Fires Were Started

By Jerry White

aleksandr-sokurov.jpgAleksandr Sokurov

Aleksandr Sokurov deploys video to unique and meaningful effect in his singular oeuvre

“After college, I started doing some work for the local television station. All the skills I have at the moment, I learned from my first job in television and from my first teacher, Yuri Bespolov.” – Aleksandr Sokurov, interviewed by Paul Schrader in Film Comment, November-December 1997

There is a lot of concern these days, and with good reason, about the cost of seeing on video work which was shot on film and meant to be projected. That much is lost in this particular translation – size of the image, sharpness, intensity of colour, etc. – practically goes without saying. This is especially true of works for whom the specific properties of film are key to the work’s meaning, true of films as variant as David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight or Peter Mettler’s Gambling, Gods and LSD. But we hear almost nothing about the reverse transaction, about what happens when you see projected a work that was shot on video, with the specific properties of that media centrally important. This is not to make some pedantic counter-point. This is key to understanding some of the best work of Russian film-maker Aleksandr Sokurov.

The work for which this is the most obviously a problem is, of course, Russian Ark (2002), famously comprising a single shot that roamed through St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum over the course of 90 minutes. Such a long take is only possible on video, since film magazines can’t hold that much stock. But Russian Ark was, at least in Western Europe and North America, exhibited almost solely on film, having been blown up to 35mm so it could reach more commercial or semi-commercial venues. Theoretically this should make no difference to the matter of Russian Ark’s status as a single-shot film. But the fact of the matter is that in many of these places the film was shown via a ‘platter system’, where the reels are all spliced together on one giant reel, so the projectionist can flip a switch and then go sell popcorn. This means that every 20 minutes, as one 35mm reel ends, there is a slight jump that indicates the splice. Thus the pure fluidity of the work, the unrelenting movement to which it aspires and which is key to its overall meaning, was in practice disrupted almost every time it was publicly shown. Want to experience Russian Ark to its fullest? See it on video.

This is also true for slightly more ephemeral reasons of two lesser-known Sokurov works: Spiritual Voices (1995) and Confession (1998). These are not terribly widely exhibited, although they are now both available on DVD from the Chicago label (and incomparable mail-order house) Facets ( This is a godsend not only because it allows simple access to the work. It’s a godsend because it allows access outside of film to the work.

Spiritual Voices was originally broadcast on Russian television; that might seem an unremarkable point in the context of a TV-dependent European cinema, but this is a work that is keenly, centrally possessed of a televisual aesthetic. Part of this is a matter of structure. It is broken into five parts; four of these are more or less of equal length. The first part, though, is a single shot lasting about 40 minutes, an extreme long shot of the forested Russian landscape, where Sokurov, in voice-over, talks about the lives of European composers; off in the distance, we can see a small fire start. This is oddly absorbing in its way, and overall seems to serve as an announcement of the work as a meditation on Russian culture, as an examination of the glories of European Romanticism that, in the age of the death of empire, are now elusive and can only be hinted at, remembered or invoked in still, artificial ways.

Despite the unconventional beginning, however, Spiritual Voices has an episodic structure that is clearly indebted to the conventions of television, at the same time that it resists the limitations such conventions tend to impose. Each of these four episodes pour into one another, as the landscape and the daily routines of Russian soldiers stationed on the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border seem to flow inexorably forward, the source or conclusion of their situation completely beyond what we can see. This is, of course, typical of episodic TV; we begin more or less in media res, and it’s not sure where or if the story will end. But for Sokurov this sense of fluidity is a visual matter as well as a structural one. Spiritual Voices is shot on video and, watching it on video, especially on a television screen (as opposed to through a video projector) is to experience the smoother visual quality of that medium, a quality which film simply doesn’t possess in the same way.

One great example of this comes very early in the work, as Sokurov and the young soldiers all saddle up into a helicopter to be taken to their base. The camera keeps rolling during loading and take-off, and the unrelenting smoothness of this movement coupled with the gradual transformation of the shot into a POV image from a cramped helicopter in flight has a kind of raw, visceral power. To see Spiritual Voices on video is also to experience the flatness of the video image, a flatness which is perfectly suited to the Tajik landscape where the film is set, a landscape that is dry and dusty, but also defined by the Panj river, which cuts through a lot of hills where these men (and they are all men) are stationed. That flatness gives this landscape a certain other-worldly quality, as disparate elements (dust and water) seem to intermingle without difficulty.

confession-aleksandr-sokurov.jpgConfession, 1998

Much the same is true of Zack Kunuk’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001), a work that was also shot on video by an artist intensely committed to that medium and yet mostly shown on film. That’s also a work that is far better seen on the small screen, in no small part because of the way that its video images flatten out the landscape of the Eastern Arctic and evoke some of the simultaneous vastness and immediacy that defines the life of the community whose history it seeks to recover. The smoothness of video also makes the scene where Atanarjuat runs naked across the sea ice a very different experience on video.

This aesthetic is equally central to Sokurov’s Confession, which follows a Russian naval crew in the Barents Sea, taking us through their daily routines (sleeping, inspections, cleaning) but also through some of their more rigorous experiences (a scene where the sailors load the patrol boat back onto the ship in the thick of night-time snow is particularly absorbing). About midway through episode three, there is a stunning shot taken off of the ship’s starboard; snow blows in the foreground, some gear is off on the left side, and in the background is the sea, and a small, snowy hill with a few houses on it. A few shots later there is a slightly closer and less crowded image of the house as one of the small patrol boats goes by it. And a few minutes after that, there is a deeply moving image of two sailors standing on the end edge of the patrol boat as it lumbers away from the shore; it’s dark, the blowing snow is just barely visible, and they almost seem distorted as they stand against the hillside that you know is far away by virtue of its size but which the video image seems to be bringing right up to them (it almost looks like a bluescreen shot).

aleksandr-sokurov-2.jpg Aleksandr Sokurov

With all of these images, then, it’s very difficult to get a sense of depth, to gauge the separation between sea and land, snow and water, home and frozen geography. That lack of separation is, of course, a key part of the lives of these sailors. And in all of these images I invoke snow blows in the foreground; this is a recurring visual motif in the film, and as seen on video it is utterly hypnotic. This motif is so present in Confession not only to remind the viewer that the film is set in the high north, but also to give a sensation of flow, of the fluid, a sense that is very much piece with the fluidity of Spiritual Voices.

Indeed, both of these works are portraits of the edge of Russia’s dead empire, and both are preoccupied with a deep malaise which, it doesn’t take much to figure out, is a characterising element of modern Russian culture. But Sokurov’s understanding of Russia’s imperial legacy comes through his use of video. To flow forward through the glories of Russian culture, and to do so in a way that feels like a constantly changing dance, as in Russian Ark, is exhilarating, but it is underwritten by the knowledge that this is historical, this is the past. To flow forwards towards the dust, towards the ice, and to do so in a way that puts repetition and routine at the centre, as in Spiritual Voices and Confession, is dull in some places, but is underwritten by a sense of ritual and performance that, especially for an Orthodox Christian like Sokurov, always has somewhere the possibility of redemption, even if there’s no real chance that it will come in this life. In all these cases, though, it’s the flow that makes us understand. It’s the video that makes us understand Russian culture. Sokurov’s films tell us something else, something no less valuable to be sure. But he is a master of his medium, one of the few contemporary artists who can genuinely move between film and video with a deep commitment to making each medium do what only it can do.

Jerry White writes and teaches in Canada. He is published by Wallflower Press and wrote the book Of This Place and Elsewhere: the Films and Photography of Peter Mettler (Toronto, 2006).