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Sunday, 31 March 2013

Anna Nieman's Interview with Pavel Kostomarov and Alexander Rastorguev On their film Я Тебя Люблю (I Love You)



Anna Nieman is an independent film scholar, specializing in Soviet and Russian cinema. She graduated from VGIK in 1995 with a degree in Film Studies. Currently at work on her thesis, “Man of War: Films of Aleksey Balabanov in the Context of Post-war Russian Cinema”. Anna’s articles have appeared in “Art of Film”, “Caravan Magazine”, “Odnako” and MUBI.com.



For documentary filmmakers, filming just one subject and telling a story of one life can be challenging. Pavel Kostomarov and Alexandr Rastorguev seem determined to document the story of the entire nation. In the new documentary project “Realnost” ( “Reality”) they are giving “the power to the people” and letting their subjects film themselves. The award-winning filmmakers first relinquished control over the camera in 2009, surrendering it to a bunch of twenty-somethings from the blue collar city of Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia. The resulting semi-scripted “I Love You” got a mostly positive reaction at home and in Europe. To get the film seen, the filmmakers took a hands-on approach to distribution. For months they’ve toured Russia and Ukraine, appearing in-person at multiple screenings, conducting discussion panels and engaging with the audience.



Next came the Election year in Russia. A new wave of political protests brought thousands out of their kitchens and cafes on to the streets of Moscow. As the protest movement collided with the apparently unshakable Putin regime and was all but swept under, the filmmakers were in the thick of it, filming. Arrests and searches followed, but out of these tumultuous months a new project was born. The online series “Srok” (The Term) is an alive and growing, almost organic, document of Russia under Putin. Almost daily it continues to add episode after a shocking episode. Within the same year Kostomarov and Rastorguev have also premiered the second installment in the reality diptych “I Love You /I Don’t Love You” and in January put out a casting call for their most ambitious project, yet: the reality series “Realnost”. Like “Srok” before it , “Realnost” is produced by Aleksey Pivovarov, a well-known maverick journalist. According to Rastorguev it will be “a universal anthropological experiment”. The filmmakers are inviting all who, according to the project’s website, “are willing to open their lives to us”. The participants will film their daily life to create a unique quilt of modern Russian experiences.



Kostomarov began his career and continues to work as a cinematographer and sometimes director in both documentary and feature film. His work has been recognized at home and abroad, notably receiving the Silver Bear for an Outstanding Artistic Contribution at 2010 Berlinale for his camera work in “How I Ended This Summer” (2010, dir. A. Popogrebsky). As a director, Kostomarov often works in collaboration with the Swiss filmmaker Antoine Cattin, who is also involved in “Realnost”. Their latest project is “Playback”, an on-set documentary of the late Alexey German’s last film, “It’s Hard to Be God”.



Rastorguev is a documentary director with degrees in both philosophy and theater. While his filmography is much shorter than Kostomarov’s, his influence within the Russian documentary scene is no less powerful . His award-winning two-hour documentary “Wild, Wild Beach”(2005) is a powerful mosaic that lays out the sunburned humanity in all its unvarnished glory.  Along with his earlier film “Clean Thursday”(2003), it’s a direct precursor to the current projects.



In 2009 Seance.ru published Rastorguev’s Manifesto, called “The Natural Cinema”. A year later another statement , this time co-authored with Kostomarov, was published on OpenSpace.ru   



Rastorguev’s ability to strip the filmed events to their natural, harsh and sometimes  grotesque core, combined with Kostomarov’s cinematic fluidity and skill, backed by Pivovarov’s journalistic savviness, could prove to be exactly what it takes to document and eventually process the complexities of modern day Russia.


My conversation with the filmmakers took place in May, 2011, as the two were getting ready to premiere “I Love You”.


Copywright of this text and interview transcript belongs to Anna Nieman.


 

AN: First of all, thank you both for gathering, because I thought you didn't get [the e-mail].
AR: Yeah, sometimes we have difficulties getting it. Has to do with us being slow.
PK: Yep, we get it and then we lose it.
[All laughing]
AN: I don't think you guys are being fair. I think you are way smarter, than that.
PK: More harmonious, as Sasha says.
[All laughing]
AN: Especially as collaborators! Actually, as I was following your project, - since 2009, I believe, - I was surprised to see how it all came together so harmoniously, if you will. So...
AR: What kind of problems did you see in it?
AN: I didn't, couldn't have, not seeing the project itself. Just through following the press and the conversation, about the project, seeing how you have changed the initial concept. Actually, if you could right now, please share a bit about the initial idea for the project. What was it?
AR: OK. So, who's talking? Pasha? You?Me?
PK: The idea was quite simple. I guess, Sasha you better take it.
AR: [Laughing]
PK :The idea was simple: “To come up with something new”. So that was the formal push for the project. The rest Sasha wrote about and formulated so clearly and eloquently in his Manifest, that he can do it right now.
AR [Chuckles]: Yeah, well. So, you see, Anya, we had this understanding of the technical opportunity that we had with this little camera, that, when transferred to film, produces a pretty decent image. So here we saw this strange technical opportunity. After that Pashka recalled a text by Tolstoy, called “The Forged Coupon”  You remember it, perhaps? The story goes that a person gets this counterfeit note and is trying to get rid of it. Give it to someone else. And everyone who gets their hands on it suffers some sort of an upset. So, as the coupon passes hands, each behaves differently with it. And... I don't remember, Pasha, does someone destroy it in the end?
PK: No. The thing is that the forged coupon puts its owners in a position of a choice. The choice is very simple: you can either stop the vicious cycle and break it; surrender the fake bill and take it to the bank, or you will try to pass it on, extracting some sort of a personal benefit from the transaction, capitalize on it. So, each person would try to get rid of it, continuing the deceit . What interested me in it was that this thing, the coupon, or, in our case, the camera, became this...
AR A lever!
PK Yes, it would open people up, become sort of a latchkey that would prompt a person to act and thus expose himself. It’s a magic wand of sorts that unwraps a cocooned person. Just like boiling water poured over a tea-leaf forces it to unfurl and blossom. Whether it will be beautiful or not, that depends on the tea. Our hopes were with the camera. We hoped it would become a lancet the would reveal the social, psychological and spiritual contents of a person.
AN: So this is what you tried to...
PK: This was the initial idea that we, thank God, rejected later on.
AN: Right...
PK: We didn’t stick to that....
AR: Important thing is that for this story we started looking for some radically different people. First we found our central character, and we liked him so much that we decided that we want the camera to always return to him in some strange manner. That way we would have one core character. So then we started looking for interesting people who could live with the camera and create, aside from whatever structure we had, create a documentary space around our structure. Meaning, their own backdrop, their own ins and outs, their own micro-details, and so on. So, we needed people that would not only be alive, open and capable, but also have some rich...
AN: Surroundings?
AR: A world that was right for us, their own unique, actual world. So...
AN: So, you have both said that it wasn’t that easy, that there aren’t many people like that. I think Sasha said it, that there aren’t many people who could so naturally open up and freely exist on camera. Actually, here’s an interesting question, how free can a person be in front of a camera, after all? Doesn’t he turn into someone completely different from his true self? Doesn’t camera change things?
AR: This is a very difficult question... It does happen for many people: the camera changes them. But there is a type of people, who, roughly speaking, could be called extroverts, with a quality like that, or it may be that these people  have a greater level of freedom that can’t be altered by the camera. Those were just the ones we were looking for...
PK: No... I think camera modifies (people's behaviour). Always and everyone. Whatever the case may be. Unless you are blind and deaf, and are not aware that you are being filmed. But, as soon as the camera is pointed at you, it deforms you. It’s just there are people made out of fluff that it tears to pieces, and then there are people made out of titanium that sustain a very minimal and barely noticeable deformation. Those were the ones we were searching for. We called them “people with great internal freedom” who, in our subjective opinion, experience minimal change on camera. We had exchanges with them without the camera present and we saw the footage and we haven’t noticed that the camera would alter them much. Meaning, within our own frame of reference and trust,they remained equal to themselves. I guess, in our view, they ultimately remained themselves, with camera or without. These people were the most valuable to us. I think, there are few of them anywhere, but when you find them this method begins to bear fruit.



AN: How did you establish a relationship with them? Because, shouldn’t it be a very close one, or ... the opposite?
PK: They should be... no so much as close, but there should be a feeling... the character, the person that is given the camera, who you ask to bring in the footage, he should feel your unfeigned, real interest. Beyond that, the relationship should ideally be built on a sort of friendship, infatuation, or extreme interest in someone. If this occurs: this aura of friendship and trust, at times an aura of adoration and infatuation even, then within this field the work can be done. I don’t mean to sound like a medic here, what I mean is that this creates the necessary conditions, the necessary moisture for these seeds to grow. The seed that we found.
AN: Actually... this is not the first time I’m hearing this term from documentary filmmakers especially, about infatuation with their characters. It comes up quite often, especially when talking to those who make, let’s say, anthropological documentaries, they claim that they must love their characters in order to make a film about them. Right? So now I would like to talk to you about your characters specifically. The people that appear in your films are not the most glamorous kind, right? These are people who lived a life and whose faces bear the baggage of those years. Now in your new project, in this film, this kids are quite young, they aren’t burdened with much experience. So what are you looking for in their faces? What was so important to find?
AR: Pasha, you think about that for a bit, and let me return to the previous one about infatuation and all that and the moisture that we need to fertilize (our films) with... It seems to me that there exists this phenomenon of A Person With A Banner, or a Person With An Announcement. There are people that publish ads in newspapers that they have a washer, or a bookcase that they want to sell, and so on. Or they write on a matchmaking site that they are a certain height, they have certain desires that they want to share with someone. So, there is this kind of people who are constantly making announcements about themselves. They don’t care, they sort of do it over you, like a newspaper page or a broadcast. Those are the People with An Announcement. Really, they are the ideal kind of a character for a documentary. With a forceful announcement about their art, their life, their grief and their joy, their thoughts. So.. As a rule these people are quite tyrannical and monologue-prone. And the relationship with them can shape itself like this: you can either let them express themselves once and forget about them, or you can let yourself  be won over by the force of their expression and its completeness. I think that the hero of Pasha’s film “Together” ... I don’t know if you’ve seen it... He’s an artist, I don’t even know what to call it, a strange sort of an artist, living somewhere deep in Ukraine... He formulates his aesthetic principles with a terrible clarity and does it so... scrumptiously that you not only fall in love with him, you are completely won over by him.  Each good documentary character has this power that takes you over, this is the infatuation, or at times a very strong dislike, too, that can form the structure of the relationship.
PK That’s so if you are talking about a “passionary driver”, when the character becomes the engine of the film. At the same time, remember, “Ten Minutes Older” or Kosakovsky “Wednesday”, where [this type of character] is absent. There everything is built upon a variety of people fitting within what you call “an act”, or a formal solution. They completely lack the energy, they are just the necessary pieces of smalti within the mosaic. 


AN: Pavel, when you use the term “passionary” is it a reference to the teachings of Lev Gumilev?
PK:  Yes, that’s right. I’m talking about a character that becomes enthused and excited under circumstances that would make the bleak masses anxious and uncomfortable. In our case...
AR: Well...
PK: In our case we didn’t follow a passionary. We were just looking for kids who would work within our chosen method: the criteria of inner freedom, the ability to show yourself to a film crew in a way that otherwise you never would. I may enter in dirty shoes, or tip-toeing in white slippers,  still, to them, you are a moron with a camera, a moron with a cigarette and a moron with a mic. When they follow you, saying: “We aren’t here. Don’t mind us,”  it’s one kind of the game, but when you are given the camera, and there aren’t ever anyone around, that’s an entirely different thing. That’s the thing we were testing out, trying it out, to see if it could... could... be.
AR: But, still, if they didn’t have some inner content, including passionary, we wouldn’t turn to them.
PK:  No, they don’t have to posses the passionary content, they could just express their lack of passion, their meekness, their blandness, their nothingness as absolutely real. In my view, for example... let’s suppose... the cop! The cop lacks Kuzya’s energy, openness, is less interesting. He is totally constricted,  deceitful, monotonous and untrue. He is one note, one string and he rambles on for about ten minutes. And that’s what he is good for - being so extreme.
AR: He has the right function.
PK: Right! Right! Exactly what I’m saying! In this case, in “I Love You”, we didn’t follow a passionary, to the contrary, the formal act, the idea, our concept was the passionary in this film in my opinion.
AN: Meaning?..
PK The sieve, the actual hole in the sieve was the un-robbed, un-castrated life, be it smart, or not, pretty, or not, kind, or not, but it has to be unwashed, raw, unprocessed, in the way it happens, unmediated by a film crew. This seems to me the most important. The fact that the truly passionary, wild, young men and women ended up being chosen, that’s our approach - they were more interesting to us. It was secondary, though.

AR: Generally speaking, difference is not in two, or three characters
AN: It’s the authors then, I think. So the question would be, where’s the author’s place? What Pasha just said, contains, in my view, the seed of the answer to this question. The relationship between the documentary filmmaker and his material. I wonder what you think about that? Within the material of “I Love You”, where you, at first glance, are stepping completely aside.  On the surface, of course. However, it turns out that your participation in it is the most serious and drastic. Right?
PN: You see, one can manipulate objects by touching, or using some sort of implement, or by throwing something at them. Or one can create a field within which they will move due to some magnetic effects, electrostatic or vibration, whatever: without direct contact. In this sense, our direction, which, as we keep on screaming, “is not there!”, consists of us creating this field, I think.
AR: We structure the experiment...
PK: Yes, right...
AR: I’d like to add, excuse my interrupting, that the most valuable thing is the emergence of a character that expends over any structure. So you have your act...
PK: Of course he appears, of course he’s there, but when he is within the structure.... Look, there is a wonderful, or not so wonderful, film “Stalker”. In the finale, the girl rests her head on the table and there is a glass in front of her. This girl is beautiful, the table is beautifully textured, the cinematographer is great, the lighting is perfect, and so she can move the glass with her hand, or push it and it will fall. It all would be quite right and quite well. But what does Tarkovsky have happening: the girl moves the glass with her eyes. Because of that, for the viewer something completely different occurs, because she does it without direct contact. So, I think, we were this wonderful girl. We have nothing special happening, the people say the same old things that are being written in SPEED-info (a now-defunct Russian tabloid), been known for the last 10,000 years. There is nothing new there. They perform basic acts. But they have the camera in their hands and the “glass” moves, now here I’m back to the Tarkovsky example, it moves on its own not by a hand or a leg, or whatever. That’s what makes the girl absolutely magical. I think that the words, the actions, the thoughts of these kids, acquired by us through this method, they posses more weight, because they were collected with no hands, and moved with no hands. Maybe it’s presumptuous of me to make these comparisons, but it’s all about the manipulation without the contact. We kept on talking about curling: that you can throw whatever implements, or you can …
AN: Create the space?
PK: Rub the ice next to it, and it begins to move on its own. and you... you don’t touch the character.


Hello?
AN: Oh, I’m just listening [Laughs]
PK: Yeah, I should really stop now.
AN So, are you talking about the space of the experiment?
PK: Well, yes. About the new, new to us, anyway, method, more interesting and, maybe, effective. So back to the question that you asked earlier. Can people act naturally around the camera. Being around a camera, they are more real when they are alone with the camera, and not alone with the filming crew. That’s it. It’s clear by now, I shouldn’t repeat myself.
AN: Right... In articles describing your film the term “ language of You Tube” is being used often. Is it really the language of YouTube? Or what is it, what kind of language? Because, the space and the language that you afford your characters are really authorial inventions.
AR: Anya, I think what they do [on YouTube] differs from a language the way a bunch of syllables differs from a sentence. We have given them an opportunity to begin talking and then took their syntagms and assembled a coherent text. Meaning, the language of YouTube is contained somewhere inside, and on the meta-level it’s a complete, established statement in the form of a film, quite conventional for a theatrical distribution.
AN: Meaning?
AR: So the point is in...
PK: I... What’s the point? Please, continue, Sasha.
AR: The point is in twisting and rearranging the various elements of the traditional for the Internet, methods of expression, the existence of a modern person who documents himself with a phone, a home video, a web-cam, Skype, whatever, all these things in a more complex form exist withing the method of the language. And all the “words” uttered through these methods are present within the film. However, they are composed according to the syntax of a cinematic expression, this is syntax laid over the chatter, the din of YouTube.
PK So, yes, generally speaking, the term “the language of YouTube” is not completely correct. The alphabet of YouTube, the “letters” and “symbols” of YouTube from which we create the “text” in an absolutely normal cinematic language. Because YouTube, as I see it, is for when something unusual, impossible, unique …
AR: That you saw..
PK: .. you managed to film. Capture it on your phone. How your beloved kitten suddenly ate the neighbor’s dog. That’s it. There is no further development. Just some “letters”, maybe, “syllables”, at best, that you post, just to share some sort of a statement, a tornado, a flood that you witnessed, so “here, look at it!” Beyond that, form these “letters” and “syllables” of YouTube, some real stories can be assembled. Real statements. That’s what we tried to accomplished.

AN: Enter the author... Enter the author who through the authorial gesture composes an entire world from these bits and pieces.
AR: Yes the author monitors these experiences, follows the results of the experiences.
PK: He monitors them and out of them constructs a logical chain or a web, and again... contemplates these statements while assembling a story.
AR: There is a method in geometry, when a problem cannot be solved. Say there’s something about this triangle that can’t be understood through the given data , at times the solution lies in completing it with a mirror shape. So, the triangle is completed into a parallelogram. We are completing each statement  to its full meaning. Not discarding, the way it’s usually happens in documentary film, but magnifying it to the full complete presence of the entire world. The unfurling of it. They are bringing you a tiny bomb, and you are unwrapping it, taking it apart: all these nuts and bolts, and all the pieces, lay it all out, all possibilities... Ok, where was I?..
AN: Ok, so what were you adding? How were you completing it?
PK: I have a similar example. Maybe not very good one, but to the point. There is this documentary about a landfill, it made some waves recently. The point is, the artist collects the trash, and creates...
AN Paintings?..
PK From seemingly useless things creates, say, a Madonna. A huge collage. So, it’s a bad
comparison, I don’t mean to say that our characters are trash, their feelings, emotions and actions are trash. But from these elements another picture can be created, that doesn’t belong to them anymore, their feelings and their thoughts. We conjoin the moments and, again, syllables, counterpoise and lay them out in such a way, under your special angle, a special view point. That where the director is! He didn’t disappear. Then under this particular light and angle, at that particular moment suddenly it all comes together. You know those pictures, where you can’t make anything out, it’s “language of YouTube”, gibberish, but, if you focus, adjust your eyes...
AR: … or turn on another light...
AN: … or step back a bit...
PK: … yeah, light it, squint, tilt your head. And, there it is! A bunny appears!
AN: OK, so who is the “bunny” then?
PK: The bunny? It’s our portrait.
AN: So it is, indeed a self-portrait?
PK: Yes, I think so!
AN: Then, in the way of self-evaluation, what kind of face is it. How did the bunny come out?
AR: The bunny came out a wolf!
[laughing]
PK: I don’t think it’s a wolf, a pig may be... [laughing] Generally...
AR: The important thing is.. Sorry for interrupting, Pasha. In the end the story that makes the film, actually, bears no relation to their life.
PK: Yep, that’s right!
AR: The story told in the film is not a story of one concrete life, lived by them. So what is it, what is the result? I think it’s what we made the title. What we wanted to get out of it.
PK What came out is what’s been said long ago: omnia vincit amor. Love conquers all. And the only solution to all of this is “I Love You”. Yes, no, Sasha?
AR: Yes, yes. It’s the only feeling that changes us all...
PK: … Changes us all, unites us all. And generally, gives us meaning and purpose … when it’s there...
AN: Do you then being somewhat out of cinch with Sasha’s Manifesto, speak of, instead of suffering and … not destruction, no … but, instead, of love and development, creation?
AR: [softly chuckles] Anya, you see, in this act there is an aspect of sacrifice, too. Because these characters, frankly, delivered themselves, their spare parts to us.
PK Donated their organs so we can create some sort of a Frankenstein. A creature with 80 hearts and 50 spines. May be they are compromised by alcohol and drug use [chuckles], but they are alive. And we connected them however we wanted with sinew, made it..
AR.. speak..
PK: … it began to move!
[Laughing]
AN: Is there the authorial sacrifice? If you are turning them … letting them turn themselves inside out, with all their innards, however pretty or not they may be, then to a certain extent, going back to the Manifesto, then should there not be some sacrifice on the authors' part?
AR Indeed! Because we have surrendered the realm of authorship, the realm of directing, which forever in cinema belonged to an auteur, where he would expel a story and groom the actors to fit into it. Ended in the right spot, began in the right spot. We surrendered our authorship to them more than anyone else before. So that aspect of gifting, giving the cinematic territory to a lay person, in that was both the authorial sacrifice and the gift.
AN: So it was an exchange of sorts? You've given them your control and, in a sense, your world, and they?..
AR Yeah, gave them our spine and took... what.. [laughing]
PK: … Their skull!.. [laughing] I don’t know...
AN How is it then now I’m reading the press and so often they say something along the lines: “Do they, simple folk, do they deserve a movie being made about them? They are so crude!” Does this question have any validity? What do you think?
[an audible sigh]
AN Why does it even come up?
AR It’s a question with no context, sorry. It lacks context, because, you see, there aren’t many movies made over here. Every film is looked at as a major event, an auteur statement, demanding a world change, attempting to educate the Russian people in the ideas of goodness and virtue, patriotism, whatever. So every film is looked at as the next presidential decree. Within a normal cinematic landscape, like, say American one, where you have films made about rappers, films about presidents, there are films like “Tron” and whatever computer stuff. This normal landscape doesn’t treat films as such as a serious, massive, I don’t know, a life-altering thing. So I think, the claims against our film are based exclusively in the Russian mentality.
AN: So, it’s the usual Russian desire to put an author up on a pedestal  and make him a Teacher.
AR: Right! Make him a Teacher of Life. It’s the tendency of Russian culture, though I think that has became somewhat morbid. Especially, in the context of such project as the Internet TV channel Besogon TV [ Eng.: Exorcist]  Are you familiar with it?
AN That’s the first time I hear about it. What is it?
AR: Really? You don’t know? [Chuckles]
AN: Nope! [Laughing]
AR: It’s a Nikita Mikhalkov venture!
AN: Ah... [Laughing] No, I haven’t been following his ventures.
AR: Oh, but it’s very interesting! Nikita Mikhalkov appears and proceeds to exorcise the devil from Russian society.
AN You mean he himself alone? With his mighty hands? Against the devil?
AR Yes,he himself, Mikhalkov! His Holiness the Pope!
AN [Laughing]: That’s a must see!... All right... Let’s talk about what’s happening...
AR Hang on a minute, Anya.
AN: Yes?
AR: Pasha? I didn’t monopolise the conversation, did I?
PK: Oh, no! I think this is a question of arrogance and rigidness of some people, who think they can decide, who can and cannot be shown. Surely, this is... This question is so... (pause) It’s such an idiotic question! It’s same as “Do they [the characters] deserve the right to exist?”, or “Let’s not talk about them.” To me it’s just...
AR: Nazism!
PK: Yes! Nazism and idiot-ism. I don’t understand it... What is being said? “Why show this?” And another favorite phrase, an amazing one: “I, we, certainly understand, we are cultured people. But you can’t show this to the common folk!”
AN: “They won’t understand!”
PK: Right. “They will be simply proud of it!” They pop up very often these questions and to me they are markers of sorts. If  a person fails to see himself in it, but immediately puts himself “above the squabble”, looks at it from a “high hill”, in my opinion those people are finished, hopeless idiots. The people that say these two things: “Why did you choose to show these people?” and “You shouldn’t show these people!”

AN: When I was first e-mailing you, the director from Balabanov’s “Trofim” came to mind. The one that discards the film. Seems that these people take on a similar position.
PK: Yes, yes! I appreciated you reminding me about this short. So, yeah, there it is... I often catch myself at this, forever saying: “Go, go! Get out of the shot! You’re in the way.” It’s a touchy subject. I sense it’s presence in me quite strongly. (long pause)
AN: Let’s turn to something else then. Let’s talk a bit,- since we have sort of began already, what with Mikhalkov being mentioned, and all, - about what’s happening in Russian cinema right now. Just bearing in mind, though, that just like I, our readers have an outsider’s view of Russian cinema. So, now with all the talk about the birth of a new language, the new wave,  you two, as well, are talking about “creating something new”; is what’s being brought forth truly a new language? Or, at least it seems to me, that people just learned how to shoot well. Unlike when we were going to film school, now everything is more accessible: good quality equipment, good quality film, etc. So they see things, they learn the technology, does this mean a new language, though?
AR: You know, let me answer the way I understood the question,ok?
AN: Sure.
AR: So, are you saying that film Bakuradze  (the director of the film Shultes”, or the film “My Joy”  by Loznitsa, or the film by A. Popogrebsky  “How I ended this summer” (both filmmakers worked on this film: Pavel as the DP and Alexandr filmed “The making of...” segment- A.N.) are by no means discoveries to a European, or an international viewer, but when they are viewed within Russian cinema, they say it’s a new language being born?
AN: Well, when it comes to Bakur’s film or Loznitsa, too, I think they feel just as unusual to the Western audience as they do back home. I’m just talking about the gap that occurred in Russian film in the late 90’s and what began to happen afterward, and the attempt to find your own voice within it. Is there a language? Or is it just syntax?
AR: Ok, I’m just going to express my own opinion here, Pasha doesn’t happen to share it. Even at its best, Russian cinema today is following in the footsteps of the well known discoveries of the auteur cinema of Europe. Bakur’s, film to me, generally speaking, repeats the tone of Kaurismäki, who in turn, repeats Fassbinder in his best examples. So, as for something radical, new, artistic discoveries... not even, because it’s not as if we began to use a cog transmission, instead of a belt one. No, it’s about the new concept of relations between the art and the world, the reality. Obviously, the whole structure of life... the 2000’s ushered in the new technological possibilities, having to do with the Internet, social networks, and for the entire world community a new techno-based situation has developed. On the other hand, in the 90-s because of a complete pause in development of the cinematic landscape in Russia, because there was no real film production, there was no real change of generations, no transfer... but these are such silly formalities, I think. A revolutionary situation has occurred in the world, and it has to do with technological advancement, and to find the adequate connection between the new values that are actually being developed in the world right now, a new person that is emerging, whoever it may end up being: a hipster, a cosmopolitan, or an uber-engineer .... these new connections they must be found, alongside with the technological development. Life demands of an artist to come up with new forms of delivery, thus the massive rejection of paper publishing, books. What you are doing now: online distribution. Evidently, the traditional massive, well defined structure of cinema is disappearing somewhere. And what will replace it? As Kostya Treplev said in the well-known play by Comrade Chekhov: ”But we need new art forms! New forms are necessary, otherwise it's better to have nothing at all!” [ Laughs] So there is the demand for the new conjunctions, to create through new technological abilities a new picture of the world. So this effort seemed to us as a legitimate option of conjoining them. So there you have it. And the way people react, by the way, as if it’s a breath of fresh air, suggests that we got something right. I’m not saying that it’s the be all and the end all, but it’s a viable solution to the task. What’s important is the demand for a new language. And, if the demand exists, the new generation of filmmakers will emerge to answer it with this new language.
AN: And Pavel?..
AR: Pasha?
PK: Generally, I agree with everything Sasha said. To speak specifically about the Russian situation, I don’t know of any other examples, except for (forgive my modesty) the film “I Love You”, where anything new has been offered. All this... You know, like with a stairway: it’s made out of flights of stairs and, what do you call it?..the landing, where you have to turn to continue the accent, or descent . It looks, right now, as if everyone is stuck on this landing...


At this point Sasha’s connection dropped out and Pavel was called to attend a previous engagement.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Russian Influences in the work of Geetha J & Ian McDonald



Next week a film-making couple from India and the UK will be coming to Moscow as jury members at the Krasnogorski Sports Film Festival which is being held during the first half of April. Ian McDonald and Geetha J. (Geetha Jayaraman) have been involved in a broad number of film projects which in some way or another have touched on Russian themes and have both been heavily influenced by Russian culture as well as Russian film in particular. In fact my first meeting with them was at the showing of the first film of Brighton International Film Society which at Geetha’s insistence was to be Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. The patron of this Film Society was none other than Ken Loach, Britain’s leading film-maker. The society was to win the award for best debut film society at the UK Film Society Awards and many leading film critics and scholars were invited to its screenings.  Screenings that included the greatest classics of world cinema. Both Ian and Geetha were keen to ensure that Russian cinema would be at the very forefront of its repertoire and indeed Russian and Soviet cinema has always been central to their own cinematic paths.

Geetha is the producer and Ian the director of an extraordinary film Algorithms which gained a considerable critical and popular success in India at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) at Goa  (reviewed here by the Indian critic M.K.Raghavendra) and is set to go the rounds of some other international film festivals.




Darpan Inani vs Stanislav Babarykin


Ian has been working for some time now in one genre of film-making – that of sports documentary. This film, his most ambitious project yet, was four years in the making and is about the world of blind chess (a sport in which Russians lead the world). Strikingly different from most sport documentaries as well as films about disability, it is an exploration of touch as well as sight and one scene is surprisingly reminiscent of those experiments in haptic cinema of some 1920s Soviet films by such directors as Yutkevich and Room.







Yutkevich is the author of an elusive sports documentary Молодость нашей страны (The Youth of Our Country, 1946) that will be part of a project Ian and I are hoping to conduct on the hitherto unexplored world of the Soviet sports film. Yutkevich’s film now forgotten even it seems by people who still know his work once fascinated the likes of Henri Matisse and remains one of many of the fascinating possibilities of discovering an angle of Soviet film history still yet to be properly explored even by academics.

As an academic (as well as a film-maker) Ian has written extensively on sport films and it was at his request that I went in search of a film by Elem Klimov that I had no previous knowledge of. Looking through the video stalls in Moscow in the early 2000s no copy of Спорт, Спорт, Спорт (Sport, Sport, Sport) turned up. Fortuitously I stumbled upon an obscure, run down cinema in the outskirts of Moscow which was showing the film one Saturday morning. An audience of three and the rather dilapidated surroundings didn’t dampen my intuitive feeling of having discovered yet another Soviet era masterpiece - a unique film in which documentary sections are merged with the unlikely tales of a Methuselean trainer.





Ian explains the importance of the film for him:

Sport, Sport, Sport was unlike any sport documentary I had seen. Epic in its coverage and essayistic in its analysis, subversive in form and content, it captures the complexities and contradictions, as well as the allure and dangers of sport.

As an academic and lecturer in sport film he further explains that it is a wonderful film to show to his students:

I love showing the film to my sport documentary students: it challenges them to rethink their understanding of sport in the Soviet Union and to reconsider the possibilities of the sports documentary

In terms of how it has influenced his own work in shooting sports documentaries, he states:

Sport, Sport, Sport has had a great influence on my work, not necessarily in a direct sense, but in generating a filmic sensibility that strives to avoid both easy celebrations and lazy condemnations of sport. Elem Klimov has opened the door to the rich and distinctive tradition of Soviet and Russian documentaries that I am eager to explore.

Ian’s enthusiasm for this film infected me to agree to translate the subtitles. It is, even nowadays, a film strangely and sadly neglected even by many Soviet film scholars even though it does have a champion in the celebrated film director Alexander Sokurov who has on at least two occasions singled this film out for special praise. Ian’s interest in the Soviet Sports theme led him to being invited to become a member of the Russian Cinema Research group based at London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies.

Russian and Soviet culture was a part of Geetha’s childhood brought up as she was in the Indian state of Kerala. As she recalls:

Television came only in the 1980s to Kerala. While today’s children are being brought up on American cartoons, we as children grew up on fairy tales and storybooks. And in the 1970s as before, the hegemony of Soviet Union on our social life, let alone political life, was strong. Such beautifully illustrated Russian tales and then such great novels!

One particular Russian song was the basis of a short seventeen minute film called A Short Film About Nostalgia:


The film, while about personal nostalgia, reverberates with a technological and political nostalgia. Visual associations of images of old record players, plastic records, rundown VCRs and a disappearing amateur ham radio along with references to legendary Indian star Raj Kapoor’s popularity in the Soviet Union and beautiful illustrated books of Russian fairy tales such as those by Arkady Gaidar refer to a time gone, a generation gone.

The song around which the film revolves existed on a plastic disk sent by a Russian Ham Operator to her father (Indian Ham VU2JN) from the Soviet Union in the 1970s. Named Дорогой длинною after a gypsy romance was first recorded in the Soviet Union in 1926 and was performed by such Soviet legends in those days as Tamara Tsereteli and Aleksandr Vertinsky. Later in the 1960s it became a hit in the west and was performed by Mary Hopkins as Those were the Days. But unlike the English Geetha associates the song with the Russian version.


Next to the short clip of her film on youtube she stumbled across a clip from a popular Soviet film classic Три тополя на Плющихе (Three Poplar Trees on Pliushchika Street) and its song Нежность (Tenderness) which she admits to being fascinated with:

Without knowing the meaning and without knowing who the characters were or what film this was I was drawn to it. I watch it often for I think it is a perfect piece of cinema. Fantastic acting with every crease on the face expressing the longing of the music. The rain, the cars, the windscreen wipers, but most of all the actors and the song – I would recommend this clip to anyone who wanted to know what great acting was. And great music too. I don’t know if it is a great film or not but I quite envy the director for having had the opportunity to film this sequence. 

While her A Short Film About Nostalgia was her second filmed piece based on those memories of popular Soviet culture present in the Kerala of her youth, her first film was much more directly linked to the experience of an acknowledged Soviet and world cinema classic. In this film Dziga Vertov and is an explicit influence. Geetha says this of her film:

Woman with a Video Camera is inspired by the 1929 kino eye classic Man with a Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov. This complex experiment, a film without sound or words, was for Vertov, a theoretical manifestation on the screen. It not only brought into focus the grammar of cinematic means; it also showed the cameraman as a heroic participant in the currents of Soviet life. Woman with a Video Camera is an attempt to take Vertov’s theories a step further. Now we know that the movie camera is no longer considered an innocent recorder or even constructor of reality, but is part of a highly patriarchal and hierarchical film industry. Man is no longer accepted as a neutral term for we know how certain voices are silenced, certain stories untold, and certain images unmade in his-story. Woman with a Video Camera is conceived of as a yoking together of the outer and the inner world, for the film is also influenced by the use of space and time, violence and dream in the psychodramas or narrative film poems of Maya Deren like Meshes of the Afternoon, the brilliant avant-garde film taken in 1943. Woman with a Video Camera tries to address the social and the psychical realities and understand the dialectics between the structures and the nuances, to understand and to change.

Indeed a Dziga Vertov clip is used in her film as well as clips from two other films and in many ways these represent the three strands of the film (as an attempt to yoke the Vertovian, the Keralan as well as the experimental aesthetics of Kiev-born Eleanora Derenkowskai better known to film buffs as Maya Deren:

the clip of a Russian woman shooting at a Nazi figure in Vertov, the other of Maya Deren taking the knife – the iconic image in Meshes and finally the clip of the Keralite ritual dance Mudiyettu where the ferocious Kali (Dark Mother Goddess) is uncontrollably swinging around with a sickle to kill the demon in a sense, represent the coming together of the three roots of my film – the kino eye, the psychodrama and the rituals of mother goddess from my land.  

Most recently Geetha has worked preparing scripts and her first major script was funded by the Gotheborg Script Development Fund also abounds in Russian references and allusions. A tale of three sisters that alludes to both Chekhov but is also a kind of feminist retelling of Francesco Rosi’s Three Brothers (itself based on a short story by Russian author Andrei Platonov) it weaves in and out of their lives and fates in three decades from the 1970s to the early 1990s looking at their lives through a political prism of leftist and ultra-leftist politics in Kerala (a state where a democratically-elected Communist government held sway for many decades) in the shadow of the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. Geetha, herself, as a journalist in Kerala in 1988 had her first assignment to cover a Soviet mela (fair).

Curiously Geetha and Ian's very first playful experimentation which set them on the path of choosing a creative film career outside of their, then, work in TV documentary and research films was also linked to Russia, to a moment they spent in a Saint Petersburg hotel on their honeymoon where they were sung to by a tired, gaunt old crooner whose song haunted their imagination. The moment was so special that they hunted down the song and made a single-take video clip- their very first creative clip.

As I mentioned in the post, Ian and Geetha's new film Algorithms is in desperate need of funds for upgrading to enter international film festivals (at one of which it has already been chosen). Here is a link to their crowd-sourcing project for anyone who would like to contribute to make this fact a reality. http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/704302232/algorithms-four-moves-in-we-are-all-blind