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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Katyn: more than a movie

As Moscow continues to score victory after victory in the geopolitical space it considers its own (Kyrgyzstan, Crimea to name two) it is not surprising to see how easy the Kremlin was let off the hook in the wake of the recent Katyn commemorations and ensuing plane crash. No, I’m not saying the KGB-FSB actually took out the Polish president’s twenty-year-old Tupolev. That would be way too much and overtop.... even for Putin.

But for what did the media praise Russia in the wake of the 21st century Katyn disaster? Transparency? Speedy investigation? No. For broadcasting a movie about the 20th century Katyn massacre on Russian State TV. And not just once. Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda’s film “Katyn” was aired twice after Lech Kaczynski and 95 others perished. Wow. How utterly humane. By broadcasting the film twice in prime time, Russia has somehow atoned for the massacre seventy years ago and made everything wrong right again.

I recall the Ukrainian premier of Andrzej Wajda’s film Katyn in Kyiv in 2008. It was a year of breakthroughs in Ukraine. The country was only beginning to come to terms with the darkest pages of its Soviet past, including the Holodomor that took X million lives in 1932-33. After the screening of Katyn, I was surprised to see what a profound impact it had on the post-Soviet viewer, who either a) knew nothing about the Katyn massacre, or b) believed the Soviet propaganda line that the Nazis executed thousands of Polish officers in Katyn. (And Kharkiv too. For the massacre of 22,000+ Polish officers was not limited to the forest outside of Smolensk.)

Growing up in Toronto in the 1970s, I recall my father taking me to the Katyn memorial at the foot of Roncessvales Avenue overlooking Lake Ontario where Ukrainian Canadians joined our fellow Canadians of Polish descent in honouring the memories of victims of Communist war crimes. At the time, the Soviet Union maintained that the Poles were massacred by the Nazis.

In Canada, we knew the truth decades ago. It’s only coming out now in the former Soviet Union and it’s like pulling teeth. It takes crashing planes and dying presidents. But it’s is going to take a lot more than showing a movie on Russian State TV.

I remember coming away from Wajda’s “Katyn” feeling like I had seen the film somewhere before. The execution scenes evoked a response similar to Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” when Jesus of Nazareth is lashed forty times. Forty means forty, but Gibson’s forty were a little too much for some people. So too during Wajda’s film you may feel like screaming “Okay!!! I get the point!!!” as the executions go on and on and on... but that is perhaps the “victims’ right” in the artistic portrayal of horrendous injustice and mass murder – the survivors and descendants decide when enough is enough. There will never be too many films about the Holocaust. And they can never be shown often enough in Germany, Nazi or not.

Then I remembered where I had seen Wajda’s “Katyn” before. Or at least something so similar that it can’t be a coincidence. Did Wajda purposefully copy the execution scene? Then again, there are only so many ways to shoot thousands of people with conveyor belt efficiency.

The movie is a little-known film by fairly well-known Russian director Aleksandr Rogozhkin. He’s the director who made the popular “Peculiarities of National Hunt” and “Peculiarities of National Fishing” vodkafests in ’95 and ‘98. The hilarity of those films stands in stark contrast to Rogozhkin’s 1992 film “Chekist” that shows how the Bolsheviks actually established rule in Russia. As in “Katyn,” Soviet justice in “Chekist” is meted out summarily by pistols. Over and over and over again.

So the Kremlin does not have to turn to foreign films to tell true tales. But you won’t see “Chekist” shown on Russian State TV during prime time. That’s too bad, because Russian won’t change until “Chekist” is aired like “Katyn.” And both are shown over and over and over again...

"Chekist" (1992) - 2 minute preview

"Chekist" (1992) - 8 minute preview

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