Cross-over director Sergey Dvortsevoy has made a name for himself over the last ten to fifteen years through a handful of noteworthy documentaries.
All his films have a focus on some of society’s neglected existences, and are all characterised by a personal tone and an almost unique film language, where the camera is held fixed on barely discernable motifs, until life itself sprouts from the cracks.
Thus his probably best-known film Bread Day (1998) – about the life of fifteen to twenty elderly people who are the only remaining inhabitants in a village near St. Petersburg – begins with an eight-minute long, continuous recording of six to seven pensioners struggling to push a whole freight-train wagon with their weekly supply of bread through the snowwhite winter landscape from the main railway line down a siding which ends at the village. During the entire 52-minute film, there are only sixteen cuts.
When I first met Dvortsevoy in 1999 at the television conference Input in Fort Worth, Texas, he explained:
– The problem with many documentaries is that they have a journalistic approach. Their sole aim is to illustrate the director’s innermost thoughts and opinions. It is largely irrelevant what the pictures show, because these filmmakers just want to tell the audience what they, the filmmakers themselves, think. I don’t think that is interesting. I would much rather people looked at the screen with an awareness that it is life itself that they are observing. It is the audience who must react to what is shown by the images, not me.
– That is why I avoid cutting into my film takes whenever possible. If I cut, the images become reduced to being illustrations of an idea. And then they are only watched in order to
interpret the meaning. I want people to feel how reality really is at this specific place. If I began to cut, it would be a lie. When you cut during a shooting, you kill real life, and you must have a very good reason to do that.
Dvortsevoy has directed two other documentaries since 1999. One, Highway (1999), depicts the lives of a small traveling circus troupe in Kazakhstan, while the other In the Dark (2004) is a portrait of an elderly blind man in one of Moscow’s bleak concrete suburbs.
In his first feature film Tulpan (2008) he uses ninety well-chosen minutes to give a cinematic presentation of life on the endless Kazakh Steppe – the dream landscape of his childhood.
Tulpan tells the story of a young man, Asa, who as a sailor has experienced the most incredible adventures on the great oceans, but upon returning to Kazakhstan has had difficulty finding a girlfriend among the few available nomadic women. He and his friend Boni fantasize about trying their luck in the city, but the film takes place entirely on the flat and dusty steppes, where – apart from the sheep – not a living creature is to be found as far as the eye can see. The film is shot in the vicinity of Ust-Kamenogorsk, the provincial capital of the eastern and very desolate part of Kazakhstan. And in order to even film there, and get a team of thirty people to function in these surroundings, a kind of primitive hotel had to be built on the steppe:
– They were the hardest shots I have ever been involved in. Every morning we had to check our shoes for spiders and such, and in the evening we had to try to ensure that no light escaped from the hotel, otherwise it would attract all the insects and snakes for miles around.
The methodology and language of Tulpan are recognisable from Dvortsevoy’s previous films. In one of the key scenes we see a lamb coming into the world, largely in real time. Dvortsevoy explains that it was exactly this scene that was allowed to set the mood and pace for the rest of the movie. And in Tulpan, as in his documentaries, there are numerous examples of scenes where the protagonists are surrounded by happenings that could not possibly have been planned. Dialogue, on the other hand, is minimal.
A feature that is typical not only of Dvortsevoy’s films, but seemingly of much of the Russian documentary tradition: – It is probably true that in the West in general there is a greater confidence in the word than there is with us,” admits Dvortsevoy. Personally, I do not have great trust in words; too often people do not tell the whole truth. Why there are so many children and animals in my films, it is to do with the fact they are completely honest in their behaviour because they are unaware of how they affect others.
– If we go back to Bread Day, one could say that you could have been equally justified to help the old people push the freight wagon. Why not? – In Bread Day I thought to myself that it seemed strange that we filmed the old people without helping them. But in reality of course we helped them, we just didn’t film it because that is not what one does in documentary film. Subsequently this led me to reflect on how ridiculous the genre really is. Instead of helping people we film them. That is absurd!
– I imagine that it is this kind of consideration that has led you away from the documentary format and into the fiction world. In the catalogue for Visions du Réel 2009, you are quoted as saying: “If I penetrate deeper into the private life of my protagonists, I destroy their life – or my soul.” Is that the reason why you’ve made a feature film?
– During the preparations for Tulpan I met one of the people from my first film, Paradise, in Kazakhstan and he told me that after the film he had been subjected to pressure from local authorities – because he had agreed to be filmed, and that he had had a lot of problems in general. I had felt that my film had been a very personal project, but now I began to wonder: if my protagonist had problems like that after such a naive and innocent film, then it would be almost impossible to ever get even closer to anyone.
There is this inherent contradiction in the documentary: the worse it is for the people involved, the better it is for the director. Since films live off conflicts, it is a problem you can’t get away from, and if you as a filmmaker can’t live with this contradiction, then you have to stop making documentaries. And that was what I decided to do after having met the man in Kazakhstan.
– Isn’t that a bit of a drastic conclusion?
– As a documentarist one makes art out of real people’s genuine problems, conflicts or tragedies. The only possible way my films could evolve was to penetrate still deeper into relationships. But I could not do that without stealing even more from the lives of my protagonists, thereby exposing them to even greater risk. I have said in the past that the limit for documentaries is when they affect private relationships. But after having done In the Dark I felt I was now so close to that moral limit that if I was going to manage to dig even deeper into life, the only way to do it was to create fiction.
– Are you finished with documentary as a genre?
– My next film will also be fiction. I feel it is a great relief to be released from the moral dilemma that you inevitably get stuck in as a documentary filmmaker and right now I think that if I were to make another documentary, it would have to be very honest, and therefore have to be about me or those closest to me.