What Would You Do?: Maple Razsa’s Participatory Documentary Film “The Maribor Uprisings”

The symposium commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution brought new perspectives and research to the University of Illinois. One of the participants was Maple Razsa (Associate Professor of Global Studies, Colby College), whose new documentary The Maribor Uprisings opened new possibilities for participatory documentary experiences and audience participation. For those who attended, the documentary was an opportunity to think critically about the circumstances and individual choices made in a mass movement. Historically, the documentary traces a three-part uprising that occurred in Maribor, Slovenia in the winter of 2012. Maribor’s then mayor, Franc Kangler, had contracted a private corporation to install a stationary radar system which could remotely track and document speeding cars. In the first month, the system detected 25,000 offenses. Due to the private nature of the deal, over 90% of the earnings from this system went to the corporation, instead of the city of Maribor.

To watch the trailer, click on the image below or click here to be redirected to Maple Razsa’s Vimeo page.

The first two demonstrations were small gatherings around the mayor’s office. However, the third protest, fueled by the fear that the mayor may invoke an immunity clause in the coming election, swelled to over 30,000 people. This was an unprecedented event for Slovenia, which has traditionally been peaceful and with quite distant revolutionary traditions. In the spirit of the direct democracy that helped grow and spawn many uprisings globally, including the one in Maribor, Razsa invited us to also participate in direct democracy, collective decision making, and living with the decisions of the collective group. Razsa argued that the point of this documentary is not to receive an informative, traditional documentary experience, but to really attempt to empathize and feel what it is like to be in a mass movement.

The documentary quickly plunges the audience right into the heart of the Maribor uprisings. In the documentary, sirens, flashes and flares, smoke and crowded streets blur into one scene: protest. Crowds chant “Gotof je” (he’s finished”), directed at the Maribor mayor. A decade earlier, this slogan was used in neighboring Serbia to declare the end of the Milošević regime, signifying a deeper political statement about Slovenia’s corruption and recent Yugoslav past.

Individuals from within the documentary address the viewers directly, saying that viewers are “invited to join us as we record a new uprising, the third uprising, organized on Facebook and called for tonight. You will decide how you will participate.” The crowd swells around the camera, which focuses on a group of men pushing a hay bale. A narrative voice asks the audience: “will you follow this rowdy group with its bale of hay, headed towards city hall, or will you stay on Freedom Square, and interview those who have committed to nonviolence?”

Maple Razsa interjected and mediated a vote of hands to choose where our group will go. By a close vote (17/14), the group voted to stay on the square. Rasza invited the ones who were outvoted to share why they chose to go with the hay bale. Those who chose to share expressed interest based on a viewer stand point, such as “wanting to see what happened.”

As the documentary went on, the audience became much more invested and connected to the experience on screen. Our group concentrated on questions that addressed larger issues addressed in the documentary, such as the assumed dichotomy between violence and nonviolent in mass movements. For example, our group chose to stay on Freedom Square for peace, but the crowd in the square ended up burning an effigy of the mayor, bringing up a question: is disengaging in physical confrontations the same as being nonviolent? Is burning an effigy of the mayor non-violent?

Soon after, the documentary began showing clashes with the police. As the police try to break up the crowd on Freedom Square, people scream and cough, while tear gas canisters can be heard shooting out of their cannons. Images of people pinned to the ground by police are followed by peaceful protestors sprayed in the face with pepper spray. After about 5 minutes, another question asks if the audience wants to stay with the protestors clashing with police, or to seek safety further away from the police line.

This question had a different reaction than the first, seemingly lighter hearted question. The majority of the group chose to stay with the protesters. Those who were outvoted were able to express reasons why they wanted to seek safety. The answers were much more personal this time. Instead of taking a viewer perspective, many of those who voted to leave the square did so out of personal experiences that led them to avoid confrontations such as these. Those who chose to stay did so because of solidarity with the protestors and trusting the police to reign in their brutality.

The documentary goes on throughout the night, following up with arrested protestors and their trials. Even though the documentary stops asking questions that were as heated as the former, the audience still could soon feel the effects of the choices that were made in the Maribor uprisings. In conclusion, the protests led to more than the audience had hoped: the Mayor not only stepped down, but the entire Slovenian government was upended due to rampant corruption.

The Maribor Uprisings led to many people, including myself, to see mass movements as something understandable and familiar. Many people discussed how the documentary allowed all of us to not only learn about the Maribor uprisings, but to feel connected to it. Maple Razsa stated that this was a main goal of the documentary; in a world where atrocities and absurdities from the news wash over us, it is easy to become numb to the circumstances, feelings, and outcomes of the people who are in uprisings all over the world. This documentary engages with global politics in an interactive and meaningful way that allows the audience to visually experience a mass movement.

Learn more about the film here.

Madeline Artibee is an MA student in REEES. She studies the former Yugoslavia, specifically Croatia and Serbia. Her research interests include consumerism, pop culture, and Yugo-nostalgia. 

A Night with Lenin, Joyce, and Tzara: Tom Stoppard’s “Travesties”

On the evening of October 21st, I had the pleasure of attending a performance of Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties, performed by the Department of Theatre here at UIUC. In addition, the play was part of a slew events happening this semester as part of the Ten Days that Shook the World, Ten Days that Shake the Campus series organized by various departments to observe the one-hundred-year anniversary of the Russian Revolution of 1917 that spawned seven decades of Soviet communism. Stoppard’s play centers on the character Henry Carr, a real-life British diplomat who resided in Zurich during the First World War. The play is told in flashbacks of blurred memory, as Carr, already an old man, recalls his time in Zurich when his path crossed with the modernist writer James Joyce, the artist and founder of Dada, Tristan Tzara, and none other than Vladimir Lenin himself. As it happens, these figures were actually in Zurich during this time, and Henry Carr acted in Joyce’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. As the play progresses, elements of Wilde’s play start to find their way into old man Carr’s memories of his life.

The stage at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts

I had little idea of what to expect when I decided to see this play. I’d decided that I wanted to attend more theater productions, and since this one featured Lenin as a character, I was intrigued. I found myself completely swept away for three hours, and I left the theater with lingering thoughts about art, revolution, and modernity. Stoppard’s versions of Joyce and Tzara are more concerned with art and literature than with the war. Meanwhile, Lenin doesn’t seem to understand the world he’s trying to revolutionize, preferring more traditional forms of art over the contemporary movements that have cropped up all over the world. Stoppard highlights the junctures where art and politics overlap, meet, or run parallel, leaving just enough space for us to draw our own conclusions. Since the play is filtered through the memories of one man, it also takes on a more personal, individualized bent. The grand narrative of history, as it were, becomes the hilariously faulty memories of an aging former diplomat.

When I think about the world today, with all the political and social upheaval, I find myself thinking once again about these junctures between art, politics, and the individual’s role in everything. I wonder how these junctures pertain to my own life and the lives of others around me. To some extent, maybe we can’t help but be like Carr, arrogantly placing ourselves in the middle of world events that would otherwise sweep us by. Perhaps we can be one of the few whose art causes ripples for decades to come, or one of history’s “great men.” Chances are we won’t even make the footnotes. I’m starting to think that Carr’s way of thinking has a bit of merit. As the saying goes, we’re the protagonists of our own stories, and Stoppard’s version of Henry Carr becomes the eye of the political and cultural storm brewing in Europe during the 1910s. A hundred years have passed since then, and there are new storms brewing. Unlike Carr, maybe we can try to understand these events that are happening around us, the way the world is changing and why, instead of clinging to the past. I guess we can also go to theater every once in a while, too, and get a good laugh.

Alejandra Isabel Otero Pires is a PhD Candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures. Her research focuses on Soviet film and literature. More broadly, her other interests include the visual arts, science fiction, and horror.

Noontime Scholars Lecture: Deirdre Ruscitti Harshman, “Inside and Out: Landlords in Russia’s Revolutionary Period”

In this well-attended and highly engaging noontime scholars lecture, Deirdre Ruscitti Harshman deftly challenged the popular notion that Russian landlords were solely exploiters of the working class. Utilizing a rich variety of sources, including material from landlord societies and the letters of landlords appealing eviction, Ruscitti Harshman instead showed how the status of landlords was in fact much more complicated. Yes, they often took advantage of their tenants and benefited from the chronic shortages of housing in revolutionary Russia. But many landlords were also struggling to survive and lived in accommodations not much better than those they let out. The money they received from renting even one small room was done to ensure the stability of their families in uncertain times. This meant that many landlords, especially small-scale ones who only rented rooms within their own residence, inhabited a liminal and tenuous space that placed them both “inside and out” of Russian society.

The mass urbanization of Russian cities in the second half of the 19th century meant that housing shortages were a constant frustration for city dwellers. Renting property was soon an important, if not disdained, profession and in the decade before the Revolution, groups of landlords formed professional societies and unions to provide guidance about how to efficiently manage their properties and effectively navigate the complex legal system. Membership in these societies was largely open to all landlords (even those renting only one room) and dues were progressively administered, meaning that the societies soon became an important and powerful voice in questions of housing within Russian civil society. Despite this organization, landlord societies were unable to adequately address the dire shortage of housing and as a result they were increasingly attacked by liberal reformers who called for new taxes and rent caps to improve the housing situation. Both groups claimed to be operating for the public good and the tensions between landlords and reformers illustrate, as Ruscitti Harshman convincingly argued, the richness of Russian civil society on the eve of Revolution.

Private ownership of real estate was largely abolished in 1918 and housing was now theoretically controlled by housing committees made up of residents. But, the situation on the ground was much more complicated. Residents regularly refused to pay rent and housing stock fell into disrepair. Landlords meanwhile quickly established themselves as representatives of the housing committees, meaning that actual physical control of housing remained in the hands of pre-revolutionary landlords, despite the 1918 decree. Soviet officials were unsure of how to proceed – landlords clearly inhabited a social status at odds with Soviet ideology, but were now members of Soviet institutions.

This messy situation was addressed by resolutions in 1921 and 1922 that relaxed restrictions on private ownership and the rental of housing. Landlords were now able to legally buy, sell, and rent property within certain restrictions, but this only made their position in Soviet society more ambiguous. Landlords learned to navigate Soviet institutions and leverage them to their own advantage, but this did not insulate them from the complaints of residents who argued that their properties were managed much like they had been prior to the Revolution. These complaints often had a good deal of power behind them, and soon the threat of eviction was used not by landlords but against them.

Landlords challenged these eviction notices by writing letters of protest to high-ranking officials. Most of the letter writers were women, who argued that renting a room or owning property enabled them to provide for their family and children.

This gendered appeal to the importance of families and children was a conscious strategy on the part of the letter writers that sought to position property ownership as reflective of wider Soviet social norms, but it almost always failed. Although the archival record is fragmented, it is clear that an appeal to family did not save landlords from accusations of being class enemies. Here, as in many other spheres of Soviet society, class was simply a more powerful social category than gender. And yet, despite constant criticism and threat of eviction, landlords remained critical to the management of Soviet housing meaning that despite immense social upheaval, the position of landlords remained both “essential and marginalized” in early Soviet society. In examining groups like landlords who were both victims and victimizers, Deirdre Ruscitti Harshman’s excellent lecture was an important reminder of some of the many continuities that spanned the revolutionary divide.

Ben Bamberger is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History. His dissertation, “Imperial Terrain: Mountaineering, Tourism, and the Meaning of Soviet Georgia,” examines the development of an independent Georgian alpinist community and the limits of Soviet anti-imperialism in the Caucasus from the early 1920s until the late 1950s.

New Directions Lecture – Akos Rona-Tas, “Farewell to Globalization: Varieties of National Control over Payment Card Markets in Post-Communist Countries and the Rest of Europe”

Sociology professor Akos Rona-Tas (University of California, San Diego) visited the University of Illinois to give a lecture titled “Farewell to Globalization: Varieties of National Control over Payment Card Markets in Post-Communist Countries and the Rest of Europe.” It was a continuation of his co-authored book, Plastic Money: Constructing Markets for Credit Cards in Eight Postcommunist Countries (2014). This lecture was very poignant at a time when the Equifax breach aftermath still shapes peoples’ everyday lives. Rona-Tas introduced the global payment card market, the different iterations of domestic markets globally, and the many factors that lead to the success and failure of various payment cards across the world.

Rona-Tas began by introducing one of the principal legacies of globalization. The expansion of financial markets and the use of digital money and cards transformed markets across the world. Huge companies, largely American, experienced enormous growth and control of the international market in the promotion of payment cards, most notably MasterCard and Visa. The anti-global movement that has recently been actualized in secessionist movements, and the rise of populist governments in Europe and in the United States can be seen as an attempt to stop or control the effects of globalization. This crisis of globalization has allowed new and developing markets to expand and use the methods of global markets to build consumer payment cards within the domestic sphere, adding their own political agendas.

Domestic and national cards allow specific communities and groups to contest global hegemony by creating their own network and economy of payment cards. This redistribution of power and influence has placed a strain on the conventional power relations within the monopolizing companies of payment cards (i.e. Visa and MasterCard). These companies specifically have pointed out the threat of national markets as having the potential to completely restructure the global market of payment cards. In his lecture, Rona-Tas discussed the domestic payment card markets of several countries and their relationships with these global companies.

Rona-Tas first introduced the Denmark case: the Dankort payment card. The Dankort was first imagined in the 1970s, and the Dankort card was introduced to the market in the mid-1980s. Due to the Dankort’s early arrival to the the Danish market, the Dankort has experienced many unique protections and exhibits behaviors that are not present in other small economies. In the mid-1980s, Visa and MasterCard did not have the global influence to be able to push the Dankort out of the market as effectively as they could later. Also, the Dankort became protected by legal frameworks, and due to its government support, became known as a cheaper option than international cards. The Dankort remains Denmark’s most prominent payment card on the market, although Dankort has created an alliance with Visa and MasterCard to make international travel with the card easier. Even with this acceptance, the Dankort remains highly protected and centralized to the economy of Denmark, therefore protecting it from international control.

Similar to Denmark, China was another example of a domestic market which became highly successful. The Chinese card Union Pay entered late in the international payment card front in 2012. Union Pay has risen to be the largest payment card in the world; it is available in 42 states and accessible for use in more than 100 countries. Rona Tas stressed that one of the biggest reasons for Union Pay’s production and subsequent expansion was to create financial sovereignty in China from the large international companies. In addition, China saw Union Pay as its own form of surveillance and monitoring of the financial choices card holders made. The Chinese government developed technology to use the data of the transactions in the form of a “social credit database.” This database collects all the public records and spending trends to combat tax fraud and also upholds social expectations of Chinese citizens, such as visiting old parents. These scores have been used for purposes such as getting jobs to finding dates on dating websites in China. Rona-Tas likened this system to the Television show “Black Mirror,” in the way that the financial records and technology footprint that users leave can be used to control and monitor them on the basis of ethical policing and compliance to the state.

Russia has also created a card system, however under different circumstances than previously introduced. MasterCard and Visa were very developed in Russia until the Crimean- related sanctions. These sanctions froze the Visa/MasterCard accounts of over 2 million people in the region. In the backlash, Russia created its own card called Mir. Mir has also built alliances with Union Pay as a means to allow Mir users to use their cards abroad. Today, there are 19 million Mir cards, and the number will probably grow as the Russian government develops the uses of Mir. For example, the Mir cards will be used to dispense welfare.

In his conclusions, Rona-Tas cited autocratic regimes as the one of the most successful at “muscling their way in” with a national card scheme. The success of card markets depends on where the states are in their own historical development, when they introduce them, and the political goals of the states can and will shape markets to adhere to the desired socio-political arrangements. Globalization is not a one-way street, and nations do try to reverse global dominance with the introduction of national card schemes.

Madeline Artibee is an MA student in REEES. She studies the former Yugoslavia, specifically Croatia and Serbia. Her research interests include consumerism, pop culture, and Yugo-nostalgia. 

REPOST: Slavic movie night continues with fairytale film

This article was originally published by contributing writer Thomas Block in The Daily Illini on November 1st, 2017. See the original here.


On Wednesday night, Brian Lim, freshman in Business, found himself alongside a classroom of his linguistic peers in the Foreign Languages Building, the rigid rows of desks evoking the monotony he might recall from an average day’s discussion section.

Nevertheless, the gathering was anything but a dry lecture as the smooth surface of a small, glossy projector — which was tucked away on the ceiling of the tightly enclosed room — sparkled with a soaked rainbow, shimmering from the screen at the front of the dark, intimate space.

Lim along with other University students and faculty gathered for the most recent installment of the University Slavic Department’s Movie Night program.

“I mean, I would’ve come here even if it wasn’t (for extra credit),” Lim said.

The sights may have been pulled from a movie theater, but the sounds wielded an even grander transporting effect. The voices that entered Lim’s ears from the speakers weren’t in English; they were in Russian.

It set the tone for what Roman Ivashkiv, a professor who teaches in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature at the University, hopes to be a consistently immersive experience for students.

“It’s an extracurricular event that (the Slavic department members) organize for our students who would like to maximize their exposure time … (with) language and culture,” Ivashkiv said. “We try to make sure learning not only happens inside the classroom but outside the classroom.”

With this being his third year teaching on campus, Ivashkiv has worked continuously with various TAs on promoting the films of Slavic Movie Night, which he thinks plays an important role in the department.

“It’s a tradition that has existed for a while … one that I would like to uphold,” Ivashkiv said.

The TAs, who supervise a breadth of course levels within the Slavic department, advertise the events by distributing posters. Each one announces showings to students and incentivizing them with extra credit for their respective Russian classes.

Marija Fedjanina is a TA and graduate student in LAS who monitored Wednesday’s movie. The film — 2011’s animated “The Son of the Tsar and the Gray Wolf” — felt particularly close to Fedjanina, who was raised in Russia.

 

“I grew up with the narrative,” she said. “Tsarevitch Ivan, the Firebird and the Gray Wolf. This cartoon doesn’t follow the fairytale … it creates a new one.”

In the film’s 90 minutes, the viewer can point out a hyper-intellectual cat that plays the piano with ease, a sinister prince whose shadow has a mind of its own and a ball of yarn that can shapeshift into a sled.

For someone who isn’t familiar with the language that the film employs, Fedjanina thinks its creative strides can still be appreciated in their own right.

“Even if you can’t get the Russian characters or motifs, (the film) is very comprehensible,” Fedjanina said.

The straightforward plot — which follows a daydreaming farmboy’s quest to rescue a princess from an unwanted marriage — has much in common with those sung by the heart of American pop culture.

Denise Herrera, senior in LAS who attended Wednesday night’s showing, was even able to spot some similarities the film shared with popular Disney movies.

“There were some mirrors that reminded me of ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves‘ and a mermaid like Ariel,” Herrera said.

Though “The Son of the Tsar and the Gray Wolf” predominantly showcased a variety of Russian-speaking characters, the Slavic department realizes the language doesn’t solely encapsulate the scope of the region’s diverse cultures.

“Originally, it was ‘Russian Movie Night,’” Ivashkiv said. “Now we’re trying to broaden that perspective and … be more representative of other Slavic cultures.”

One of those efforts is manifested in the Slavic Movie Night’s listing of 1956’s “Man On the Tracks,” directed by Polish filmmaker Andrzej Munk. The movie, which will be shown in Room G30 at Foreign Languages Building on Nov. 8 at 7 p.m., chronicles the mysterious case following the murder of an engineer at the site of his former workplace.

Both the political statements the film makes about the jury’s symbolic social bias and the innovative flashback technique used for the storytelling were influential in the Polish Film School of the late ’50s and early ’60s.

Munk’s insights may be more jarring than a cartoon’s, but Slavic Movie Night aims to be welcoming all the same.

“We’re just here to chill,” Lim said.

For the program’s coordinators, there’s just as much value in what’s on the screen as in what’s in front of it.

“We hope that one of the immediate effects is that they (students studying foreign language) can continue to work on language as well as on culture,” Ivashkiv said. “At the same time, it’s also a community-building event and, hopefully, a fun event too.”

Kristin Romberg, University of California Press Receive ASEEES First Book Subvention Award

The University of California Press will receive an ASEEES First Book Subvention Award for Kristin Romberg’s book Gan’s Constructivism: Aesthetic Theory for an Embedded Modernism. Romberg is an Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a REEEC Affiliate.

The Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) dedicates $10,000 per year from the Associations endowment dividends for subvention of books by first-time authors who have already secured publishing contracts. Multiple awards up to $2,5000 are made on a competitive basis each year, with funds paid directly to the press.

For more information on the program and to see other recipients, please click here.

Bagpipes, Shawms, and Songs About Knights: Stary Olsa at the Illini Union

On a recent Thursday night at the Illini Union, some eighty people were clapping their hands to a drinking song as the six musicians onstage took swigs from a silver mug in between performing. This is perhaps not an unusual occurrence on a college campus, except the drinking song dated back to the Middle Ages, the performers were a medieval music band from Belarus playing bagpipes and lutes, and the mug, alas, was probably just water.

From left to right: Illia Kublicki, Alieś Čumakoŭ, Maryja Šaryj, Zmicier Sasnoŭski, Siarhiej Tapčeŭski, and Aliaksiej Vojciech

Stary Olsa (the band’s name is taken from a brook in eastern Belarus) was formed in 1999 by Zmicier Sasnoŭski. Working with museums, researchers, and experts in early musical instruments, the band performs with historically-accurate reproductions of instruments used in medieval Belarus, such as bagpipes, shawms, drums, rebecs, lutes, and the tromba marina. Their repertoire includes Belarusian and European ballads from the Middle Ages and Renaissnace, 16th- and 17th-century Belarusian canticles, and the occasional Red Hot Chili Peppers cover – all of which were part of the program that night.

The band is currently on tour throughout the U.S., as part of a year-long tour that includes festivals and concerts in Belarus and Poland. Their performance at the Illini Union, which was free to the public, was supported by the U.S. Department of Education VI grant and sponsored by the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center; the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures; the European Union Center; the Center for Global Studies; and the Robert E. Brown Center for World Music.

Stary Olsa kicked off the evening with an early Baroque song and then a raucous 14th-century tune that practically invited listeners to dance. And indeed, fifteen minutes into the program, audience members were bobbing their heads and clapping. By then, I had completely lost track of all the instruments that the band was using.

But fortunately, vocalist Alieś Čumakoŭ took the time in between songs to present a few instruments and explain their sounds and use. Among the more unconventional instruments was a pair of wooden shoes that were played by knocking the soles together, making a sound like tap shoes but louder.

And also fortunately for those among us not well acquainted with medieval folk music, Čumakoŭ gave an introduction to each song, explaining its theme. There was a wistful melody about a knight returning from war and thinking of his lady back home, an energetic dance tune, a song about a German in his castle, caught unawares by a battle, and a song about death (“Medieval people liked songs about heaven and hell, life and death,” Čumakoŭ said).

At the end of the program, the band made a 500-year leap in time to a more modern musical era. “This song will be rather native for you all,” Čumakoŭ said, and the band launched into a rendition of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Californication.” Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” closed out the night.

 

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Visit Youtube to watch Stary Osla performances, such as a live-recording of “Saltarello,” the music video for “In the Tavern,” the viral video of their cover of Metallica, and more.

For more about Stary Osla, please visit their official website, Soundcloud, or Facebook page.

Sydney Lazarus is an M.A. student at the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center. Her current research interests include educational and language policy in Macedonia.