Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

Returning to ruins

PHOTOGRAPHY / Legendary Magnum photographer Josef Koudelka revisits more than 200 Hellenistic and Roman ancient cities he had shot over the past 26 years.
Director: Coşkun Aşar
Producer: Coşkun Aşar
Country: Türkiye

Czech photographer Josef Koudelka is perhaps best known for the riveting, tense pictures he took in Prague in 1968 when citizens faced off with tanks in the street. Soviet-led Warsaw Pact troops had invaded the city to crush the Prague Spring, a series of liberalising reforms instituted by Czechoslovakia’s First Secretary Alexander Dubček to give communism a supposedly more «human face» in the nation. Koudelka had just returned from almost a decade of travels photographing the marginalised Roma people in his own country and beyond in Europe, another of the subjects he became noted for. His photographs of the Soviet invasion, many of which were smuggled out as negatives and published anonymously, became powerful international windows onto the events of the time and the courage of his people under repression. This put him at considerable risk, and he fled his home country in 1970, eventually becoming a French citizen. His is a dramatic biography, in other words — but it is not one you will find outlined in Turkish filmmaker Coşkun Aşar’s documentary, Koudelka: Crossing the Same River, which is screening at the Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival in the Czech Republic this month. Asar’s portrait of the famed Magnum photographer, rather than setting out the background of his life and career, patiently observes him at work in current times as he photographs multiple sites of ancient archaeological ruins in the Mediterranean. He muses as he passes through the locations, on his philosophy toward capturing images, humans in the modern era, and time. But these comments are brief: he is a man of images rather than words.

Koudelka: Crossing the Same River Coşkun Aşar
Koudelka: Crossing the Same River, a film by Coşkun Aşar

Unhurried and beautiful

The unhurried nature of the film suits the portrayal of an artist who claims that the best way to capture the essence of landscapes and ruins is to wait. He spends a lot of time at the Hellenistic and Roman sites, preferring to be solitary, and revisiting them over and over until he finally achieves the apex of what he is looking for — at which point he stops, as he believes repeating oneself is never interesting. What’s more, there is a limit to what printed reproductions can achieve. «It’s better to look at it than to photograph it», he says of one archaeological site.

The notion of «beauty» is one he refers to often, and as he speaks of the way the light falls on stone to enhance its appearance, plasticity, or the geometry of composition, it can seem as if he has let go of his sense of socio-political urgency and engagement in his later years (he is now in his eighties) to retreat into these time-worn spaces. Any fearsome destruction that laid these places to wreckage has now given way to a gentler, quiet decline. The changes of the moon, and the fall of rain, appeal to his senses now, and in the black-and-white photographs that are interspliced with the footage, dramatic as they are, people are scarce.

he is a man of images rather than words.

While Koudelka declares that the only thing that counts is if temples are beautiful, not who they were made for or why he does not overlook the context of their creation entirely. One «shouldn’t forget» that everything was built by slaves, who resided in terrible conditions — and that these structures have a lot of suffering behind them, he says, acknowledging that the value attributed to these ruins is paradoxical. An amphitheatre bent out of form by an earthquake also now takes on a warped beauty — even if the natural disaster that reshaped it brought terror and destruction upon those who frequented it. One of the few crowded sites frustrates him, as tourists seem to come just to take photographs of themselves. Never fully abstract or merely aesthetic objects, these stones still bear the traces of the now-dead that once communed around them and are subject to the clamour of those who still do today, even if their immovable continuity underscores the brevity and insignificance of our lives within the cosmic stretch of history.

Koudelka: Crossing the Same River Coşkun Aşar
Koudelka: Crossing the Same River, a film by Coşkun Aşar


Gazing at the sea, Koudelka wonders how many migrants have drowned taking the perilous journey, even though, as he professes to not like to shoot violence, it is not a subject he has been drawn to. There is a hint that, far from apathy, sadness at the pain humans are able to inflict upon each other has oriented him most towards quiet and ancient ruins in his elderly years. The documentary perhaps does Koudelka a disservice by excluding reference to all the socio-political, weighty work of his oeuvre for those already not well-versed in it. But the film was never meant to be a definitive career overview and is, rather, a meditation on photography as a process of seeing and being in a world with few calm corners outside hyper-modern time.

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Carmen Gray
Carmen Gray
Freelance film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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