“In Soviet Russia, films watch you!” That's a tired variation on a tireder joke, but for a good chunk of the 20th century, it was pretty much true. Under Lenin (who called cinema “the most important” art1) and, more so, Stalin, Russian cinema was nothing if not a veritable propaganda machine. The propagandistic possibilities of film had been realized before, and will continue to be realized as long as people continue to watch movies (forever, hopefully) and other people try to control them (forever, probably), but Russia really went all or nothing with it. As their policies became increasingly oppressive, so too was film censored more and more. The allowed artistic aesthetic in Soviet Russia became known as Socialist Realism, whose only real unifying aesthetic was its depiction of the noble proletariat struggle. American films, hugely popular, were banned along with jazz and (probably) apple pie. Eventually, anything that did not prop up communism, put capitalism on blast, or both for good measure, was not welcome in Russian theaters. It was contraband, and its filmmakers were held responsible.
As oppressive as these chapters of Russia's history were, the art didn't suffer. Well, it probably did, but as long as an artist was willing to color within certain lines, he/she could still break ground. Some Film 101 examples here are Dziga Vertov's Man With A Movie Camera (1929) and much of the Eisenstein oeuvre, though there are others2. Avant-garde though it may be, Man With A Movie Camera can be viewed as a veritable love letter to Lenin's Russia (Vertov loved the communism) with its depiction of a perfect marriage of man and technology. Eisenstein's relationship to communism was more complicated but films like Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Alexander Nevsky (1938) were blindly patriotic as all get-out and practically commissioned by Lenin and Stalin, respectively.
And so it was, for much of the history of the medium in Russia. There was no way around it: either your stuff was government-approved, or you were S.O.L. Censorship lightened up a bit after the fall of Stalin, but Socialist Realism remained the dominant style, and that remained an officially enforced policy. So it's no wonder the Aleinikov Brothers are making those faces in their films. They had been censored their whole lives; they were exorcising a lifetime of pent-up creative impulses. You can only hold back the avant-garde for so long, and the longer you do, the, uh, avanter it's going to get.
Gleb and Igor Aleinikov were two of the most prominent and prolific proprietors of “cinematic samizdat” they dubbed “Russian Parallel Cinema,” which was a countercultural school of avant-garde film that took place in the 80s, 90s, and, you could argue, is still practiced today3. Gleb's definition: “parallel cinema - is cinema, which is made outside the system of corporative or state film production, financed by film directors or sponsors.4” Putting it simply, Parallel Cinema is independent film. But there are certain qualities beyond that further band these particular independent films together: they tend to be short, extremely low budget, and borderline nihilistic. There was a real scene going here, anchored by the brothers' zine of sorts called “Cine Fantom.” Its artists were striving to, as Gleb put it, create “a true national culture, which would unite artists of many different orientations,” because, as far as these artists could tell, there was no real culture to speak of5. Many critics, censors, audiences, and even fellow filmmakers all balked. The Aleinikovs grinned. Can you blame them?
The Brothers Aleinikov were born to civil engineers in the mid-60s. They went to school for engineering themselves, Igor to the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute and Gleb to the Moscow Engineering Construction Institute. Somewhere along the way, they began compiling bizarre films out of footage both found and shot with their 16mm camera in what might as well have been their backyard. There is not a whole lot of other information out there about them, but their work as the founders of Russian Parallel Cinema speaks for itself. Their films, by turns silly, violent, and dramatic, operated in stark contrast to Socialistic Realism's happy tales of prolific proletariat. Some, like Tractors (1987), which turns the concept of collectivization (the Soviet policy that consolidated all private land into public farms) on its head, even take on the propaganda explicitly6.
In Post-Soviet Russia, many figures from the Parallel Cinema scene have assimilated into the mainstream. Gleb Aleinikov, in fact, runs the second largest TV network there7. Russian Parallel Cinema operated, by early definition, outside of the mainstream realm. It was not necessarily the most influential or palatable movement and, as a result, is often relegated to a footnote or a parenthetical aside. You could argue all day about whether these films are worth watching, but there is not a fraction of a doubt that they were worth making. The Aleinikovs' films work great as experimental film but better as a symbol of the man's inability to permanently stifle, smooth, or otherwise govern art. You may not speak Russian, and I have a sneaking suspicion that these films would not be especially coherent even if you did. But freedom of creative expression is a universal language, and it's spoken beautifully here, in all its weird, joyous, and uninhibited glory.
2Many others, in fact. It's borderline insulting to boil down decades of brilliant Russian filmmaking to just Eisenstein and Man With A Movie Camera, but like I said, that's the Film 101 version. That's a different article for a different day.
3Yurchak, Alexei. "Suspending the Political: Late Soviet Artistic Experiments on the Margins of the State." Poetics Today 29.4 (2008): 713-733.
5Lawton, Anna. Before the fall Soviet cinema in the Gorbachev years. Washington, D.C: New Academia, 2004. Print.
6Lawton, Anna. Before the fall Soviet cinema in the Gorbachev years. Washington, D.C: New Academia, 2004. Print.
7Igor, unfortunately, died in a 1994 plane crash.