‘Keep my words forever’ a film about Osip Mandelstam

In May members of the GB-Russia Society enjoyed the opportunity to watch the extraordinary film by filmmaker, music producer and director, Roma Liberov:  Сохрани мою речь навсегда.  The film, the title of which can be translated as  ‘Keep my words forever,’ was created in memory of the life and work of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam (1891 -1938).

Roma Liberov, was present at the event, and was able to give invaluable insight into both the technicalities of the film’s creation and the spirit that motivated him to make it.

In structure and form the film is not a traditional ‘bio-pic’, with ponderous interviews from invited ‘experts’, accompanied by a  series of dramatized scenes of the subject’s life played by actors. Instead, the film emerges as a unique and definitive work of art in its own right.

 Moving more or less chronologically, the film is split into a series of twenty parts, or ‘chapters’, relevant to a phase in the poet’s life. Each section, just a few minutes long, comprises a rich confluence of lines from Mandelstam’s verse,  contemporary Russian rap music, inventive animation, plus some beautiful and evocative static images of places of significance to the poet’s life and work.  So the viewer travels from the poet’s early days in Paris, Heidelberg and St Petersburg,  through a period in Armenia, exile in Voronezh, and finally to Samatikha, where the poet was staying with his wife when he was arrested for the second, and last, time.  At one level watching the film feels like looking into the pages of a family album, a curated collection of scraps and memories from the past overlaid with contemporary features, but in fact it has a more defined underlying structure.

Liberov explained that he based the film’s shape on the traditional form of an icon of the life of a saint, and indeed the short filmic snapshots are resonant of the tiny images showing the miracles and sufferings of the holy men of the past. An example can be seen in the picture of the saints of the Solovetsky Monastery below.  This particular structure does seem an appropriate way to frame episodes in the life of a man who can himself be regarded as a latter-day martyr.

It is Liberov’s contention that Mandelstam was unable to create within the constraints of the socialist realist imperative that demanded an artist should work bounded by parameters relevant to the ‘here and now’ of the soviet era. Mandelstam’s creative world in contrast embraced the whole scope of western culture, and although some of his poetry vividly portrays the specifics of the cold streets of Soviet Leningrad, it could not simply be confined to this.

The title Сохрани мою речь навсегда in itself implies the universal and eternal validity of Mandelstam’s work, but while the film contains many images redolent of western culture as a whole, pictures of the classical world for example, it also focusses on the specific events of the poets life. Thus it refers to the proximate cause of the poet’s well known, and ultimately fatal, clash with the regime. The words of ’the Stalin Epigram’, in which Mandelstam dared to ridicule and denigrate the Great Leader, are quoted in the film more than once, to appropriately sinister effect.

At around an hour and a half, the film proved to be a stimulating, moving and clear eyed tribute to a great poet. Liberov had arranged lucid English subtitles for the occasion, which for those of us with moderately competent Russian, were very helpful. The film is available to watch in Russian on  i-player.  Even without the benefit of subtitles, the evocative images and the inherent musicality of the Russian poetry, even when sometimes distorted by rap, make it well  worth watching by a non-Russian  audience.  You-tube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zT888y9oNfk

Saints Zosima (left) and Savvatiy (right) with their lives. The 16th century icon is now located in the Russian Museum, Saint-Petersburg, Russia.

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