Editorial for Outskirts Nº1 by Christopher Small — August, 2022
This being our first issue, I suppose I should begin with the obvious: the title itself, ‘Outskirts’. This is where we, as editors and cinephiles, ought to put ourselves: at the periphery, consumed by the particulars of marginalia. ‘Outskirts’ is a statement of purpose, a declaration of intent, an assertion of irrelevance, not incidentally a feature of all of our work – in film criticism or curation – that we guard with zealous pride. I am writing these words in Tenerife, on the furthest outskirts of Europe. As I thought about how I might give you, in this editorial, a sense of what this magazine is about, I wandered the streets and buildings of La Laguna, a UNESCO world heritage site and the first European city built in the Canary Islands. I found only a single acknowledgement of the conquest of the Guanches who lived on the island before Castillian colonisation: a statue of a warrior brandishing a spear beside the offramp to a highway.
What exactly does it mean for an imperial city – however splendid – to be preserved as a site of heritage? What does it mean to preserve roads and stables and churches and colonial mansions whose foundations were laid by conquerors and came at the expense of a culture doomed to extinction by their arrival? Two small dogs adorn the Canarian flag. A friend explained that in school they were taught that the archipelago’s name came from canis, the Latin for ‘dog’, apparently because Pliny the Elder wrote that the islands were uncommonly full of them. Of course, this too was only the preservation of a lie: canari was the name of the indigenous inhabitants. The islands were filled with people, not dogs; and yet now only dogs sit there on the flag as the reminder of this fabricated historical anecdote. Cíntia Gil, in her essay on the work of Vincent Carelli, comes at similar ideas through the path of cinema. In Carelli’s films, made with and – principally – for indigenous Brazilians, the act of filming is often a violent but necessary work. In some cases, the only way to ensure a people’s survival and to put a halt to ‘progress’ is to capture their existence in celluloid or pixels; as she shows, Carelli’s work is built around such ambiguities and imperatives.
There is, of course, a simple answer as to why we named the magazine Outskirts. Like many magazines dedicated to cinema, we took our moniker from a film we love. Here that is the 1933 film by Boris Barnet, the Soviet filmmaker who is the subject of our first dossier. This masterpiece, about as good as movies get, is also something of a UFO in cinema history: an unclassifiable classic that eludes easy interpretation at every turn; shifting tones, sounds, and forms not simply from one scene to the next, but also within each and every moment, as when a soldier in the trenches pretends to be dead after a shell explodes next to him to get a laugh out of his buddies and his brother, with mixed results.
There is also a more complicated answer, one that doesn’t necessarily explain why ‘Outskirts’ came into being, but rather why we decided to stick with it. In mid-February 2022, we had our first editorial meeting, during which the outlines of this first issue were hashed out over a video call. I would shortly head to Moscow and then to Siberia for the festival Spirit of Fire, along with Lucía Salas, the Argentinian critic, curator, and contributor to this issue. In our schedule there were three or four Barnet screenings organised for us at the cinema of Gosfilmofond in Moscow, including Masters of Ukrainian Art in Concert (Kontsert masterov ukrainskogo iskusstva, 1952), unseeable other than in 35mm and perhaps only at this archive. That title would quickly come to haunt us; by February 25th I was on the last flight back to Prague and Lucía, as she describes in her dispatch from the festival, would leave by bus to Estonia a few days later. In the previous issue of La Vida Útil, our Spanish-Argentinian sister magazine, Lucas Granero spoke of a pandemic-induced need for life to be ‘reconquered, first and foremost, against everything’. I hadn’t realised how painfully prescient the specific way he phrased this would prove to be in 2022. The days I had planned to see Masters of Ukrainian Art in Concert with Lucía and my Russian friends in Moscow, I instead spent assembling IKEA furniture with my new Ukrainian neighbours, who had fled Kharkiv for Prague in the first days of the war. As Daniel Witkin notes in his text on Barnet’s film, the word ‘outskirts’ in Russian even shares a linguistic root with the country the Russian military has been pulverising with artillery since February 24th – okraina.
Today of course, the record of our work – and the contributions of our collaborators – doubles as something of an historical document, both intentionally and unintentionally. The composition and structure of the issue ought to suggest to our readers that we tried to preserve this particular character as much as possible, while also striving to write about and speak with new films and filmmakers far from these subjects. There is also, for instance, as you will read in detail in our dossier, an unintended but welcome consequence of Barnet’s seemingly undistinguished years spent toiled as a gun-for-hire in the Soviet republics: his work doubles as a record of the specific cultures (and even accents) of regions conquered and dominated, culturally or otherwise, by the Soviet Union, whether the Donbas, obliquely, in A Night in September (Noch v sentyabre, 1939), Moldavia in Lyana (1955), Azerbaijan in By the Bluest of Seas (U samogo sinego morya, 1936), or the Ukrainian city of Odessa in Poet (1956). In a related way, much of the magazine focuses too on the traces of a cinema existing on the periphery of other artistic works, whether the ‘revenant cinema’ described in Sofie Cato Maas’ text on the incomplete remains of Richard Oswald’s Different from the Others (Anders als die Andern, 1919) or the films of Alain Guiraudie, the plots of which, as Nathan Letoré notes, are often cobbled together from fragments of his own far longer and more labyrinthine novels.
This being the first issue, we have no audience of readers yet to address – you are an imaginary people whose constitution we cannot yet even guess at. For now, we skirt the periphery, like the citizens and soldiers of the peripheral Soviet town in which Barnet’s Outskirts takes place, also during an epochal war that nevertheless seems so far away from the pitter-patter of quotidian life. For now, we can only thank the many writers who contributed texts to this issue and to the translators who worked to put these and other documents into English, as well as acknowledge the extraordinary help and council of a few names in particular, without whom we simply wouldn’t have got off the ground: Bernard Eisenschitz, Lucía Salas, Boris Nelepo, Pierre Léon, and Stefano Knuchel. The generosity of all who contributed has already made this magazine what it is and what it should be: a document marked by many fingerprints.
Tenerife, June 2022