This interview was conducted in October 2010 for Cinepur - a Czech film magazine published as a bi-monthly since 1991 - and it will appear in Cinepur's March issue. For more details, go to www.cinepur.cz.
LAPAROSCOPY OF REALITY
Pavel Kostomarov (*1975) who was among the guests of the 2010 Industry Section organized in Jihlava by the Institute of Documentary Film, is a Russian filmmaker and cinematographer. In only ten years of his career, he has made a name for himself as the congenial cinematographer of the early films by Sergei Loznitsa and an innovative filmmaker whose films are screened at major international festivals.
Kostomarov’s distinctive narrative authenticity, which manifested itself fully in Life in Peace and Mother, was heralded in his directorial debut The Transformer (2003), co-directed with Antoine Cattin. Defining the perspective and poetics of Kostomarov’s oeuvre, the film captures an account of a tragicomic story told by a driver by the name of Valéry. For four months Valéry bravely guarded a broken transformer against people who wanted to profit on a ton of scrap metal only to find out that the owner no longer wants it. Marginal characters from Russia’s province who spice their speech with colourful profanities became the protagonists of Kostomarov and Cattin's following films. The main feature of these films, which propels them far beyond the usual bleak depiction of contemporary Russia, is the extraordinary gift to reveal a depth of humanity in protagonists who struggle hard for the meaning of their existence.
Lately, Kostomarov has been experimenting with video diaries that erase any usual distance between the protagonist, the narrator and the viewer and that are Kostomarov's attempt at a major shift in stylistic and thematic potential in contemporary cinema.
You majored in ichtyology. How did you ever get from fish to documentary film?
I wanted to be a photographer and professional photography was only taught at VGIK so that's where I ended up. I imagined I'd study for a couple of years and then leave. Instead, it turned out that VGIK is an institution where nobody can teach nothing. It is more of a place for retired filmmakers who can no longer teach and that is why they teach. And crazy young students keep running around among them, having absolutely no clue what to study and irritating the hell out of the old masters. For five years the two camps get on each other's nerves and that's what we call film education. The only thing that made any sense at VGIK was finding people with a similar mindset. I studied cinematography and then met some documentary filmmakers by chance who took me to a shoot as an assistant cameraman. Since then I've been more or less at home in documentary film.
You received your early recognition as a cinematographer. You shot most of Sergei Loznitsa's films that established him as the most respected Russian documentary filmmaker. At Berlinale 2010, you won the Silver Bear for cinematography in Alexei Popogrebski's How I Ended This Summer (2010). What made you trade cinematography for directing?
Frankly speaking, I'd long been tired of fulfilling the directors' ideas. At VGIK, Vadim Yusov often repeated this poignant fact... A cinematographer is like a bride who - if he is lucky and blessed - gets picked by a director-husband who will love him and make him a happy wife and a happy cinematographer. I was stunned at first but soon realized he was right. It’s good to be a cinematographer with a director who is like your older brother and who always has a lot to teach you. Sooner or later, though, there comes a time when he’s no longer your older brother but simply a brother, then a younger brother and, finally, your partnership becomes too tight because you are no longer able to work with a director who has nothing to give. That’s when you get to the distinction between a professional job and passion. A professional would simply close his eyes and keep on shooting without any excitement, simply for the money. I decline most such offers, that’s why I’ve only shot three feature films. And these whims of mine, as I call them, made me turn to documentary film.
Your films serve as remarkably authentic documents about the moral state of contemporary Russia. What draws you most to these painful stories and documentary film?
I like to observe other people’s lives, I like to unwrap them to find poetic images, metaphors and generalizations. Some people are able to find these images within themselves, others like me find them by observation. For instance, some people might grow berries and mushrooms in their garden, others pick them in the forest. If you go to the forest, no one can guarantee you won’t get soaked or find something but you’ll still go there. Well, and somebody else will simply grow everything in their own yard. These are just different ways of fostering certain things within you and different forms of entertainment.
You began your career with portraits of people on the fringes who bear their difficult lives with extraordinary dignity. How did you and co-director Antoine Cattin find a joint approach to filmmaking?
Antoine and I had long discussions on how to tackle documentary filmmaking. We concluded that there are only two ways to make a documentary. You either come up with a particular situation or a conceptual method, or you find a charismatic person whom you observe for some time. The most luxurious form of documentary film is one in which you invent a situation which is then carried out by charismatic protagonists.
It is mostly compelling protagonists who grab most of the attention in your films…
We conceded that we weren’t able to generate any suitable situations so that we made several films with charismatic protagonists. Our task was to get as close as possible to the protagonists while making sure they remained natural. Most films that I watch follow the same pattern. If you find a person who has a great amount of inner freedom and does not react to the camera presence, and you live with them for a long time, sooner or later you’ll make a strong film. That’s how we made Mother. For two years we observed a very charismatic woman and her remarkably open children. We lived with them under one roof, worked at their farm, ate at one table, we were simply a couple of peculiar relatives. A lot happened over the two years and that’s how we made this film. It was a film entirely devoid of 'action', we simply followed the lives of our protagonists. The only think I tried to do differently was to lend a video camera to the children during the wedding. I was there alone and couldn’t manage to shoot everything so I asked the brightest boy to shoot some material as well. It didn’t work out though because he had the camera for only an hour. My first attempt to give a video camera to the protagonist was a failure and for a long time I forgot about it and handled all camera work myself.
When did you revive the idea?
During the long and tedious shoot of How I Ended This Summer, I had a crisis caused by strictly professional filmmaking. One of the actors Grigoriy Dobrygin used a still camera to shoot some just really crazy material that I found incredibly lively and authentic. On the one hand, I saw all the expensive equipment which we kept abusing and breaking, all of our rules and expertise... On the other hand, there was Grigoriy’s camera and his nutty videos. After this shoot, Alexander Rastorguev and I decided to follow this path. We came up with a film experiment and opened a casting call in Rostov-on-Don where Sasha lives. We ran a radio commercial and distributed posters that said: If you want to be in a film, just show up and we’ll shoot you with a camera.
What was the result?
When people came for the casting, they thought they’d have to sing something, tell a poem or show some acting skills. We didn’t want any such thing. Instead, we talked with them for a long time and asked various, often unpleasant, questions. We asked about the relationship with their father, about the last time they had sex and whether it was enjoyable or just routine, or we asked them to take their shoes off and walk before us barefoot. A lot of people were absolutely bewildered...
How many people turned up to undergo your casting and what kind of people were you looking for?
We talked to over 1500 people, especially young people. First we selected those who weren’t afraid to speak honestly and to look stupid, i.e. people whose inner freedom or inner stupidity were so strong they didn’t reflect on them at all. We gave them small hand-held cameras and told them: You weren’t shy to speak about yourself, now you have three days to do the same with your camera. And those who were the most successful and showed the greatest enthusiasm were then picked for the film. We’ve now completed one feature film [I Love You - Note: KD] and we’re editing a second one [You Too - Note: KD].
How many cameras can you hand out?
We had very little money and great problems with a producer. One got rid of us, another one fortunately managed to buy the rights from him. We started with ten cameras, then had only two when we used our own money to shoot for a year. Right now, we have five of them but if we had standard backing, we could be more professional. Our approach resembled a long cultivation period but at least our protagonists had time to mature some. Time can be the best friend and the worst enemy when you’re making a film - if you don’t have enough time, it’s difficult to make a good film. If you have sufficient time, it‘s all you really need.
You label your experiment as a fiction film. Where is the boundary between fiction and documentary film?
I consider any such differentiation conventional and outdated; the only difference seems to be in the budget. I know many narrative films that assume documentary style and many more documentaries that clearly reveal a professional relationship or some kind of an agreement between the director and the protagonist. I’m not sure where to draw the line and I honestly believe there isn’t any.
What makes your latest films fiction then? How did you manage to fuse all of the footage?
The method we used was simple. First, we asked each protagonist to shoot their life. Once we had enough material that included their lifestyle, interests and friends, we asked them to shoot particular scenes we needed. We then started stringing these episodes as beads and wrote the script in the editing room. That means the whole process was reverse because we didn’t follow a script but, instead, observed life in many tiny stories which were then made into a single whole. The protagonists partly belong to documentary film and partly find themselves in a narrative because they insert their lives into the required bits of our script, that was their role. We dispensed with all the frills - we don’t use make-up artists and tripods, the films aren’t always in focus and they are shot by protagonists who have no clue about composition but they do what they can and what they like. So far it seems that our sacrifice hasn’t been in vain because in return we received great lightness and perhaps something akin to freedom.
Do you think that the new method is more effective than the ‘trench warfare style‘ as you once called the filmmaking method in your previous films?
Yes, in ‘trench warfare style‘ the director must be as close as possible to the protagonist, there are no weapons involved but a camera, that’s how we made the first three films. The problem is that it takes a long time to get used to another person and you always need to find someone who will let you into his trench even though he himself might find it too confined and unpleasant. You need to find someone who will tolerate your presence. The new method liberates us from the trenches, it’s a sort of film laparoscopy. Instead of making a large incision, we make multiple cuts in reality and insert a camera to follow everything. This painless and non-invasive filmmaking style makes it easier to achieve natural behaviour, which is the most important thing in documentary film. It’s not that we invented this method but we try to get the word out, legalize it, and to improve its position in documentary film.
What experience is the most important for you in documentary filmmaking? Are the two methods different in this regard?
The goal is the same... There’s one species of fish, you know, that attach themselves to larger fish and use them to get a free ride. When I’m making a film, I need to become such a fare dodger. I think the best films are ones when the director falls in love with his protagonists and his life starts following theirs. Clearly, there’s no absolute identification but you are on the same wavelength and it is a way to experience somebody else’s life. It’s a creative reincarnation.
Whose skin have you tried on most recently? Who are the protagonists of your current project?
I’ve been looking at the world through the eyes of Rostov gang members, thieves and thugs. They aren’t very nice boys and I certainly wouldn’t like to run into them at night. But if you watch their life, you learn to like it, it becomes familiar and you find something of your own in it. It’s like surfing other people’s lives. I’ve believed since childhood that there’s nothing more intriguing than the windows of a neighbour’s house. When I stand by a window, I can imagine any sounds because two layers of glass separate me from whatever‘s going on inside. It’s like I’m watching a film and imagine how and what happened.
You spoke about the crisis that made you start making these experimental video diaries. Do you feel that conventional film has exhausted itself?
I don’t. Initially, we made strong proclamations to that effect because we thought we discovered something entirely new. But in fact similar films were made long before us. We later found some good ones, for example, Vesterbro. It’s a film about a young couple and half of it is from footage made by the protagonists which the director simply integrated into his own material. We set a different task for ourselves because our principle is to not shoot any of our own material. It is pure action and experiment. Everything is shot by those who are in the shot and the person with the camera decides what to do with it. We aren’t present until the editing process.
Who’s the director here anyway?
We are. It’s like curling. Conventional film is like discus throw - you take a script, warm up, change your clothes, dry your hands, make a spin, launch the discus mustering up your last bits of strength and have it fly all the way to Cannes. But then there’s such a cunning sport as curling, in which you just sweep the ice in the path of the stone to make it slide further. We invented a sort of film curling. We’re tired of the discus, it’s much easier to be the boss and tell others to shoot this or that, or to reshoot something...
Contemporary Russia isn’t known for supporting alternative forms of filmmaking. What are the conditions when it comes to funding and distribution for documentary films?
None of our films has been screened in Russia apart from festivals. No TV network can or, to be precise, even wants to run these films because they aren’t approved and proper and they supposedly cannot be broadcast due to vulgarisms. The state gives money to films out of inertia and always requires that a broadcaster be involved. It works as follows - the state hands out money to several OK’d producers who then ‘redistribute‘ it. Let’s say you get one hundred. Thirty goes to the bureaucrat who approved your application, a part goes to the producer and you can make a film for whatever is left. When we were making our last film, I was supposed to be content with fifty per cent of the grant. That was no longer feasible so I at least negotiated to get sixty per cent, I never saw the forty per cent and completely destroyed my relationship with those people. Since then, I don’t have access to state grants. I’m not even interested in them, really, everything is so disgusting and overrun with corruption, there’s hardly any state support to speak of. Having awards and good credit as a director in Europe or around the world means absolutely nothing in Russia.
= = =
Translated from Czech by Jana Kadrevis