Russian films, speaker explore gender issues

Kathleen Dooley

She couldn’t have been more than 60, yet the woman’s face bore the hardened expression of one who witnessed 80 winters. Standing in her provincial kitchen, she described the tumultuous events of her life-how she married in her early 20s and was left a single mother not long after by a husband who only wanted a boy.

Compared to the comfortable room in Bartley, in which the film was shown, this woman and her story appeared as relics from two hundred years ago, before women’s liberation and modern technology.

It was rather shocking when she mentioned that she married in the 1970s.

The stories of this woman and many others like her were the focus of Dr. Elena Vitenburg’s Dec. 2 lecture on gender inequality and stereotyping in the former Soviet Union.

Originally from St. Petersburg, Vitenburg serves as the manager of the Gender Montage Program for the Open Society Institute, a St. Petersburg foundation dedicated to creating an awareness of critical social issues facing the countries of the former Soviet Union.

The Gender Montage Program consists of nine short documentary films that reveal gender problems in post-Soviet countries.

“These films are about contemporary life and involve problems that appeared in the region over the past 15 years,” Vitenburg said.

“The themes from these films are the most urgent vital topics from the point of view of directors and film critics.”

Two of those documentaries were viewed during the lecture. The first, titled “Wishing for seven sons and one daughter,” takes its name from a traditional Caucasus toast given on one’s wedding day.

Filmed in Azerbaijan, the documentary explored the negative outlook towards women, as well as the prized value of the son in the Caucasus region. In addition, it addressed the increasing number of selective abortions of families wishing for boys.

The second documentary, “Hack Workers,” told the story of women who were shunned by their families and left with no other option but to work in the Uzbekistan slave market.

The project was also important to the film industry of the Baltic countries, as it brought together filmmakers from post-Soviet countries for the first time since the collapse of the USSR. Vitenburg commented on the growing trend of Baltic films to be heavily supported by the state, bordering on propaganda.

“Those films present contemporary life in a very optimistic way,” she said. “This project is a great illustration of what themes good filmmakers chose if they don’t want to be dependent on the state.”

History Chair Dr. Adele Lindenmeyr, a personal friend of Vitenburg, organized the lecture in order to increase awareness of the problems confronting women in the Caucasus region.

“I was extremely intrigued by the little window they give into parts of the world we never hear anything about,” Lindenmeyr said. “It was an accessible road to learning a little about these cultures … and the social crises that have followed the breakup of the USSR.”

Working in conjunction with Women’s Studies, Lindenmeyr hopes to bring all nine of the Gender Montage films to campus next semester.