"Kin-dza-dza!", philosophy, and different perspectives
An interpretation of a Soviet cult classic.
Here we have a film with an unusual history and a weird narrative. Produced and released in the Soviet Union in 1986 in the dusk of the Perestroika period and the nuclear incident in Pripyat. Adding to its memorable making, there is a report on the “important” role played by then “future President” Yeltsin in facilitating the funding requests of the movie. Kin-dza-dza! marked a generation of Eastern Bloc’s movie-goers in the final years of the Russian Communist Party’s might. Georgi Danelyia, the production’s director, achieved some fame through his sad comedy genre with an extra pinch of tragedy. Some critics label his work as important as any other piece of cyberpunk writing, baring the aesthetics of films like Blade Runner (1982) and foreshadowing deep questions concerning the nature of our relationship to reality as later displayed by end-of-the-century blockbuster’s The Matrix (1999).
Vladimir Nikolayevich Mashkov (Uncle Vova, played by Stanislav Lyubshin) and Gedevan Alexidze (The Fiddler) are two commoners of the city of Moscow in the 1980s that see themselves caught in an intergalactic chain of events. A barefooted stranger in the street catches Gedevan’s attention who promptly wanted someone’s help to assist the man. Suddenly stopped by the young and corky student Gedevan, Uncle Vova - a construction foreman with a certain belief of entitlement - strangely enters the ludicrous adventure: he goes from buying macaroni and bread to facing the existential dread of seeing through the looking glass. Long-story-short, both mock the homeless man for asking what the Tenture of Earth is (alleging to be part of a different galactic corner of the universe) so he can go back to his planet. They try to test the veracity of the stranger’s claims: an alleged teleportation gadget in an act of true defiance of obscurantism and madness is pressed by Vova transfiguring their whole worldview. First seen by the spectator’s eyes as ordinarily minding their businesses and becoming our film’s protagonists, the movie takes a swing at us and develops an absurdist turn. Both are teleported to the deserted, dry, and circus-like life of the planet Pluke, a society radically destroyed by economic reasoning, class divisions, and cultural decadence.
Kin-dza-dza! raises a lot of pertinent and thought-provoking questions. This piece of cinema’s relationship to its own time in Eastern Europe’s history, the conflicts between religion and atheism in the Soviet Union, and its non-natural language bridge dialogues in several fields of the humanities. For what matters in this brief article, I will create an interface with two different analyses of the movie, one regarding its linguistic aspects (Smith, 2017) and the other on the film’s social commentary about religion in communist Russia (Georgieva, 2011). From there, I will develop my aesthetic analysis of Georgi Danelyia’s work by using Richard Wollheim’s defense of seeing-in in artifacts and pictorial representation. I would argue that Danelyia brings an important example of the feature of science fiction working as social commentary or critique, but the film’s aesthetic qualities speak a lot on how the divide between East and West can be perceived through its reception by culturally different audiences. That is, the genre’s ultimately insane traits radically dissociate the picture and its narrative from the immediate reality of the culture in which it was produced at the same time communicating to a knowledgeable spectator some moral arguments against that very same reality. The manufacturing of a visually distant reality to comment on our everyday world of shapes, forms, colors, and surrounding objects makes it harder for censors to grasp the inquisitive message behind the silver screen. It speaks about how particular economic views of the world also have a part in that game.
According to Richard Wollheim, the characteristics of our engagement with pictographic artifacts originate in human’s ability for seeing x in y. Representational seeing is the phenomenon of seeing something in a different object. When faced with a picture, let us say, a painting of a woman or the scenery of a movie, we are seeing objects previously known by our minds in that representation. That allows us to see a more general understanding of the observed art as in what he calls state-of-affairs. Wollheim believes in the twofoldness of our observational qualities when engaging with certain objects. Seeing-in demands that one attends to object and medium simultaneously (Wollheim, 2003). In the case of my analysis, Kin-dza-dza! points towards what in the picture can be seen and how the movie is materially arranged in a specific way as an interesting game of cat and mice where the viewers’ attention and focus are purposely twisted. Not only the movie allows for different philosophical questions to arise, but the narrative itself promotes an interesting dynamic of shifting perspectives and discussing our relationships with art, economy, and the physical world. Another aspect is that seeing-in happens to be an interesting explanation of how the movie was differently perceived (and received) by Western and Eastern audiences. Science-fiction as a genre breaks the capacity of a certain audience to fully grasp the contents represented on the screen. I will follow with two different analyses of the movie, presenting their respective arguments regarding its contents, message, and aesthetics qualities to then approach it through Wollheim’s perspective.
Margarita Georgieva, an English Ph.D. from the University of Nice (France) takes into her account of Kin-dza-dza! that word and image are complementary to each other. Danelyia worked as director and screenwriter for this movie, and the embeddedness of image and text is visible throughout its duration. During the Soviet era, atheism was promoted by the central government as a state policy. The attacks on religion ought to balance the obscurantisms and irrationality of anti-scientific thought by the creation of rationalist societies and science fiction in opposition to other forms of novels and spiritual organizations. Georgieva highlights how those authors “produced communist utopias and satires of capitalism and/or contemporary society, frequently alluding to the real world”. Those satires and propagandistic “space communism” pamphlets became a means to escape the harsh reality of soviet censorship. Regarding sensitive subjects like spirituality, state oppression, and ethnic relations the spacing of “the actual from the real world to a distanced fictional plane became a means of discussing politics” (Georgieva, 2011).
The movie constantly throws at us the confrontation with the other. I believe, as appointed by Georgieva, those moments of facing your opposite convey a powerful message: Danelyia is abridging disparities between disputing narratives about reality through the dialectics of appearance and historicity – confrontation promotes a level of synthetic unity. When Uncle Vova and The Fiddler arrive at Pluke being kidnapped to some capitalist western country was their first thought. Different planets like the Earth, Hanut, Pluke, and Alpha emerge as a counterbalance to each other and making it clear that we all had a common origin in a not-so-distant past. When our protagonists finally managed to escape the alien world, they had to travel back through those other planets and discover, despite their superficial differences, that the whole galaxy shares a common origin. The radicalization of economic and religious creeds are the main reasons why their respective peoples are so different and do not acknowledge each other’s existences. Georgieva talks about representations of Orthodox and Roman Catholicism and the economic discourse so present in Soviet’s ordinary life during the 1980s. At the time, bureaucracy faced hardships and the regime trembled with resistance from central European allies. To keep communism going, the polish catholic church opposed an approximation with Orthodox Christianity. Pope John II was a most vocal antagonist to communist democratic reform and called for the regime’s abolition. Capitalism and Roman Catholicism against Russian orthodoxies. To be fully appreciated, our movie needs some contextualization. Plukians dystopian lives serve as an alert to the dangers of fully embracing market economies: art is reduced to an exchange form, as for anything else. In Pluke, art is only performed by second-tier citizens and through strict rituals. Georgieva goes on, and states that “[t]he film enacts the reunification of brothers, at the same time suggesting that Christianity can also be reunited”. In summary, the fictional world of Kin-dza-dza! addresses political and economic disparities through the constant shock of apparently different spiritual worlds. The underlying message is that eventually, we shall find commonalities through the mirror-effect moment of seeing ourselves in others. The movie has a lot of moments like that: when earthlings and plukians compare their realities, they ended finding that apparent significant differences were meager. The reduction of life in Pluke to mere economic exchanges and the environmental collapse of its ecosystem is an accusation of what happens when economic rationalization reaches all corners of life regardless of ideological dogmatisms: religion becomes a tool of power, fully destitute of any spiritual content either for Catholics or Orthodox; water is turned in its entirety into fuel, that then needs to be transformed back into the water to suffice basic organic needs. Art is a mark of class and racial status, those that can afford to appreciate it on top and those that need to perform it below.
The second aspect of the perils of economic rationalization, as demonstrated by the faux language of the planet, was analyzed through the lenses of linguistics by Michael Thomas Smith in his article Kyu: A Semantic Analysis of Kin-Dza-dza. Using Whorf (1953) and Humboldt (1971) and their respective claims about individual perspectives of the world being determined by the individual’s native language, he then goes to speculate on the antagonism of our soviet heroes and the plukians interesting interactions. Smith defends that the made-up language of the movie has an economic tension to it: there are only 16 words in the whole lexicon. Being a planet of petty merchants and obliterated by resource-intensive exploration, Plukian language is unnecessarily basic: it functions as a supplement to economic exchange, it furnishes class relations rituals, rather than being the medium in which relations are established and world-individual relations are mediated. Pluke is the result of humans fully reifying reality. Danelyia exposes the economic suppression of humanity and exploitation of nature in passages where drinking water out of Bi’s ship makes it ran out of fuel. When economics (as in western societies and soviet Russia entering the Perestroika) takes over our consciousness and drives our human actions, we are left with economy structuring life’s ontology. Smith clarifies it: “what is essential to the definition [of plukian functioning as a language of opposites] is the economic exchange: Drink or Fluid. Life or Technology”. Danelyia’s wit shows up by his use of “economics as a metaphor for speech exchanges” (Smith, 2017). The film’s fake idiom has an economically focused semantics and utilizes it to parody and denounce the inequalities of either Soviet or American societies. But the denunciation of widespread cynicism in both sides of the iron curtain had an interesting reflex in how the movie appreciation differed from Eastern to Western audiences. Before dwelling deeper into the matter, I want to step back for a moment and explain Wollheim’s seeing-in concept and why is it important to contextualize the movie appreciation.
According to Wollheim, a Wittgensteinian philosopher, we can change our point-of-view on a pictorial representation without taxing our perception of how perspective operates within the picture. The same does not apply to real objects. The difference lies in the surface properties of those represented objects. They detain the actual control of what the audience sees in the image. The appreciation of representation relies, in Wollheim’s stance, upon the capturing of our attention by the artist's craftsmanship with the materials. How (s)he accomplishes the manipulation of the medium and its resources and the resulting impacts of the achieved image triggers that phenomenon. There are two types of perception. Twofoldness is Wollheim’s formulation of such dual aspect to seeing-in phenomena in pictorial representation. It can explain the perceptual constancy of the represented object despite shifts in the audience’s perspective. Our artistic appreciation comes by attending to the surface properties and the depicted subject.
In Kin-dza-dza’s case, the movie is constantly escaping a precise message. For the Soviets and other communist countries of the time, it splits Wollheim’s twofoldness: first, the movie needed to avoid censorship to convey its message but at the same time capturing the Russian film bureau functionaries’ interest (like the case of Boris Yeltsin) to get funded. Secondly, Danelyia needed to manufacture the movie in such a way that he would not alienate his targeted audience. The fact that he correlates Bi with Genevan through a common Georgian past speaks a lot to Eastern Europeans collective memories of the historic conflicts between both nations, the rise of the most infamous Georgian of all, Stalin, and the ethnic and religious conflicts of Europe. The scarcity of resources is also important in the success of any sci-fi movie. Science fiction, to provoke the viewer (or reader) must in some shape or form communicate to our present times. I believe this is the most provoking aspect of the genre. We have to first look at certain objects in our daily lives, some social or economic realities as well, and say “look, I am presenting you with this ordinary thing that we all know but now I will make it turn into something completely different, something alien”. Kin-dza-dza cinematography, screenplay, and visual effects remind me of a lot of children’s games. Card boxes turned into spaceships, broomsticks as lightsabres, and newspaper-made space helmets. Like in Wollheim’s seeing-in, ink is transformed into a depicted sky, a woman, or a salon. But science fiction takes a step further and uses a completely absurd depiction of certain objects to talk about non-disclosure subjects like politics, economics, and religion. No one can tell a kid that his card box Millennium Falcon is not the actual ship. The make-believe game of Kin-dza-dza lingers in my mind because of how it downplays its seriousness to attract audiences for deeply pertinent subjects. However, the Eastern reception of the movie came more for its interesting and improvised aesthetics than the discussions embedded within it. Maybe Danelyia was right, and capitalist nations are indeed like Pluke. We only see a world of exchangeable things, and aesthetics (as for music on the alien planet) are here only to amuse us.
 More on the pluckian language further on. For the time being, tenture refers to the position of Pluck on its local galaxy, Kin-dza-dza, in opposition to the rest of the universe.
Daneliya, Georgi. Kin-dza-dza!. RUSCICO (Russian cinema council), 2005.
Georgieva, Margarita. "Kin Dza Dza! (1986)." (2010).
Smith, Michael Thomas. "Kyu: A Semantic Analysis of Kin-Dza-Dza!." Quarterly Review of Film and Video 34, no. 8 (2017): 765-774.
Wollheim, Richard. "In defense of seeing-in." Looking into pictures: An interdisciplinary approach to pictorial space (2003): 3-15.