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Pavel Kostomarov and His Russian Tour de Farce

Pavel Kostomarov started his filmmaking career as a cinematographer in 2003 as a VGIK graduate. He shared his gift for visual composition with a number of directors, including Sergei Loznitsa, Viktor Asliuk, Alexei Uchitel and Alexei Popogrebsky. With Popogrebsky he made the 2010 successful feature How I Ended This Summer and received Berlinale's Silver Bear Award for cinematography. Although there can be no doubt about his great talent to create disciplined, pretty film images, in his documentary films he favours the poetics and authentic power of the home movie. Situations and fleeting emotions reflected in the human face or in the movement of a hand are more important to him than any precise composition and harmony of colours.


Kostomarov manages to distill equally strong and raw emotions and the same level of intimacy as in a home movie, yet he does not entirely abandon his cinematographic prowess. This is evident in, for example, the spatial contexts into which he places his protagonists. He is simply well aware of the storytelling potential of images. He knows the best moment to let a face speak, the best moment when the camera pointed into an empty space can create a chilling dramatic effect. One of the production traits of his films is the fact that he likes to take a co-director on board. Mother (2007) and The Transformer (2003) were made in collaboration with Antoine Cattin, while I Love You (2011) was made with Alexander Rastorguev.

The Transformer was incidentally also the first film in which Kostomarov tested the documentary form. With the exception of the last sequence composed of black-and-white photos and underscored by music, the film is based on a single situation, just one extended sequence in which the transition in time is marked by jump cuts between scenes that capture two men sitting and talking. They are guarding a multi-ton iron bulk that fell off a semi truck. A trivial situation, trivial chatter, the film is still very effective thanks to the director's ability to discover little gems in instances of human actions and behaviour, whether they be surprisingly sensitive and delightful or at other times gruesome. Moreover, in The Transformer Kostomarov begins to put together an epic puzzle of contemporary Russian society. Following ordinary individuals, small events and personal stories, he is able to pinpoint the features and problems of the national character with the same tragicomic incisiveness that belongs to Chekhov's plays.

Kostomarov's interest in social and even sociological issues is apparent in his Life in Peace (2005) and Mother. If we disregard their nuances and specific protagonists, both films are a paraphrase on the same subject that is viewed through female and male perspective. While the feminine element (i.e., as an active social agent) is missing in Life in Peace, in Mother we get the opposite constellation. The older film is in many ways different from Kostomarov's body of work. He usually relies on the power of the image and on the self-explanatory nature of events; in Life in Peace he resorts to voice-over commentary. And worse, the English version includes voice-over dubbing of the protagonists. This may be owing to the fact that the conflict and issue is not of a personal nature but branches into broad social and political contexts that must be explained to be understood. It captures ten years of war in Chechnya, Russia's pressure to influence the media image of reality, i.e., the reality of civilians whose lives are destroyed by the war conflict. Some die, others leave their homes and their roots to live in Russia. The protagonists Sultan and his son Apti left Chechnya in the 1990s when Sultan's wife, Ati's mother, was killed. The filmmaker clearly tries to characterize the protagonists and their status using situations and actions but he also employs voice-over as a prop. It robs the film of its penetrating power. Commentary uses words, that is, intellectual concepts that force the viewer to rationalize and absorb facts. Yet proportionately less space is left for empathy and understanding. It makes the film rather conventional. Big words steal the spotlight, usurping the power of images. Small talk and trivial statements that carry little weight but a great emotional authenticity also remain without translation. Without being fluent in Russian, the viewer has no chance to understand the dialogue; voice-over dubbing also erases the genuineness of intonation and mood. The only thing left to work with is external stance and assessment of facts. Fortunately, Kostomarov applies his cinematographic sensitivity in the way he captures faces and lets people speak, complain and confess. The film does not aim to be political critique but presents a social situation. Unlike Kostomarov's following films, this one has an interpreter, an outside narrator who sums up what the viewer sees, what she should think, what the causes and consequences of each particular event are. Relationships are also summarized in commentary, we never see their development. The film as a whole suffers from simplification and can never reach the complexity of Mother.

At times the picture and commentary produce unintended irony. When the voice-over claims that local people toil here for pennies, the camera shows them at work but they are mostly just sitting, smoking and talking, drinking or already drunk, which seems to be a pretty much permanent state. It does not mean that they are not overworked and tired, the skewed impression is due to the momentary clash between lofty words and images of dire misery. Towards the end of the film, as the commentary gets less frequent, Kostomarov's specific visual structure takes over. Its thick information potential reveals the men as beings harbouring frustration and sadness, propensity to violence and advanced alcoholism. The climax in the final scene captures Apti's breakdown. The power of its pure emotion and mood forces the viewer to abandon her position as a distant observer and become a participant, a voyeur who sits in the adjacent room to witness a sudden overflow of human pain. Importantly, the pain primarily comes not from personal circumstances, but rather from their social position within the deformed social system.

Where the method and effects of Life in Peace end, Mother begins. The protagonist is Lyuba, a mother of nine, and also her eldest daughter Alesia. Moreover, both are model figures for "mother" and "woman" in contemporary Russia. In Mother Kostomarov makes full use of spatial dispositions of onscreen subjects to describe the relationships between the protagonists; they are correlations of emotional bonds within the family that includes the mother, her nine children and other protagonists that enter their lives. The dialogues are mostly on general topics and largely banal. The true narrative device is the picture. A detail of her facial expression, a reflection of her face in the window and, especially, the configuration of protagonists in front of the camera. For example, the children are mostly together with different bonds among them; the eldest daughter doubles as a mother, the eldest son as a father (nobody says they do a good job of it). The real mother is usually alone in her shots, travelling or she is just a voice, a commentary in the background. The viewer slowly delves into the story, gradually putting together various situations, fragments, details and episodic happenings. The protagonists are characterized by their actions and by the way these are reflected in their faces. Kostomarov is so meticulous in keeping the face as the main projection space that he often does not even offer the long shot or the reverse shot. The family is poor with a harrowing history, having suffered through poverty, displacement, hunger, and a violent father they had to run away from to stop the abuse. In spite of all this, the protagonist is happily positive that nine children are not too many. In the course of the film, another man, Sergei, steps into her life, an alcoholic with delirium tremens. Aren't there any other men around? Does it always have to be the same type of man who over and over again brings more suffering to her and her children? Alesia's brother and boyfriend in the end turn out to be just as violent, irresponsible and unusable a drunk as Sergei and the absent father. The men always disappear, while mothers and children stay behind. The daughter and son repeat patterns copied from their mother. This is well shown in two mirror image situations that capture mother with the drunk Sergei and sister with her hungover brother. The women keep yelling and swearing up a storm but they also keep taking care of them and forcing their love on them. It all gives the men an excuse to stay ignorant, violent and drunk. The daughter finds a boyfriend at a cow farm where she and her mother work. Everything orbits in a cycle of patterns, and even more so when Lyuba recalls how her mother sold her to a man for a bottle of vodka when she was just fourteen. People treat each other literally the same way they treat animals. The eldest daughter teases the cow in the same way she teases her boyfriend. Most interactions between the protagonists are not verbal but physical - ascending from nudging, shoving, hitting and beating to sex.

For anyone who lives west of the former Soviet territory, the depicted world filled with filth, alcohol and poverty is simply incomprehensible and unacceptable. This is especially striking in the episodic story of the toddler Sasha whose mother also works at the cow farm. An emotionally deprived and bored child wanders around the farm and completes his cheerless journey by expertly smoking a cigarette somebody gave him. With the exception of Lyuba who wants to help him, the women laugh as if the child were a chimp at a Victorian zoo showing off his new puffing skill. Such social concept and customs feel remote and incomprehensible for most people outside Russia; the film lays out entirely different standards in the quality of life, and in the way women and children are treated. The mother (both Lyuba and Alesia) as a social prototype is an inevitable product of existing circumstances. It is at all times a self-sacrificing loving woman who speaks about pain but holds on. The viewer's empathy and emotional response is, despite any shock, revulsion or lack of understanding, the result of the filmmaker's skillful depiction of emotional and relationship nuances - in the details of expressions, positions, looks and gestures.

Kostomarov may have felt the need to purge the despair and misery of Mother and so his next film Two Together (2010) focuses on a married couple, people who have been together for tens of years and still love one another. They have a fairly clean home filled with an air of creativity and understanding. Their co-existence and love seem as a welcome change after the dysfunctional relationships in Kostomarov's previous films. One must keep in mind, though, that this couple belongs to a different social class, which makes the viewer's feeling of relief a mere illusion. Just outside our field of vision, we can still sense the world of Apti, Lyuba and Alesia. Although the mood is very different in Two Together, Kostomarov uses the same film devices, e.g., he captures people involved in work in such a way that the activity seems like a fetish. In Life in Peace, it was Apti with his makeshift heating coil, here we see Ludmila descaling fish and Vladimir carving out wooden figures. Typically, the viewer is for a long time left clueless about the purpose and nature of the activity. At first we only get fragments and details, and we get to see the whole picture only at the end. The viewer pays close attention even to actions that would otherwise seem trivial and uninteresting because they are shown in new and uncommon angles.

Kostomarov's latest film I Love You (2011) is so far his most advanced home video concept with sociological implications. It is basically a research method for self-examination, with the camera toning down any self-stylization because one can constantly see it. Kostomarov and Alexander Rastorguev first organized a casting in Rostov-on-Don. Some fifty people got cameras to shoot details from their private lives; the protagonists are also co-authors. The filmmakers then picked an entanglement of relationships involving three protagonists and created an ingenious structure that adds a striking sharpness to all taped instances of the confused, sad, tragic, pathetic, happy, tender or regrettable. One cannot say that the shots are manipulated or put together in a way that gives a false impression. The home movie itself gives away any (self-)deception of its maker. Tragicomic effects are created by the fact that as people become their own directors, they keep checking themselves and start acting more because their awareness of "creating reality for the camera" gets amplified by their sense of authorial responsibility. The camera gradually shows whenever they overact, and captures all their lies, contradictions and cowardice.

Kostomarov's latest film and his whole body of work paints an interpretively broad and thematically focused picture that can be described as a farcical mosaic of contemporary Russia. Yet if we ever tried to mock or look down on his protagonists, we should quickly remember how ridiculous we ourselves might look unmasked by the camera of a man with such a good eye.

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Directing Filmography: The Transformer (2003, Best Documentary at the Tampere ISFF); Life in Peace (2004, Silver Dove at DOK Leipzig, Silver Dragon for Best Documentary at the 45th Krakow FF); Mother (2007), all co-directed with Antoine Cattin; Two Together (2009); I Love You (2010, co-directed with Alexander Rastorguev).

This text first appeared in IDF's Industry Reel, published in March 2012 at the East Doc Platform.