There are some corners of the cinema landscape I am woefully blind to. One such area is Soviet-era science fiction from the Eastern Bloc. American sci-fi from the same period is quite popular, with films like War of the Worlds and Invasion of the Body Snatchers playing heavily on Cold War anxieties. The only Soviet science fiction films I’d even heard of were those of Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky. Solaris in particular is quite famous, but even that I’ve never seen. In such instances it’s easy to wallow in ignorance and remain with the familiar. Even if I wanted to get into these films, where would I begin? Luckily, at least for those of us in Toronto, the TIFF Bell Lightbox is here to help us out.
Beginning on January 19th with a screening of Solaris, and stretching all the way into April, the Lightbox is hosting a new retrospective series called Attack the Bloc: Cold War Science Fiction from Behind the Iron Curtain. Looking at the list of films in the program, it’s almost all completely foreign to me. I’ve heard of the two Tarkovsky films, but that’s it. There are 17 films set to play over the coming months, and all of them look offbeat and intriguing.
Finding an entry point for a subsection of cinema you’ve never been exposed to can be tough. I spoke to Todd Brown, founder/editor of Twitch and programmer of the series about his involvement in putting the program together. Todd got sucked into the world of Soviet sci-fi quite naturally: by falling hard for one film in particular.
“There were a few I’d seen before,” he said, “but the one that really triggered it was Ikarie XB-1. I saw the film at a film festival in South Korea, screening from 35mm and was just blown away. And I figured if that’s out there, what else is?”
That curiosity clearly ballooned, and Todd has worked very hard to bring these films to the eyes of Toronto cinephiles and sci-fi fanatics.
“Putting the program together was a process that literally lasted over a year. I began by approaching festivals that had done similarly themed programs and – more importantly – film makers and media geeks I knew who had grown up in the Eastern Bloc in these years and I asked them what their best memories and favourite films were. And then I started hunting to figure out what was available.”
That’s a lot of work, but judging by the list of films he found it looks like patrons of the Lightbox are in for some real treats. In addition to Ikarie XB-1, Todd highlighted a few more films in the series that audiences should look out for.
“I think The Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel will go down as the biggest discovery of the program. I’ve got a major soft spot for Moscow Cassiopeia / Adolescents in the Universe, too. That’s a long night of viewing because you’re getting two films in on block but they’re pretty great.”
I’m personally looking forward to The Great Space Voyage and Planet of Storms. Quite frankly, I’m not even completely sure why those films, specifically. They just seem cool and quirky. That said, all the films look fun and crazy and completely different from what we’re generally used to with classic American science fiction.
A film genre so far out of the ordinary and so far out of people’s comfort zones can be a tough sell, though. To that, Todd had a really simple response.
“I say take a chance. It’s a wildly diverse program, ranging from super serious art house films to a bit of horror to slapstick comedy to classic space opera. There’s literally something for everyone. Read up on them a bit, open your mind and come on out. Try one and I think you’ll be hooked for the rest.”
That sounds like a good plan to me. I can’t wait to take the dive.
Attack the Bloc: Cold War Science Fiction from Behind the Iron Curtain will be playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox from January 19th to April 6th. Stay tuned as Corey will be posting his reactions to several of the films throughout the series! For tickets, titles, showtimes, and more information please visit TIFF.net.