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?
“Listen. Everyone has a pen, and you don’t need anything else to be Dostoyevsky, but all the same, we aren’t all Dostoyevskys. Nowadays everyone has a little camera, but even so, we’re not all Hitchcocks. The idea for that film was as simple as can be. I said to myself: I just want the smallest Sony video camera there is. Anyone can buy one like it, and if you have eyes in your head, you can make a film with one. That was the starting point. The truth is you don’t need a big budget to make a good film. All you need are your eyes – and a camera.”
Victor Kossakovsky was born in 1961 and trained at the Moscow film school. “My very first film – Losev (1990) – was about the philosopher Alexei Fedorovich Losev (1893-1988). He was 95 years old, and he said to me: There are two things you mustn’t do. You mustn’t make a film, if someone else could have made the same film. And you mustn’t talk about what you already know. What he meant was that if you’re trying to say something new, you have to think hard, and that means you’ll learn something yourself as you go along. If you just repeat something you already know, there probably won’t be anyone interested in listening to you. It will be boring for you and boring for everyone else.”
It sounds as though he was an important person for you?
“He was the most significant person in my life. He was the greatest philosopher in Russia in the twentieth century, but he never opened the door to journalists or photographers, or to anybody else for that matter. Nobody knew what he looked like. That was why I sought him out. The shots I took of him are the only ones in existence. He was a fantastic man. Can you imagine – in February he said, ‘Victor, I’m going to die on 24th May.’ And he did.”
Why did he open the door to a student from the film school?
“I wrote him a letter saying I was a photographer and that I just wanted to shoot one sequence of him. He was blind, so I tried to explain in my letter why it was so important to film him. He lived on Arbat, the main shopping street in Moscow, and from there you can see everything that’s happening in the city. He had lived there for fifty years, and I wrote that if just once a year – let’s say on April 2nd – he had switched on a camera and filmed the view from his window for one minute, we would have a fifty-minute film recounting the entire history of Russia. When he heard that, he said, ‘Okay, just come.’ Actually, it’s interesting, it hadn’t occurred to me before, but my very first film was about filming out of a window. Maybe that means I have really been preparing to make this film all my life!”
At one point in the new film you show your own reflection in a window pane. Why?
“You know, Gogol said that Russians have two problems: idiots and roads! I can’t put it like that. I’m not Gogol. I’m not a writer. But when I showed those people out in the street, I also felt I should include my own peculiar situation during the making of the film – to say that I’m just as much in a hole as they are out in the street. They can’t finish digging up the road. I can’t finish the film.”
In his new film, Flashback (2002), Herz Frank talks about how for forty years he has used other people’s stories in his films and put their lives in the can. Now he can’t do that any more. Now he has to turn the camera on himself and tell his own story. How do you feel about this problem?
“That’s a very important question, and as I see it, Herz Frank is the most important person in that field in documentary filmmaking. What he does is to open up the door between aesthetics and ethics. And documentary is an art form in which the relationship between aesthetics and ethics plays the biggest part. Not in feature films, not in music, not in the theatre – it’s only in documentaries that this relationship is essential all the time. I have always said, if you’re a good person, you’ll never be able to make a good documentary. If you are a good person, you’d do better to become a schoolteacher.”
“I would say that the dramaturgy of documentary making is about creating a structure into which you can place that one special shot which is the most powerful and says it all. Let me give you an example. In Wednesday I included a sequence of my mother’s death, and I did that on the grounds that if I could allow myself to get very close to the lives of strangers I would also have to be completely open about my own. Of course the scene came about by chance. We were going to film near where my mother lived, and we called in on the way to have a cup of tea with her. She wasn’t able to sit up and drink it with us, so she was lying in bed while we had tea. When the time came for us to go, she was dead. And my assistant said, ‘Victor, you must film her. It’s your destiny. Filming people is your life, and in this situation you have to film your own life as well.’ But it is one thing to shoot such a scene, and quite another to use it in a film. I knew that if I was going to use it, it had to be introduced in exactly the right way.
My point is, you can’t just show that one sequence. That would be too much. You have to create a context for it, so it ends up having the right effect. And that’s why you make films. You show a lot of other sequences to prepare the audience for that one sequence. That is the dramaturgy of the documentary. And that’s the crucial distinction between documentaries and fictional films. A documentary is a construction which is put together for the sole purpose of showing that one sequence in such a way that the audience can forgive you for shooting it. Sometimes that scene calls for a fifty-minute film in which to set it. Sometimes it may call for two hours.”
Have you ever fancied making fictional films?
“No. To be honest, I actually dreamt of becoming a photographer. It was a bit of a coincidence that I became a director. When I went to see Losev to film his face, I was a photographer. But I ended up taking a lot of shots of him, and later, when I showed them to Pavel Kogan, my teacher at the film school, he said they were outstanding and that I should make them into a film. So I became a director.”
The situation with regard to making films in Russia today is different from when you started ten years ago. Do you feel that the new film is trying to get back to the roots, or is it more an attempt to arrive at something completely new?
“Every new film has its own genesis. It’s a mystery every time. You never know what will happen. Who knows? Maybe the next film will have a budget of five million dollars. All I know is that I don’t feel like waiting three years to get started on a film. How can you make a documentary about a person, if you have to wait years for it to be financed? The person might have changed by then, and you might not want to make the film any more! That’s why I’ve decided that the working title of my next film is to be Carte Blanche. So far I have made a film roughly every other year and that has been more or less okay. So I tell people: If you have faith in me, don’t keep rolling up with requests for scripts and budgets and all that bullshit. Just trust me! Don’t ask me what my film is about, because I don’t know. I’ll follow my intuition, and I can’t tell how I’m going to be feeling tomorrow. Maybe I’ll want to film the stars! All I know is that if I begin shooting now, in a year’s time I will have a film.”
At the IDFA Victor Kossakovsky did not yet know whether the investment in Tishe! would show any return. “Maybe the bank will take my flat. That’s how it is with documentaries: You have to take a chance. The same applies if you get money from a foundation or a producer. But if you’re really dying to make a film, you have to take a chance – regardless of whether there is any money, and I’m glad I did.”
A few weeks later I received an e-mail from , saying that immediately after the IDFA, Tishe! had been invited to 35 festivals. If the invitations continue to pour in like that, it will be a long time before he has time to look out the window again.