THE DOCUMENTARY HAS MORALLY EXHAUSTED ME – AN INTERVIEW WITH SERGEI DVORTSEVOY
Sergei Dvortsevoy emerged in the 1990s as one of the key figures in Russian documentary film. His films Paradise (1995), Bread Day (1995) and Highway (1999) won over both audiences and film critics across nationalities and continents, winning prestigious awards at festivals in Yamagata, Amsterdam, Paris ad Nyon. (photo: Petr Neubert, EX ORIENTE FILM workshop 2005)
Sergei Dvortsevoy was interviewed for REVUE PRO DOKUMENARNI FILM DO III (Revue for Documentary Film), published by the 9th International Documentary Film Festival in Jihlava. In February 2005, Sergei Dvortsevoy took part in the documentary workshop EX ORIENTE FILM 2005, where he presented his latest film, In the Dark, and as one of the lecturers helped develop documentary treatments with participating East European directors and producers.
Andrea Slovakova, Bara Stefanova
THE DOCUMENTARY HAS MORALLY EXHAUSTED ME
You were originally an aviation engineer. What made you enroll in the Higher Course of Cinema at VGIK in 1990 – at a very turbulent time in Russia at that?
To make a long story short, I read an announcement in the paper. I studied aviation engineering at a school in the Ukraine, and then at the Radio Engineering Institute in Novosibirsk. Then I worked at an airport in Kazakhstan for nine years. We flew test flights, doing equipment tests. I grew bored with it. It was a routine job, I learned the aircraft inside out so that it no longer interested me. And one evening, I opened the local paper and it said, anyone interested in applying to the Higher Courses at VGIK should send in an essay. So I wrote something, having nothing better to do. I didn’t do any research, just sent it to Kazakhfilm. And they wired me to attend the entrance exams on such and such a day. I passed the exams and was accepted to Moscow... In fact I had no particular desire to be a film director. If the paper had said, sign up for dancing classes, I would have signed up just the same. Just out of boredom.
I never dreamt of making films. I had never so much as held a camera in my hands, I couldn´t even really take photographs. The technology wasn´t so widespread before, but I knew absolutely nothing. I didn´t have any particular interest in the arts, either; that is, I read a lot – as you may know Russians are traditionally avid readers, but I didn´t know much about the cinema. Of documentary films I knew nothing at all, the fact that I ended up in the documentary department was another accident – if it had said animation, I would have gone to animation. But it said documentary, so I became a documentary filmmaker. As I said, by sheer accident.
Was anyone in your family an amateur filmmaker or photographer?
No. My parents were both engineers, technically oriented. When I applied to VGIK they thought I had gone crazy, since back in those days it was impossible to be accepted to a school of this kind unless you had friends or relatives... My parents are wondering to this day how I became a filmmaker. But it was by accident, there was no one pulling the strings for me.
Your years at VGIK, 1990 – 1993, were extremely turbulent in Russia…
Yes, I applied in 1990. As soon as I enrolled, the Soviet Union fell apart. I remember the moment they brought the papers, we were all devouring them, totally stunned. I was sent to Moscow from Kazakhfilm, they had given me a scholarship, and when the Soviet Union disintegrated I was left without means, so I had to get by through all kinds of ways.
Did you shoot anything on this time and environment in which you were then living?
No, I never made a film about this. My first film was called Paradise. It eventually became quite famous. I shot it in Kazakhstan, in the area over which I had used to fly, a little way from town. It was about this Kazakh family. I shot it there because I used to do similar work like them, which gave me nothing, but I made a film about those people. And then I made another film in Kazakhstan, called Highway, about a circus family.
After all, I had lived in Kazakhstan for twenty-eight years, and it is my home. Even though I have been living in Moscow for many years now, my home is still over there – in fact I am shooting a feature film there at the moment. I even learned some Kazakh. Thinking about it, anything is possible in life. Take me – I started making films at thirty one, and I was´t even interested in them until I was twenty-eight.
Who were your teachers in the Higher Courses?
You probably won´t know them. But among them was the documentary filmmaker Leonid Gurevich, who died recently. The Higher Courses were a kind of very peculiar film school. Today things have changed, there´s a new leadership. In our time the school was headed by Lyudmila Golubkina, it was a very tiny and open-minded place. There were no grades, and the teaching took the form of discussions. And we discussed just about everything – film, music, philosophy, religion, painting – in the form of seminars and had workshops with various interesting people. And we watched a lot of films, we saw three or four a day. It was a really intensive education, it started in the morning and often went on until ten at night. I had two years of this. There were three groups at the documentary department, about fifteen of us all together.
What films did they show you?
The history of both world and Russian cinema, including the earliest films, animated films, features, documentaries – if you were a documentary student they wouldn´t show you only documentaries, they showed us all kinds of films. It was a very broad film education, and all the departments had classes together, there were only several specialized courses for each field. But students of documentary also had workshops in working with actors, for instance. We made small theatre mise-en-scenes. They also showed us Czech films, Chytilova, Forman’s early films...
And your favorite director?
I don’t have a favorite director. I like a whole number of films – Antonioni, Vigo, early Forman, but there´s always something that I’d do differently. I have no primary role model, not even among documentary filmmakers. At VGIK it was like a sudden avalanche of films, I hardly saw anything at all until then. I was always wondering at something, why did they do that in this way and not another... I was a blank sheet. I like some contemporary directors, even some Americans, but it always seemed to me that the life going on in front of you in the street is usually far more interesting than any film. I have no ideal that I look up to, even though I watch very diverse films. But I realized very early on what I want, what kind of films I want to make, I knew that already at VGIK. The best director is God, the rest of us are just the ADs.
You graduated from the Higher Courses in 1993, when there occured a total collapse in film production. State support for the cinema evaporated in Russia, the distribution network also collapsed...
Yes, but in Moscow you could at least see films, because there are venues like the Musei Kino and Dom Kino, where they keep showing good films, both classics and contemporary films, Russian and foreign – American, European, Czech, too. And this was so even in the darkest years, when everything fell apart and there was a terrible mess.
You shot your debut film in 1995, did it take you long to find financing for your film in the chaos of that time?
No, amazingly I succeeded very quickly. As soon as I finished school in 1993, I knew I wanted to make a film about this Kazakh family. I was riveted by that theme, this small family living on their own, out on the steppe. I wanted to start shooting immediately, I was looking for money, and an acquaintance gave me the number of some businessman and told me that she did not in fact know him personally, but that I should call him, that perhaps he could give me some money. I have no idea to this day where she got the number. Anyway, I went to see this man, he was a Georgian. I think they were some kind of swindlers, they did some business with metal, hustling aluminium to and fro. Nevertheless, I saw him. All I had was some video footage, I showed that to him and he said, come and see me in two days. I did and he said he’d consulted with someone, that having just graduated I would have a hard time finding money. He asked me how much I needed. Back then we were shooting on this Soviet filmstock, called SVEMA; I said I needed five thousand dollars. And he just gave it to me there and then. He sent an assistant to get it from the safe. Just like that – take it! Later, when the film was successful, when it won a lot of prizes and went to many festivals, I spoke to the people from that company again. They told me that they never expected me to make a film at all, they thought I would just take the money and vanish. They gave to me basically to leave them alone. They must have had a lot of money.
Where did you show your film after it was finished?
In Moscow, at some student festival, where it wan a prize. It won attention, too, someone dropped a word about it, and thus it came to be in Nyon [the International Festival of Documentary Film Visions du reel – ed. note] in Switzerland. It won other prizes, it was very successful.
Those were peculiar times. But I was lucky. Many of my fellow students from VGIK couldn’t find money for their films. And I came across this Georgian – and what did he need some film about Kazakhstan for? He couldn´t have cared less about it. It was a godsend, I nearly went crazy when they told me to take the five thousand – it was a huge amount of money to me.
And so thanks to winning international awards you managed to find financing for your next film…
My next film was Bread Day. The awards naturally helped. Several possibilities opened at once, but it was still really complicated. I won awards, I made a name for myself, but my films are peculiar, not really suited for television – and documentaries are financed mostly by television. Nevertheless, I won a prize at the Sochi film festival, the main prize there is 10 000 metres of 35 mm Kodak film. That’s very expensive film, it was worth 20 000 USD. So I took the film stock, rented a camera, asked a cameraman friend of mine – and off we went, without money or crew, to that village. I paid the camera rental myself, I paid my friend something, I recorded the sound myself.
How did you find the village where Bread Day takes place?
I saw a reportage on television, about a similar village nearby, it was not about bread but something different. I decided to see that place, and the first thing I saw were these people pushing the railway car loaded with bread, and I decided I had to make a film about this. After that I went there many times without a camera, got to know people, made preparations. And then my cameraman and I shot there for three months.
Your films always have a strong element of social concern, but at the same time you put a lot of thought into the composition of a shot, to its aesthetic value.
I always try to find some poetry in everyday life, something metaphysical. When I observe some social phenomenon and contemplate it, I find a deeper thought, an image... And in this village, as soon as I saw them pushing that car with bread, I realized that there was a profound film there. It was a very ordinary situation, but if you look at it from the right angle, it has depth. All you have to do is find a way of rendering it. You need to observe it carefully. I like to watch, to observe life. And that is the essential root. If you love life, you will see a lot, you just need to be care for it. The trouble is that most people simply don’t like reality. They find it sordid, uninteresting, and so they run away from it. They’re afraid of it. On the contrary, I like reality, I love it. I’m just fond of life.
Many directors don’t start with some event, but instead conjure up something, some idea of theirs, and they try to find something to match their concept, their idea. I go the opposite way. I see something and then try to develop it further, such as for instance I saw that railway carriage with bread, or the blind man who makes string bags in my film In the Dark, and then I pose the question, what does this mean, what is at the bottom of this image? And if I see no depth in it, no way of developing it, then I won’t make that film. I always start with the event.
Can you help people change their life when you are making a film about them?
Well, this is a problem of the documentary film. To help change someone´s life... of course I do help people as I shoot with them, for instance I gave some money to that blind man, I did shopping for him, arranged things, helped out in various ways, and this goes for my other films, too – I helped the Kazakh family. In Bread Day I pushed the bread carriage to the village along with the old men and women, and so did the cameraman. But essentially documentary film, at least the kind of creative documentary that I make, is a strange genre, one that doesn’t help people much. When I make a film I don’t make it to help people. I help them while I am shooting, but the film itself cannot help them, and in fact sometimes it harms them, makes the situation even worse. Making a film about someone doesn’t necessarily bring them happiness.
Have you experienced that first hand?
Yes, certainly. Just recently I have learned... I am making a film in Kazakhstan at the moment, and I met the former head of the kolkhoz in the village where the family I made Paradise about lived. And he told me that after the film was shown they nearly arrested him; he reproached me for them having allowed me shoot the way they live... and the film is realistic, it is not some kind of rural idyl that everyone’s gotten used to. There is a scene where a woman washes her hair with kephir. And the kolkhoz leader complains, why did you make such a terrible film? Why do you shoot her washing her hair with kephir, do you want to show everyone that we don’t have shampoo in Kazakhstan? It sounds like a joke, but the leaders thought that my film was presenting Kazakhstan in a bad light.
But it is perfectly normal there – almost all women wash their hair with kephir. I was really taken aback at this reproach, the film had been shown worldwide, and everywhere they said, what a beautiful country, what people! And back home it was exactly the opposite - you wanted to make fools of us in front of the entire world?
In other words, the serious, creative documentary does not help people, on the contrary, it bothers them.
Do you do screenings for the people you make films about?
No. I do no special screenings. Firstly it is far away, and then, over time I came to a decision that unless they themselves ask for it, it’s not worth it to show it to them specially. While shooting Highway we photographed the mother of the family portrayed in the film. The cameraman really took pains to photograph her beautifully, to light her well. This is not what we are concerned with in the film, we try to film realistically, but we wanted to make some beautiful photos for her. We thought she would be pleased, but in fact she was appalled. Why do you shoot me like this, I look a mess?! So we asked her how she would like to be photographed. And she said “In a headscarf, with a mosque in the background.” After this, I realized that no matter how I shoot, it will be wrong, because people have their own notions. And as a rule they do not like a realistic view of themselves, just like you or I probably wouldn’t like it. When they show your life, it is not always a pretty sight.
They of course approve what I am shooting, I tell them beforehand that I will shoot everything that happens and they agree to it, but in the end they always feel that it should look different, that so to speak that mosque in the background is somehow missing. People would probably like if you prettified them, but that’s not real cinema any more, that’s film made to order. We have a TV program in Kazakhastan called Salem – Greetings. People send in their own photographs which are then broadcast, underscored with some music, and there is a caption saying, “We wish all the best to so-and-so for his or her birthday”. Everyone would like a film like that, but that would not be documentary.
For me it’s a moral problem. For that matter, that’s why I am making a feature now. For no matter how I make a film, people will never be comfortable with it, it will never bring them happiness. I make art out of their lives, and that is a dangerous thing, and for me personally it is a very unpleasant thing. Because you interfere with people’s lives, you spend three months with them day in day out, and then you finish your film, but you cannot show everything in it, just a part of the truth, not the whole truth, because human life has so many sides and would never fit in one film. So you show just a piece of their life, and here there’s a huge ethical problem, a moral dilemma, because these are real people and their real lives which you somehow transform, by presenting it in some way, and this often makes them unhappy. And I am not happy that I am doing that.
Last year your film In the Dark was shown at the International Documentary Film Festival in Jihlava. This year you showed it as part of the Ex Oriente Workshop at FAMU in Prague. You said in the course of the discussion that your lonely hero was happy to make the film with you because it meant he was not lonely for that time. At the same time he had no idea why you were shooting or what the outcome would be.
For him the outcome was not important. Firstly, he is blind, and he is also a very wise person, so his attitude was of philosophical distance. He told us, do what you can, if it turns out good, so much the better, and if it’s bad, well that’s good too. At this point I feel as a director that I can do whatever I like. You can make ten different films about one person, or twenty, or thirty.
It’s hard for me right now, perhaps because I am exhausted, since the film took a long time. I interfere very strongly with someone’s private life, and then make art out of it. It’s very controversial for me. The documentary film for me is essentially a terrible thing.
I mean true documentary film, where someone really wants to articulate something, deliver a message, when one really wants to penetrate deeply into a person or situation. First you live with that person a long time, you interfere with their life, and then you recreate it and show to others – that is, basically, absurd. Documentary film is controversial in a way, I think it is a very unhealthy genre.
But on the other hand you give people a contemplation of their life, and that can be positive, too. One cannot see oneself from the outside, and that’s what film can do for you.
Let us say I am not so convinced in this. I don’t want to say that it is one hundred percent like this, that it’s simply all wrong. But for me personally at the moment, I feel this controversy, and this has made me make a feature film instead of a documentary. Of course this is not the only reason, but it crushes me to interfere with a private life, since I can turn it into anything I feel like. I feel that it is dangerous for me, for my soul.
Try to imagine the director as a dentist, with all this sophisticated equipment at his command, and in front of him, a person with a toothache. And the dentist with all his instruments can get at the sore tooth, where nobody else can get. If you have the tools and you know how to use them, you can do anything you choose. And that’s very seductive, and I don’t want to start down this road, because it could happen that I pull out a healthy tooth. What I want to say is that one could make a horrible mistake. The further you go, the greater the possibility that you take a false step, that you extract a healthy tooth instead of a sick one; because now I know my craft, and they will let me do what I like.
So as your realization of your ability grows, your confidence in doing the right thing diminishes?
The protagonist of In the Dark appears to be totally alone, one gets the impression his wife has died. At the beginning of the film we see her in a photograph, which is a kind of memento mori, referring to what no longer lives. Since she never appears in the film, I thought she had died. After the screening you told us that she is alive, just out all day at work. We have debated whether this man’s loneliness is accentuated by the absence of his wife from the film, or whether it would have shown even more had we known that a person can be lonely even living next to another person.
That is possible. But in any case it would have been difficult to shoot, because his wife left for her work very early morning, and didn’t come back till late at night. She practically doesn’t even live there, just sleeps over. She is not there at all during the day, so we could not shoot with her. And he really is alone all the time. In this sense the film is very true, for if we had shown his wife in the film, it would have appeared as though she is there all the time, but she is hardly ever there at all. I have considered this – we did a few shots with her at the outset – how to show that she is away all the time and that this is what makes him so lonely. A blind person feels alone to begin with, even when somebody is there. And when there’s no-one... also, we would have had to shoot her asleep at night, so the explanation of her absence is very simple.
The themes of your films are always very firmly rooted in one place, but on the other hand they are comprehensible to viewers all over the world. Do you choose such themes on purpose?
Yes, I try to have a universal theme. Of course I aim for the film to relate to the viewer. But first of all I have to relate to the theme. And as for In the Dark, here was a man who makes string bags and offers them for free to passers-by – and all of them have plastic bags. Had I been making a feature, I would have had to invent this character, but here this man stood before me, in real life. He was like a person standing on the platform with all his luggage, and the train has just left, and he’s there shouting, where´s my train, I want to get on too. Life has passed by, and he’s standing there with his string bags. He is alive, but at the same time he is in fact dying, because nobody needs him. He is old, nobody wants his string bags, but the people who don’t take them from him are not to blame – it’s just that life is elsewhere now. Sure, some are cruel to him, sometimes people are rude to him there, but that’s life, it´s like that for everyone. There will come a day when I make films nobody will be interested in. Every person reaches a moment when nobody cares any longer what he or she does. That is universal. That is why I look for themes that are universally human.
I like it when a film appears to be simple, but there is more to it than is apparent at first sight. You watch a film and suddenly you get it the next day. When what is not shown in the film is even more powerful than what is there. That’s what Bread Day is about. A simple situation, but there is much more to it.
How would you define auteur film? What can be conferred to the collaborators (camera, editing, sound...) and what has to be under the control of the author?
I make documentaries with two or three people. There were two of us on Bread Day. One local guy helped us sometimes. On Highway there were three of us, we had a driver, we did a lot of driving there. In the Dark there were two of us, then the cameraman changed. I do sound myself, not because I wouldn’t trust anyone with it, but simply because in tiny rooms more people would be cramped. And then there´s personal contact, that’s really important for me. When I make a film about someone, I am unconditionally devoted to them without reservations, they become really close to me. And afterwards it is difficult to part with them. In Bread Day, for instance, I know all these old people, I know all their lives, we are very close. And if suddenly there appeared someone new, the atmosphere of intimacy would be gone. Also, a bigger crew doesn’t react so flexibly. As soon as there are extra people in the crew, you have to make arrangements with them, they have to make arrangements among themselves, and there goes the intimacy. I always do as much as I can on my own. I take my own car, I record the sound, I am the assistant to the cameraman – my condition for the cameraman is that he has to be alone, without assistant or lighting crew. He knows that and goes along with it. It´s not that I don’t trust anyone – I am perfectly able to confer trust in others, when the situation allows for it. And I would never stand behind the camera: I have to keep track of the situation constantly. At any moment I have to be aware of what is going on around me. This is different with the feature film, it’s more of a question of technology, preparation, you need more people there. But even so my crew is minimal, about thirty people in total. It couldn’t be any smaller.
And for editing?
That´s another question. When I was making Paradise, I had an editor, and I guess she extinguished any desire for collaboration in that field. I sat next to her at the editing table telling her where to splice. And she just did what I said, and every now and then she would leave to watch a soap opera, or she asked stupid questions. I decided I might as well do it on my own. I know the technology, they taught us all of this at VGIK. And so I started editing my own films, I can do it and it’s not hard for me. It used to be more complicated when you worked with film, now that one does the editing on computer it’s much faster. You don’t need an editor any more.
Do you write your scripts on your own?
I don’t write scripts for documentaries at all, all I write down is the treatment, which keeps changing. When I go somewhere I start to analyze the situation, the first thing I do I gather information about that person. I constantly ask myself whether some scene takes place regularly, and how to shoot it. I constantly try to analyze the scene and the next question I ask myself is what does it mean. I break down every day, hour and minute. As the situation changes, so does the treatment. The script emerges in the course of shooting, and changes are often made even in the editing room.
You are thus completely free making a film, you don´t have a producer to supervise the dramaturgy?
Not so far. As I have said, so far I have been lucky, my first film was a success, and this made others believe in my skills. Even though when I made Higway, I actually set out to make a film about something else. I submitted a treatment about long distance drivers. Everything was ready for production and we were on our way to shoot, when I met this family in a town on the road, who were performing in a local circus. We continued on our way – and we turned back. Suddenly I thought, where are we going, and so we went back to this town, found the family and started shooting with them. The producer had no idea about this, she was in France. Only when we had finished did she learn that I made a film about someone else. But the film was a success, so I got away with it. I guess things would have been different had the film been a failure.
As for my feature screenplay, I worked on it with a friend of mine, a professional screnwriter, but I wrote most of it myself, as he has never been to Kazakhstan. But even here the screenplay changed during the shooting. We quite unexpectedly managed to shoot something we couldn’t have foreseen beforehand, so we had to change the screenplay. But I guess I am lucky with producers, they are creative and understanding.
The producer I work with now has experience with the art cinema, he has worked with Jarmusch, Kaurismaki and Kusturica, so he knows that a screenplay will change in the course of production. But I have so far not met a producer who would try to dictate anything to me.
What is the origin of the idea for your feature film?
I had this old idea, and a screenwriter friend of mine with whom I lived at the dorm kept telling me to work on it, that the idea was worth it. So we wrote a treatment, a producer immediately bought it, but then it took me a long time to find money, three years. And then, as I have said before, the documentary has exhausted me morally. In the Dark took a long time, I spent two and a half years with its protagonist. It was a similar story with the other films. One’s batteries just go low... I am exhausted, mostly morally.
You cut into living people. In order to make art, you cut living things. Such is the work of a documentarist.
And on the other side, today the documentary is disappearing more and more from cinema to television. In Russia this is especially visible, as it is in the West. Financing for documentaries comes mostly from television channels, it is distributed by people who are themselves the product of television and there is ever more rooted a kind of standardized concept of film – films are supposed to be of a certain mold, not different. And thus documentary film becomes ever more like television, and ever less like art.
I am interested in all kinds of films, not just in the kind I make, but they have to be different. When they are standardized, I lose interest. They are all made by professionals, very well versed in what they are doing, but who all make films the same way, so that you cannot tell the author from the film. They all speak a language that is conventional, comprehensible to the television viewer.
Your films are shown in festivals, but would a Russian viewer be able to see them in a cinema, outside of special venues such as Musei Kino?
Of course not. Art films are hardly shown in our cinemas at all. I very much doubt that the feature I am making now will be shown in cinemas. They show only commercial films, mostly American, and if they show Russian films at all, it is again only the most commercial ones. In our country the fast food era is rife. The time for the art film has not arrived yet, but what can you do? I don’t want to make films just for television. That’s a completely different approach, a different audience. I want to make films for cinemas, and that is another reason why I am making a feature now.
You said during the debate that you never shoot on video, always on film stock.
I have, so far. Perhaps I will start shooting on video, so I can’t rule that out. Strictly speaking, I see no difference between a video or film record, since both are basically a kind of visual recording, the principles of which are always the same. You have a frame and sound and that’s what you have to work with. Film stock may have a different definition, a different color tonality... electronics have less pixels – there’s a difference there, but it is not so essential. I have so far a kind of psychological barrier, because the film image – that’s like a fresco.
It’s also a question of concentration. If I approach it as painting a fresco, I concentrate far more, how to shoot, from what angle, I prepare far more intensely. In Bread Day, for instance, there is the initial shot with the arrival of the train, when the people go to meet it, it is about eight or ten minutes long, and we took two weeks to prepare for it. The cameraman and I walked about with the camera, no train, we knew where the train would pull in, where the people pushing the carriage would walk, and the cameraman ran about with a twenty-kilo camera. At first he couldn’t take it for longer than three minutes. For about two weeks we trained just so that he would be able to move with it. And we considered all possibilities, what does he do if someone moves this way, etc., we went through all of this, the train movements, and so on. We didn’t know exactly what would happen, but we had set alternatives beforehand, what the cameraman would do in various eventualities. Then we went through the motions with a video camera, we rehearsed, designed the composition, size of shot, whether to get a close-up or not. But when it is film, it’s for real, you know you have one take. And even if you can do another take, it will be different, and will cost you a lot of money. That disciplines you. It gives you a totally different concentration. It’s either now or never.
Like in life. Either you know you only live once, or you take life as a game you don’t have to think about. Video means that you don’t have to concentrate. You can get tapes any time, everything is possible, except when the person you are shooting vanishes, but otherwise everything is possible. And laziness is human nature. For instance right now, you and I prefer to sit down rather than stand. It is more pleasant not to work than to work, and using film constantly makes you work, whereas the facility of video conduces you to idleness.
Translated from the Russian by Bara Stefanova