Nikita Lavretski: Filmmaker in Focus

By Maksim Selezniov

Translated by Andrey Kartashov

Jokes About War (2022)

An inappropriate juxtaposition. Belarusian comedian Aleksei Sukhanok is showing his collection of comic books on Zoom; in two videos next to him, on his left and on his right, we see captured Russian soldiers on their knees. This composition is a part of Nikita Lavretski’s latest film, Jokes About War (Shutki pro voynu), which he put together a few days after Russia’s invasion into Ukraine on February 24, 2022. The following text is full of inappropriate juxtapositions like that one. Juxtapositions of Nikita’s directing with my own spectatorial experiences. Of Minsk – the usual setting of his films – with my home city, the very remote Novosibirsk. Of earlier thoughts about, and reactions to, cinema with the loathsome turpitude of the past two months. I haven’t written about film since February 24 and am unsure if film criticism is even possible now. What follows, then, is one big impropriety when juxtaposed with all of what is happening.


I. The Psycho

I will begin with an admission of my humility: as often happens, the best and most succinct description of Nikita Lavretski’s cinema was given by Nikita Lavretski himself. It has always seemed to me that the annotation to his feature debut, Belarusian Psycho (Belorusskiy psikhopat, 2015), is quite exhaustive in this sense: ‘The film’s protagonist, a “young and talented photographer and video-maker”, decides to finally lose his virginity on his birthday; determined to achieve that and following some kind of a dazed logic, he invites a girl he barely knows along with two female friends of hers to his dacha.’ It’s impossible to put anything against this concreteness, just like there is no use arguing with the titular character, portrayed by Nikita himself. A severe young man, tormenting to talk to, often baffling with his direct opinions and judgements, and a potential maniac killer on top of it all, he represents a force that means much for Lavretski’s cinema. One of the first in the gallery of madmen, freaks, and aliens from outer space that populate his films. However, any of these definitions may apply to an individual character but are utterly useless and inaccurate when made to generalise. To define this particular type one would need to invoke some kind of a psychedelic sci-fi invention: let’s call it a video mutant, whose appearance, nature, and mood shift on a whim, oscillating between seriousness and irony, comedy and horror, with a kind of zapping: not between TV channels but between media, technical formats, from a smartphone selfie to a chat on a social network, from video streaming to the stillness of a photo album (Nikita began exploring all of these in Belarusian Psycho and then added new layers later on). This hero, ever elusive and resistant to easy definitions, is a constant presence in Lavretski’s films, a presence that makes itself fleetingly apparent every once in a while: caged in the protagonist’s heavy stare in A Date in Minsk (Svidaniye v Minske, yet to premiere at the time of writing), cut up into a hundred videotape pieces in the autobiographical Nikita Lavretski (2019), resurrected in Aleksei Sukhanok’s body in Jokes about War. Generally intolerable, sometimes frightening in a truly otherworldly way, at other times spellbinding, it is part Nikita Lavretski himself, part his filmography, part its central character. A personal mythology’s decidedly non-fictional hero is a necessity integral to Lavretski’s cinema. What is so indispensable for the streets of Minsk?

Belarusian Psycho (2015)

I was introduced to the hero of the ‘Belarusian Hopeless Cinema’, Belarusian Psycho, in 2016 by Maksim Karpitski, a film critic from Minsk and a fellow member of Cineticle magazine’s editorial team. I was immediately taken by the film’s awkwardness and emotional ambiguity. I remember trying to define the feeling with a long sentence written in one breath, which began a dialog between Maksim and me, later published on Cineticle: ‘As you begin watching the film you peep at the characters with a smirk — until suddenly you notice a tingling sense of a certain sincerity, then you start to appreciate what you are seeing with a warm, amiable humour, but then it all succumbs into far-out mysticism, you feel anxiety and fear—or so you want to think; but eventually all you’re left with is a discomforting feeling of an awkward gesture.” In the years that followed I would seek the same kind of ambiguity on screen in modern horror films, mumblecore, and slow cinema. A whole theory of film could be developed from this point, perhaps: in our favourite films we don’t search for new worlds or even our own reflections, but above all, for tiny curves on the screen’s mirror surface, for something faulted. Slight indecency and embarrassment: these are the kind of perverse queries to which Lavretski’s cinema enthusiastically responds. He even makes an introduction to this manner of film viewing in Belarusian Psycho: in its pivotal long scene the girls invited to Lavretski’s character’s dacha make fun of his arrogance and awkward manner, then pry into the contents of his laptop and play a private video of the young man sharing his feelings (‘I am so honest and so talented but no girl has looked twice at me!’); as the girls are sneering at their host, they are themselves being watched by the Belarusian psycho with a heavy smirk on his face, while he, in his turn, is closely followed by a hand-held camera (the cinematographer’s shadow sometimes appears in the shot – either amateurish mistake or hint of a supernatural presence). Everybody’s mockingly watching everybody, including the viewer of Belarusian Psycho, and every mocker is assigned another mocker at a higher level.

However, take another scene, in which the ‘talented video maker’ Dmitri decides to showcase his art to the girls, clicking through the pictures he took on a trip to Malta, repeating the same question over and over to their giggling: ‘Nice picture, isn’t it? Do you like this one? Nice one, isn’t it?’ It isn’t the situation’s awkwardness that’s so persuasive here as much as its liberty (or, rather, its folly). It manifests through the character’s naïve adamancy in seducing his friends with his art, Lavretski’s own ability to make a long scene out of a static shot interspersed with a slideshow on a laptop, and the slightly clumsy improvisation by the amateur actors. In the piece mentioned above, Karpitski reminisced about his reluctance to include Lavretski’s early shorts in his program at the Cinema Perpetuum Mobile Festival, rejecting them as too raw, childish and simple. In spite of my enthusiasm about Belarusian Psycho, back in 2016 I likewise too quickly gave up on Nikita’s first films, also on the grounds of their perceived insignificance. As I revisit the shorts after a few years, the feeling is to the contrary: it is too easy now to see in them the very essence of Lavretski’s cinema, his future films, and stories caught in a nutshell. No one put it better than the Belarusian psycho himself in his description of his own photo: ‘One of my best works… Kind of like a photographic haiku: the sky, the earth, the water…’

What I then perceived as flawed acting, lack of skill, and stiff delivery, now seems to me the perfect expression of the insecurity and alienation inherent to Lavretski’s typical heroes: teenagers, hipsters, video-making psychos. And not just them: isn’t this feeling of embarrassment and constraint familiar to anyone who ever watched themselves in a video – let’s say on an old VHS tape – and saw, in place of themselves, just a bad actor portraying a stranger’s life? Or, if we take a slightly different angle, every young ‘talent’ and every ‘psycho’ has felt like an amateur in front of a blank page – like someone grossly overrating their ability to take pictures, make films, or write. All Lavretski’s movies begin with a doubt about seriousness, about talent, about the ability to create something at all. This is the foundation upon which his cinema does not build, but rather sinks into an abyss of uncertainty.

Several years after his relationship with Cinema Perpetuum Mobile began on a lukewarm note, Nikita, now a talented young curator about to complete his Master’s degree in film studies, returned to the festival to present a full retrospective of ‘Belarus’ obscurest filmmaker’ Ivan Kovshik. A video recording of the screening, which includes all the films with running curatorial commentary, is available at Lavretski’s YouTube channel. He plays the short, mind-boggling films, shot and edited by his friend mostly as a child, for an hour and a half. Nikita diligently supplements every piece with an expert commentary as he elegantly contextualises the tacky videos within cinema history. However ironic, he is very earnest and serious about the main idea: the history of cinema and avant-garde fits into the logic of a kid’s game. At some point near the middle of the show, Lavretski helpfully explains: ‘Here we see a trademark Kovshik touch: lines of dialogue repeated several times. An unprepared viewer might think it’s an editing mistake. For us film scholars it’s a metaphor of our sitcomised world. We go to a mobile phone shop and hear lines of dialogue repeated over and over…’ Nikita’s films, of course, also deserve such an attentive and kindred commentator.

II. The Star

A few months later, in early 2017, I watched Nikita’s new film, the documentary melodrama A Few Scenes with My Girlfriend Olechka Kavaliova (Neskol’ko stsen s moyey devushkoy Olechkoy Kovalevoy, 2016), and later, the thematically related travelogue Love & Partnership (Lyubov’ i partnorstvo, 2016). I wrote about the former film soon after in response to a certain publication’s proposition to pick the most promising contemporary filmmakers. The naïve essay was the first of my many attempts to inscribe Lavretski’s films into a wider context as well as the least convincing of them: the bit about A Few Scenes with My Girlfriend Olechka Kavaliova sat next to essays on the American director Nathan Silver and the Malaysian New Wave’s leader, Tan Chui Mui. Nikita seemed to share with the former a capricious DIY punk sensibility and an attention to private archives (I wrote about Silver’s 2015 found-footage short Riot, which, in retrospect, rhymes with the VHS collage Nikita Lavretski). A common denominator with Tan could perhaps be found in the hieroglyph ‘Hong Sang-soo’, with the legendary Korean filmmaker’s method of deceivingly simple melodramas that can be seen as spontaneous inventions made in between glasses of soju or as elaborately planned, complex digital labyrinths. Such juxtapositions serve little purpose, but the phrase ‘experimental love story’ might be worth some further exploration.

A Few Scenes and Love & Partnership begin a series of Lavretski’s avant-garde melodrama pieces: along with Nikita’s mid-length segment from the later omnibus Drama (2019) and the recent A Date in Minsk, one could dub the group The Olechka Tetralogy (said with the hope for a follow-up). All the films focus on the intense relationship between the star, Volha (Olia, or, affectionately, Olechka) Kavaliova, and the man with the movie camera, Nikita Lavretski. A Few Scenes is true to its one-of-a-kind title as it invites the viewer to follow a succession of everyday, trivial scenes starring Olechka, her small firecracker performances that in many cases are provoked by the pushy cameraman Lavretski: ‘Come on, do a Michal Caine impression,’ he insists for a good few minutes early in the film.

Love & Partnership (2016)

Lavretski’s cinema owes much, if not all of its success to the emergence of a star, Volha Kavaliova. It first becomes apparent at the ending of Love & Partnership: the camera catches Olechka in closeup, keeps following her for several minutes, watching from behind, unable to turn away. Then we catch another glimpse of her face, a few more seconds of cinegenic information. Such a close, extended look at Olechka’s face like that means just one thing, there can be no mistake about it. Maksim Karpitski put it quite succinctly when he wrote about Volha’s early performances (which would only gain in strength): ‘To achieve mass recognition, low-budget cinema needs a memorable star (Gena Rowlands, Greta Gerwig, Hannah Gross), and here that’s Volha Kavaliova.’ I wrote the following at the time – I am still not sure how fair the phrase was: ‘[Nikita and Volha] don’t want anyone to fall in love with them. He isn’t a Woody Allen kind of filmmaker that captivates the audience with his inner neuroses. She isn’t a Greta Gerwig type that deals in certified sincerity and toy-like pleasantness.’ As I think back on the early Swanberg-Gerwig film Nights & Weekends (2008) (here’s the only meaningful reference in this text) I am willing to abandon my dichotomic characterization of Greta/Volha.

In comparison with A Few Scenes, Love & Partnership leans more towards fiction. It is the story of a young couple, Ihar and Sveta, who come to Vitebsk to make a YouTube vlog. As I revisit the film now, the absence of Nikita and his mannerisms feels critical (the male lead is the actor Ihar Rahatka). Ihar’s urging that his girlfriend barks on camera when she shares her childhood fantasy; his monotonous, ill-timed rambling on the nuances of Jonathan Blow’s game design when Sveta isn’t feeling well – Nikita’s own, contagious idiosyncrasies, his mix of terrifying obsession and hypnotic tediousness are easily discernible behind such psychopathic escapades.

But before declaring a miscast part let’s consider the tetralogy’s overarching logic, in which every film is dysfunctional in its own way. Each one features a shift, be it apparent or hidden, in Volha’s and Nikita’s respective characters, and a deviation from straight-out autobiography, however vulnerable or honest they may seem in individual scenes. For most of A Few Scenes, Nikita is hiding behind the camera, which he uses as a shield, if not as a torture device in his relationship with Volha. The segment from the omnibus Drama begins as a straightforward presentation of a private life – of morning chores and watching anime at night, of arguing and reuniting after several days away from each other; but the fabric of everyday tears when the camera makes a wrong move and reveals a film crew inside the scene, or when some strangers suddenly appear in a room that’s supposed to be empty in the story. A Date in Minsk, in turn, is entirely based on yet another deviation: the opening title reveals that ‘Nikita and Volha had been in toxic, abusive, co-dependent relationships for eight years,’ but in this film they portray a different Nikita and a different Volha who have just met and are discussing their complicated past relationships on a first date. In this context, casting someone else in a part that’s unmistakably Lavretski’s seems entirely reasonable: another melodramatic disruption in this breakdown museum. Defectology, then, proves to be the most adequate language to describe intimate and romantic relationships, in which nobody ever is the person they or their partner think they are; in which authentic impulses might burst out at wrong moments and yield nothing but embarrassment, while catastrophic failures in communication magically resolve into hugs and kisses.

That said, the shifts, the gaps, the uncomfortable scenes remain painful. Violence, however small, is among Lavretski’s main recurring themes. Love & Partnership’s Ihar and Sveta, like any characters in his filmography, maintain the steady circulation of sadism through tiny acts of aggression simply by pointing their cameras to the streets of Vitsebsk and mocking passers-by, graffiti, or the façade of a building. In a ‘let’s play’ video seen at length about halfway through the film, Ihar ridicules Sveta (‘Careful, a female driver!’), to which she responds with a mean look in closeup, as if casting a spell on him. Minor details like this are easy to miss in the film, just like in one’s own life, although in fact they are the elementary particles that constitute a considerable part of everyday life.

The most succinct expression of this theme is Lavretski’s early short Lost in the Woods. The protagonist of the ten-minute story has lost her phone in a forest and, as she heads back to look for it, she runs into a childhood friend who offers his help. As she is accompanied by the guy into the woods – the camera closely follows them walking away from the road – our expectation of a morbid ending becomes greater. Yet nothing happens – or almost nothing: the guy finds the phone and hides it in his pocket without telling the girl. They wander about the woods some more and part ways. In the final shot the male friend, now alone, throws the phone into a river. Of many narrative and psychological motivations that could explain this silent act of petty meanness, none is provided in the film, not even as a hint of a personal grievance or a psychopathic streak of character. Violence remains fundamentally mysterious and irrational. He pockets and then dumps someone elses’ valuable belonging seemingly for no reason at all, just because he can – an impulse similar to the absurd idea of plunging over the egde that flashes through one’s mind when stood in front of an abyss, a pure potentiality unrelated to a suicidal tendency or even fear. In all of his films, Lavretski seems to stare into himself and his characters, entranced by their ability to hurt their closed ones, to bully, to exert psychological violence. Violence without a cause and truly frightening at that, for how significant are small pretexts for aggression compared to the very source of cruelty?

Lavretski’s camera itself never ceases its furtive assaults on the outside world, puts it off balance, taunts and trolls it when it attacks Olechka Kavaliova in A Few Scenes or the city of Vitebsk in Love & Partnership. The victims respond with retaliatory violence: the city, for instance, talks back in absurd signs. Ihar and Sveta discover an odd memorial carving on a building, depicting a married couple of scientists with a male colleague placed between them. ‘Polyamory was a thing in the USSR,’ the characters conclude. Signs like this are easy to mock, but they seem to have already mocked us in anticipation. Every post-Soviet city is haunted by the past, the official narratives of communism. Its language, perfunctory and already dead by the 1970 and 1980s, means even less for younger generations. Yet these grapes of nonsense keep hanging over our heads, perhaps conditioning our morbid sense of humour. As I walk the central streets of Novosibirsk in May 2022, the city is full of schizophrenic symbols, unconnected to reality, spitting hatred from buildings and billboards – the orange and black of the Georgian ribbon, the Z letter, the fabricated slogans. Enormous sprouts of senseless violence and cruelty bursting over history and over people. I must admit: unlike the tiny gape of spellbinding absurdity at the core of the Belarusian psycho, this overgrown pest provokes nothing but revulsion.

III. The Drama

In 2016 and 2017, Nikita ventured into web series: his show’s first season, Cinemantra, depicts the daily routine of a DIY film journal, and the second part, retitled Cinemagic, is a satire of an independent film production involving the same characters. To my own surprise, in the pilot episode I discovered myself among the characters of Lavretski’s cinema. The journal’s editor-in-chief, the arrogant, histrionically macho Lev Zaretski (portrayed by Lavretski) discusses other outlets with his team, including Cineticle (a cinephile online journal created in 2010 by journalists and activists from Russia and Ukraine, in which I worked as managing editor for several years, including the time of the show’s release). ‘Their reviews are just too smart for their own good. Like, imagine a college senior who just types every word coming to his head. Like, a guy’s IQ is 110, but he thinks it’s 150, so whatever comes into his head, he just types that right away’: that’s Zaretski’s vivid assessment of Cineticle (he would surely find something ponderable to say about this essay as well).

Cinemantra feels like a poignant portrayal of the Russian film critical scene of the last few years; cinephiliac and journalistic thinking is reproduced in small details and throwaway lines. Indeed, such a description might sound like a paradox, perhaps even an insult, since the show’s unvaryingly simplistic mise-en-scene – people sitting in front of each other and talking about movies for half an hour in a static shot – is populated by parodies, by characters endowed with barely any profundity. They are the above-mentioned bully Zaretski; the kindly and mellow cinephile Ruslan, a champion of slow cinema (Aleksey Svirski); the bored feminist Nastia (Volha Kavaliova), and Sveta, the journal’s efficient social media manager (Anna Yefremenka). The show’s funniest joke may be that the characters are as shallow in terms of psychology as its titular pun, but serve as a fairly exhaustive expression of our – of my – secret dreams, fears, sensibilities, and strategies of critical writing. Seeing your own self as a pun (and isn’t a bad pun another kind of a hieroglyph, a haiku, a child’s short video?) is a truly impressive experience. In season two, however, the same trivialised characters grow into humans as the farce of their performances is intertwined with a touching story of friendship and art. Its oscillation between genre and sentimentality is similar to the one experienced by some of the Duplass Brothers’ characters, e.g. in Baghead (2008). Extracting genuine drama from triviality is among Lavretski’s strongest skills.

In the months that followed Cinemagic, Lavretski’s media presence exploded into a multitude of fragments and dissimilar expressions. Lev Zaretski, a sitcom character, appeared as a real person on Belarusian national television, enthusiastically sharing his plans to shoot a period action movie. Just a little later, now credited by his real name but having put on his Belarusian psycho persona, Nikita was again on air as the predictor of the winners of that year’s Academy Awards. Lavretski blithely roamed the studio carrying in his hand a plastic replica of the Oscar, onto which he repeatedly pressed his lips saying that ‘the temperature of Oscar will indicate [a film’s] chances of winning.’ To conclude this tally of Nikita’s avatars – and listing each of them would require a special catalogue – I will invoke another telling incident, in which Nikita, odd as it may be, wasn’t putting anything on and barely even said a word.

Drama (2019)

When the above-mentioned omnibus Drama premiered in Moscow, the mood at the post-screening Q&A was surprisingly confrontational. ‘Why’d you shoot all this?! If you take a camera and shoot, if you want to be a filmmaker, you need at least some education.’ ‘There was a girl simply walking for seventeen minutes – what the hell?!’ ‘When people were making films like this one in the 1980s, they were told: enough guys, Andy Warhol’s done all that. And, you know, they really did shut up and this kind of stuff wasn’t being done anymore.’ It was a torrent, viscous and entrancing in an odd way, of scolding, genuine confusion, and attempts to defend everybody from unconventional filmmaking. It was telling that, during the fifteen-minute session, neither the directors on stage or the moderator Evegeny Maisel found themselves able to elicit a logical statement or even a coherent question from the audience. Today, in early May 2022, it is tempting to correlate those outbursts of acrimony and inarticulate speech to the pervasive, angrily fearful jumble about patriotism, western threats, and phantoms of history. In both cases the delusional discourse is largely built not of statements or individual words – incoherent and glaringly inconsistent if one tries to respond – as much as of the empty spaces between them, of logical fallacies. Their true drama and pain are their failure to find meaning in a reality that must be meaningful: the reality of a film, of life, of war.

Lavretski took on his media odyssey in the guise of a creature that navigated ruptures and flow paths of that delusion, invading it in order to divert it from the meaningless stagnation of officialese to a performative feast of absurdity. Like many ventures of his, Nikita’s comic efforts unwittingly resulted in tragedy—truly dismaying is the fact that the incident at the premiere of Drama didn’t even require Lavretski’s involvement. All he had to do was to give a camera to the director Vadim Kostrov who attended the screening and stand still on the stage in silence.

Those fragmented guises described above coalesced into a single pattern, a patchwork persona in Nikita’s later major project, his best work, and one that couldn’t be titled anything but Nikita Lavretski. The 97-minute collage film, assembled from archival private footage and capturing the protagonist’s life from 0 to 16 years, depicts his growing up and adolescence in the manner of a Japanese cyberpunk horror or a sombre, paranoid, alien invasion thriller.

Profoundly impressed by that work, a month after the film premiered online I made a new attempt to find some counterparts to Lavretski’s universe within an end of the year top list for Cineticle: I picked his film along with Hong Sang-soo’s and Alexandre Koberidze’s (I should add that the first review in Russian of Koberidze’s stunning debut, Let the Summer Never Come Again [Lass den Sommer nie wieder kommen], was penned by none other than Nikita himself). Doubling down on my efforts, I later included Nikita Lavretski in a horror program at a St. Petersburg festival alongside films by Jane Schoenbrun and Scott Barley. The program’s title, ‘Films from the Uncanny Valley’, which I’d coined earlier to describe the 21st century’s American indie horror scene, seems a perfect definition for Lavretski the movie. Ostensibly a coming-of-age human story, which in reality conceals something very non-human underneath. A pretence of a normal film, which proves frightening in its twisted logic.

Lavretski’s approach is simple but striking: he takes his archive of home videos – the medium that’s usually associated with nostalgia, warmth and childlike innocence – and reassembles and reconstitutes it as horror. The original footage conforms to his intention with a disturbing ease, revealing the violence that permeates childhood, full of accidental fallings and bruises, quarrels and fights beginning from infancy (even before adolescence and grade school’s sadism factory); in some scenes, the young Nikita’s thoughtful look registers something eerie, slightly otherworldly, as children’s expressions often do; even tiny details like a striped shirt in Freddy Krueger’s colours add to the symphony of horror.

Another reason Nikita Lavretski should be considered Nikita’s best film is the fact that it consolidates all of the major recurring themes of his oeuvre. Circulation of trivialised violence, with just a few videos shot on a Nokia phone by Nikita’s classmates and himself, he creates a faithful picture of a school in the 2000s’ and inscribes his name in the history of the school movie, an important genre of Soviet cinema. Alien life forms – Lavretski recounts his growing up as that of an alien, misunderstood by those around him; he seems to be giving an acting lesson to his future performers and an anticipatory explanation of their nature even in the earliest childhood videos of him. Making of a film director – among the movie’s several subplots is an almost Kafkaesque metamorphosis of a filmed child into a child who takes over the camera and begins his own filming.

So long as this piece is a filmmaker’s profile – a genre that is by definition excessive in Lavretski’s case – I will put a spotlight on a different theme: spectatorship. If we watch Nikita Lavretski close enough, we will be able to see it less as a personal coming-of-age story than as an initiation into various ways of viewing (films or worldly reality). At some point, for instance, Nikita plays a clip from his favourite film as a kid, Spider Man 2 (Sam Raimi, 2004), several times in a row, winding it back and forth to take another look at a distinctive special effect. It is an imitation of a child’s film viewing on VHS: revisiting a spectacular scene until the tape wears out. He shares a technique, a method of viewing, and adds new ones as the film progresses. This transforms the film into, essentially, a coming-of-age of … a movie camera, or more broadly, of a recording device. Of a crazy little prince of media who wanders between image formats, almost at home in each but mostly alien in each.

IV. Minsk

A first date in a pool hall? ‘It’s refreshing, because you get distracted by another thing and that makes you feel more at ease. The crucial thing is not to go to the movies on a first date’, says Volha, the heroine of A Date in Minsk, commenting on Nikita’s choice of setting for their first encounter. Well, she may be having a great time, but inviting a film viewer to spend nearly an hour listening to a conversation at a pool table is an idea that’s fit for a psychopath. That more than 50-minutes of A Date in Minsk’s 87-minute sequence shot takes entirely place inside a confined space feels claustrophobic; indeed, the camera’s repetitive, looped moves provoke slight motion sickness. The viewer’s attention is indeed distracted as we get stuck between the couple’s dialogue and the balls’ trajectories, the compulsion to follow the parodical pool game.

To mirror this approach I will, too, distract myself from the subjects discussed by Volha and Nikita on their date to indulge in an odd digression. A few years before A Date in Minsk I was making a video essay analysing a scene from Kazuo Hara’s Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974 (Gokushiteki Erosu: Renka 1974, 1974). To make that manic documentary Hara moved into his ex-wife’s place in order to film Miyuki’s everyday life and irritate her with his constant presence. Early in the film he captures a domestic altercation in Miyuki’s new family – her fight with her new girlfriend, Sugako. Hara’s documentation is evasively strange in a way that permeates the entire film, including unsynced sound and some kind of oddity in editing that defies easy explanation (the images’ presentation seems continuous but somehow unnatural). I was trying to highlight those disjunctions in the video. For instance, at the beginning of the quarrel Miyuki accidentally hits her head against Hara’s camera – he isn’t just a silent presence that affects the women’s actions but literally gets in their way. But after bumping into Miyuki he changes his manner slightly, his obtrusive presence now seemingly split into two. Defying the normal logic, he shoots a short scene from the room’s opposing sides, from two points at once, and bounces between the two heroines. The camera, thus, develops into a character: curious, obnoxious, and physical. In my 32 years of life, this is my most important discovery as a researcher: the day I noticed Miyuki hitting her head against Kazuo’s camera.

Back to Volha and Nikita in the pool hall, I can’t help but notice that there, too, something of that sort is underway. The nimble, attention-grabbing camerawork, which has never been so conspicuous, presents itself as a third party in their onscreen communication. I’ll call this third character ‘Kazuo’. But, when you think of it, this character had always been there, right next to them. In A Few Scenes, during the couple’s fights, Kazuo was struggling to find his identity: was he bullying the one being filmed or was he protecting the one filming? In Love & Partnership, he patiently documented the vlog’s poor takes and followed both characters after their breakup, falling in love with Volha’s close-up. In Drama, it was him who spliced Nikita and Volha’s everyday scenes together with the off-screen space, of which the characters themselves were unaware. An intrusive third in a melodrama, this character isn’t one side of a trivial love triangle but a force of nature between the two that exist. An ad hoc metaphor of this would be the movement of cue balls, the risk of hitting the 8-ball and losing the game instantly. It doesn’t take sides in the pair’s conversation about relationships and their exes (remember, the fictional Volha and Nikita are talking about their real selves as their ex-partners) but blindly trusts whoever is talking. For the most part it is inventing new combinations of feelings, cruel and affectionate to the couple at the same time.

A Date in Minsk (2022)

Finally, the camera’s choreography drives the characters out to the streets of Minsk. Into the blackness between apartment buildings that for several minutes envelopes the screen in pitch darkness, like an intermission before the film’s climax and the date’s conclusion. I could once again take recourse to familiar parallels and invoke Filipino and Ukrainian analogies, or to quote from Twain’s ‘To the Person Sitting in Darkness’ in order to interpret the obscurity of Minsk’s courtyards; but enough with that. Nikita and Volha themselves mention the references in A Date in Minsk: Simon Hanselmann’s comics, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! (2007-10), the viral YouTube video by BadBoysfromNikolskoe. None of them is familiar to me, which is hardly surprising, for even though I am a character of Lavretski’s movie universe, my part is that of an extra who’s made his way in merely incidentally, due to a misunderstanding about whether I am Russian or Ukrainian (at the time, this was a source of confusion for many people, since I was the editor-in-chief of a Ukrainian magazine).

I’ll throw in just one other questionable take: although I’ve never been to Minsk, the outlines of its typical Soviet neighbourhoods feel palpably familiar even before we can make any of it out. The twilight, the shapes of prefab architecture carved out of the darkness by generic gaslights at each entrance are a landscape I have known since childhood. Even more relatable are the next few minutes of conversation between Volha and Nikita – they discuss possible emigration, a desire to stay in disregard of the surrounding frenzy, fear, and commitment. ‘Belarusian Hopeless Cinema does something you’re not supposed to do, something you’re not allowed to do. But there’s the state not allowing you [to make political films] and then there’s Aleksey Paluyan pressing you to do it. Mixed signals,’ says Nikita, summing up his confusion. Such discourse has been reiterated over and over in every conversation of the past months in the world where everything important has suddenly been cancelled.

Among the familiar, tiresome humming of habitual phrases, Volha throws in a delightfully offhand remark – a perfect, if slightly preposterous description of an inner crisis: ‘There aren’t as many prefab buildings in some cities. And prefabs are our soul.’ Indeed, the depressive bedroom communities’ irrational allure, their alien anti-beauty have been described and celebrated by many photographers and some filmmakers of the past several years (Yekaterina Selenkina’s Detours [Obkhodniye puti, 2021] is a recent example). And yet their splendour remains buried, hidden, and, as a result, impossible to shake off. I am writing this on a trip to my native Novosibirsk, walking among Soviet apartment blocks and overcome by conflicting emotions, perhaps more so than ever in my life. It is as if something is breaking up and reassembling on the molecular level of my body when I’m around these neighbourhoods, as if they make something complete and form my perception. Like Nikita Lavretski is made out of fragments, patches of various media, a prefab district is a tapestry of a cityscape: it is this patched structure, perhaps, that permits me to jump from one plot to another and brazenly conflate Novosibirsk with Minsk.

The sacramental prefabs also remain oddly unchanged by the past months’ political and social entropy. Our cities’ central streets look like occupied zones but residential buildings are hardly taken over. Is it because, unlike the sights and the junctions of memory, they have never belonged to us to begin with? That’s where Kavaliova’s dilemma lies. Unlike invaded territory, they are impossible to flee and impossible to stay in and defend. They remain at our feet and pervade Lavretski’s films like a Sphinx’s riddle to be divined day after day. Nikita and Volha playing out a heart-wrenching comic pantomime in front of a subway station is the best answer to where were at in late 2021. What came next is much harder to talk about.

V. The Jokes

I watched The Bear’s Lair (Berloga, 2022) on February 24, mechanically following my pre-war schedule: this text was originally commissioned by Iskusstvo Kino and due on February 25, but the magazine suspended all activity the day before the deadline. Everything changed. I don’t think I’d ever experienced such a chilling effect while watching a film. I was watching an hour-long sequence of static shots of Minsk locations – a background for Nikita on the image’s forefront and his off-screen reminiscences; or was it the other way? – recollections as a background to the city’s presence, with the filmmaker’s tiny figure covertly imprinted into the screen’s corners? Quiet words, forlorn courtyards, forlorn personal memories transform the stillness of the image, which sometimes opens up into the deep when it peeks into one of many windows: bits of archival footage beam up from inside, shots of underground house concerts, like fragments from Lavretski’s films that never got made; portraits of his friends. ‘Volha moved into Ukraine and plans to stay there for some time,’ the filmmaker’s voice announces after each video, tallying his close ones who emigrated after the 2020 protests in Minsk. Some moved to Russia, many fled to the free Ukraine: it was such details that gave the sense of dread to my viewing the film on February 24. The chilling melancholy imbuing the stories of people forced into exile was splicing itself together – or, rather, stitching itself up, like a lacerated wound – with bombs falling over Ukrainian cities.

Lavretski, ever serendipitous, discovered a simple and succinct metaphor – a bear’s lair – and a perfect form to materialise it. On the most obvious level, the hibernation den of a bear invokes a long-standing tradition of winter tropes in Russian-speaking culture. A 19th century diplomat quipped that ‘Russia should be slightly frozen to stop its rotting’; the 1960s were a time of a short-lived ‘thaw’; somewhat more optimistic is an analogy of young snow to an inner sense of focus, to being outside and beyond reach (‘Tired of your xenophobias / we’re hiding inside a bank of snow / chewing on toffees under the snow / gullible and kindred as ever’: an extraterrestrial worldview as manifested in a song by Boris Usov, a legend of the 1990s’ Russia’s existential punk scene). I have always been moved by Alexander Kluge’s passage about Siberian frost that I read a long time ago: ‘In Akademgorodok [a suburb of Novosibirsk hosting a university and a number of research institutes], nothing can detain you from work. Precisely because of snow banks three metres high that you could sleigh down from. […] An intellectual worker living there is surrounded, like in a mediaeval monastery’s ascetic environment, by a lifetime’s pristine reserve.’ Although the German erudite – another denizen of television airtime, by the way – is taking some liberties in terms of accuracy and generalisation (life in Akademgorodok is a bit more diverse than in his assessment), Kluge was right about the most important thing, the vastness of Siberia’s snowy expanses. They have always seemed to me a kind of a frozen strategic stock of imagination waiting for prospectors to be surveyed (I am fearing now that it won’t be in my lifetime). This spectrum of meanings is folded within Nikita’s images, especially his stabbing performance in the film’s final sequence: having revisited Minsk’s most important geographic points, he takes a train to the countryside, walks into woods and digs himself into snow with a children’s shovel. Resting under the snow is Belarusian Hopeless Cinema’s best director, the winter-takes-all.

Recollections themselves also prove similar to a lair: a thin cover of multitudinous small narratives over the cityscape. Each video forms a cavity that could serve as a den. Watching these images feels unbearable – old footage, as we already know from Lavtretski’s autobiographical horror, is unforgiving to one’s feelings and hurtful in its tranquillity. Its ruthlessness, I should add, might be proportionate to its potential strength and its promise to change the future, to unfreeze the past’s gestures and visions in a retrofuturist stroke.

The Bear’s Lair (2022)

Finally, the frame’s very composition also resembles a lair when Lavretski encloses old footage in large brackets along the edges of the image, replicating Mark Rappaport signature device that the American filmmaker has been using in his essays of recent years. A film in parenthesis: perhaps the perfect definition of Nikita’s several recent works. Of films that were made in defiance of their forbidding environment, preemptively relegated into parenthetical insignificance. Of films that, nevertheless, sink into a den of their own making; sink into themselves in order to find a new space below a seemingly impenetrable surface.

To me, The Bear’s Lair feels like an act of complex differentiation, a lesson in distinguishing feelings and ways to live through one single day in spite of the wintry metaphor’s totality. The monotony and dullness of grand events social and military are layered with private stories, routine difficulties, and stretches of empty time when everything suddenly halts and stands still and there’s nothing left to do. Since February 24 I’ve had the creeping, morbid feeling that the community of people I knew and lived near is gone. The Bear’s Lair offers a paradoxical recreation of a new communal space, even if it is now a space of mutual catastrophe.

However, Lavretski’s subsequent film testifies, if anything, to the impossibility of a universal experience. Jokes about War, the first film he made after Russia invaded Ukraine, is quite straightforward in its arrangement. Its centrepiece is a psychopathic performance by Nikita’s collaborator, stand-up comedian Aleksey Sukhanok. His goofing, his tantrums, his on-camera musings for TikTok are placed next to images of Ukrainian cities, explosions, and burning buildings on the screen’s edges. Sukhanok’s jokes about the ongoing events are rude, absurd, and anti-humorous as is his wont; his own summary comes around the midpoint of the 40-minutes film: ‘See, I had to post twenty fucking stories to realize this isn’t fucking funny.’ No one could tell what would be a ‘funny’ way to joke about war (an unlikely comedic success of recent weeks has been Aleksandr Lukashenko’s viral speech: ‘Hold on, I’m gonna show you how they planned to invade Belarus’). The hopeless comedian and the Belarusian psycho’s controversy and offensiveness are not, of course, the subject of Lavretski’s film: it is, on the contrary, his extreme vulnerability. ‘The problem that’s worse than any rockets is that I’m a fuck-up. If you’re a fuck-up, well, there’s no peaceful solution to that’: another outrageous joke of his. He talks drivel and hits the spot with his obscene juxtaposition of a crushing calamity with an extremely private case, a psychiatric diary of one Aleksey Sukhanok. War is hardly confined to battlefields and it hardly comes down to just great deeds or acts of bravery, either (such a straightforward perspective is the stuff of propaganda), but it also leaves tiny imprints on private life and everyday reality of someone far away from the killing grounds. Someone like a disrespectful Minsk comedian performing his routines in the middle of a swamp (the show was produced and filmed by Lavretski a year earlier).

Sukhanok’s psychological instability (‘I can be a normal person if I feign it but I can’t feign for too long,’ he says, and he sounds credible), his frenzied social media activity, his endless stream of stories and self-filming transform him into a pure visibility. He seems not so much a human being—secretive and inscrutable or narcissistic and flashy—but a being spread over the screen’s surface and exposed to anyone who cares to look. A naked image. Just like the dreadful visions of war, of residential buildings exploding, that also seem naked. They can only testify to themselves without a possibility to add or say anything. The images’ disparity is so glaring that their collision feels like a scandal at first (how relevant is a Minsk geek’s daily life to the war?) before finding an unexpected common ground through Sukhanok’s eccentricity.

Today, when any acts of culture seem (temporarily) impossible and safely bracketed, a deranged figure such as this provides at least one answer and outlines a new way of making art. Part a carnival character, part a GogVolhan trickster, part a murderous psycho, he eludes all the usual types to present a persona that seems to have no real counterparts in the arts of the past thirty years.

As I have reached the edge of Lavretski’s filmography (as of May 2022) I have to admit the omission of another important feature: A Kid’s Flick (Detskiy film), which premiered in Lisbon in late 2021. A direct response to the Minsk protests and the government’s violent crackdown against demonstrators, A Kid’s Flick translates the real events into the format of an anime fantasy. A fantasy about a few days from the life of a young woman (Volha Kavaliova) who barely leaves her apartment, absorbed into a hypnotic cycle of reading the news, tidying up, and masturbating, but, at regular intervals, transforms into an anime warrior. She escapes our field of view and comes back after some time, stained with blood, to recover from fighting some mysterious, sinister enemy. In the ending, the evil creatures invade the Minsk apartment, dressed in cloaks and bizarre face masks, to beat the woman up and go through her things: something between horror movie monsters and a police squad raiding a protester’s dwelling.

A Kid’s Flick (2021)

Seeing A Kid’s Flick a half a year ago felt disappointing to me – above all else, I found the conflict and the metaphors too straightforward, and the comparison of police brutality to bestial evil spirits, too simplistic. I have to admit that I was wrong: the dim-witted monsters’ snoots are strikingly similar to Russian politicians’ faces pervading the screens around me; their absurd peddling surpasses every satirical concoction of past and present. Meanwhile, everyday life and the world itself do indeed collapse into a news feed and a gloomy room lit by just a laptop screen.

The day the war began, Nikita was far from Minsk – he’d come to a film festival in Khanty-Mansiysk to introduce the Russian premiere of A Kid’s Flick. Lavretski’s opening speech was once again the aptest definition of his cinema: ‘I felt so terrible when I was making this movie. I realised the only way to make a new film was to return to my childhood, to invite some friends over, to dress as superheroes and fight – to revisit the filmmaking method that I used when I was 12. But the movie didn’t come out cheerful anyway, it reflected my fears and anxieties that surrounded me in terms of politics. It just so happens that my inner child isn’t apolitical. It’s actually more political than my adult self. Which makes sense, because a child knows that war is the worst thing ever. The worst has already happened.’

A Kid’s Flick is true to its title in a literal way, harking back to Nikita’s earliest shorts in its style, or even farther back to the times when he would grab his parents’ camera and shoot things, not knowing yet that he was a filmmaker. As I keep coming back to the question of what kind of cinema could be possible after what is happening now, the best answer today could be exactly that: a kid’s cinema. The kind of film from which all is removed but the indispensable and the uncheatable, the basic techniques, acting gestures, and bits of everyday life that each of us knew in our earliest years. That is the origin of Nikita Lavretski’s complex, branching filmography – worthy of an insight more specific, attentive, and kindred.

May 2022

Originally published in Outskirts Nº1