architecture of concrete as a dramatic setting for post-socialist stories

"Ideology does not just exist in linguistic form;
it also appears in material structures. The Soviet
party-state believed
architecture to have a transformative
effect and promoted communal dwellings in order to mould
a new socialist way of life. What was the outcome?"
                                            - Caroline Humphrey (2005, 39)

In the mid-1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, at the time when social reality in post-communist countries acquired clearer neoliberal contours, the urban remnants has regained the attention of the young generation of film directors' who, as three filmsAndrius Blazevicius' Ten Reasons (Lithuania, 2011), Aik Karpertian's People out There (Latvia, 2012) and Natalya Meshchaninova's The Hope Factory (Russia, 2014)I analyze in this chapter exemplify, started to focus on the ex-socialist architectural infrastructure as a set for present-day stories. In their films, as I attempt to show in this chapter, the ex-socialist materiality of concrete serves an important narrative function by becoming a narrative space. However “[d]efining narrative space may prove more difficult than it first appears", writes Martin Lefebvre.

This is because setting, like action, constitutes an entirely variable conceptual construction. In other words, setting is usually devoid of fixed boundaries; or at least, any such boundaries are indefinitely divisible, somewhat in the manner of Zeno’s famous arrow paradox. In film this difficulty is compounded by the presence of duration and montage. Montage, of course, can fragment space, break down the setting of the action, and thereby expand it (at least numerically). What’s more, a film’s setting may always be incorporated into other, larger scale settings,”

adds Lefebvre (Lefebvre, 21). In case of post-socialist narrative films, this larger scale setting, I argue, is rooted in the history of ideological function of the infrastructure of socialist urban architecture. In the Soviet Union’s ideology, a wide scale urbanization was one of the common practices of a transformation towards homogenization of everyday life. Consequently, with the advent of large-panel prefabricated blockhouse building technology the colossal housing infrastructures were gradually implemented in all the Soviet republics and Socialist Bloc countries and so unification of the socialist urban space reached enormous proportions. As Florian Urban, the theorist of architecture, points out, in the 1950s and the 1960s social, economic and even technological aspects of urban architecture were standardized all across the Union. (Urban, 19).  By a means of an uniformity of the socialist architecture the utopian residential districts were sought to synchronize the quotidian of the “Soviet Man”. 

 A still from  The Hope Factory  (2014)

A still from The Hope Factory (2014)

Given the continuing need for housing in post-Soviet region, many of the similarly-looking buildings of these districts, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, remained untouched and still maintains a strong grip over the social and cultural landscape of post-Socialist countries. However, despite the fact that these uniform elements of the socialist architecture have endured as material enclaves of the Communist ideology, starting from the 1980s the everyday life practices began to disconnect from the socialist ideology which initially was intended to regulate them. In consequence, many socialist and post-socialist narrative films of the late 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s either avoided to tell their film stories in the recognizable urban spaces or shot avoided to give them a narrative function.

It took almost ten years before a new generation of filmmakers employed the ex-socialist architectural infrastructure as a space for their stories. Although in three films I highlight in this chapter the dull images of Socialist blockhouses can easily be endowed with metaphorical meanings, the overall style of all the films is highly realistic. Having chosen to employ a natural lighting, as well as long, mobile and unsteady naturalistic takes shot in actual locations, all three directors try to keep the realities of their film stories look both, convincing and authentic. An overwhelming impression of spatial and social imprisonment is conveyed in all three aforementioned films through the usage of deep depth of field and framing that foregrounds the exteriors and the interiors of the obsolete architectural environment. The ideological matter, as I will show, is treated as a setting for a purpose of socio-political criticism of the present times in these films.