Victor Kossakovsky arrives at the Amsterdam cinema almost at a run. His latest film – Tishe! – is so new that he has not even had time to see to the credits and other formalities. Not that there is much to credit. The film was shot using DVCAM, and the director himself was responsible for photography, cutting and production. Before the screening Kossakovsky explains that the film was printed out of his computer just forty minutes before his flight was due to take off from St. Petersburg. On the way to the airport he was stopped by the police, because – on his own admission – he was driving 120 kilometres per hour. But when the policemen heard that it was a matter of a Russian director on his way to an international film festival, they waived the fine and instead escorted him the rest of the way with their lights flashing.
It sounds like a fairytale. But even though Kossakovsky has made his mark as one of the most important Russian documentarists of his generation with films such as The Belovs (1993), Wednesday (1997) and Pavel and Lyalya (A Jerusalem Romance) (1998), the conditions under which Tishe! was made were anything but enchanting. It is a film made against all odds.
“I had been waiting a long time for money from Germany for a new film. There were long periods when I just sat at home waiting and waiting and looking out the window. This went on for months. And I knew all about waiting. When I was making Wednesday, I waited three years to get started. It nearly killed me, and when I finally started shooting, I had no energy left. So I was afraid the same thing would happen again.”
While he was waiting, Victor Kossakovsky began to notice that every time he looked out of the window he spotted something interesting, and after about ten months he decided he could not wait any longer. “I’m a filmmaker. I need to film. Documentaries are about what is happening now, not about what might happen in ten months’ time. So I dropped the German project and decided that if I am a director, I can film anything at any time. I don’t want to be dependent on money or producers. So I went to the bank and took out a loan on my flat, and then I began filming out of the window.”
The result is eighty minutes of sheer poetry. The film follows what happens in Kossakovsky’s street over the course of a year. The light changes. The seasons change. Neighbours come and go. Strangers pass by. A water main bursts under the potholed asphalt. A gang of road menders arrive and patch up the damage. The pipe bursts again. The road menders patch it up again. The pipe bursts again. More patching up. At first it is comic, then it becomes tragic. A picture of life. An reflection on life. And a fairly patent metaphor for the situation in Russia in year 2002.
“You know, one of the things I don’t understand about our country is why we need such a huge amount of territory. Why does Russia have to be so big? Why do we have to go to war every ten years to get even more land, when we aren’t even capable of repairing a water main? That’s why I decided that in this film I would only use what I had at hand. Use what you have! That’s what it’s all about. If we can’t make proper use of the ten square metres outside my window, what on earth do we want Chechnya for?”
You really jumped off the deep end with this film. No financing, no script, no planning. At what point in the process did you know that it would ultimately result in a film?
“There were two elements that told me it would make a film. One was this: one of my friends had some problems and I went over to help him. When I came home after a couple of weeks, I was a bit depressed and I sat down by the window and looked out. At that very moment, steam began to rise from the asphalt. The water main had burst again. When I had crossed the street a few minutes earlier, there had been nothing there. Now there was, just at the very moment I had arrived home. That had to mean the gods were with me! The second thing was this: normally when you make documentaries, you don’t have time to take the beautiful shots you would like to take. If you’re working on a story, you have to follow the course of events, and you don’t have time to dwell on beauty and poetry. That’s why I’ve often been a bit disappointed with my own films. But during the making of the new film, I felt I was really being given the chance to be myself, because this time I’m only doing what I like doing best, which is observing interesting or beautiful subjects.”
So the film also pays homage to the pleasure of observing?
“Exactly. You never know what will happen. You pick up your camera and look out of the window, and maybe something fantastic will happen in the next second, maybe not. You give yourself up to chance and your emotions and your intuition. That’s what making documentaries really means to me. A film ought to consist of everything you think and feel about the world at the time you’re making the film. If you know in advance what you want to say, there’s no reason to make a film, because then you’re not ready to let yourself be influenced by reality. If you want to teach others about something, you should take a job as a teacher. If you want to change the world, become a politician. Or if you are a philosopher and want to explain something to the world, then write a book. But if you want to learn something yourself – and if you can use your eyes as well – maybe you will be capable of making a film.”
In the press material for Tishe! Victor Kossakovsky explains that the film was inspired by two sources: one is the story Des Vetters Eckfenster (1822), by E.T.A. Hoffman (1776-1822), about a crippled man whose only contact with the world around him is through a corner window; the other is the world’s first photograph View from the Window at La Gras (1826-27), by Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833). (Incidentally, Kossakovsky shows Nicéphore Niépce’s photograph at the start of all his films.)
These references will probably go over the heads of a large part of modern cinema audiences. On the other hand, many people will be reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), with James Stewart playing the role of photographer Jeffries who is reduced to experiencing the world from a wheelchair in his flat because of a broken leg. I summarise the plot for Kossakovsky, but it does not ring any bells.
“I don’t recall having seen Hitchcock’s film, but it obviously tells a story that is very reminiscent of the one in Hoffman’s tale. On the other hand, there is a fourth possibility, which has been a source of inspiration in a more indirect way: a photograph by Herz Frank, maybe thirty years old, called Slied Dyshi. In Russian we use the same word for footprints and tyre tracks – ‘slied’ – and in English, the title of the picture would mean something like ‘Trace of the Soul’. The photo shows a skid mark left by a car tyre. You can’t see the car, it is out of the picture. The mark is straight for part of the way, and then it bends round a rose, which is lying on the asphalt. So the driver swerved to save the rose. It’s a very beautiful picture.”
The connection between Herz Frank’s photograph and Victor Kossakovsky’s film is not immediately clear, but on closer consideration, Kossakovsky’s film is full of observations of that kind. The long scene with the drunken couple staggering around in the rain. The surrealistic sequence with the prisoners escaping from a prison van and being overpowered by a man who just happened to be passing by. The female recluse, who after years of isolation comes out of her house and yells ‘Tishe!’ (Russian for ‘Hush!’). Is it the noise of the street she is trying to quieten? Or is she calling her dog?
“It was sheer luck that I had the camera on when she came out. My neighbours said she hadn’t set foot outside her door in five years, and now she was suddenly outside for two minutes or thereabouts. It’s one of the best scenes I’ve ever shot.”
That’s the kind of thing you can capture on film when you have your own little video camera?
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