Seminar and Film Preview

Thank you everyone who came to my seminar this Tuesday.

At the beginning of the presentation, I gave a questionnaire to determine how the audience rates on the Pyramid of Happiness. Everyone failed.

I am including the questionnaire here, along with the text of the seminar. In my next post, you will be able to see the trailer to the film.

Where Do You Place on the Pyramid of Happiness?
Notes of a Filmmaker/Participant-Observer in a Radical Ukrainian Sect

Gregory Gan

            On the palm of the earth, stands the city of the sun.
            No bad weather or bandits, the city is immersed in the world of kindness
            A world of love; the kingdom of wisdom, in the city of the sun

            Look closer friend, who is your friend and who is your foe?
            Who obscures the sun by clouds, creating darkness,
            Wake up!

            If you want to live there, creating sunny days of life,
            Look for your neighbours in the city of the sun.
            Only a real person will be your friend forever,
            Happiness will spark for all friends, in the city of the Sun.

This is a translated quote from the song, City of the Sun, composed by Yura Davidov, the founder of the sect, “PORTOS,” The Poetical Altruists for the Development of the Theory of Universal Happiness. 
            So imagine an idyllic village outside of Khiarkov, Ukraine hosting the modern-day Theoreticians of Happiness. Imagine a country road along a scenic pond bordered by ivies. Children play on the road, villagers throw in fishing lines. At the end of the line, a muddy entrance to a dilapidated property. A large pyramid is painted on the garage. A dog on a chain barks at the entrance. A garage, a shed, a pile of pipes and metal scraps. Every structure has a name. The shed, “Archimedes,” the latrines, “Stalin and Yeltsin,” the main house, “Terem,” an ancient Slavic term for “Hearth,” the upturned truck cabin, “A Dog’s Happiness,” because underneath, there are bowls of dog food. This is a farm that raises pigs and has a herd of 35 cows. They distribute milk to neighbouring villages. Their goal is Universal Happiness.
            I enter the main house, passing through the tiny, soiled kitchen smelling of gas and enter into the main room. The space is decorated with banners and slogans from floor to ceiling. The slogans read, “Death to Thievery,” “Honour the Heroes of Labour”, “First think of your country, then think of yourself.” I see this slogan on my ceiling every  time I open my eyes in the mornings. I share my bedroom with three other men. We sleep in our clothes, smelling of manure. Flies abound, and rats scratch at the walls. Not that there is much sleep to be had. We work long days, 14-18 hours, not to mention our mandatory attendance at nightly meetings, which often take us past midnight or 1 a.m. We get up at 4 a.m.
            This is how members are introduced into the structure of the organization. Smoking, drinking and swearing are prohibited. There is a dress code, a vest to carry all the essentials; a cell phone, to immediately connect with other members; a notebook, to write down progress reports on all the deeds that we have done throughout the day, the week, our lifetimes. A flashlight, a hat, a long-sleeved shirt, pants; no shorts, so as to remain decent, because sexual relations are also prohibited here. The temperature is hovering just above 40 degrees Celsius.
            We are prepared because in times of war, one must always be ready for battle. And we are fighting an ideological war against the tyranny of those with a lower degree of Happiness. Those who try to poison the masses with alcohol and tobacco. Those who are in power, and who attempt to dictate how we should lead our lives. But we are vying to be Real people, Great people who are going to enter into history and who will live eternally. Our happiness is classified according to the number of good deeds we have done in our lifetime, with the subtraction of all our mistakes. We can see our placement, our ranking in the hierarchy of the organization, as well as the ranking of every individual on earth on the Pyramid of Happiness.
            So how do you rate on the Pyramid of Happiness?
            If you have filled out the questionnaire that I have passed out at the beginning of the seminar, exchange it with your neighbour, and they are going to rate your level of happiness. I will play a few clips to answer some of the questions posed in the questionnaire. The person who appears in front of the camera is Tamara Kostuk, the current leader of the sect and the main character appearing in the film.

Background and History
            Two summers ago, while making my last film in Moscow, I met the members of the organization at a political rally. They were friendly and personable, and they handed me a giant volume of poetry, graphics and illustrations entitled “The Theory of Happiness.” Coincidentally, I have it right here. One participant who stands out in particular was Ulia Privedennaya, who was a defendant in a complicated court case, being persecuted by the Russian government for the formation of an illegal, armed organization, for violating minors, and for carrying unlicensed weapons.
            The organization was founded in Moscow by Yura Davidov in the late 1980s. Its basic ideology hinges on the premise that there are a few Real or, Great People , rating at the top of the Pyramid, who will become part of eternity, and the rest are classified as non-humans, rating at the bottom. The Great few include Jesus, Aristotle, Albert Einstein, Tomas Companella, Mahatma Ghandi, Vladimir Lenin, and Mikhail Gorbachev. A quality of eternity is attributed to each mentor based on his or her attempts to create a brotherhood, a utopia, or a universal principle. Laws of nature determine the way that objects interact. Thus, laws of nature are also applicable to how humans interact. If we do not follow these laws, nature punishes us. Every new revolutionary law that is introduced; meets resistance. And like Galileo, who was persecuted for proposing that the earth revolves around the Sun, the new social order proposed by Davidov must meet resistance before being accepted as an idea of true genius. This guru recruited participants promising them a utopian dream.
            They were young university and high school students, mostly women, who agreed to participate in building the City of the Sun. The youngest participants were just 14 when they entered the organization. They are now in their late 30s. In the early 1990s, over 150 members as well as paid workers, lived and worked in an industrial hangar in a village just outside of Moscow. They sustained themselves on delivering food to neighbouring Moscow suburbs. But they also conducted charitable activities; distributing free food to war veterans and educating troubled youth who escaped from the homes of alcoholics and drug abusers. They would hold collective activities, such as the yearly exercise, “100 kms in 24 hours,” where each participant had to make a 100 km run. They walked on charcoals, boxed, practiced karate, organized film projections, attended political rallies, and carried out brainstorming sessions to learn on how to resolve the crisis looming over the nation. Or so the story goes.
            In December 2000, RUBOP, the Russian Institution for Fighting Organized Crime, invaded the City of the Sun lead by Yura Davidov in the village of             Mashkovo. According to the court case, they had confiscated mines, grenades and rifles. They had arrested all the participants. Davidov and four other members were immediately charged for forming an illegal, armed organization, for violating minors, and for conspiring against the state. Each person served over five years in various prisons or psychiatric institutions. Yulia Prividennaya was being persecuted under the same case, risking a prison sentence of 12 years. It was widely accepted amongst the Moscow dissidents that the affair was entirely fabricated by the Russian authorities, and that due to the group’s naiveté, they had unwittingly becoming political prisoners.
Myself as a Filmmaker.
            Last year in March, the project “The Theory of Happiness” was accepted to a master- class in Brussels, Belgium called Sound Image Culture, that was being conducted by Flemish artists and anthropologists. The program was geared towards helping ten participants in the process of making a personal, subjective ethnographic film. 
            My previous ethnographic work focused on women’s narratives during profound social transformations in Russia at the time of the perestroika. It was my goal to convey a particular, democratic ideal espoused by my participants. However, in this film, the goals of the organization I was going to portray seemed contrary to my very base beliefs. Despite my best attempts of cultural relativism, when I first met P.O.R.T.O.S., I felt a mixture of pity for their idealism, and indignation at their motivation behind a self-imposed Spartan, communist club. As a starting point, I was not planning to study this group with blind fidelity, but rather, with a goal of achieving an understanding of where we want the film to be. They knew I was not about to make a promotional film, and I believed everyone could benefit from the perspective of an ethnographic filmmaker who has also agreed to volunteer on the farm.
            During our workshops in Brussels, we discussed how all cinema measures the distance. It measures the distance between the filmmaker, the participants and the audience. At one extreme, we have the type of supposedly “expository” documentary, where the filmmaker is absent and the narrative is didactically imposed on the audience; at the other, a navel-gazing approach where the filmmaker becomes a central character, obscuring his or her participants. Both of these seemed unsatisfactory for the style of film I wanted to make. 
            I wanted to find methods that allow for negotiation at the level of filmmaking to take place in order to create a dialogue between myself and the participants. The way I did this was by handing a second camera to my participants, and by allowing myself not only to appear on camera, but to be a participant as well. This way, all the conflicts of the film were going to first run through me. After all, the only power the filmmaker has is that of generosity — of allowing his or her vulnerability to appear either behind or in front of the camera. 
            But I was also concerned about several comments I had received before the shooting began. Interestingly, I was asked why I was making this film about happiness. I would answer now that I was curious, intrigued, I wanted to test myself, to taste the absurd, to pursue a larger idea that I saw behind the film subject. I was also warned that that my subjects are dangerous, and that I should protect myself psychologically.
            And last summer, over a period of three months after leaving my Flemish haven, I began shooting the film in Russia (documenting the unfolding court case), and the Ukraine (living and working on the farm, as a condition for filming).

            So how did it happen that these Theoreticians of Happiness came to be? How did Davidov gain followers with his illusions of grandeur, his ecclectic, graphomaniacal, schizo-discourse of jumbled poetry, non-sensical graphs and bad illustrations?
            Davidov was born during the epoch of the “Thaw” in 1956, the beginning of the process of de-Stalinization, and a liberal era that attempted to redress many injustices committed by the Soviet state. His father, according to the sect, was a political prisoner of the GULAG. In popular imagination, especially amongst the intelligentsia, political prisoners were considered martyrs of the Soviet state, who suffered innocently for a just cause. Young Davidov studied engineering and became a junior commissioned officer in the Soviet army handling technical equipment. After working for some time in the army, Davidov became increasingly secluded, found sporadic employment and focused most of his time on writing.
            According to Alexei Yurchak, “During late socialism, especially in the 1970s and early 80s, it became increasingly common among some groups of the last Soviet generation, especially children of intelligentsia families…,to give up more sophisticated professional careers for occupations that offered more free time. The more extreme and telling examples of such jobs included boiler room technicians (kochegar), or street sweepers (dvornik). These jobs kept them busy for only two to three night shifts a week, leaving them plenty of free time for socializing, or for pursuing other interests.”
            Yura Davidov, the founder of the sect, wrote most of the texts for the “Theory of Happiness,” while employed in menial jobs during the early 80s. This type of hermitic isolation allowed him to pursue many interests, studying, for example, Buddhism, or reading everything from Pythagoras to Companella. But the pursuit of eccentric interests is a double-edged sword.
            In the late 80s, Davidov was in his mid-30s. He was undoubtedly a charismatic leader who was able to convince students to abandon their former lives, their families and friends, to enter into the organization. He was seen as a martyr and a dissident, winning the hearts of young people astonished by the social and political upheavals of the perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Davidov wins the trust of Tamara Kostiuk in 1990, and she joins the organization at 17. Tania Lamakina drops out of university and joins a year later when she is 19. The same year, Andrei Petrov, thrice married and divorced at 23-years-old, joins the organization. The same year, Zhenia Privalov leaves behind his wife, a young daughter and a factory job. A year later, Nadia Chetaeva, 14, leaves her family and joins the organization. Now, these young people are not so young, and occupy the highest ranks in the organization.
            Next, I want to talk about several ways of conceptualizing this project. Currently, I am exploring three conflicts that I would like to bring out in the final film:
  1. Primarily, I see a tension between larger power structures and the inner-circle of sect members. I want to explore the way situated actors reacted to the collapse of the Soviet Union in perversely reproducing its ideology and principles on a scale of a small, radical organization. However, I argue that despite its extremism, the sect reflects a very contemporary social crisis, which allows for alternative lifestyles to take on grotesque and violent forms. I see this phenomenon as an analogy to the present-day political crisis in Russia.
  2. Secondly, I see a critical conflict between the ideology of the organization and reality outside the gates. Here, I am thinking of the basic hierarchy of sect members, and the way sect members conceptualize the outside world, which includes sect workers, sect sympathizers, neighbours, strangers, and enemies.
  3. Thirdly, and on a personal level, I explore the way members of authoritarian structures attempt to psychologically manipulate the sense of identity of their participants in order to subordinate them to the organization.
The sect members think of themselves as the last vestige of the ideology of the Soviet Union. They valorize Lenin, hope for Ukraine and Russia to reunite according to the Soviet model, and incorporate many symbols of the communist past, such as songs, rituals and sayings into their vernacular. Contradictorily, they also espouse the ideals of the perestroika – glasnost’ (which is discontinued censorship from the state), democracy, parliamentarianism, and praise Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of these reforms. How can these coexist? Well, let’s just say they’re illusory, but they allow interesting things to be observed.
            There is glasnost’ in the organization. In other words, the leaders can tell their subordinates exactly what they think of them, and every fact or infringement must be reported to the higher-ups. There is democracy. This means that each member gets to vote, although the number of votes assigned to each member is done according to how they place within the hierarchy of the organization. Tamara gets 29 votes. I get 0.3 votes. There is also parliamentarianism, where there are supposedly two political parties comprising of sect members, which compete against each other. And indeed, all the central ideas of the perestroika abound, but they have become pastiche. They are perverted and skewed; reinterpreted to serve the needs of the power structure of the organization.
            And actually, the incorporation of Soviet symbolism and aesthetic is an interesting strategy to establish historical continuity between the past and the present. Many have noted a type of historical amnesia amongst the widespread Russian public. It has been argued that the state has an absolute monopoly on symbols of the Soviet past. This method of rewriting history to serve dominant discourses is extremely effective especially because enacted by an autocratic government. Any measure of restitution or redress for former crimes of the state is stifled, instead, it has now become punishable by law to negatively comment on the Soviet Army’s involvement in the Second World War, for example. And history textbooks commissioned by Vladimir Putin, state that the GULAG, a system of Soviet concentration camps, was a historical necessity.
            In the Soviet epoch, exodus, or the emergence of alternative forms of living were seen as a form of subversiveness to the socio-political apparatus of late socialism. Paolo Virno, for example, understands exodus as the coming into being of an alternative public sphere, autonomous from state administration or control from the side of capital. This is simultaneously a gesture rejecting the former system, and the implementation of a new community. However, the gradual disappearance of the public sphere in Russia in the 1990s, and increasingly corrupt and barbaric market capitalism, allowed for radical alternatives to emerge and become tolerated. I contend that an alternative public sphere could not exist in Russia. Forms of resistance always pick up grim and somber undertones, since official opposition is not tolerated within the autocracy of the current administration. Democratic activists are arrested and imprisoned; members of the opposition are not allowed to register for elections. Any form of resistance becomes clandestine, subversive and isolated, and picks up radical, extremist forms.

            1. During my stay in Moscow in July, Ulia’s trial was picking up momentum in the press and in the public eye. PORTOS members became a permanent fixture at all the political rallies. Simultaneously, they were drawing support from the brightest and the most visible human rights activists in Russia. Ulia was defended by Mikhail Trepashkin, a former KGB member and a prisoner of conscience. Amongst the supporters of the sect were, Sergei Kovalev, the founder of Human Rights Watch in Moscow, Amnesty International, Michael Schwitz, the Moscow correspondent for the New York Times, and Ludmila Alekseeva, who besides Solzhenitsyn is the most prominent dissident of the Brezhnev era. PORTOS held support rallies attended by over 200 people, a dubious affair in Moscow, seeing how most demonstrators end up under the baton of militia officers. They organized press conferences with international press coverage. The verdict was to be announced on July 28th. That morning, Ulia had to pack a bag of essentials that she may have needed to bring to prison, if the verdict was returned “guilty.” On this date, I was filming Tamara in the Ukraine. She received a phone call at 10:30 in the morning. The voice on the line said Ulia was found guilty, but under a different statute, and her punishment was only 4.5 years probation. Tamara reacted to the news that her colleague and friend, the first participant she had recruited to the organization 21 years ago has been let off the hook with the words, “Bastards! Damned pigs. Those jackasses aren’t going to put her behind bars? They ruined such an experiment.”
            2. The ideology of the organization is always in opposition to the outside world. A simple example can be seen in the relationship of sect members with their hired help. Hired workers come from various parts of the Ukraine to the farm to make ends meet. They are paid from 33 to 50 griven per day, which translates to about $3 Canadian. They are recruited through newspaper ads to live on the territory of the farm and work for a period of several weeks.
            Their working and living conditions were deplorable. Up to ten men slept in a shed of approximately of 12 by 20 feet, and made of mud floors. There was no running water in the house, and the latrines were set up right outside the main door. Women stayed in a separate house, with the bathtub of their bathroom serving as an improvised milk refrigerator. At the peak of the season, there were over 15 hired workers. There were several hay collectors; two caretakers and a night watchman who fed the animals, a shepherd, a cook, and a milker. After their work period elapsed, workers almost never returned. The big problem here, is that workers almost always smoke, drink and swear. If they are caught, they are deducted their daily wage.
            Let’s go back to the Pyramid of Happiness. According to the ideology, those who poison themselves with nicotine or alcohol, are leading a destructive lifestyle and only thinking of their individual interests. And if they spend their time drinking and smoking, when will they think of the interests of the nation? Sect members consider them non-human, in contrast to those who strive to be Great humans, and who wish to enter into life eternal. Every month, workers of the farm would have to take part in a line-up; an organized meeting where they would be awarded prizes, or dealt punishments. The winners - those who have contributed the most to the labour and organization of the farm, are able to sit down for the duration of the 3-4 hour meeting, and are awarded various treats, such as fruit, desserts, and tea from a samovar. The losers have to remain standing, and accept punishments for breaking the discipline. They would have to wear a butterfly net on their heads; hold a giant plush monkey and listen to reprimands in the form of speeches or Soviet propaganda songs.
            I had made friends with almost every worker during my time on the farm, periodically sneaking away and smoking cigarettes with them. Amongst the workers, I found my confidantes.
            3. I have become a member of a sect. And PORTOS is a sect in the classical definition: It is characterized by the following psychological elements: members 1) have a shared belief system, 2) sustain a high level of social cohesiveness, 3) are strongly influenced by the group’s behavioural norms, and 4) impute charismatic (or sometimes divine) power to the group or its leadership. In its political organization, I see the difference between a commune and a sect, in that the former attempts to distribute power horizontally, whereas the latter has an absolute hierarchy of where each individual can be placed. Ontologically, they attempt to find simple formulas to complex, or irresoluble questions. Socially, they are outcasts.
            At the time that I was filling the questionnaire, Tamara would often get up around 5 a.m., and spend an entire day trying to educate me on the ideology of the organization. And when a senior member talks, it is against the rules to interrupt. Tamara was able to talk for hours, and many days, from early morning until late at night, I remember having spent listening, and occasionally filming her monologues. When I could express myself, it had to be for longer than 10 minutes, since according to the sect, every thought lasts for at least 10 minutes.
            Farm work was usually demanding, and lasted from dawn until night time. My work included loading manure onto a flatbed truck; working in the fields to cut and carry hay to the farm on a tractor, or spending the day walking the herd of 35 cows to pasture to graze. But the most dangerous aspect of my experience by far, was mental and psychological cohersion. Overworked and underslept, it was easy to slip into a state of apathy - while I was constantly on edge because I had to feel in control, simultaneously, I stopped responding spontaneously to situations.
            In this state, I was often told that I wasn’t alone in the world. That there are always friends amongst PORTOS members who will do anything for me. I was often chastised or berated for making “mistakes,” although more passively than other members, because it was explained to me that that is how I could become a real person. My response was to use the one weapon I had - my camera. Often, I relied on it more than anything, in allowing to distance myself enough to think that I just had to get through this for the benefit of the film. I saw people around me lose every facet of individualty under the dogma of the sect, enthusiastically regurgitating phrases pounded into their heads. Whatever originality was in their statements was fed to them through Yura Davidov’s writings and teachings.
            Since PORTOS members follow the logic of natural laws, they prescribe to ethical norms according to the law of justice. This law follows the logic of 1st grade division. When someone does a good deed, and another person answers with another good deed, the result is also good. Just like dividing a positive number by another positive. If one does a good deed, and another commits a bad deed in response, the result is a negative. According to the logic, if someone answers a bad deed with another bad deed, this amounts to good.
            And that is how I found out about the system of punishments. Moreover, since the left hemisphere of the brain corresponds with our mathematical, rational and intellectual functions, and the right hemisphere is responsible for our emotional, creative impulses, anytime we make mistakes, it is the right hemisphere wanting an instantaneous high - this is why people smoke, drink and have sex. In order to be great people, we have to foresake these instantaneous highs, but everyone makes mistakes, so the right hemisphere must be punished. PORTOS members carry out self-flagellation in the form of slaps on the face. The number of slaps range from single-digits to the hundreds. Moreover, higher-ranking members can discipline lower-ranking ones. After a while, Tamara stopped sugar-coating my reality. I saw men crawling on their hands and knees in front of her. She told me that 200 whips of a jumping rope is not uncommon for a punishment. Davidov too, was a champion of disciplining his followers. And here, the numbers get truly frightening. 500 blows on the buttocks, 200 hits on the face with a whip. Davidov also used public rape as a punishment, known to everyone in the sect and the village. 

            And then, a tragedy happened. Early one morning, as I was getting ready to film Andrei, the organizer of the farm, a worker ran in to tell us that another worker, Aleksandr, had fallen into the well while cleaning it. We ran to try to save him. Andrei launched down the well on a stepladder without any safety. I was throwing him ropes, but he started gasping for air. He had passed out on top of the worker in an 8m well. Other workers tied ropes around me, and I climbed down with a garden hose clenched between my teeth. There was nothing I could do - there was no air inside the well, it was poison. When rescue workers came, they pulled out two lifeless bodies.
            That night, I bought two bottles of vodka for the workers. We got together behind the cowshed, and conducted a Russian farewell ritual. With the words, “Kingom of Heaven to them,” we raised our glasses without clinking them, and then silently toasted the lives of two of our friends.
            This was all a result of the sect’s negligence of the farm property. There were open manholes, planks with nails in them, broken hinges and gates at every corner of the farm. The well that was to provide water for the animals, stood beside a 2 metre pile of cow manure. The gases seeped into it. Later, I learned that someone dies on the farm every year. A 16 year-old boy got electrocuted last year. The year before that, another well accident. Sect members mask these events by usually creating a story that some drunk vagabond stumbled onto the farm territory.
Whenever sect members talked of Aleksandr, it was in a similar vein. And Andrei, their colleague and collaborator for the last 20 years, they explained, had made a lot of mistakes, and nature had finally punished him. Nonetheless, he had lived and entered life eternal.
            Of course, after the funeral arrangements, farm life continued as if nothing had happened. No grief, no talk of the deaths. I understand this simply as the result of a perverted ideology that has transmuted into the idea that principles and goals of the collective are more important than the value of a human life. In other words, a true Soviet invention, Bolshevism. Before showing the trailer of the film, I wish to conclude with a statement made by Slavoj Zizek: “We have a perfect name for fantasy realized, it’s called nightmare.”
            So where do you place on the Pyramid of Happiness?

©Gregory Gan
(Please ask for permission if you would like to reproduce this text in whole or in part)

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