), who was subjected to vicious online attacks for actions on the show that her family says were scripted.

In DAU, we have the opposite: what is ‘real’ (e.g., what has been alleged to be an actual sexual assault) is presented as ‘performance.’ Performance translates to art, art mustn’t be censored, ergo DAU mustn’t be censored. But if this isn’t performance, if it is real, how do we analyse and interpret it? We know that there’s a long history of animal abuse in filmmaking, but what about the abuse of people in films (apart from clearly criminal enterprises like ‘snuff’ films and child porn)? This strikes me as a legitimate, serious, and important subject for scholarly investigation. One-fifth of the way through the 21st century, I see the line between performance and reality, which once seemed easy to define, becoming increasingly blurred, to the extent of disappearing. If this is indeed what is happening, it will be a seismic paradigm shift.

Denise J. Youngblood
Professor of History Emerita
University of Vermont

Состояние кинематографической наивности

Я на стороне тех, кто считает, что претензии надуманны. Есть много фильмов и произведений современного искусства, которые куда более сомнительны в моральном плане (я даже не говорю о юридическом), однако к ним вопросов нет. Такая бурная реакция на ДАУ связана с радикальностью проекта. Там постоянно действует принцип нарушения границы сцены (представления), что даже опытных критиков ставит в тупик. То, что обычно считается подготовкой к съемке здесь не некая ‘реальность’, а пространство тотального перформанса, правила которого достаточно точно прописаны. В каком-то смысле Хржановскому удалось вернуть даже интеллектуального зрителя в состояние той кинематографической наивности, когда актеры и персонажи отождествлялись, а эффекты монтажа и крупного плана шокировали. Только в данном случае шокирует стыд, который становится не личным, а общим (кинематографическим) чувством.

Олег Аронсон / Oleg Aronson
Research Associate
Institute of Philosophy, Moscow

Walking Out

I have followed the project since its inception several years ago, as I am acquainted with the producer from that period, Artem Vasilyev (no longer with the project). At that time I was impressed by the director's attention to detail (I recall seeing reams of drawings and sketches for a period brick wall) and was aware of the depth and breadth of the project. As such, I keenly awaited its realisation. I did not have a chance to see the live show in Paris, although friends that did give positive reports. I believe that this part of the project had artistic integrity. My experience of watching some of (not all – I walked out, fortunately before the rape with a bottle scene) DAU. Natasha convinced me that the film part of the project lacks artistic and ethical integrity. DAU. Natasha was boring, pointless and nauseating in equal measure. Why go to such lengths to recreate the austere, depressing atmosphere of the Soviet Union only to squander it on pointless pornography and boredom?

I did not bother with the longer version DAU: Degeneration and am thankful I missed it. When I heard that the director had hired real Russian neo-Nazis, including one "Tesak" (the nickname – axe in Russian – for Maxim Martsinksevich, a convicted and violent neo-Nazi), I became even more convinced that the project lacked any kind of integrity. I interviewed Tesak for a supplement to the British newspaper, the Mail on Sunday in May 2006. As we talked in Moscow, a black woman walked by. Tesak paused, drew a long and broad-bladed hunting knife from his waistband and said: "I would slice up a black bitch like that." Anyone who gives employment to such repulsive creatures deserves condemnation, not misplaced artistic adulation.1 This is my personal opinion; many friends and colleagues in the film world rave about it. I choose to avoid pollution – ecological or psychological.

Nick Holdsworth
British Moscow-based foreign correspondent and writer
on Eastern European and Russian film

About the Use of Our Ethical Compass as Scholars

I think that we, as scholars, should be especially careful with the concept of ethics as a tool to judge films and their creators, especially in the “short term”, which is usually that of critics and journalists and not scholars. I would rather argue that what we have to bring to the debate is a “long term”, historicised perspective.

In the case of DAU, we can observe that on one part, there was the publicity of the project, stating that “it was all true”, that everything that happened inside the project was authentic. But a scholar’s job is, first and foremost, not to rely on one commentary, but to try to sort out the real historical and artistic process that lead to the creation of the specific audiovisual text he or she is interested in.

Our initial reservation was, on hearing that “it was all true”, that we knew from the start that everything had been filmed on 35mm camera. Not the hidden cameras of Big Brother, but a crew, present and visible, composed of at least three people around an impressive mechanism. This makes it difficult to claim that actors and participants were unaware of the process.

DAU’s complexity resided of course in the vastness of the project, making it almost impossible to view all or even most of it. This difficulty certainly encouraged spectators initially to trust the official and public declarations. But as one of the few who watched all of the feature films of the project as early as January-February 2019, I can certainly say that a spectator knowledgeable about film process and cinema could see that some sequences were clearly and undoubtedly staged. This certainty put the declarations that accompanied the project into a new perspective. A recent interview with the actress Natalia Berezhnaya in Iskusstvo Kino confirmed that many sequences were actually staged in a rather classical way and were discussed beforehand, even though the actors were given a great deal of freedom to improvise.

Finally, if one takes the time to read all the interviews with Ilya Khrzhanovsky, especially those given before the Parisian release of the project and during the shooting in Kharkiv, one can see that he speaks of it as a fiction work and even compares the Institute to an “original method of rehearsal”.

Thus we can see that many of the ethical problems raised around the project are actually due more to the director’s and producers’ communication strategies rather than audiovisual texts themselves or the way they were made.

There is, of course, the problem of “manipulation” during the shooting, and some have accused Khrzhanovsky of such behaviour. But here, again as scholars, we need to define where we draw the line of what would be tolerable or not as manipulation on set. We know that throughout cinema’s history manipulation has almost always been part of the film-making process at some point: as a way of directing actors, as a strategy for resisting outside forces, as a way of convincing people to go along with the project.

The one unavoidable and obvious ethical problem for me in the project is animal cruelty. Filmed and preserved in the editing, there is no doubt about what happened in front of the camera. It is striking to see such cruelty in a contemporary film. But of course, we can also reflect on how the director probably drew on examples from cinema history (Eisenstein and Tarkovsky to take just most famous Soviet directors). Here, I would argue the most fertile approach is not just to use our ethical compass to judge but to try to understand why a contemporary film director is using this specific approach? What are his convictions about his role as a director and about what his oeuvre can make people think and feel?

Eugénie Zvonkine
Senior lecturer
University Paris VIII

ДАУ. Наташа

Точно в классике Кокто Красавица и Чудовище, из фасада здания ДАУ тянутся сверхчеловеческие руки, пытаясь уцепиться за что-то в этом или том мире, ибо в буфетном подбрюшье вынашивается план создания утробной, без средств доставки, бомбы, способной стереть окружающую Институт «нашу родину». План оформлен шампанскими арабесками фиалколонных буфетчиц, подворовывающих рыбопродукты. Сами же сверхлюди выпекаются из местных охранников в гиперболоидной печке сталинского иноспециалиста Люка, наделяющего одну из буфетчиц столь веской французской симпатией, что Наташа погружается в особый подвальный отдел, где лишь накрашеннность губ остаётся посюсторонним пятнышком. Однако любительнице рыбы и раков удаётся так подвильнуть под методические указания хозяина подвала, также вспотевшего от французских экспериментов, что от резонанса со скошенным порядком вещей рождается новый мир, куда и стремятся, как из инкубатора, панические, сверхчеловеческие длани, рожденные ДАУ-проектом.

Киор Янев / Kior Ianev
Writer, Moscow

Are Any of Your Friends Whores?

Ilya Khrzhanovsky is interested in trading in sex as currency and how this relates to power. His first film, 4 (Russia, Netherlands, 2004), foregrounds a sex worker as one of its key characters. When interviewing a potential assistant director for DAU, he asked if any of her friends were “whores”2 and the series has an unusually large amount of (seemingly) unstimulated sex scenes. The sex industry provides a useful framework for understanding the nuances of agency and consent we see in DAU.

In a brothel, a client chooses their preferred sex worker and said worker decides if they accept or decline the booking. If a worker doesn’t have a choice, that’s trafficking which is different. While sex workers act autonomously, forces outside the brothel may be coercive. For example, if you’ve been marginalised from other industries (through injury, immigration status or even availability of other work), your rent is due tomorrow and you need to make x amount of money tonight, you may accept a booking that you wouldn’t normally do.

The way in which this translates to DAU is, say if you’re a driver working in Kharkiv and the last time you accepted a job from the production, it took six months to be paid.3 Normally, you wouldn’t elect to work with them again. But, if there’s no other work available, do you really have a choice? This kind of agency is at the crux of modern capitalism.

Natalia Berezhnaya, who plays the lead in DAU. Natasha (conspicuously absent from dau.com4), confirmed her autonomy and consent at the Berlinale press conference.5 Berezhnaya’s version of events should be trusted, but that truth can coexist with forces within and outside the production compelling her to tell her story in certain ways.

Khrzhanovsky most likely capitalised on pre-existing disadvantages to make DAU. Do the ends justify the means? The end result is shaped by the means used to accomplish it. Khrzhanovsky’s interviews suggest that he wanted to call forth the skeletons from Stalin-era closets in order to exorcise them.6 My reading is that the films don’t condemn or condone totalitarianism, Khrzhanovsky allows this system of government to exist on-set without a value judgement.7 Therefore, the question should be if this neutrality equates to an endorsement. Desmond Tutu would say that it does.8

For some (not all) who entered the world of DAU, this experience answered the question Andrei Tarkovsky asked in Stalker (1979): if you could realise your innermost desires, would you want to? What would this say about you? DAU allowed physicists to become polygamists, old men to embrace young women, weak men to play the strongman. It doesn’t surprise me that some would have preferred to stay in this world, as Teodor Currentzis told The Guardian.9

Do the ethical debates around DAU invalidate the work? Debatable. The debate arises from the fact that, while most directors like to see themselves as the head of the Leviathan, the reality is that there’s room for subversion within the cinematic apparatus. This is particularly true of the women within DAU, who use the fact that the film wasn’t scripted to tell the belligerent men around them that they're not as tough as they think they are.10

In DAU. New Man, neo-Nazis begin a shaming campaign against the scientists and confiscate their alcohol. As they chant, “Sport, Health, Socialism,” Olga Shkabarnya smashes bottles of vodka on their exercise grounds. DAU. Degeneration sees Ksenia Solovyova tell the neo-Nazis that their constant talk of violence and eugenics is boring and proceeds to throw vodka at them. When they try to drag her to a pigsty, Alina Alekseeva throws herself in front of the door while Dmitry Kaledin and Alexey Blinov occupy themselves with fixing a record player.

During Berezhnaya’s interrogation, she constantly flirts with the head of the Secret Police (played by Vladimir Azhippo, who in reality worked for the KGB), challenging his masculinity. She asks if he’s too chicken to sexually assault her. After signing her ‘confession,’ she winks and tells him she only did so because he’s so pretty. Berezhnaya and Solovyova’s actions signal that they’re not afraid, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that these men could beat them to death.

Khrzhanovsky can’t take credit for the strength of Soviet women, and that’s what I see in these films. This stance doesn’t absolve Khrzhanovsky; if he wouldn’t be comfortable being sodomised on the silver screen with a bottle of cognac, he should never have allowed this to happen to Berezhnaya. Despite this, it would be reductive and paternalistic to frame the women in these films as victims and nothing more. Like sex workers, actresses operate within inherently asymmetrical power dynamics. This schema doesn’t condemn them to victimhood, some use it to subvert the rules of the game.

Amanda Barbour
Artistic Director of FEM&IST Films

Ethical Issues Are Endemic to Film

Unlike most (I suspect) participants in this discussion, I’m not a film critic, festival director, or other professional from the cinema world. I’m a historian of Russian culture who has worked recently on a history of Lenfilm, the Leningrad feature film studio, in the 1960s-1980s.11 From this perspective, the discussion round DAU over the last few months interests me precisely because it’s focused on the project’s production. I wasn’t a witness to events during the shoot and can’t comment in detail on them. What I can aim to do is put the attacks on the films, and broader project, in historical context.12

Heleen Gerritsen, explaining her decision not to programme DAU at goEast, described film critics as “people who, for the most part, do not understand how protagonists open up in front of the camera and often say and do things they normally wouldn’t.” Few critics, surely, are that naïve (some, after all, are current or former filmmakers themselves). Yet the production process does often drop out of view. By the way, this isn’t anything specific to films made outside what used to be called the ‘first world’: after all, Hitchcock is still in the canon despite complaints from actresses who worked with him. Rather, the issue lies in the nature of filmmaking itself and the hierarchical and at the same time collaborative way in which films have traditionally been put together. In the Soviet studio system, day-rates for star actors amounted to over half the monthly pay of production assistants. Stars turned up for the minimum of time and were housed in proper hotels, while others lived in basic accommodation such as draughty, leaking culture clubs. Film editors often worked unregulated days as deadlines neared and overtime pay was a rarity, partly because budgets were tight, but mainly because dedication was supposed to be part of the job. As for ‘colonialism’, the very word ‘location’ instrumentalises the sites employed for filming; the Russian term ‘ekspeditsiia’ has a still stronger resonance of a civilising mission somewhere in the wastes. Casual labour and extras hired on the spot got a particularly bad deal.

These generalities don’t justify any irregularities that may have occurred while DAU was being made. But the complaints made in 2010 by DAU employees about long hours, erratic pay, swearing and shouting on set were typical of the Soviet cinema too.13 The difficulty in the post-Soviet world is the increased precarity of all involved. Even directors aren’t salaried, let alone make-up staff, translators, or gofers. Teams are assembled at short notice and disappear when the film is completed (if not earlier). If the consolation for hard and unpredictable work back in the Brezhnev era was the studio marque itself, an independent production company can’t offer comparable prestige. Labour protection is more or less non-existent, and the likelihood of drifting from one poorly paid job to another is high. Being pushed hard by the directorial team was always a fact of life, but now people lack other lines of support.

Exploitation matters; it is hard to make good art in adverse times. But I don’t think one can necessarily draw a direct line between tough conditions on set and exploitation on screen. The films I have seen from the DAU project eschew the cinematic tropes of porn, such as the organisation of the narrative round climaxes and lingering shots of excited genitals. The onscreen sexual activity in Natasha and Sasha and Valera is in the first case lustily mutual; in the second it takes place with troubling interruptions of violence, but in neither case are we seeing facile reduction of the participants’ experience for the viewer’s gratification. Rather, these films are disturbing in what they tell us about an audience’s tolerance of even collusion with what is on screen – in Natasha, up to the level of symbolic rape.

DAU began life as an installation rather than a cinema project, accompanied by at least superficial immersion of the viewers in the supposed world of the films. For that purpose, the production team promoted it largely as an exercise in reality and self-discovery, one imposed by participants (not just viewers, but also the people inhabiting roles on screen) upon themselves. As Ilya Khrzhanovsky reportedly said at the Berlin Biennale Q and A, “This is a project that has therapeutic qualities as well, but it’s a dangerous game, because you don’t know what’s going to happen. If you go to this kind of project, of course it has some kind of liability. Sometimes this space can hurt you.”14 Interesting here is the non-specificity of whose the liability might be (the original Russian was presumably ‘imeetsia’, an impersonal construction meaning ‘there is’). But the implication is that participants (and audiences) were themselves in part responsible for any trauma that results. In a case where this interpretation was particularly problematic – a scene in which the participants were autistic adolescents – DAU’s associates have now shifted their stance. The violence in the scene was staged; “mainly simulated, but in a completely plausible way”. The adolescents were chaperoned throughout their time on set, and their mothers watched the playback.15 Also capturing this interpretive split, Natalia Berezhnaya, the lead in Natasha, has commented, “We have amazing directors and amazing editors, and we are amazing actors,” while also insisting that this was at some level not acting: “We didn't work according to a screenplay; we were living our lives.”16 Thus, the film sequence is at once life itself, a voyage of discovery, and one that is emplotted, shaped, and presented to the public by professionals. If one senses cognitive dissonance here, and perhaps mauvaise foi, the point of interest is not that this particular film project is somehow beyond the moral pale, but that these ethical issues are endemic to film and only now receiving very belated attention in cinema worldwide.

Catriona Kelly
Professor of Russian
Oxford University

To Be or Not to Be

At one point in Marathon Man (John Schlesinger, 1976), Dustin Hoffman’s character has stayed awake for three days. To prepare, Hoffman did exactly that and, arriving on set, explained his haggard and disheveled appearance to his shocked co-star. “My dear boy,” Olivier replied in his most patrician tones, “have you ever thought of acting?”

While the story is often used to illustrate the difference between ‘classical, and ‘method’ acting, it is also about how professional actors have developed ways of handling what happens on set. Ideally, they can give different readings of the same line, they understand how their physicality interacts with the set and the lighting, they can move at the right speed to hit their mark at the right moment, and they can work with unexpected events, seamlessly moving into improvisation when things go off-script. They may draw on their own memories and experiences as ‘objective correlatives’ to create the role but after filming is completed, if they have been recreating traumatic events, they have ways to process those feelings and protect themselves from psychological damage.

In contrast, what most non-professionals have is ‘authenticity’ – the very quality that attracts directors to cast them. They are not so much ‘acting’ as ‘being’. Who could know more about working-class Italian life than working-class Italians? And thus they can sink themselves completely into a role in a way that forms a particular genre of acting. But do they have the equipment to swim back to the surface afterwards?

But even with that ‘authenticity’, non-professionals may need help and there are many stories of directors taking extreme measures to "get the performance". Most of the men in Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013, UK / Switzerland) had no idea they were being filmed until an AD turned up with a release form – which the production had to hope they would sign. Losey’s Accident (1967, UK) ends with a little girl falling over after which we hear the off-screen sound of a car crash. Unsure whether she would be able to act the fall, Losey set up a trip-wire – knowing he would only get one shot at it: she wouldn’t be fooled twice. Unfortunately, another ‘amateur actor’ caused a problem as the pet dog unexpectedly ran off-screen and many viewers assumed it had caused the titular accident.

But perhaps the most notorious example is the anal rape in Last Tango in Paris / Ultimo tango a Parigi (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972, Italy / France). Though what happened to Maria Schneider may not have been a legally defined rape, she insisted on using the word for what could certainly be described as a sexual assault. In detail, Schneider, Brando and Bertolucci all recounted slightly different versions, but they have two notable things in common. First, the scene – and the film itself – damaged real-life relations between the three for many years, but more pertinent to this discussion is the fact that the scene was not fully explained to the actress beforehand. The two men – mistrusting her ability to act the scene – felt that this ‘real experience’ would bring a greater ‘authenticity’.

In DAU, non-professional participants were instructed to ‘be’ rather than to ‘act’ - but over many weeks or even months, during which they would experience things for which they hadn’t been prepared. For years the excluded press luridly reported a mad Trumansky Show, a Synecdoche Kharkiv, or a Park Iurskogo 1953, using the DNA of Soviet dinosaurs to create the ultimate theme park. Few considered how such total immersion might affect the participants. It was as if the dizzying scale of ambition, the superhuman ultra-auteur project blinded them to the reality behind it, implicitly concluding that the end justified the means, that Khrzhanovsky was a kind of parallel to Landau – a genius beyond comprehension and beyond morality.

Back in what one might call ‘the real world of fictional film’ directors may succumb to the same delusion – mistrusting even the ‘authenticity’ of their ‘authentic’ non-professionals. Or perhaps, used to working with professionals who can handle those extreme circumstances, they never consider the psychological harm their methods may cause and later minimise them or sweep them aside as “misunderstandings”.

“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn't stop to think if they should.”

John Leman Riley
Independent scholar

DAU and Its Ethical Shot/Countershot

Unlike their European colleagues, Ukrainian film critics received the DAU project as a scandal. Even before their release, the first two films were accused of being violent exploitations of non-actors, including newborn infants. In a series of articles, Ivan Kozlenko, the director of the Ukrainian Dovzhenko Centre, asked how it was possible that Ilya Khrzhanovsky had been using "anti-humanist" methods in directing DAU while being newly appointed to a managing position of Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center in Kyiv. Soon enough, when the films were published online, Khrzhanovsky was asked by the journalists about the morality of using local orphan babies in DAU. Degeneration. Ukrainian state authorities even launched a criminal investigation against Khrzhanovsky after social media discussions had acquired almost an ostracising spirit.

Among Ukrainian critics, there were those who noticed a prosecutory strain in critiques of DAU. After Kozlenko's initial accusatory articles were published, one's opinions about DAU became a part of "the case", being attached to "for", "against" or "independent opinion" categories. Despite most of the criticism tending toward the "against", there is one prominent statement "for" the project, made by Mykola Riabchuk, a scholar and well-known Ukrainian writer. Riabchuk appeals to the concept of juridical precedent, comparing Khrzhanovsky to the Ukrainian artist Boris Mikhailov and his photographic series Case History (1997-98). Another “pro DAU” statement came from the Ukrainian scholar and translator Andrii Ryepa, and is based on the often proposed "ethical turn", which, in the case of DAU, is showing its results.

One thing is particularly noticeable in discussions surrounding DAU. We find it suspiciously easy to discern the difference between the production of film images – what Jean-Louis Baudry called the "cinematographic apparatus" – and their content, which immerses the viewer. This distinction is used by Riabchuk in his effort to outline the course of debates: "[…] cinema is cinema, and the reality of a film set is far from what we see (all the more so hear) on the screen". But how can we possibly make such a distinction when faced with the DAU films themselves?

In making this distinction we inevitably use metatexts, we read what others tell about the images we are about to meet. Moreover, while watching a previously unknown film, we are still able to produce – albeit incompletely – a kind of metatext around the images that comprise a film. We can, for example, recognise the street on which the film was shot, and see that its cinematic life does not correspond to our cognitive mapping of the space. We can see how a car going down the street and appearing in two shots, may travel in opposite directions. Those critics who ‘“busted’” the scenes of crying babies in DAU. Degeneration as being simulated and not-harmful to the infants due to its simulative origin were drawing on just such a distinction.

But DAU is perfectly prepared for such a desacralisation through years of press-releases, rumours, and stories about what happened and what was said to have happened on set. The apparatus of a classical fiction film, on the contrary, is carefully protected from leaks before the film appears. Professionals who work on such films usually sign agreements of Non-Disclosure Agreements and are bound not to use their cameras on set. At the same time, the DAU apparatus is not hiding but falsely covering up its images, already creating the imagery before the viewer encounters the world of the film.

By using clichéd shaky reality-TV camerawork that reminds us of the pre-existing metatext (authentic sets and costumes, hundreds of non-actors, a closed world with its own laws), DAU creates uncertainty. One of such uncertainty is revealed through the first fight between Natasha and Olia in DAU. Natasha. When both women fall out of the buffet, a second camera in the corridor, meets them, forcing us to remember the reality of the set. They return to the buffet and continue the dialogue which is edited using traditional shot/countershot technique. Then, both cameras alternately zoom in, as if they were hiding the camera operators from the visible field. By hiding the operators with camera movement, DAU reminds us of the presence of the cameramen. The two created points of view seem alternately to transfer to each other the possibility of future shot/countershot editing. The question of what DAU images are constituted ethically is being replaced by the question of how those images were produced.

Khrzhanovsky is not a Soviet history enthusiast but an anthropologist interested in a post-Soviet subjectivity. He constantly appeals to the viewers’ ethical duty, reminding them that what is shown is not “just a movie”. DAU enters documentary cinema territory, not through the ‘authenticity’ of the arranged reality-show-cinema or the precise documentation of everything that happens in the closed pseudo-Soviet world but by simultaneously reminding us of and transgressing the unwritten codes of the documentary. The task of DAU is to make us ask the question, "How were those images made?" and pass it off as an ethical issue. The main question is what sort of ethics do we overlook by so doing.

Taras Spivak
Film critic, Kyiv

Degree of Arbitrary Cruelty

I must confess to not having had an opportunity to watch any DAU materials so far. I became aware of the project during its early phases of filming (two PhD students of mine were involved in its production and editing); I have also been reading reports on the installations and limited screenings that have taken place during the last twelve months. For this reason it would be premature to comment on the controversy and legal actions that it has provoked. Judging from the reports on the initial screenings and installations, however, my general impression is that the DAU project has yet to define itself clearly in cinematic or artistic form. It is still very much at the early stages; and it is not quite clear in what shape or form Khrzhanovsky intends to present the vast quantity of material that has been assembled. It does not surprise me in the least that the project has attracted criticism and litigation; its very premise (if I have understood it correctly) surely involved a degree of arbitrary cruelty. In this way, it differs from other contemporary reality shows, such as Big Brother, which had numerous mental health specialists available to deal with the traumatic consequences. The key question is whether those who participated in DAU were given adequate warning in advance that there might be traumatic outcomes or consequences. Judging from the reports published so far, it would appear that this was not the case. It is doubtful in my view that the artistic value of the DAU project or indeed any project of this type could ever justify the inflicting of trauma or injury, especially on the very young. Then again, right from the very beginning I was doubtful about the conceptual underpinning of the project, certainly in terms of what was publicly known about Khrzhanovsky’s intentions.

Philip Cavendish
Reader in Russian and Soviet Film Studies
UCL SSEES, London

On DAU

We live under the logic which Linda Williams, in 1999, aptly called ‘on/scenity.’ While the logic of obscenity demanded we keep the genitalia and sexual acts hidden, literally ‘offstage,’ under the new logic of ‘on/scenity’ the idea that sex or other bodily experience is a private matter cannot be taken for granted. The logic of ‘on/scenity’ has been substantially amplified in the digital age through the democratisation of image production and distribution. Although the physical explicitness of DAU stirred some predictable moral outrage, it is very much in line with this new logic which sees transgressive behaviour (sexual or violent) and altered states of mind, and their documentation, simply as facets of human experience, given that they were produced and shown voluntarily.

DAU claims citizenship in the digital age in a paradoxical way. It is definitely a project of the post-cinematic era of enhanced ‘on/scenity’, yet it was shot on 35-mm film. Similarly paradoxical is the fact that as a real, lived experiment in time-travelling, DAU reveals the coexistence of Soviet past and post-Soviet present in a sort of non-linear intertwined thicket. When he was asked to which time-frame DAU belonged, Soviet or post-Soviet, Khrzhanovsky explained in his ambiguous manner that the project was about people of our time, who came from ‘that’ time.

Khrzhanovsky initially planned to make a historical film, yet he ended up conducting a real-life experiment for which he selected people with certain qualities and immersed them in circumstances to which they responded in their own way. Thus instead of artistic performance DAU became a lived reality. Apparently the reason behind the change of approach was that it was impossible to represent the past as past when it is still with us. This is why Khrzhanovsky ventured into ‘real’ life territory. Yet, when confronted with the banning of the DAU films in Russia as well as strong moral criticism both in Russia and abroad, Khrzhanovsky had no other line of defence than to insist that DAU was an art object. In this context the qualifier of ‘art,’ in a similar manner to that of religion, functions as a form of alibi that protects from reality testing and holding one accountable. The price for this is the abolishment of Khrzhanovsky’s initial intention to move beyond the art and to conduct the real-life experiment. This inconsistency is not unlike that which was used by Scientology regarding its infamous e-meter, a miraculous device which, it was claimed, could ‘clear’ all illnesses. When the case was taken to court the device supposedly doing the ‘real stuff’ was rebranded as a religious artefact.

Of course DAU, despite its numerous New Age references, is not a real cult. Neither is it a record of a real crime in the same way that the photos from Abu Ghraib are. As in BDSM practices, participants in Khrzhanovsky’s experiment could say “stop” at any moment and had the right to leave the ‘Institute’ (though they could not be re-admitted). They had agreed to participate, and were not captives, totally stripped of their freedom. Yet, this circumstance does not entirely discard the question of crossing the threshold. Moreover, such questions should not be invalidated by the grand narrative of artistic freedom.

We can very well see what ‘really’ happened there. Yet, do we really know ‘it’ when we see it? One has to acknowledge that one is on ambiguous territory and any one-sided approach, of either praise or condemnation, misses the point. Equally misleading is the argument that the participants’ silence and decision not to launch legal proceedings proves something. What it proves depends on one’s stance. For one side, it proves that the participants’ freedom is being further violated, and for the other side it proves that their freedom has never been violated. Such discussion is also confusing simply because DAU is not a BDSM club, but a historical document which both belongs to and reflects concrete social reality. It is an ambiguous diagnostic artifact which only artistic practice is capable of producing; it shows that which, at much greater scale, exists in real life. And how else can we fully acknowledge this darker side of our reality? In other words, we always have to keep in mind the question: is the moral outrage against DAU actually a displaced demand not to show what we do not want to see?

That all the participants allowed ‘it’ to happen in front of cameras says something important about the ‘outside reality’ of which the ‘inside reality’ of the Institute is nothing but a fold. It reveals an inherited ideology in the most elusive meaning of the term, as that which sets the limits of possible and permissible. The diagnostic approach of DAU challenges a rosy nostalgic image of Soviet ‘discoursive’ playfulness, one of the numerous incarnations of which was presented in Aleksey Yurchak’s famous book, Everything was Forever, Until it was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton University Press, 2006). As post-Soviet people, both Russians and Ukrainians, still share these common and mostly unexamined assumptions about what is possible. Russian people just have it harder because, in addition to the inherited Soviet insanity, they have to deal with the heavy burden of narcissistic attachment to a lost empire. Our common (post-)Soviet assumptions are often denied collectively and individually, yet this does not prevent them from affecting reality. Some outraged reactions to DAU are undoubtedly fueled by those energies of denial and the tensions that stem from the living contradictions of (post-)Soviet experience.

So, is the DAU experiment a courageous exploration of the limits of the possible, a non-conformist unmasking of those repressed but active assumptions, or a sadistic abuse of human vulnerability and a shameless exploitation of Stockholm syndrome? Is Natasha a brave woman, who is willing to use her own body to expose what is happening to those forced into silence, into virtual non-existence, those deemed ‘not worthy of being counted,’ or is she a victim of abuse retrospectively rationalising the violence done to her? Is this experiment, in other words, an instance of working-through or of acting-out? Is the pain here transformed or simply transmitted?

I doubt we will ever be able to answer this question clearly and definitively. Moreover, those two polarities of interpretation may not be mutually exclusive. They could, in some sense, both be true and false at the same time. By suggesting this ambiguity I am not preaching a kind of moral relativism. There is always room for simple and direct questions. It is a relief after decades of deconstruction that such questions are no longer discarded as naïve. Yes, Heidegger was a Nazi, and we must have the intellectual courage to face this fact and not to give in to the temptation to dissolve it in smoke-screens of endless différance. But going to the other extremity of moral positivism and totally forgetting the lessons of patiently searching for the answer is not always the best choice.

Of all DAU’s numerous cinematic references (early Soviet cinema’s ‘tipazh’, Jean Rouche’s ciné-ethnography, Werner Herzog’s grand projects, the famous Japanese trial of Nagisa Oshima in which he stated that obscenity is a function of concealment, Dogma-95, the non-professional actors in Kira Muratova’s films, Sasha Baron Cohen’s utilisation of reality-TV, to name just a few) I would like to single out a work of the Polish artist Artur Żmijewski. In his video Repetition (2005) Żmijewski documents his own recreation of the infamous Stanford Prison experiment (1971) in contemporary Poland with more or less the same deplorable results.

There are many differences between DAU and Repetition, most obviously in their scale and style. Żmijewski Kammerspiel minimalism is the opposite of Khrzhanovsky’s gargantuan artificiality. There is also the conceptual difference of the visual-spatial organisation of the setting. To use cinematic references, Repetition recreates the CCTV-like panoptic invisible and omnipresent gaze of The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960, directed by Fritz Lang). In contrast, DAU appropriates the intrusive, present cinéma vérité-type camera of Peeping Tom (1960, directed by Michael Powell). Finally, the other conspicuous difference between the two experiments is the sex ‘n’alcohol permissiveness of DAU, which is totally absent from Repetition. Yet, to my mind, those are secondary variations of the major common topic, which is an exploration of the border between fiction and reality through a real-life game, in which participants obey certain rules, and the documentation of the unfolding of that game.

The crucial difference between the two experiments is the position of the mastermind, who sets the rules of the dangerous game - the author. This position is much more horizontal in the case of Żmijewski, who appears twice in the video, disclosing his essential role as a power figure in the experiment. The first time, he demands the guards impose harsher measures on the prisoners. After this, the violence is escalated until the participants decide to terminate the experiment. The participants’ conversation leading to that decision is also included in the video. The second time, Żmijewski appears in a kind of coda, filmed some time after the experiment, discussing it with a participant. Żmijewski initiates the conversation and proves to be an attentive listener. The former guard relates to him something that can be defined in terms of traumatic experience, confessing that he very often returns in his mental space to the prison. The memories are particularly painful because he played the role of perpetrator. When we look at Żmijewski facing the ‘perpetrator’ from the experiment, which was devised by Żmijewski, we are left with the open question; who is the ‘real’ perpetrator? This co-presence of the voices of the author-perpetrator and the actor-perpetrator creates a horizontal axis of shared responsibility.

In contrast, Khrzhanovsky does not reveal his power position in his experiment; the screen functions traditionally as a fourth wall, creating a sense of a hermetic world of ‘real fiction’. Moreover, participants in Khrzhanovsky’s experiment are not simply deprived of their voices but purposefully silenced by the Non-Disclosure Agreements they signed before entering the project. Yet, the voices of participants are crucial for the experiment to become a working-through rather than an acting-out. Reflection is an essential part of such work. If only one voice, however charming and eloquent, speaks for all, the experiment will remain unfinished. This involves an action in the present time, which would not only consist of giving the participants permission to speak (or, rather, lifting the obligation to silence), but would encourage them to raise their voices by creating a safe space for reflection. This means to ask difficult yet non-inquisitive questions and to listen to the answers with attention and sympathy. To listen in order to understand what they might have to say, and not just to prove one’s point. Neither press-conferences, nor courts are conducive to such reflections. It can only happen in another artistic space, a space, which is inherently open to ambiguity.

It is not that what the participants say might give us relief from the ambiguity. It is not that they will close the discussion with some authoritative and definitive conclusion. It is not that they are capable of providing an explanation of what the experiment ‘really’ was about. This is simply impossible. The ambiguity will persist. But the very gesture of including these people in the conversation, of giving them (or rather not getting from them) their voices, makes a crucial difference. It takes the discussion to the next level.

The ridiculously exaggerated scale of Ukrainian moral panic around DAU, resulting in the criminal investigation of the charge that the film crew tortured babies during the shoot is a displacement of the much more important and real issue. Mykola Riabchuk, the most perceptive commentator on the controversy, pointed out in his thoughtful and well balanced article in the Ukrainian magazine Krytyka that the harsh moral criticism of DAU was used to invalidate the appointment of Khrzhanovsky as the artistic director of the Holocaust Memorial “Babyn Yar” (Kyiv) earlier this year. Yet, as Riabchuk rightly observes, such moral defamation is both manipulative and impotent. The real issue is not who should be art director of the Holocaust Memorial but whether the very construction of the Memorial, financed by Russian private capital, is at all a legitimate project. The territory of Babyn Yar, the site of a Nazi atrocity was illegally ‘rented’ by private investors, with the Ukrainian state having absolutely no control over their activity. Both Ukrainian historians and the Jewish-Ukrainian community expressed a number of serious reservations about the concept of the Memorial, which were not taken into consideration. Thus the moral panic around DAU functioned as a screen, concealing the institutional and political problem which predates the appointment of Khrzhanovsky. The real problem is that the people of Ukraine have absolutely no voice in commemoration of such an important and tragic page of Ukrainian history.

Olga Bryukhovetska
Associate professor of Cultural studies
National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy

Notes

1 From the editors: Maksim Martsinkevich (Tesak) was found dead on September 16, 2020, in his prison cell in Cheliabinsk.

2 https://www.gq.com/story/movie-set-that-ate-itself-dau-ilya-khrzhanovsky

3 http://os.colta.ru/cinema/projects/70/details/16912/page4/

4 DAU. Natasha has raised a lot of controversy as it’s not clear if a rape scene with a bottle of cognac was simulated, the film isn’t available on dau.com. Andrew Ondrejcak reported to Le Monde that he was repeatedly assaulted on set (https://www.lemonde.fr/culture/article/2019/01/19/dau-le-projet-artistique-fou-qui-seme-le-trouble-et-les-roubles-a-paris_5411699_3246.html), he isn’t listed as cast at https://www.dau.com/en/dau-degeneration-18. Neither is Ksenia Solovyova, who was the most vocal in her disdain for the neo-Nazis’ participation.

5 https://www.calvertjournal.com/articles/show/11675/dau-project-natasha-degeration-berlinale-cinema-ethics-krzhanovskiy

6 https://inews.co.uk/culture/dau-russia-controversial-film-ilya-khrzhanovksy-no-regrets-film-project-explained-425799

7 My reading is informed by DAU. Natasha, DAU. Degeneration, DAU. String Theory, and DAU. New Man, watched online to prepare for this piece. https://www.dau.com/en

8 Desmond Tutu is quoted as saying, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” 

9 https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/jan/26/inside-the-stalinist-truman-show-dau-i-had-absolute-freedom-until-the-kgb-grabbed-me

10 As Robert Jay Lifton notes in Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (The University of North Carolina Press,1989) for a threat to be effective, two conditions must be present: belief in the threat and fear of death. The women within DAU believe the threats the men around them make, but they seem to have absolved themselves from the fear of death and use this to disempower the men that threaten them.

11 Soviet Art House: Lenfilm Studio under Brezhnev (forthcoming New York, Oxford University Press, 2021)

12 For the sake of full disclosure: I visited the DAU project in London for several days in July 2020, at the invitation of the production team, and watched five of the films in one of the viewing theatres there. I also wrote a programme essay, ‘Dau and History – Dau in History’. At the time, the intention was to run viewings like the Paris ones, starting in September 2019; however, the plans fell through, and my piece (significantly expanded) will now appear in a book of essays on DAU by various critics and others. At no point did anyone on the DAU team attempt to influence what I wrote or to challenge my views, nor have I discussed my contribution to the present discussion with any of them.

13 I am less qualified to comment on practices in cinema outside Russia, but some of these comments on conditions likely apply to production conditions elsewhere, particularly in the US, where labour protection legislation and unionisation are also at best limited. I have not addressed the more inflammatory accusations made about abusive treatment of participants during the DAU shoot, since I have seen only hearsay and gossip relating to these.

14 https://variety.com/2020/film/actors/russian-press-open-letter-dau-natasha-berlinale-ilya-khrzhanovsky-1203519822/

15 https://seance.ru/articles/molodye-lyudi-s-autizmom-na-semkah-filma-dau/ (29 May 2020). The quotations are from the film’s casting director, Asya Smelyakova, and one of the adult participants in the scene, newspaper editor Demyan Kudryavtsev.

16 https://www.dw.com/en/dau-whats-behind-the-most-ambitious-film-project-of-all-time/a-52555534

Suggested Citation

Aronson, Oleg, Amanda Barbour, Olga Bryukhovetska, Philip Cavendish, Natascha Drubek, Heleen Gerritsen, Nick Holdsworth, Kior Janev, Karol Jóźwiak, Catriona Kelly, Ilja Kukuj, John Leman Riley, Irina Schulzki, Taras Spivak, Denise J. Youngblood, and Eugénie Zvonkine. 2020. “DAU. ‘Sometimes this space can hurt you.’” Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 10. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2020.00010.230

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/

Copyright: The text of this article has been published under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ This license does not apply to the media referenced in the article, which are subject to the individual rights owner's terms.



 

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