12th Feb 2012
No point in describing the dance of Victor Kossakovsky across the stage – the camera did its best to catch him and missed. No, ok, I missed from my static seating position. A little lesson here in how to interact with a film-maker with the fanciest footwork I've ever seen. Either his feet dance with his thoughts, or vice versa. Anyway, unable to move with him and get the photograph I wanted I shifted and cursed in my front row seat for the first 10 minutes, watching the official photographer move around him with inconsolable jealousy.
There are two film makers I really get excited about: Kossakovsky and Pirjo Honkasalo – I think they both compliment each other perfectly. Both of them are cinematographer/directors; they feel and understand what they see through the eye of their cameras. As far as I'm concerned Honkasalo is the more severe, more reductive of the two. She bides her time, explores, rehearses sequences in her head, then waits for the absolute essence of what she needs to turn her camera on to film – filming only that, nothing more. Resulting in a mean, lean, aesthetic spareness to her story telling which, for me, goes straight to the heart of things. And, if you ask me, she knows exactly how much space needs to be left for the audience to fill in the gaps with their collective autobiography; love, loss, death, hardship, hunger, etc, etc. This is my impression of her: she sits back. Doesn't try too hard. Watches and waits. She knows her audience autobiography is a film makers greatest resource. She knows the collective human experience of life differs only in the detail, its uniformly painful. Uniformly brave and futile. Taps into it, is what she does. Films what she needs to ignite emotional memories of something similarly profound then stops. No more. A small group of people in a large dark room will invest in any story that makes them feel less isolated.
You'll see from the following Berlinale interview that Kossakovsky is more the spontaneous romantic. His approach is to let himself dance with what he films. Belovy is an audience favourite, I think, because its so sentimental, inventive and playful. Twenty years on, it still gets screened all over the world. And it was mainly Belovy Kossokovsky chose to talk about whilst sharing why he makes films. So here it is from the horses mouth,with some feckless links thrown in to smooth your journey. Read his comments aloud in a broad Russian accent and with a savage twinkle in your eye. (Note: He was being interviewed along with Sophie Fiennes.)
One of the interviewer's first questions to him is about truth in documentary. I find this frequently question slightly more numbing than a lobotomy, but then what would I know? I've never had a lobotomy. It might be a lot worse than it sounds. Kossakovsky is prepared:
"Normally when people talk about documentary they talk about truth – is your documentary true, or not true? But it's the wrong subject. I mean do you say truth to people? My question is, is there any person on the planet who tells the complete truth about themselves?"
Kossakovsky then turns his kindling fire back on the interviewer, a homely man who used to program for Hot Docs: "Do you have children?" – "Yes," obliges the nice interviewer, "a boy and a girl". Without missing a beat, Kossakovsky retorts: "And do you tell them everything about yourself?" He thinks, then protests more quickly than he meant to: "Not everything!" Pushing his point home so as not to spare even the most foolish minds, Kossakovsky pokes a little more: "Even to your wife you cannot say everything? (Shake of the head, a gentle, irreversible rouging of the cheeks.) Or your father. So I am always surprised when people expect a documentary to tell them the truth about life. Life is much bigger than truth, actually."
I like the "actually". As an addition. Its well placed. It veils the naked smugness. Feigns a certain compassion for his victim which clearly does not exist. Game over. We're all tickled. Actually.
And then we're treated to a screened excerpt from Belovy with the sound turned down. It's the bit where the elderly sister is listening to a tape recording of her brother's argument at her kitchen table, after her brother has tumbled onto the floor in a drunken stupor. She cries. Then she gets up and starts singing and dancing to a catchy Russian folksong. And here Kossokovsky shares some 'technique' – if a word so sterile could ever be applied to such a film maker. He tells us how he engineered the moment of playing the recording back to her and then, filming her dancing and singing in the face of her life's hard grafting bleakness, realises the shot of her dancing will die if he doesn't get up and dance with her. He confesses to us, his Berlinale audience, that he cried as he danced with her; as he filmed her dancing away her own tears. He expands on this – and I will share what he says because I think its important:
"I don't know why you make films [to Sophie Fiennes], but this is my way to be happy. Film-making is the best part of my life. I am more happy doing it than when I am sleeping with woman. Sorry to say. This is a way of really getting pleasure. When I am filming I cry from happiness".
And then the clincher, the point that connects his "pleasure" to his former teasing of the ingenuous, kindly interviewer: "Film-making is such a fantastic job. We see more than truth. It's the best part of my life."
I think that's a good philosophical place to end this blog post. And I would end it here if it weren't for the more grounded stuff he had to say about the industry. So, if you are poetically inclined stop here. You are sated. Have a good weekend. If you are downright greedy, read on. But I warn you, its not pretty.
"People who make fiction films are much better humans than those who make documentary." Audience bellows with snorty laughter. "There is nothing funny about it. Its just true! For nice people its the wrong job. Because you have to be very close to people when they don't want you to be, right? If Belovy is sitting happilly I don't want to film her – but if she is crying I really want to. You lot are still young but if you're still nice people after 10 or 20 years making docs – it's a big challenge to be nice. Good luck with it."
And it gets uglier, closer to the marrow of the industry. If you are a producer or an American save yourself and turn away.
"I've only made six or seven films. I won't make a film until I cannot live without a project. And there are lots of great film-makers now, especially in documentary. But we simply have no great producers. I dont know why, nowhere. I dont see great producers. I spent four years making this [latest] film, but do you see it anywhere? No. It's supposed to be on every corner! Is it a bad film? No. The problem is this: Americans don't have to go through this sort of thing. We watch all the shit they make. At the next Talent Campus invite top American producers to share their secrets. They are happy that the whole planet is watching American films. But they won't share that secret with us".
And here is where I really will end my blog. With a moment in Kossakovsky's fathering. I think it's a lovely anecdote, full of humour, love of filming and love for his son. Its taken from an incident whilst filming his most recent film, Vivan las Antipodas! He had taken his son out to the wilderness to help him film an eagle. Again, best served up with a Russian accent that plays up very entertainingly to all the stereotypes of a 'Russian Master'. Enjoy.
"You know how the BBC films eagle? They put a dead animal somewhere and wait for eagle to come. But I told my son: 'Hold still for two hours in the snow don't move. An eagle will think you are dead and come close so I can film it.' He lay there. He was screaming into the microphone: 'But father, I am your son, what are you doing?!?' I said: 'Don't worry, you will never forget it, it will be one of the best periods in you life."
And now, to make up for Kossakovsky being too quick for my camera, some photos from the journey back from the theatre to the hostel, including some keen-as-mustard cinephiles preparing to sleep on the floor of the 'arkade' to get the tickets they want.
[Text was updated following the comments below.]