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Sergey Dvortsevoy, Talented Ripple Master

Sergei Dvortsevoy’s films may have won plaudits internationally, but his uncompromising observational style and ethical stance keep them out of the multiplexes in Russia. Zygmunt Dzieciolowski interviewed this extraordinary director. 

I met Sergei Dvortsevoy a few weeks ago at the Moscow International Film Festival, where he chaired the jury for the documentary section. For the filmmakers who had entered their work, he was the best possible choice - few contemporary film directors enjoy such respect and recognition in their professional community.  Dvortsevoy is a unique filmmaker for whom film is both real art and a moral challenge.

Sergey Dvortsevoy's filmmaking style delivers a unique and sensitive grasp of the everyday. Photo: youtube.com

Dvortsevoy has not made many films during his fairly short (less than twenty years) career, but his work has won an impressive number of international awards. He is not a celebrity figure who enjoys publicity and all that film jazz; he is seldom interviewed by glossy magazines and is something of a rare jewel for everyone who still believes that cinema can tell us something important about life and the human condition. Dvortsevoy never makes easy choices: he often waits what seems like forever while events or situations develop, or for particular weather or light conditions, so as to show us a new and different face of reality. When it happens, he is there with his camera.

Dvortsevoy’s characters are simple people living difficult, marginalised lives, who are very unlikely to attract the attention of other filmmakers. Only Dvortsevoy, with his patience and understanding of his own mission, could spend months filming a white cat and his master, an old blind man who makes string bags which he then gives away to passers-by on the street (‘In the Dark’, 2004). Only Dvortsevoy with his ethical code could document the life of an isolated community of elderly pensioners living 80 kilometres outside St. Petersburg and their weekly ritual of pushing a freight wagon loaded with bread along a snow-covered abandoned railway track (‘Bread Day’, 1998).

Born in 1962 in Soviet Kazakhstan, the young Dvortsevoy wanted to be a footballer. He began his adult life working as a radio engineer for the Aeroflot airline. The decision to study in Moscow at VGiK [the All-Russian State Institute of Cinematography] came later, and accidentally, when he came across a newspaper advert. 

After several documentaries, Dvortsevoy’s first feature film (‘Tulpan’ [Tulip] 2008), told the story of a young Kazakh man returning to the Hunger Steppe after his military service to become a shepherd.  The critics warned that his old-fashioned, rigorously documentary style was out of tune with the genre, which demanded drama and narrative, but the film won top prize in Un Certain Regard at the 2008 Cannes Festival.

Contemporary Russian film and culture would certainly much be the poorer without Sergei Dvortsevoy’s films.

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski

On my way to meet you I saw a grandmother affectionately leaning over her grandchild in the street, singing a song and paying no attention to people going past. It struck me that this was a scene straight out of one of your films.

Sergei Dvortsevoi

Maybe…. My documentary films are observations on life. Obviously they are edited, but I love observing life more than anything, it’s one of my pleasures. I’ve no interest in filming people who want to show me what they’re like…  There’s a word in Russian – pokazukha, all for show. That’s not for me. I like it when I feel that it’s not being done for the camera, or for someone, it’s just real life, people’s inner life.

ZDZ

We all have an inner life, though…

SD

Well yes. It’s true that anyone, whether educated or stupid, has some sort of inner life, but film works with visible things. It’s like when you throw a stone in the water and it makes ripples; or a fish swishes its tail and again you see the ripples. And maybe from these ripples you can tell what kind of fish lives there. It’s a visible thing that film can capture. That’s why I’m always looking for these ripples, to work out what’s beneath, what kind of fish it is…

It’s like when a fish swishes its tail and you see the ripples. And maybe from these ripples you can tell what kind of fish lives there. It’s a visible thing that film can capture. That’s why I’m always looking for these ripples, to work out what’s beneath, what kind of fish it is…

ZDZ

You’re the sort of director who finds his own language to explore something that at first glance doesn’t always seem interesting. Who would have thought that a film about a blind old man and his cat, could be so compelling? I get the feeling that subjects others find fascinating might well leave you cold. Are you interested, for example, in the personal drama of lonely Lyudmila Putina? Or the unexpected happiness of a certain well-known gymnast?

SD

These are very interesting subjects. And you probably could make a film or write a book around them. You have the wife of a man who’s been handed extraordinary power … She finds a place for herself, or fails to; fits in to the presidential role, or doesn’t … But it’s very difficult to say much more about them because we don’t fully know what’s going on …

ZDZ

But I don’t sense great enthusiasm for a ‘presidential’ film…

SD

Well of course I’m more interested in normal people. I love using the metro in Moscow. To me it’s like an erupting volcano; you can watch this great flood of people flowing along a tunnel like lava. I always experience a very strong energy in the metro.

ZDZ

Let’s get back to the characters in your films. Many directors wouldn’t find them of any interest. But you don’t just observe them, you elevate them.

SD

Maybe I do. I believe that these people are worthy of attention precisely because their lives are not on show, because their existence isn’t predicated on being observed. They are normal people; they’re often very surprised that I want to make a film about them. The old guy in ‘In the Dark’, for example, couldn’t get his head round why we were filming a blind old man. I’m sure I choose these themes because I’m very interested in simple everyday life, whereas some directors make films because they don’t want to observe it, they want to interpret it. Woody Allen, for example, says that he hates reality but it’s still the best place to get a good steak. For him what’s important is what’s already happened – it allows him to interpret reality. And even if it isn’t given extra colour it’s still an artistic reality.

With me it’s completely different. I come from an ordinary Soviet family. I’m Russian but I grew up in Kazakhstan, my parents were engineers. For a long time I lived in a rural area with shepherds; I know how ordinary people live. Then I worked for Aeroflot for nine years. When I talk of loving life it probably sounds pretentious but I hope it can be taken for what it is. People say, as a director you’ve obviously got it all worked out, you’re showing these people because you know that festivals dish out prizes for this sort of thing. They couldn’t be more wrong. Spending six months with shepherds just to get a prize is totally pointless.

Spending six months with shepherds just to get a prize is totally pointless.

You cannot make these films if you don’t love it. On the one hand it’s very tough, I’m witnessing their private, everyday life, I’m absorbed in it, I exploit it. But on the other hand I’m making a film. For me it’s a question of trying to find something unique in the everyday, and something ordinary in the unique. This, according to the Russian poet Mikhail Svetlov, is where all genuine poetry comes from. And I think the same probably goes for film too.

ZDZ

Although in twenty years of working in cinema you haven’t in fact made very many films.

 

Trailer for 'Tulpan', Winner of the Prix Un Certain Regard at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival

SD

I’ve only made a film when I’ve felt a connection, an interest… Producers, including Hollywood producers, have come to me and said, let’s make this film… But I’ve never worked to commission, to someone else’s concept. Maybe if I needed to do it to survive, to feed my family, it would be different. But for now I’m lucky enough to be able to choose. Not long ago I turned down a great project - decent money, well-known screenwriter, but deep down I felt that it wasn’t for me…

ZDZ

I’ve met directors for whom a day not shooting, or a wasted cut…

SD

Shooting is easy; the hardest thing is not shooting. When you want to shoot, you take a camera, you press a button… I believe that not pressing the camera button is more important than pressing it. Not wasting energy on what doesn’t interest you or is bad, but only filming when you get this intense desire from within to do so. When people say, here’s the camera, here’s the money, let’s get a move on, if we overrun the money will run out – that’s not for me.

ZDZ

You say that you like observing ordinary life. What I’m wondering is how have the views and customs of these ordinary people you focus on changed?

SD

I’m very disappointed how quickly people embrace the bad rather than the good… I heard a story of how about three years ago some people got stuck in their cars on a mountain pass in Kazakhstan in winter. The locals were quick on the uptake and started selling bread a thousand times its usual price –five thousand instead of five. I think some people even died. Such a thing would never have happened in Kazakhstan before - Kazakhs have a whole cult of hospitality. But when I was filming ‘Tulpan’ I noticed that unfettered capitalism changes people completely. Not just in Kazakhstan, in Russia it’s the same. I remember as a child seeing my relations killing their chickens – they’d cut the head off but the chicken went on staggering around the yard until it finally fell dead. The same thing is happening to people. They’re running around headless, without any sense of direction.

ZDZ

Life in Moscow today seems even worse, everyone desperate for success, nobody much interested in the problems of the poor or weak.

SD

That’s right. Moscow today is a city for successful people, for people who want to fight for success. And money is the main measure of success. There is such energy here, at every step of the way you’re up against competition. But  almost every Russian in the provinces, even while cursing Moscow, still dreams of coming here.

ZDZ

Are you also energised by Moscow?

SD

Of course. I have friends in Kazakhstan who also want to make good films, but they feel as though they’re in a vacuum. An artist must have people around who are prepared to understand him. But it’s not all positives in Moscow. The main problem for filmmakers today is that people have got used to a low level of visual culture. The norm now is a second-rate film with neither ideas nor a decent screenplay, and a bad director. Moscow’s turned into the capital of sequels.

I believe that not pressing the camera button is more important than pressing it. Not wasting energy on what doesn’t interest you or is bad, but only filming when you get this intense desire from within to do so.

ZDZ

What’s your take on contemporary politics? Do you follow it?

SD

In Russia you can’t keep out of politics. I follow events, but I don’t actively take part in very much. There are exceptions, of course, when someone needs your support. But what I’ve realised is that if you’re going to take film seriously, you have to spend a huge amount of time on it. I know a lot of good directors who have got into networking, acquiring new acquaintances, responsibilities and so on and they end up spending all their time on stuff unconnected with their profession. The result is fairly lamentable. So I’m very careful about peripheral activities. I’m always being asked to teach: at VGIK, and in other countries. But to do that, I’d have to channel a lot of energy into a new sphere, and have much less for my real work.

ZDZ

Did you take part in the white-ribbon protests?

SD

I filmed them. Whether I’ll use any of this material, we’ll see…

ZDZ

There are almost always animals in your films. In ‘Tulpan’ a sheep gives birth to a lamb, in the movie ‘In the Dark’ we’re observing a white cat. You film them with great affection. Where does this connection with animals come from?

SD

I love animals because they’re part of life; their honesty means a lot to me. If I see an opportunity to film animals, I always do so, although it’s incredibly difficult. The cat in ‘In the Dark’ was a sly little devil, it always heard the camera. If you’re expecting a cat to do one thing, it will inevitably do something else. But for me the main thing about animals is the chance they offer to convey a truth about life as I feel it. For me life is like a delicious champagne, which I drink and which I want to share with others. My films, of course, are not about a life that’s easy, they’re often hard, some are quite dark, but all the same…

ZDZ

People who watch your films are also struck by the wealth of sounds, a kind of polyphony – it’s not music but it’s an entire world of sound. You have an extraordinary ear, which makes me wonder, even, why you didn’t become a musician or composer.

SD

It would be very interesting to study music, but I don’t play an instrument. I love music and therefore only use it very sparingly in my films. I feel you should be very careful how you combine music with images. I sometimes think that cinema is by its nature closer to music than to literature or theatre…

ZDZ

Let’s go back to your early work. Did you show, for instance, the film ‘Bread Day’ in the village where it was shot? Do you know what happened to these people afterwards?

 

'Bread Day' depicts villagers pushing a bread wagon along the railway track

SD

No, of course I didn’t show it. Anyway, I couldn’t have. Six months after I shot the film the electric cabling in the village got stolen and they had no light, so life there became even harder than how I showed it in the film. What it’s like now, I don’t know, we’ve lost touch. This kind of thing is always painful for me.

ZDZ

That’s why I’m asking; on screen it’s clear how much you’ve become part of this life…

SD

And that’s why I stopped making documentary films. The subjects of the films became my friends, my family. But the way it works is that I make a film and then drop them - I have to move on to the next movie. That’s the real moral question for you. It would be a lot easier if I filmed in a routine way – get the shot, it’s a wrap, tomorrow we’ll shoot this, then off. But my approach is different; I put my heart and soul into it all…

ZDZ

I’d like to take a look at contemporary Russian cinema through your eyes.

SD

Russia is a country of contradictions. On the one hand you have Moscow turning into the sequel capital of the world, and finding people to work with is very difficult. I get approached by people wanting to work with me, we start talking and I realise they come from a different planet, or perhaps I’m from a different planet. Things have changed so much that people just don’t understand what I’m talking about. I ask them if they know such and such a film, how it was made, and they haven’t a clue. On the other hand you’re always expecting the next great Russian artistic explosion. My sense is that we’ll soon witness a powerful new wave, that some great pictures will be made. This is how it’s often been in Russian literature and music. It will happen soon - I can feel it. I can see some serious guys, doing good things.

The subjects of the films became my friends, my family. But the way it works is that I make a film and then I have to move on to the next one. That’s the real moral question for you. It would be easier if I filmed in a routine way, – get the shot, it’s a wrap, then off. But I put my heart and soul into it all…

ZDZ

What are you working on at the moment?

SD

It’s a contemporary film about a girl in Kyrgyzstan who gives birth to a child, leaves him behind in the maternity hospital, and then starts looking for him again. Everything takes place over just the two or three weeks after the birth. The girl undergoes certain changes, mostly because of the strong hormonal reaction that women sometimes have after giving birth. In Moscow today there are a lot of migrant workers from Central Asia. I chose this subject not because I wanted to shock audiences; I just happened to meet a similar girl who had given birth and who then went back and forth to the maternity hospital to get a glimpse of her child.

Kyrgyz women have abandoned around 250 children in Moscow’s maternity hospitals, a huge number. The Kyrgyz, it seems, have fewer traditional cultural norms than is typical of Central Asia, where children are generally treated with great devotion, but they are Central Asian all the same. I realised there was the kernel of a film here. It’s a joint production between Poland, Germany and Russia. I’m working with the Polish camera operator Yolanta Dylewska, an incredible person, the soul of the film. She’s not simply the eye behind the lens; she’s my best friend, an extraordinary person and a great artist.

My previous film ‘Tulpan’ was about human conflict with the wilderness; leave someone in the steppe, see how he survives. The new film is essentially about a woman and the changes she goes through, both physical and psychological. My co-screenwriter is Gennady Ostrovsky, whom I met when we made ‘Tulpan’. But I now do most of it myself; I make a lot of changes, which seriously complicates things. I never ignore what’s going on around the set, the actors – it all goes into the movie. It’s an interesting approach but very difficult. You have to be constantly analysing, keeping your finger on the pulse; you can never relax. I never know how the film will turn out. I want to be constantly looking, I want the motivation to look. Jolia (Dylewska) says that I go out of my way to find difficulties. Maybe she’s right; it’s probably something that happens subconsciously. For me a film, a screenplay, is like a coiled spring. I have to keep it tightly wound so that the film gathers energy. And then the energy must be gradually released. The most important thing for me in cinema is energy. I’m thinking all the time about how to inject it into the film.

 

ZDZ

Without cinema, Sergei, life would be pretty difficult for you…?

SD

I’m interested in the essence of cinema, the language of film, the energy of image. These are no doubt very subtle things, but for me they are essential. That’s the way I am.

 


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