A forgotten documentary took Western students to the heart of Moscow and back again
by MATTHEW GAULT
For decades, American pop culture and news media cast Russians as both villains and victims. We were to fear the leaders and comfort the workers.
I was born in the 1980s so I have a strange relationship with Russia. Not the actual country Russia, but Russia as an idea — particularly in its Soviet-era form. The Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies were on their last legs by the time I was old enough for the Warsaw Pact to frighten me, but it was still everywhere in pop culture.
Chuck Norris beat back an invasion of Soviet-backed guerrillas in Invasion U.S.A., Russian operatives were the bad guys on countless T.V. shows and movies such as Moscow on the Hudson reinforced the notion that living under communism really, really sucked.
The late ’80s were certainly grim. The Soviet Union experienced a revolution that brought down the state, the Iron Curtain and the Cold War. Corruption and shortages of basic necessities were endemic, living standards were far below the West and the Kremlin heavily persecuted political dissidents.
Remembering that time, it seems like every picture in the newspaper and on T.V. from the country depicted breadlines, worn-out clothing and sad people with deeply lined faces decrying the collapse of their empire.
But even ardent anti-communists were surprised by the regime’s swift collapse. It had survived far worse in the past, and as Leon Aron observed in Foreign Policy, the late-Soviet economic troubles were not as serious as commonly believed. Living standards in communist Eastern Europe were also generally better than in the Soviet Union.
More broadly, the Soviet empire was a big place and, U.S. media depictions to the contrary, not everyone there marched in step with the Kremlin. It was an empire full of differing opinions, cultures and institutions. Poland was different from Hungary, which was different from Moscow, and each teemed with millions of people who wanted different things.
Red Reflections is a documentary about those people. It’s a strange, obscure film that takes the viewer inside the communist world.
In 1966, Eric Mival and Richard Owen went on vacation. The two young British citizens had adventurous spirits, and luckily for them, the backing of a patron who wanted footage from behind the Iron Curtain.
So, just four years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the pair hooked up with a group of international students and traveled through Eastern Europe and into Russia, filming the whole time. Red Reflections is the result of that trip. A Yorkshire T.V. company optioned the rights to it, but never aired the documentary.
No one has seen it in almost 50 years.
Now, thanks to a small print-on-demand operation via Quoit Media in the United Kingdom, Mival and Owen’s documentary is finally available to Western audiences. It’s a strange little film that runs only 40 minutes, but is worth watching.
For me, it put into perspective just how much American popular culture shaped my perception of communist Eastern Europe.
“We’re a pretty cosmopolitan crowd,” the narrator begins as the camera lingers on black and white images of well-dressed men smiling behind wayfarers.
It was 1966 and the West’s counterculture was in full swing. Mival and Owens were obviously part of that culture. Their narration is cynical and confidently affected in a way that only young people can sustain.
“We’re heading to Eastern Europe to see what life is really like on the other side of that so-called Iron Curtain,” the narrator explains as the camera watches West Berlin pass from a train car window.
They’re leaving behind the “exaggerated air of capitalist prosperity … [and] pampered consumerism of the West.”
With an introduction like that, it’s easy to imagine the documentary that follows is a soft propaganda piece for communist economics. But that is not the case. Mival and Owens maintain their level of cynicism throughout their journey. Their snark applies to all ideologies.
Moving into East Berlin, they’re shocked to find it feels like a war zone. They compare what they see to footage of World War II and describe “shrill and insecure propaganda.”
“For us, East Berlin was a succession of charge and counter-charge,” they say. “A polemical world of deep black and harsh whites with no in-between colors.”
A conversation follows with an East German official who skillfully navigates the student’s questions about Nazis and propaganda. From there, the group travels to Prague where “communism lies like a surface skin on this city. It is history that dominates.”
It’s in Czechoslovakia where Red Reflections becomes truly interesting. Prague in 1966 looks much like any other vibrant Western European city. Ancient buildings loom in the background while teenagers smile and wade through crowds of well-dressed people.
“It seemed worlds away from Nineteen Eighty-Four or ‘Workers of the World Unite,’” the narrator explains.
Red Reflections is so wonderful because it captures a place and time that’s gone and which Westerners rarely saw.
The pair move from Prague to Poland to Hungary to Moscow. They shoot footage of the architecture and talk to locals. Every person they meet has different views about communist rule.
The pair run into a few problems during their travels, but find that acting confident and not hiding their identities around officials works best. At one point, one of the two ask a Soviet police officer — who is conducting searches and inspecting paperwork — for instructions on how to hail a cab … in English.
The officer is so stunned he neglects to harass them.
Later, the pair attempt to smuggle an audio recording onto a train. Mival rolls up the tape and stuffs it down his pants. Disaster strikes when the tape unspools and rolls onto the station’s platform. One of their student companions saves the day by scooping up the tape and stuffing it into her bra.
Mival went on to have a successful career in British television. He worked on Doctor Who and even got The Prisoner star Patrick McGoohan to do voice work for Red Reflections.
It’s an odd little documentary but well worth watching. Doubly special, to me, because you can’t watch it on YouTube, torrent it from pirates or even read about it on Wikipedia.
Red Reflections is one of those rare films you can only see by buying it from the creators. Please do so.
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