Moscow sees old Soviet self in mothballed US film

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MOSCOW, Sep 28 (Reuters) Nearly half a century after he made it, American filmmaker D A Pennebaker's first documentary film -- about the lives of ordinary Russians in Moscow -- has finally premiered.

Made in the summer of 1959 using a handheld camera and a wind-up tape recorder, ''Opening In Moscow'' focused on the city's cobbled streets, the brightly painted trolley cars, the massive Stalin-era buildings and the open smiles of a people vilified as ''the enemy'' by Western propaganda at the height of the Cold War.

This week, the man whose film ''War Room'' documented former US President Bill Clinton's 1992 election to the White House returned to a vastly changed Russian capital to show the film no one wanted to see in 1959.

The traffic jams, skyscrapers and billboards of today's Moscow can't wholly obscure the major landmarks which form the backdrop for ''Opening In Moscow'' and the residents who still capture Pennebaker's admiration.

''The essential thing that I dug about this city hasn't changed,'' Pennebaker told Reuters at the American Film Festival in Moscow.

''The people look right into your face. That took me by surprise, because I had been told that this was like a big prison, that everybody here was my enemy. But that didn't ring true,'' he said.

Pennebaker later pioneered an art form, crafting throughout his career cinema verite portraits of Bob Dylan (''Don't Look Back'' - 1967), artists at the famed Monterey Pop festival in ''Monterey Pop'' (1968) and Clinton's campaign advisers in the 1993 ''War Room'' among others.

''Opening in Moscow'' is a non-political look at Russians attending an American cultural and trade fair. They sample corn-on-the cob, kick the tyres on a Ford sedan and stand in long lines to drink Pepsi from a paper cup.

Pennebaker said he also wandered around Moscow shooting buildings, public transport and people, thinking that back in America people would be terrifically interested to have a look at what went on in Russia.

''Nobody wanted to see it. I finally put it away in a box, and it's been there ever since. It's never been shown until Wednesday,'' he said.

In one scene, a young American woman pouring cups of Pepsi at the cultural fair describes how a Russian woman complained that the soft drink smelled like benzene, while smiling Russian men wanted to know if it could get them drunk.

In another scene, a cultural fair worker says the quickest way to tell if someone is Russian or American is by looking at their shoes.

Pennebaker fills the frame with Russian feet in leather sandals, pinched toes squeezed into low pumps and careworn mens' brogues, with no designer labels or expensive detail in sight, the factory-made shoes of a land run by collective planners.

By contrast, today's Russia is seemingly awash in luxury goods, and in the seven-storey European Trading Centre shopping mall where the film festival was held, a pair of expensive handmade Italian loafers was just a short step away.

Audience members said the film was an exciting glance into a Russia rebuilding and redefining itself during a short-lived political thaw under Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev.

''I didn't see 1959, I was born later, but all the changes and progress since then I think are more understandable when seen through the eyes of an American, rather than an insider,'' said Maxim Prokopenko, 37.

Moscow today, this time redefining itself during an unprecedented energy boom, is recognisable in the decades-old film, from the multihued onion domes of St. Basil's to the massive wedding-cake buildings that define its skyline.

But to a generation unused to Soviet life and the contradictions of an advertising-free world, the traffic-free streets and billboard-free horizons evoke nostalgia.

''Moscow's beauty in the 1950s was visible. Buildings really looked massive,'' 19-year-old Daniel Solkhov.

''If I could, I would rather have lived here then than now.'' REUTERS SG PM0844

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