HD video, 20 minutes, 2013

Thoughts on the film Theodosia [Ruth Maclennan]

A pilot crashes in the steppes of Crimea in 1944. Tartar tribesmen rescue and care for him. The artist Joseph Beuys ascribes this event to himself, founding a myth of rebirth that he revisits throughout his life and work through the materials he uses and his artist persona. Two months after this event, another event took place: the Sürgünlik, meaning exile in the Crimean Tartar languages. The entire Crimean Tartar population was deported to the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan and other far-flung regions of the Soviet Union. Half the population died. At the same time, all Crimean Tartar villages were renamed and many were erased completely from the map and the land. Two thousand years earlier, in the poem cycle, Tristia, the Roman poet Ovid bemoans his exile on the Black Sea in the first century AD. He writes of his fears, sense of dislocation, his barbarian neighbors, and his despair at ever returning home.

For the Russian poets Marina Tsvetaeva and Osip Mandelstam, Crimea, and the towns of Koktebel and Theodosia in particular, are fascinating and exotic, an idyllic, prelapsarian, pre-revolutionary, time and place they return to in their poetry. An artist’s colony is founded around the charismatic polymath Maximilian Voloshin. So begins a century of Crimea as holiday destination. The Soviet Union saw it transformed into a summer camp for rewarded workers and spoiled apparatchiks. Tens of thousands of children descended to stay in purpose-built sanatoria and converted Khazar mansions to enjoy two weeks of sunshine and sea, and indoctrination through sport and leisure. Two decades of dysfunctional capitalism and kleptocratic rule are just the latest strata of experiences to be written across this palimpsest that in his book, The Black Sea, Neal Ascherson calls, ‘the birthplace of civilization and barbarism’.

This was the introduction I wrote for the first showing of the film Theodosia. I could stop here. However, a few months after this Russia invaded and annexed Crimea and fighting began in Eastern Ukraine. Crimea became the focus of dangerous tensions between Russia and the rest of the world, and the cause of European and US sanctions. Divisions surfaced between neighbours, dividing families as well as states, and rewriting the history of the peninsula once again.

Since I made Theodosia, Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and war with Ukraine have transformed the places in the film and therefore the film’s meanings. The changes are so violent they have turned the film into a historical document. During our travels we heard that many Crimean Tartars had returned to make new homes in Crimea and were gaining confidence and pleasure from reconnecting with their cultural history. We visited the archaeological sites in Bakhchisaray and met with Tartar historians who told us about the Mejlis – the Crimean Tartars’ representative body – that was helping Tartars find a political voice in Ukraine and internationally. The Mejlis has been banned by the occupying Russian authorities, and Tartars are being persecuted and imprisoned without trial.

The mayor of the town of Theodosia who assumes a bit part in the film as Mithridates, King of Pontus, was shot on his doorstep a year after I interviewed him. This violent episode now seems like a premonition of the events that followed. It is impossible to return to the Crimea we visited.

Theodosia is inhabited by the voices and images of poets and artists. The poet’s ability to expand the known world is like the leaps that occur with new scientific discoveries, when it is no longer possible to revert to an earlier understanding. At the same time poetry is still unable to affect political change despite its ability occasionally to predict it.


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