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Soviet film.jpg

This is the latest in the Artistic Licence series

Since the first films emerged in the 1890s, in societies of all eras, sizes, and ideologies, movies have had us enraptured.

And Catriona Kelly, Professor of Russian at New College, is exploring how one Soviet film studio has contributed to this long and colourful world of cinema - both on- and off-screen.

Lenfilm, a film studio based in Leningrad, was the second-largest production company in the Soviet Union, after Mosfilm, the Moscow studio. At its height in the 1960s and early 1970s, when a cluster of young filmmakers began making adventurous new movies, it produced up to fifty films a year.

These ranged from The Amphibian Man (1962), a science fiction movie about a man with shark gills, to A Boy and a Girl (1966), a film about two young people’s holiday relationship that was banned immediately after its release.

Through archive material and oral history interviews, Professor Kelly is using Lenfilm, which was a vast film factory with over 4,000 employees, as a window onto life in the USSR.

While amphibian-like men swam around onscreen, Lenfilm employees were working collectively on the film-making process, dealing with budgets, equipment supply, and censorship. Exploring how the organisation worked gives us an unusual angle on the role of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union.

“The Party wasn’t just an ideological censor. It was the only management structure that united the whole studio, from location to wigs and makeup. When it disappeared, the studio fell apart,” Professor Kelly says.

Looking at the institutional history has also thrown up some examples of more familiar, Hollywood-esque problems, like people getting drunk in the film processing laboratories, or storming off set because the director swore at them.

But despite the occasional angry outburst, Lenfilm produced many successful films. These included crowd pleasers like the all-singing, all-dancing Wedding in Malinovka, a comedy operetta set during the Russian Civil War, but also films that were more serious or experimental in tone, such as Aleksei German’s My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1984).

“The films were often characterised by a quasi-documentary, neorealist approach to Soviet society, and some of them were quite hard-hitting,” Professor Kelly says.

One of her favourites is Gennady Shpalikov’s A Long Happy Life (1967), a love story about a man who hitches a lift on a passing coach and a woman he meets on it.

At the peak of their popularity, hit films like Amphibian Man were watched by up to 100 million people. Some, like Grigory Kozintsev’s Hamlet and King Lear, or, more surprisingly, Sergei Mikaelyan’s Bonus (1975), about workers in a Soviet factory, garnered appreciative audiences and prestigious prizes across the Soviet Union and abroad.

In the early 1970s, audience numbers began to drop, but films remained popular—and some of them still are. “TV reduced audiences in cinemas, but people also avidly watched films on TV. Indeed, they still do, and popular Soviet films are widely watched on YouTube,” Professor Kelly says.

Professor Kelly has first-hand experience of this appetite for Soviet films. Throughout her research project on Lenfilm, she has shown some of the studio’s films to audiences in Oxford, and even hosted some Lenfilm directors in the city.

“These events are popular with members of the public - they’re interested in seeing something they can’t see in a commercial cinema,” she says. So far, they’ve had visits from Konstantin Lopushansky, Vitaly Melnikov and Yuly Fait, and are planning more showings for the upcoming year, which is the centenary of the Russian Revolution.

As well as offering an insight into the history of the USSR, Professor Kelly thinks that production studios like Lenfilm have an important impact on Russia today. “Film was an enduring part of popular culture,” she says.

Curious? Watch Wedding in Malinovka for yourself here.

Boardroom

Arts graduates - do you have that one friend who always criticises your degree? Well, we have some good news - a new report released by the British Academy has evidence to back you up.

The Academy has published a report into the skills that the 1.25 million students who study arts, humanities and social science (AHSS) develop through their degrees.

Researchers found that the skills in demand from employers were the same as those developed by studying AHSS: namely, communication and collaboration, research and analysis, and independence and adaptability.

Oxford set the agenda for this kind of research in 2013, when it commissioned a report into the destinations of Oxford graduates of English, History, Philosophy, Classics and Modern Languages.

After tracking the employment history of 11,000 graduates, it found that 16-20% were employed in key economic growth sectors of finance, media, legal services and management by the end of the period. Over the period, the number of graduates employed in these sectors rose substantially.

The British Academy’s report takes this further and pinpoints why it is that AHSS graduates have such success in these fields. And Oxford’s Head of Humanities, Professor Karen O’Brien, is delighted.

"We warmly welcome the report's articulation of the higher level skills and competencies which arts, humanities and social sciences (AHSS) bring to the national workplace,” she says.

“The report demonstrates the valuable ability of AHSS graduates to evaluate ambiguous information and to seek nuanced solutions in contexts of social and cultural complexity.

"At a time when many jobs are likely to be lost through automation, the communicative and analytical skills imparted by AHSS degrees may become more relevant than ever."

Brains

This is the latest in the Artistic Licence series.

Growing up in Germany, studying in English, speaking Russian with her parents, and learning French in Belgium: languages have always been a central part of Swetlana Schuster’s life.

And now she’s a PhD student at Oxford’s Language and Brain Lab, using scientific techniques to see how languages make our brains tick.

“I was always really interested in linguistics, even when I didn’t know much about the academic discipline," she says. "At that point, I was really interested in learning languages.

“And I wasn’t just interested in mastering a new language. I wanted to know what was going on in our brains when we speak one.”

Swetlana is a native German speaker, and grew up in Aachen, Germany. After a childhood learning French and English, and making her own connections between the languages, Swetlana sat down in a lecture theatre at Cambridge for her very first lecture on psycholinguistics.

“I was just blown away. It was incredibly interesting,” she remembers.

Three years later, she came to Oxford to complete an MPhil at the Language and Brain Lab. Now, she’s in the midst of a PhD (or DPhil, as they are known here), working with Professor Aditi Lahiri, and her own experiences have always criss-crossed with her research interests.

Swetlana’s research looks at how native German speakers process words in the brain. This work has also made Swetlana think more about how our brains respond to second (or third or fourth or fifth) languages when we learn them.

Her research has taken her from Leipzig to Chicago to California, using the sort of equipment that we’re more likely to associate with the sciences than the humanities.

“We use fMRI scanners and an EEG system for part of the experiments,” Swetlana explains.

This means that Swetlana has spent a lot of time examining fMRI scans and carefully placing electrodes onto participants’ heads. She even had the opportunity to run experiments at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig.

“The process of collecting your data can be quite challenging, especially when you’re running experiments abroad,” she says. “But Leipzig was such an exciting opportunity. I learnt so much from collaborating and sharing ideas.”

Now back in Oxford, Swetlana is writing up her research and making the most of Oxford life, both within and outside of the Lab.

“There’s something very special about the Linguistics Faculty,” Swetlana says. “It’s a really supportive environment but also intellectually stimulating.”

And outside of work, college life offers the opportunity to see what else is going on in Oxford’s labs and libraries.

“It’s really fun to be friends with people who have interests in areas completely different to you,” she says.

This is especially interesting for Swetlana, who has thought about how her brain scans and electrodes, which some might think are out of place among the manuscripts and archives of the humanities, fits in to humanities research.

“The idea in our Faculty is to see how everything is connected,” she says. “Looking at how languages change over time, for example. I love how we contribute different approaches to the big questions.”

Another big question is how Swetlana’s research relates to her own language-learning brain.

“It’s made me think about my own languages,” she says. “Bilingualism is something we’re looking into more and more, sometimes from unexpected angles.”

After her DPhil, Swetlana hopes to carry on in research. She’s also interested in language technology, and how language-learning apps could help us learn languages more effectively - so that we, too, could learn to gossip in German or flirt in French.

“I’ve really enjoyed the past six years,” Swetlana says. “And I’m excited to keep on exploring.”

SwetlanaSwetlana is studying a PhD in linguistics

Revisiting Genesis

An artist at Oxford University has won the 2017 Film London Jarman Award.

Oreet Ashery was recently appointed as Associate Professor of Contemporary Art at The Ruskin School of Art and a Fellow of Exeter College.  

She has made an immediate impact, winning the prestigious award for UK-based artists working with the moving image. Her successful entry was a 12-part, web-based video series called Revisiting Genesis.

The series looks at the modern death industry and follows an artist with cystic fibrosis and a painter who has had cancer, as well as carers, friends and curators. The films contained stories of Syrian refugees and the people trying to help them, which she recorded in Thessaloniki, Greece earlier this year.

The Guardian interviewed Oreet about her work here.

'I was interested in how people work together,' Oreet told The Guardian. 'Telling stories in a darkened room. Even if no one speaks, that is a story, too.'

Anthony Gardner, Head of the Ruskin School of Art , said: 'We're thrilled that Oreet's enormous talent has been recognised with this award, given in honour of one of the UK's great film-makers to celebrate the next generation of artists using film and moving-image.

'And like Derek Jarman himself, Oreet is not only a great artist but also a great teacher and mentor, which makes her success with the Jarman Award even more fitting.' 

The Ruskin School of Art has punched above its weight in the art prize categories in recent years. In the last three years alone, its tutors and alumni have won two Turner prizes (Elizabeth Price and Helen Marten), one Hepworth prize (Helen Marten) and now a Jarman Award.

The Film London Jarman Award recognises and supports the most innovative UK-based artists working with moving image, and celebrates the spirit of experimentation, imagination and innovation in the work of emerging artist filmmakers.

Launched in 2008 and inspired by visionary filmmaker Derek Jarman, the Jarman Award is unique within the industry in offering both financial assistance and the rare opportunity to produce a new moving image work.

There is an interview with Oreet Ashery in The Guardian here. You can watch Revisiting Genesis here.

Oreet AsheryOreet Ashery

Christina Holka

Jade

This is the latest in the Artistic Licence series.

Art is part of all our lives. But if you’ve ever tried putting paintbrush to paper, or slipped on a pair of ballet shoes, you’ll know that it’s not easy to make it.

Because most of us can draw a face, or shuffle awkwardly and call it dancing, but few of us will paint sunflowers as well as Van Gogh or tap dance like Fred Astaire. But why not? What makes good art good?

Dr James Grant, philosophy tutor at Exeter College, is using the tools of philosophy to explore that very question.

Looking at artworks across the spectrum - from performance to sculpture to oil painting - he’s exploring what differentiates the doodles from the Dali.

“I want to see if there is an overarching theory of what features make an artwork good,” he says.

And, taking inspiration from Aristotle, he’s come up with a novel argument.

Dr Grant argues that good art exhibits “excellences”.

“Excellences” are attributes that demonstrate high levels of thought, character, and perception. Two key excellences are imaginativeness and good craftsmanship.

So if your artwork is highly creative, and includes a high level of skill, chances are it’ll be a good one.

This might all sound obvious—but Dr Grant’s theory contributes to big debates in philosophy.

He hopes to show that art is not just instrumentally valuable - valuable because it serves a purpose, like making us feel good - but intrinsically valuable - good in its own right.

“I think this provides a new argument for the intrinsic value of art,” he says.

So what is an example of a good artwork that has these excellences?

“I find Chinese jade sculptures very interesting,” Dr Grant says. “Jade is extremely hard to work with, so there’s incredible skill behind these pieces.

“Another example would be Gaudí’s architecture. Not everybody likes it, but it’s imaginative. The Sagrada Familia cathedral is a pretty dramatic manifestation of imaginative thinking.”

Dr Grant hopes that, by thinking about art in this way, we might start to appreciate beauty, and art, differently.

“Many people talk about art as if it’s valuable only because we get pleasure from it. I’m arguing that, when you appreciate and enjoy a good work of art, it’s also true that you get pleasure from it because it’s valuable,” he says.

So that’s all there is to it. If you hone your skills, and think creatively, you too could make art to rival Rembrandt. Better get practising.