‘Women of the Gulag’ screened at UC Davis

‘Women of the Gulag’ screened at UC Davis

Photo Credits: QUINN SPOONER / AGGIE

Filmmaker Marianna Yarovskaya touches on Russian history, universal sentiments

The UC Davis Department of German and Russian hosted a screening of Academy Award-shortlisted documentary “Women of the Gulag” on March 13. A question-and-answer segment  with the film’s director Marianna Yarovskaya followed the screening.

Jenny Kaminer, Associate Professor of Russian and one of the organizers for events, serendipitously discovered the movie through a friend’s social media post.

“It immediately resonated with me because I was teaching a unit in my Women in Russia class that focuses on exactly this time: the Stalinist terror and the Gulag,” Kaminer said. “I Googled the director and found her webpage, and I cold emailed her. She responded and quite quickly and enthusiastically. I thought I’m teaching Russian film in the winter, so it would go along well with that class as well. I think it’s a very important topic.”

The documentary portrays the experiences of five women who were arrested and sentenced to time in the Stalin-era forced-labor camps called the Gulag. Six years in the making and filmed in Russia, the documentary uses interviews and rare archival footage. To Yarovskaya, this female-centered narrative has often been missing from historical accounts concerning the Gulag.

“This has never been done before on an international scale,” Yarovskaya said. “The importance of doing a woman’s story is that they have a different perspective. You identify a little bit. I can better imagine myself in the story… You can analyze the female part of society through this men. There is not enough [documentation] of what they went through. And women gave birth, they were ‘slaves of slaves’ [in the Gulag] and it was a very different experience.”

Emilia Bekkerman, a third year sociology and Russian major and screening attendee, noted that discussions of the Gulag in general are often dismissed.

“I speak Russian, my family speaks Russian and I have a background in Soviet history, family and education wise,” Bekkerman said. “To see it first hand and so clearly with these almost 100-years-old women was shocking. [The Gulag] is talked about very theoretically. We know that there was the Gulag and work camps and concentration camps, but it’s all talked about in concepts and theories and not people’s stories. This was the first time I’ve ever heard about it from people and not a textbook.”

Presenting these stories first hand was part of Yarovskaya’s purpose in making the film. By focusing on the stories, the film is able to cross cultural and regional borders. Indeed, the first grant the film received was from the National Endowment for the Humanities called Bridging Cultures Through Film.

“It would be too American if there were experts [interviewed],” Yarovskaya said. “They are brilliant, but you get this didactic voice telling people how they need to feel about this. It diminishes the other people’s voices. You find a great character who is unforgettable and universally understandable.”

Yarovskaya was strategic in the scenes she decided to include in order to fit the “universal experience” angle. One interviewee in the film mentioned one of the survivors feeding a burned rat in her solitary confinement cell, which became her only source of interaction during that period.

“It is about women who survived unfathomable hardships and terror, how they managed to survive and maintain the integrity of their humanities,” Kaminer said. “It’s a very universal. How do we as human beings deal with unimaginable and unthinkable suffering? How do we go on with our lives as horrifically violent and unjust? The Stalin prison system jailed primarily people who did nothing. These questions of innocent people caught up in a corrupt system, forced to endure suffering are universal and go beyond historical context and social context.”

The film also becomes significant in its ability to grant the audience an honest view of 20th century Russian history.

“Russia get a lot of bad press these days,” Kaminer said. “Our Russia program here is two full-time faculty. Part of my missionary zeal is to expand the extracurricular offers to teach people and get them interested in the complex history of 20th century Russian history. I hope students come and learn more than just the soundbites we hear about Russia.”

The film then becomes an educational tool as the film has been screened on college campuses across the country, including Harvard University.

“[Colleges] were the first market that got interested in the film” Yarovskaya said. “It is a perfect tool, a historical document, to tell the story of people who will no longer be alive in a year or two. It is a disappearing history, so why not study it in history classes.”

For Bekkerman, the film directly supplemented what she has been studying in her Russian film class.

“In the other films, we look at how the technique drives the plot forward,” Bekkerman said. “But here, it’s how the people drive the plot and create the narrative. The film we watched from the 1930s was very censored, all propaganda, very happy-go-lucky and Hollywood. It is a movie called ‘The Circus’ about a woman with a black baby, and how open and welcoming Russia[n] society is. At the same time, Stalin was writing the constitution for his regime. Seeing this documentary literally bridges the gap. Everything [was] so censored because [the Gulag] was happening in the background.”

As the film will be screened in Moscow on April 21, Yarovskaya hopes the film will have a dual impact: to motivate viewers to expand their knowledge on Russia history, as well as to reflect on their own.

“For the rest of the world, since this is just a tip of the iceberg, I would want them to go learn more about this topic. Go read the memoirs. Learn more about this part of history. Genocide is a repeating history. For the Russians, I would want them to look in the mirror. If I was living in Russia, I probably wouldn’t be able to see from far away what the problem is. If you have not dealt with your past, you can not build a normal present and future.”

More information about the film and newsletter sign up can be found on its website.

Written By: Caroline Rutten — arts@theaggie.org