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Soviet Hippies, directed by Terje Toomistu - UK Premiere

Thursday 14 November 2019, by Tommy Hodgson

Soviet Hippies, director Terje Toomistu’s second creation, is a thoughtful, insightful piece which effortlessly draws you into a counter-cultural pocket of resistance, transporting you to a time of contrasting repression and upheaval. Through the use of archival footage - crisp, clear and naked material - this film documents not just the developments of a hippie subculture in the Soviet Union during the 1960s and 70s, but the mood surrounding the ongoing passive resistance against the state. From its inception, the film produces a pang of nostalgia - even for a time and place you have no stake in - through the use of grainy and intimate footage, and splashes of dated, psychedelic animations to ensure you step lively into the time warp before you.

The narrative of the film follows a loose thread of hazy tales, heady beliefs, mystic societies and psychedelic exploration. The viewer is invited to examine the hippie warriors of yesteryear in their shaggy prime - optimistic and adamant – then, directly alongside, as starkly aged relics still grasping a core belief system, just as righteous if a bit weathered. The archival footage is incredible and really makes the film, which is all the more remarkable as Toomistu only stumbled upon the footage – a box of Super 8mm film rolls - during her research, giving the project a generous artistic boost by way of this never before seen hippie treasure trove. Considering that the history of the hippie movement in the USSR was previously widely unknown, partly due to Soviet archives which were closed until fairly recently, this was a feat – the director worked from scratch and interviewed all the participants anew, and this hard work is reflected through the consistent tone of the movie. In the Q&A after the premiere, Toomistu articulated that the original plan was to focus primarily on a reunion of old hippies in the present day. But without the real, raw historic material, the movie surely would not have been as impactful or clear in its narrative.

Throughout the documentary, the contrast between the uniformity of Soviet culture and the hippies’ pursuit of individualistic rebellion is blunt; an obvious juxtaposition which means that sprinkling the film with snapshots of regular Soviet life as way of illustration merely underlines the point. But the bigger takeaway from the film is that the repressive aspects of any society harbours dissent, and the example of Soviet hippies, which took huge inspiration from their Western and more well-known counterparts, followed a loose pattern of international turmoil and exploration of new ideas in the post-war era. And based on the film’s archival interviews with older or more conservative members of the Soviet public, reaction to these long- haired ‘modern forest folk’ would have elicited the same reactionary sentiments in Los Angeles or London (‘get a haircut!’).

One of the most interesting aspects of the film was the network that Soviet hippies established, pre-mass communication, simply using notebooks and word of mouth. Ironically named ‘the system’, its creation allowed the freedom of movement of like-minded outsiders from across the Soviet states to find each other and know where to stay in each city, outside of KGB detection. It speaks to the wonderfully subversive nature of these Soviet hippies, and of humans in difficult situations more widely. That feeling of not being alone should not be underestimated, in any cultural endeavours. As one of the many hippies interviewed in the film put it, ‘deviance was an act of power’. One suspects Toomistu, whose academic research includes transgender women in Indonesia, meant her documentary as a celebration of diversity of thought and experimentation – and ‘the system’ is a good illustration of this.

The Soviet hippie movement itself was forced underground - to the fringes of an already-hostile society or even externally - when a public meeting was shut down by the authorities on 1st June 1971. Though the annual meeting of hippies still takes place on the same date every year in Moscow, the film truly emphasises how, though traces remain, this movement really existed in not just a different time but a separate sociopolitical space. The challenges and backlash of the counterculture years, viewed through the prism of this subculture but widely applicable, are ultimately captured here through music, visuals, deeply-held opinions and emotion – building up to a worldly but raw experience, courtesy of a thorough, research-minded director. The night, hosted by Dash Arts and featuring an extensive Q&A, was even followed by a mystic ritual courtesy of one of the film’s stars Vladimir Wiedemann, just to try to keep some essence of the Soviet hippies alive. Overall, the film succeeds in giving a little burst of recognition and life to a movement which, in the words of Toomistu, had ‘no centre, no edges’.

More info on the film’s website!

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