Sevciková seems to be trying to tell us something about how life in the very conservative community she is documenting moves in a kind of circle, and how it gets the basics of its identity from the life that they have lived in this river valley. Do these lives, does this civilisation, begin and end with the river?
It does not. For the film is not meant as a simple, romantic portrait of a community frozen in time, and its value is not as a document of an indigenous culture. *Old Believers takes its title from the nickname of a group of Russian Orthodox Christians who broke from the established Church over three hundred years ago; their theology and religious rituals remain unchanged from that period, but they are not exactly stuck in the 1700s (they have televisions, etc.). Indeed, although they are Russian to the core, they speak a Russian dialect that is more or less frozen in the 18th century and very difficult for contemporary Russians to understand; and anyway, they live in “Romania” (the river that seems to define their lives is pretty far from Russia). That seminally late-twentieth-century experience, exile, is a central aspect, if not ‘the’ central aspect, of their identity. What is most important about *Old Believers, then, is the way that it documents a community that is not quite of the modern world, but not exactly uninfluenced by it either.
I suggest that the key to the film, and to its use of the book-ended images, lies in its use of black and white photography. Sevciková and her photographer Jaromir Kacer have a painterly sensibility, and the use of black and white photography both echoes the clarity that many members of this community seem to be seeking and links these images to a tradition of photography that’s not so far from Cartier-Bresson (or Walker Evans, to choose a link that’s ‘completely’ disjunctive geographically; Sevciková is Czech). The film begins and ends with the same image because it is a fundamentally non-narrative work, much more closely linked to the process of portraiture than to that of ethnographic explanation. And as a work of deeply felt portraiture, it is quite wondrous to behold.