Pirjo Honkasalo films Russian and Chechen children being trained as soldiers to fight in a war that is taking their youth away. The melancholia and sadness of the people and places of the war are reflected in the aesthetics of this visually intriguing film.
At first glance, Pirjo Honkasalo’s newest film The 3 Rooms of Melancholia seems connected to some of the great, and often melancholic, globe-trotting European documentaries. Chantal Akerman’s D’Est (1993) comes to mind most readily, and there were moments when Honkasalo seemed to be following some of the same paths that Peter Mettler did in Gambling, Gods and LSD (2002). But as this comparison turns over in my mind, it slowly dawns on me that this nomadic film essay is in fact about one country: Russia.
Well, it’s about three countries: Russia, Chechnya, and Ingushetia. These are the three rooms that the film’s title makes reference to, although each section also opens with words that set a dark, brooding mood: the Russia section opens with the word “longing”; the Chechnya section opens with “breathing”; the Ingushetia section opens with “remembering”.
The section in Russia takes place in Kronstadt, which the titles that open the section identify as “a fortress island by the city St Petersburg, Russia” (Kronstadt is on a small island in the Gulf of Finland, about 30 kilometres from St Petersburg itself). The setting is a military academy for boys. The press notes tell us that this school was founded in 1995 and “represents an attempt to revive Czarist military traditions and is under President Putin’s special protection.” Honkasalo lingers on some of the more absurd details of life there, such as the drills where boys practise marching and saluting. But a profound sense of longing hangs over the place. This section is a symphony in snow and slush and visualises Kronstadt as a place that is cold and unwelcoming (and these exterior scenes rhyme with the interiors of the school, which are often white and institutional). Some of this is nicely composed: images where boys wander around ice-bound naval boats look very nice indeed. Even here though, the midday winter light undercuts any sense of optimism that might otherwise be present. Indeed, much more resonant, and much more typical of the film’s overall aesthetic, are shots of the “fortress island” shot from the shore; the image is at dusk or maybe just a bit later and the sea is frozen. These images speak volumes about what it’s like to live on this fortress island, what it’s like to lose one’s youth there.
Indeed, the loss of youth, or of innocence, is clearly the subtext of the entire film’s analysis of the war in Chechnya. These boys are clearly engaged by certain aspects of military life (the camaraderie, the formality), but the way the film is shot, the way this section in particular unfolds, makes it clear that, to invert the famous W.B. Yeats line from “Sailing to Byzantium”, this is no country for young men. This becomes clearer toward the end of this sequence when we meet a young man named Sergei. He is from the Chechen capital of Grozny, an orphan whose Russian father was killed when the Russian army bombed the city. We meet him when he is on a bus with some of the other boys; the voice-over tells us that the other boys discriminate against him because they think he’s Chechen. Honkasalo shows us close-ups of some of the uniformed boys sleeping on the bus, close-ups of Sergei’s face on the bus, and close-ups of other passengers. Over shots of Sergei, we hear how he brought his father out of a mass grave; shortly thereafter, over close-ups of him going up an escalator, we hear “I’m going to be a solider. I know what war is.” This first room concludes with Sergei visiting his grandmother, who is in poor health and obviously tired; this is all rendered in close-ups or medium shots as well. Honkasalo leaves this room with more intimate feelings than she had begun with, but it is an intensely uneasy intimacy.
The second room is set in Grozny itself, and in this sequence the visuals of the film change radically, moving from 35mm film to grainy, black-and-white video shot in a 16×9 aspect ratio. In an interview published in DOX #39 (February 2002), Honkasalo argued against the use of digital video, acknowledging that it opens up access and reduces pretences of professionalism among filmmakers, but warning that “the danger we face with all the digital is that we forget that film is also an art of the image.” The video imagery here, however, suits the film quite well. In leaving behind 35mm and colour, we leave behind the vividly rendered drabness of Kronstadt for the muddy, bombed-out Grozny. Honkasalo makes occasional good use of this, retaining her interest in the image, her interest in space. A shot where Russian tanks come in and out of the frame, an image itself framed a second time by car windshield Honkasalo is shooting out of, is a kinetic, deep and visually complex image. A minute or so later, she has a series of images taken inside of a car approaching a checkpoint, and she manages to make the enclosed space both intimate (through the use of well-framed close-ups) and deep (a shot from the back seat that has headscarf-clad women in both the back and front seats and a muddy road on a another plane is quite striking). These are images of despair and of deprivation, and the use of a visually deprived format seems appropriate. But it’s more than a simple “impoverished region, impoverished image” sort of strategy that Honkasalo is using. Indeed, the aesthetic is not impoverished; Honkasalo’s compositional sensibilities are quite intact. It’s just that a grainy, even slightly dirty, image is grimly appropriate for fleeting images of an annihilated landscape. Indeed, this sequence in Grozny is, oddly, the shortest of the three sections. One of the reasons for this, no doubt, is that Honkasalo wants her viewer to understand that seeing the war in full means seeing a lot more than images of destruction and suffering. She sees the war in Chechnya as sprawling and uncontrollable; the press material calls it “the everlasting Chechen war.” To fail to go to Grozny would, of course, mean providing an incomplete picture of the war. But to make Grozny the only part of the story, or even the biggest part of the story, would mean providing just as incomplete a picture.
The third section of the film takes place in Ingushetia, the Russian republic that neighbours Chechnya and is the site of a large refugee camp (the titles tell us this is set four miles from the Chechen border). The opening image is a pan across a huge mountain valley, followed by an extreme long shot of a shepherd tending his sheep on this side of a hill. But this is no pastoral celebration of the Caucus landscape, and soon enough we move into the cramped interiors that we remember from both the first and second “rooms of melancholia”. And it is in these interiors that we meet Aslan and Adam. Both are orphans because of the war, both want to be Muslim and both are now living in a sort of limbo that’s much more squalid than the militarist nostalgia of the school in Kronstadt, but just as enclosed. Here, though, boys are seen not doing drills in sterile hallways, but wandering through empty fields. Indeed, Ingushetia emerges as a kind of mirror image of Kronstadt. The authority figure is the mother-like Hadizhat Gataeva, who looks after dozens of orphans, whereas the school in Kronstadt is ruled over by stern, male officers; Ingushetia is green where Kronstadt is icy, foggy where Kronstadt always seems a bit under-lit, still engaged in traditional Muslim worship (which we see in very nicely composed medium shots, including very low-angle close-ups of Adam and Aslan praying), where Kronstadt clings to military ritual. But even though there is a sense of romanticism, a sense that this place is somehow purer or less corrupted by virtue of its isolation, the horrors of the war are never far out of view. We meet not only Adam and Aslan, both horribly scarred by the war, but also Milana, who the voice-over tells us was raped by Russian soldiers when she was 12 and aborted her child in the seventh month. We see her here at age 19 and with a small child; she serves as a kind of mirror for the older boy from Kronstadt, Sergei.
This connection between the refugee and the military experience is at first alarming, but it is clear what Honkasalo is trying to do with it. She sees the sprawling landscape of Russia and its republics as being gripped by an intense malaise that is perfectly symbolised by the intense sadness of the very young. It’s not that the boys in Kronstadt are victims in a way that is comparable to the refugees of Ingushetia. But Ingushetia as visualised by Honkasalo is just as potent a symbol of the war as Kronstadt. Both are places where childhood and ordered societies only hide the reality of a war that lies sandwiched in between them. That war comes at us in a short, minimalist burst, neither images of green fields in Ingushetia or highly sheltered “island fortresses” in Russia can hide its endless, unspeakable horrors, which infiltrate every aspect of life on Europe’s edge.