Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Death, Birth Order and Alexander Dovzhenko's Cinematic Visions

George O. Liber in Kinema
"What man shall live and not see death,or save himself from the power of thegrave?" -- Psalms 89: 48

ALEXANDER Dovzhenko (1894-1956), one of the pioneers of Soviet filmmaking in the 1920s, created a cinematic universe with three types of death. His villains died "grotesquely," but his heroes experienced "beautiful deaths, without suffering." (1) The filmmaker considered only one type of death an absolute evil: the "senseless death", a category which included "the victims of war." (2) But for Dovzhenko, the loss of life in his films never became the final conclusion. As exemplified by the grandfather's death scene in Earth, dying constituted an integral part of the great chain of life. (3)
Dovzhenko created these interpretations specifically for the screen. His treatment of death did not express his true reaction to the end of life, an event he experienced frequently at close quarters. Most importantly, his experiences with death stimulated his creativity and appeared in revised form in his films.
Dovzhenko was born on August 29, 1894 ([Old Style]; September 10, 1894 [New Style]) to Petro Semenovych Dovzhenko and Odarka Ermolaivna Dovzhenko in Viunyshche, a district in the small town of Sosnytsia in the Chernihiv Province of Ukraine. (4) The future filmmaker was born to a family of Ukrainian peasants, Cossacks who in the eighteenth century migrated to Sosnytsia from the neighbouring province of Poltava. Alexander became the seventh of fourteen children. (5) But due to the multiple losses in his family, he became the oldest child by the time he turned eleven.
Death was a constant in the Dovzhenko family and in Alexander's environment. Ivan, Serhii, Vasyl, and Lavrin, his older brothers, passed away during a scarlet fever epidemic in 1895. Avram Petrovych (born in 1885), his oldest sibling, expired from typhus at the age of twenty as he worked as a stevedore in Rostov. (6) His younger sister Anna breathed her last breath while giving birth. His other younger brothers and sisters, Gregory, Mykola, Kylina, Pasha, and Motria, departed during their childhood years. Alexander's youngest sibling, Andrii (born in 1910), died when he was sixteen. (7) Of Petro and Odarka's fourteen children, only Alexander and Polina, his younger sister, survived into middle age.
The Dovzhenkos could not come to terms with the deaths in their family. Every new death reminded them of the previous one, and of the ones before that. Each member of the family had his or her own way of grieving. However different their reactions, they all belonged to the same emotional ecological system.
Senseless deaths like these often strengthen religious feelings, which attempts to provide a coherent interpretation of the irrational, the unacceptable, and the painful occurrences in life. By linking life, death, and the afterlife, religion provides solace and gives hope. In religious matters, the Dovzhenko family divided along gender lines. The men remained skeptics. Although Petro Semenovych prayed and crossed himself at meals, he was not very religious. He went to church occasionally, never fasted, and did not have a high opinion of the church or its servants. He considered priests to be "deceivers". (8)
In contrast, Odarka Ermolaivna increased her faith in God with every death. In the course of her life twelve of her fourteen children died; four in one day. These deaths sapped her emotionally and physically. Her hair turned gray before her thirtieth birthday and she cried often. (9) Her children's deaths disabled her for long periods of time. She could not do the "woman's work" assigned by custom and tradition around the house. But her faith remained. In order to prevent the loss of her favourite child, Alexander, she often prayed: "O God, leave me Sashko; protect him from bad people. Give him strength. Give him happiness, so that people will love him as I love him." (10)

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