Stock Footage: Raiders of the Lost Archives

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If Vladimir Kononenko were canonized, he'd be the patron saint of lost Soviet film culture. In 1988, the Russian native founded the New York company Creative Bridge (later renamed Breeze International), opening up the USSR to foreign commercials production. Today, he's decided to redirect his efforts toward plugging the lost reels of the Russian Film Archives through A Archivideo, the stock footage division of Breeze.

Under an exclusive agreement with the Russian Film Ministry and individual studios throughout the country, Kononenko has access to more than 200,000 newsreels, documentaries, and films created in the former USSR and Russia. Although his 35mm stash appears quite dated, he's in the process of digitizing the reels, which boast tons of history from the turn of the century to present. They include black and white footage from World War I and II, Lenin and Stalin parades, cosmonaut expeditions, and terrorist training sessions. Much of the film is foreign even to Russian viewers. "Almost all of them were never seen," says Kononenko. "All the movies were produced under a centralized system and funded by the government. So the production companies never cared about selling the movies."

With offices and connections in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other cities, Kononenko says it's not a problem getting special footage. "I have rights to ongoing productions, and I also have access to all the secret materials," he says. "Sometimes I get material specifically for different projects." For example, he recently supplied the meat and potatoes of the History Channel's "Secrets of Soviet Space Disasters," which featured scenes of botched Soyuz and Vostok launches. "I provided all the classified material, the actual blow-ups of the rockets," he boasts.

Explosions and warfare aside, the A Archivideo collection has some interesting scenic stuff. Kononenko himself put together a series of splashy (albeit `80s-era) aerial scenes along the Black Sea, spiced up with performances of Balalaika dance troupes and Russian rock stars. The shots, which he directed himself, became part of a cinema commercial he produced directly for Kodak in France. It played at the New York Film Festival in 1991 and won a Gold in the Travelogue category. Other archived film includes shots of fountains and gold-plated sculptures at Peterhoff, a residence of Peter the Great built in 1712, and a creepy walk-through of the Yusupov Palace, former home of the oldest Russian aristocracy. The shots take viewers through the Medici- and Toricelli-designed interiors, which include precious stones, gold and wood parquet from countries around the globe. In 1916, Count Yusupov killed Grigory Rasputin, and in the palace, wax mannequins recreate the pair's last dinner. The camera lingers curiously over the figures, which look like decrepit rejects from Madame Tousseau's museum.

Also interesting is A Archivideo's kitschy fare on Russia's disaffected youth, like gritty black and white footage of a punk-metal band playing to young Western-influenced groovesters. A Creativity favorite includes some film from an anti-drug television program that looks something like Pee-wee's Playhouse on acid. A knocked out twentysomething does one-arm chinups and zips around the pink-washed, graffitied ceilings and walls of his home. His parents stand by dumbstruck, mouths O-shaped like Mr. And Mrs. Bill, as the young Russian, at the end of his rope, prepares to hang himself. Perhaps in their homeland, the film is able to make more of its intended impact, but in the U.S. they're a sure thing for Bob Sagat's next special, World's Funniest Drug PSA's.

Kononenko seems particularly proud of his animal footage, which includes graphic seal sex and a mate-devouring black widow. Even for the die-hard zoophile, the libidinous creatures are hard to distinguish as particularly `Russian.' But hey, it's a global truism that a decent humping scene never hurts a movie.

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