I’m Not Afraid. I’m Looking
A Straub-Huillet Companion: Coda
By Christopher Small
Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub in Florence, 1966 Photo: Peter Nestler
HUILLET: “Do you want my seat?”
STRAUB: “No way.”
—Dialogue between Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet in Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (Où gît votre sourire enfoui?, 2001)
Things that are just have a particular look, and your cause, I must admit, does not.
— Dialogue from Class Relations (Klassenverhältnisse, 1984)
Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet met in Paris in 1954. He fell in love with her almost immediately during their classes together; she was eighteen and he was twenty-one. He was preparing a film about the wife of Johann Sebastian Bach, Anna Magdalena. Per Straub’s account, he had immediately asked Huillet to join him in making it. By 1958, they had fled France after Straub refused mandatory conscription in the army to go fight in Algeria. They settled in West Berlin, where after a series of stops and starts with financing the Bach film, they made their first four films together, though Huillet was not always credited as a director alongside Straub in the press. These were Machorka-Muff (1963), a short satire on Germany’s post-war rearmament, the mini-feature Not Reconciled (Nicht versöhnt, 1965), their Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Kronik der Anna Magdalena Bach, 1968), which had finally taken over a decade to bring to fruition, and The Bridegroom, the Comedian, and the Pimp (Der Bräutigam, die Komödiantin und der Zuhälter, 1968), a short film starring Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Hanna Schygulla.
Over the next several decades Straub and Huillet would steadfastly continue their work, producing on average about one film every couple of years and working in relative obscurity. Huillet died of cancer in 2006; Straub produced a series of 20 short films and one feature for most of his remaining 16 years of life. He died in November 2022. For a brief window during the 1970s, their films together acquired a certain prestige on the university circuit, particularly in the United States, but otherwise their work remained firmly on the outskirts of the world of international cinema. Without exception, each of their films was derived from a text—musical or literary—and imparted a deeply idiosyncratic idea of how this text ought to be adapted. The Straubs sought an absolute minimum of artistic tampering with the text and the performers’ rendition of it during the filmmaking process, an extraordinarily deliberate work of manifesting the words or the music onscreen in all their clarity. To name just a few authors whom Straub-Huillet “adapted” on film: Arnold Schönberg (Moses and Aaron / Moses und Aron, 1975 and From Today Until Tomorrow / Von heute auf morgan, 1996), Heinrich Böll (Not Reconciled and Machorka-muff) Franz Kafka (Class Relations / Klassenverhältnisse, 1984), Bertolt Brecht (History Lessons / Geschichtsunterricht, 1972 and Antigone / Die Antigone des Sophokles, 1992), Pierre Corneille (Othon / Les yeux ne veulent pas en tout temps se fermer, ou Peut-être qu'un jour Rome se permettra de choisir à son tour, 1969), and Marguerite Duras (En rachâchant, 1982).
By the late 1990s, Straub and Huillet were working more regularly in Italy, where they had moved in 1969 after completing their Bach film, and were preparing a project in Sicily based on Elio Vittorini’s anti-fascist novel Conversazione in Sicilia (1938-41). Once shooting concluded, they accepted an offer to teach at Le Fresnoy, the famous film school in northern France, in exchange for full access to an editing suite for a month and a 35mm print of the film. While lecturing, they would be able to edit this latest project in peace and with Huillet’s customary focus (their lives were lived on the basis of such practical exchanges and arrangements). At the same time, they received a request from Pedro Costa, a filmmaker with whom they had only a passing acquaintance and whose cinema was then unknown to them, to collaborate on a film about their work. He had been asked by André S. LaBarthe and Jeanine Bazin to make a documentary about the Straubs for their series “Cinéastes de notre temps”, an assignment Costa had eagerly accepted given his abiding admiration for their films. Immediately, Huillet said no, citing her need for intense focus during the editing process; Straub was equally suspicious. But their friend Jacques Rivette, one of the key filmmakers of the French Nouvelle Vague, intervened, vouching for Costa’s In Vanda’s Room (No quarto da Vanda, 2000) which he had just seen at a festival in Paris.
By the late 1990s, Costa had slipped into a deep and abiding artistic crisis. Until that point, the Portuguese filmmaker had directed three professional arthouse productions—Blood (O Sangue, 1989), Casa de lava (1995), and Bones (Ossos, 1997). Within a couple of years, his crisis had given way to a revolution. Following the production of Bones, Costa abandoned the way of making cinema to which he and many other filmmakers had become accustomed—with the crews, the 35mm cameras, the private funding, the producers, and so on—and went to Fontainhas, a Lisbon slum where he had previously spent some time, dedicating days and nights to working with a junkie named Vanda Duarte on a movie made inside the four walls of her bedroom, armed with only a small mini DV camera and a microphone. In the resulting three-hour film, arguably the locus classicus of early digital cinema, Vanda’s room became the stage for an epic vision of a marginal existence, with improvised conversations between Vanda and her friends comprising the backbone of an enormous and vivid portrait of daily existence. When Straub-Huillet realised that Costa, right on the heels of In Vanda’s Room, would be working virtually alone with only small digital camera, they accepted that he wouldn’t disturb them in their work. And so he stayed with them for the whole month, with an assistant and a sound man, from ten in the morning until five in the evening, from Monday to Friday, as they edited what became Sicilia! (1999).
Jean-Luc Godard, who died two months before Straub, also in Rolle, Switzerland, called the resulting film, Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (Où gît votre sourire enfoui?, 2001), the greatest ever made about editing. And it is also now widely considered, by those who love and admire it, a rom-com for the ages: a boisterous portrait of a lifelong romantic and artistic partnership (it has long been difficult to determine whether Straub and Huillet were actually married) full of verbal sparring and unexpected, off-kilter humour. How can two people possibly stay together for more than forty years other than through a shared work?—Danièle Huillet herself bluntly poses the question.
The movie is also a fascinating collision of artistic sensibilities. Costa’s closed, phantasmagorical world and the Straubs’ unadorned, open-air theatre; Costa’s blending of sounds and images and Straub-Huillet’s rigorous pursuit of empirical clarity; Costa’s inky darkness and the Straubs’ bright daylight. Protagonists in Pedro Costa’s films are in the obscurity of dark spaces: they recline in sofas, pace uneasily through doorways, smoke heroin, read from the Bible, or, in Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, assemble movies—all to fantasise themselves out of a inscrutible dream from which they are unsure they will ever awake. In In Vanda’s Room, the sound of bulldozers and hammers tearing down the neighbourhood around Vanda’s shabby, cramped, unlit room are an ever-present reminder of the limits of these liminal projections of an inner world. Huillet and Straub editing Sicilia! fit somehow among this cast of characters—Danièle hunched in a chair, staring at a cavalcade of apparitions on the editing table’s screen; Straub pacing in and out of the suite’s open doorway, as if shuffling uncertainly along the borders of a netherworld.
In the Straubs’ own movies, the protagonists are, on the contrary, Olympian vessels for the voice of Utopia (religious, communistic); their backs are perfectly straight, their words fully enunciated. There is none of the uncertainty of the stop-start speech and crooked gaits we hear and see again and again in Costa’s movies.
Needless to say, Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? is all these things: no single film has better represented the actual work of an artist—here, artists—at work in an editing suite, shaping the material of a film like clay, moulding it from one image and sound to the next, deliberating time and again on the matter of a few frames—frames that make all the difference to their work of cinema. Much of this arises from ingenuity on Costa’s part in the face of a massive production obstacle. After he arrived at the school to begin making the movie, Costa encountered a rather obvious problem. How could he shoot in darkness like that? The editing suite had almost no light, artificial or otherwise. A single door, practically always closed; no windows; a lamp attached to the Steenbeck editing table that flicked off automatically whenever film cycled through it. Huillet had stipulated that there could be no external lights of any kind brought in for the purpose. Costa’s response? Focus on the images from Sicilia! themselves, recorded over Huillet’s shoulder. As such, we are forced throughout Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? to contemplate these images for minutes at a time, whether static or in motion, as Huillet painstakingly cycles from one frame to another and back again. At one point, we see—or believe we see—the hidden smile of the film’s title, itself a quote from their From Today Until Tomorrow, in a scene on a train. Straub and Huillet, reaching into the frame from off-screen, point to a grin appearing almost invisibly at the edges of their protagonist’s eyes, a startling psychological detail contained in a mere few frames.
While peering at these images being worked deliberately into a narrative structure, we listen on the soundtrack as Danièle bickers or argues with Straub about one thing or another; calls sternly for silence; deflates him as he goes off on a long philosophical tangent; or as they discuss with the most extraordinary clarity the work of assembling a film. This kind of directness and intimacy would only be possible with Costa’s then-revolutionary digital minimalism. Thus it is impossible to separate their romance and their life—what we glimpse of it, at least—from their work; Straub’s pontificating from Huillet’s cutting; reality from dream; life from cinema; the boundary of the editing suite from the parallel world we never glimpse beyond the doorframe, a border Straub himself straddles repeatedly as they work. It is like watching a cathedral pieced together one brick and one trowelful of mortar at a time. Costa intersperses these scenes with Straub ostentatiously introducing their films to a cluster of students at Le Fresnoy—Huillet often sits a few metres away, listening, or at the back of the room, waiting in shadow—as well as, far more mysteriously, with strangely furtive sequences of film being threaded with great deliberation through a projector. There’s the continuum into which it all must fit, between the measured assembly of the film in the editing suite and the philosophical and technical discussions that explode around it, the ideas one later uses to introduce it in person, before an audience (however small), and, yes, the phantasmagorical work of illuminating it on a screen for others to absorb privately.
Which brings us to the ending, one of cinema’s greatest, stolen from Renoir’s French Cancan (1954): Straub and Huillet wander up to the doors of a cinema in which a film of theirs is playing. Presumably, it is coming to a close, as we hear one of Beethoven’s string quartets and the whir of the projector. They are no longer speaking. Danièle peers in at the movie through the small window and then wanders up a set of stairs, presumably to the projection booth to supervise the final moments of the screening. Straub begins to follow her but then returns to the door and listens a while longer. He sits on the steps beside it. He flicks his lighter on and off, watching the flame shudder as he moves it from side to side. Catching onto the melody, he begins to conduct the music with a few serene flicks of the wrist, like Jean Gabin bobbing his foot in time with the performance at the end of French Cancan. Both men’s creation is unfolding out of sight a few metres away from them; all that is left for both is to mime along with its rhythms. From just off-screen, Straub listens as a movie—his and Danièle Huillet’s—slips into the continuous flow of the world.
You can read the remaining 15 parts of A Straub-Huillet Companion by Christopher Small at MUBI Notebook.
A version of this text was originally published in Slovak at Kapital Noviny in Spring 2022.
A Butterfly Passes By…
Conversation with Rita Azevedo Gomes about The Kegelstatt Trio (2022)
By Diego Cepeda and Christopher Small
Published in Outskirts Issue #1
The Kegelstatt Trio (O Trio em Mi Bémol, 2022)
Late at night, outside the house where a film is being shot, a dreamy film director, Jorge (played by the much-forgotten Spanish filmmaker Adolfo ‘Ado’ Arrieta), remarks to his assistant, Mariana (Olivia Cábez): ‘Snow is very important in this film!’. Later on, we never get to see it, but the evocation of his wish has already imprinted a particular climate on our imagination. The films of Rita Azevedo Gomes operate with this freedom; between what is said and what is shown, between text and image, a suggested world unexpectedly takes shape. In her first film, The Sound of the Shaking Earth (O som da terra a tremer, 1990), we could already hear the phrase: ‘To get to the truth, you must compose. Artifice is obligatory’. Thus, her most recent film, The Kegelstatt Trio (O trio em mi bemol, 2022), presents a melodrama (in the strictest sense of the term) composed of the following elements: a camera (which captures rehearsals and scenes), a sound recorder (which brings out dialogue and music), a space (a house near the beach and its surroundings), the actors (frequent collaborators and friends, Pierre Léon and Rita Durão), their characters (a troubled couple of friends, that were once lovers, Paul and Adélia) and, finally, their words (from the only theatre play Éric Rohmer ever wrote, ‘Le Trio en mi bémol’, based on Mozart’s musical piece, known as ‘The Kegelstatt Trio’ in English).
Full of variations, the film expands on its emotional journey like a drifting ship, each time revealing its inner mysteries and fantasies. Christopher Small and I sat down over Zoom to discuss the Trio, which had its world premiere at the Berlinale Forum last February, with Azevedo Gomes, who was at that moment in the hectic final months before her retirement as a programmer at Cinemateca Portuguesa. At the mention of Manoel de Oliveira in our discussion, she rushed with excitement to her kitchen. She returned with a photograph of her younger self looking on with extreme curiosity at the busy shooting of Oliveira’s Francisca (1981).
After forty years and twelve of her own films later, Rita speaks with the same youthful energy and creative wonder.
Diego Cepeda: There is an article by Jean-Claude Biette, ‘Griffith’s Butterfly’, about Éric Rohmer’s The Green Ray (Le rayon vert, 1986). He said that this was a film in which the passage of a butterfly through a shot belongs to the very nature of the shot and reinforces the impression of reality. And that other filmmakers would wait for the butterfly to pass before letting the actors play on because they believe that the butterfly would distract the spectator from the dramatic action. While in Rohmer (among other filmmakers), everything requires that the shot be inhabited by the stuff of reality. The butterfly then can only pass among filmmakers where there is contemplation of the world, and I think I see that in this film.
Rita Azevedo Gomes: Yes, that’s something that happens only there, while you are filming. It is something I have never experienced anywhere else. Maybe an actor can experience it each night when they discover other emotions inside the role they are developing, but I’m not an actor. It’s a moment when you feel you are where you belong, in the place that fits you, because this butterfly was sent to me, like a sign of grace. Sometimes I think, ‘if I deserve this, it could be of some use to what I’m doing’. So the idea of Biette and the butterfly is very interesting, but what is difficult is that when the butterfly ‘happens’, you have to be able to catch it, like an insect, you have to pay attention. And then you have to ask yourself: ‘Does the film need the butterfly? Am I going after it?’
DC: How did this theatre play written by Rohmer land in your hands?
RA: Well, it was with me some years before making the film; I had the intention to make a radio drama. It would be played live in the theatre, and we would make the recording and the effects on the stage with public assistance. Once it became clear the radio drama would not be realised, I thought I would make a film from the script I had translated. I tried to submit it for several subventions, but it was always refused funding. I was not deeply invested in the project; I had not entirely immersed myself in it, so I found myself at a crossroads: if it were to go ahead, I would have to jump. Then suddenly, it was 2020, and we were all completely separated from the rest of the world. I felt a kind of duty to do something for myself. To make a film, obviously, it’s not like I was going to do gymnastics or yoga at home. So the Trio, with two characters, and thus two actors, was a realisable film. And it was a happy project, a sentimental comedy of a couple, with all Rohmer’s intrigues of love; it felt very fitting. During this time, the present wasn’t ever so immediate, but I was always in contact with the life we were living while making the film. And the moment of making a film is always exactly like this, very sacred, something that you keep forever. With all the films I made, I carry those moments with me… But during the periods that we were filming, we were completely confined and isolated in this small village.
DC: Where was the village?
RA: It’s in the north of Portugal, Minho, on the shore. It’s a village where families from the North go for their summer holidays. Everything then was closed, and we had just met there. We had no rehearsals and could not prepare production matters together because we had to do it all by phone. That was all the preparation we could do until the moment we set out in the car. We had no money, but there was a friend, Gonzalo García Pelayo, who lent me a bag with bitcoins – so it’s a ‘Bitcoin-film’ really. We went to have lunch, he gave me a bag, and when I opened the bag it was full of small bills, all in twenty and fifty euros – and that bag had the necessary for meals, sleeping, and travelling. Pierre Léon said: ‘Totally, yes’, and Rita Durão – with her children left behind and while she got Covid during filming, all these terrible things – she came. [Jorge] Quintela on the camera and Olivier [Blanc] on sound also came. So, I had the heart of the film, plus three students from the school, and that was it. And they lend us the cameras, all the materials, and the house.
Christopher Small: And Adolfo Arrieta – how did he come to be part of the film?
RA: Arrieta came exactly during the height of the Covid period. I was at home, confined like everybody else, and I started messaging Ado because we were already thinking about his upcoming cycle at the Cinemateca Portuguesa before everything closed. Nevertheless, we kept messaging a lot, and it was like a daily presence, the best company during the Covid months. I still have an endless amount of emails about everything: projects, his life, cats, everyday things, it’s incredible. I knew he was very unhappy, trapped in his small apartment in Madrid. He could not go out, only to buy a beer to come up and look at the ceiling. So I asked him if he would come. In the script, there was a role of a ‘Film Director’; the initial idea I had for it was a cliché: ‘a director who is lost during the shooting and doesn't know what to do’. But then, when thinking of Ado doing that character, it added another special dimension: ‘it’s Ado! I have it!’. The fun we had together was like seeing him reborn from the ashes; he went back to Madrid, bought a piano, and started playing again. He started painting, had an exhibition in Madrid, and is thinking about making a film with an iPhone… and he’s finally having his retrospective in Lisbon, which I think is fair. I'm very happy for him, and he was genius in the film.
DC: In a way, there is a possibility of a ‘conversation’, thanks to this film, between Éric Rohmer and Ado Arrieta. Historically, of course, one can say that a much broader audience knew who Rohmer was while he was making films, while Arrieta was on an ignored side of film history at the same time.
RA: I think that’s the tough part for Ado and most of the Ados in cinema. I’m a little bit an Ado myself. Now you are talking to me about this film, but I’ve been a bit out of the picture. That’s the way it goes, you have that hurt and pain, but at the same time, you are free, and so are your choices, and here it’s my choice. If I do something wrong, it’s my problem, but I have to try to do things differently and try different things.
DC: The idea for this character was in the original play, or was it something you added?
RA: No, no, the play is only the couple, that’s all, just Paul and Adélia. Even before the idea of Ado being the Director, I had already the idea of his dream with the pig and the green – there was something about this green, it’s a terrible colour, it’s poison, you know? It’s like copper; when it’s old, it gets green as poison. In Vertigo (1958), when Kim Novak comes out of the toilet and it’s all green – even green in Jimmy Stewart’s eyes. I had this green in my imagination. I wanted to make it there in the moment, not via After Effects, you know? Because I like to fabricate whatever is possible, it’s fun.
CS: It was interesting for me to realise, watching it again, that there are so many filmmakers in this film, not just literally Ado and Pierre Léon, but Rohmer also. I think in all your films, what you do is you slowly take something apart and then change this and change that, it’s almost like a set designer, you know, like Ozu putting a teapot here, and changing the picture here and so on, but in this case, these materials are almost something else, something cinematic, the ghost of other people’s films. Here there are these scenes where you see Ado almost dreaming things up, half asleep.
RA: You know, I don’t know all the films by Rohmer. For instance, maybe Ingmar Bergman would scare me very much, but I would like to work with Bergman; I don’t know if I would like to work with Rohmer, it’s not my blood. I like so much of what he does, and I think I try to understand him because he’s a very complicated man. But well, I would not marry a guy like him. If you listen to the dialogues in the Trio… it’s nonsense… it’s nonsense, in a positive way. ‘What does it mean? Why? What does she want? What does he want? What are they doing?’ But it is, at the same time, how we miserable humans live. We are impregnated with behaviour and gestures, and a tone of voice… We are formatted and shaped, and his dialogues are like lace; they are knitting and endless… I think that’s a particular perspective on humankind. It’s brilliant, and I don’t know if that was what he intended, but that’s what I see in his films. He brought the Trio to the stage, and he even filmed it. I think it might be on YouTube, but I didn’t want to see it. I read a book that Rohmer wrote about the depth of music, From Mozart to Beethoven: ‘Essay on the Concept of Depth in Music’, and that helped me to understand why he wrote the Trio – now I have to speculate a bit, which is more fun – it’s the only play he wrote for the theatre, the only one, and I was asking myself ‘but why the hell does he write a play on a trio of Mozart?’. Then I understood that this Trio, as with its dialogues, changed the music. The three instruments have never been put together before, and it’s like Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven – so Rohmer writes about all this, and it’s a very nice book, and I discovered he was a musician as well, which was a pleasant surprise.
CS: I think I heard that when Rohmer’s mother died, she still didn’t know he was a filmmaker, and she died in the 1980s.
RA: Yes, Pierre Léon, who loves him most, as you know, and who knows Rohmer very well, told me that too. But it’s true. So, as I was saying, I would not like to be on a set or work with him; I’d like to work with Bergman, for instance, or Nick Ray, or … that’s how I came to Oliveira, I wanted to see, and to discover how he makes his films, I wanted to be present.
DC: Perhaps, now that you bring Manoel de Oliveira, or maybe you don’t want to open that door—
RA: No, it’s always a wonderful door, Oliveira.
CS: Was it you Rita who told me this anecdote about [João César] Monteiro and Oliveira, that Monteiro wrote maybe about Francisca (1981) or Past and Present (O Passado e o Presente, 1972)? When it came out, he wrote something like ‘this filmmaker is too big for Portugal’.
RA: He said even more – he said: ‘Senhor!’ He treated him like a sir, ‘Mr. Oliveira’.
CS: He said something like: ‘Oliveira is too big for Portugal; we either need to shrink the borders of the country or trim the Oliveira!’
RA: ‘Mr. Oliveira’ – because he was angry with Oliveira at that period, but he had to confess and admit that he was too big for the country.
DC: That reminds me that Oliveira used to say that cinema, as opposed to theatre, had the power of ‘fixing’ things and moments in time, ‘fixing’ the text or a gesture… fixing as the process of registering. That idea reveals something phantasmagorical to everything that cinema is. Thinking about this, while I was watching the Trio, there are all these scenes that the spectator watches with very close attention because, for me, a lot of the time, we have the point of view of a director watching a scene developing – and there’s this ambiguity because we often don’t know if it’s a rehearsal or the ‘scene’ in itself. One watches the whole film developing with this strange tension, the tension of being aware of the rhythm of the actors, of their voices, each word of each line, their movements and also the camera, which sometimes moves incredibly slowly.
RA: I couldn’t possibly say that this film made more ‘real’ for me the fact that I ‘don’t know where I am’… We are in a pit… What does this mean? For me, there is a kind of space. I don’t know what to call it; a ‘gap’ between what we call ‘reality’ and what we call the ‘representation of reality’. There is a gap there. And that’s why it’s always fascinating for me to see the growth of the actor into the character. There is a growing and then there is a passage, and then they become someone named Adélia, Paul – and between these two things it’s not a transformation, it’s a change, because sometimes they become so real, that cinema helps to make-believe, so we don’t think of the actors, we think of the characters. And I would go further, so please don’t laugh at me – I would say that cinema is the representation of this gap between reality and its representation, ‘art’. Cinema is there, and it’s the perfect place for ghosts… and it’s the perfect place for doing silly things, and the perfect place to play… because when you play, you touch upon yourself. I wouldn’t say you ‘understand’ yourself because I don’t know if I understand myself, and I don’t care, I would not worry; seventy years of that is enough, I do not worry about who I am anymore. And in this film, it was obvious, and I wanted that. Sometimes we see the actor, and sometimes it’s already the character, and then they are not very well prepared, so they go into these passages all the time, and I liked that.
CS: As I just alluded to, your movies for me are always this act of collage, in every way, collage at the moment but also collage afterwards. This film has the most beautiful end-credits sequence that I have seen in a long time. It’s like you’re repurposing these images from the set, or you’re finding something else to do with them, and that also makes me think about how you edit. So I guess I’m asking: how do you edit a film like this? Did you edit right afterwards?
RA: Not exactly. There were a few weeks in between the shoot and the edit because I didn’t have the computer, but then I started – and I did it all alone because of the pandemic. Nobody could visit me or help me. Technically, it was very tiring; I’m still a bit disturbed, it was very hard work for me, to use the computer for that. I had never used Premiere before, so I had to learn, call everyone and ask for things and help… But I had to go on my own, and I would not wait. But you know, everything is – that’s probably why now I like to edit, I think I move things differently from the others, and the final proof was Correspondances (Correspondências, 2016). There is also the previous editing. I knew when I made this kind of silent dream sequence with the shot / counter-shot between Rita Durão and Pierre Léon, Adélia and Paul, which I call the 8th tableau – because Rohmer’s play has seven, but the Trio has eight – that it would be near the end. That’s the crystal thing between both of them, silence and all the other things with no words, so this was something that came during the shooting. I hadn’t thought of it – I had the dream, and the pig, and the beach, but those things come, and you know where it goes in the film somehow, so it’s better that you are in the editing room from the very first day, even when they are synchronising the material, I’m already there, watching. Once Bernard Eisenschitz came here and wanted to see the film, so I bit my nails and showed it to him, and I was smoking on the balcony – and it was important also, because you are not certain, especially when you are too much involved with the situation, you are still breathing at the same rhythm, you know? And the film has to find its own rhythm. It’s something very… I’m not sure if I am very good there. The question of time and cinema is that – because of what you said before, cinema is like a fixed moment, but not only that – memory works like that also. When you remember a film, you are actually remembering a moment. The memory comes very quickly, like in dreams, but it makes a movement, a spin. There is one interesting thing to end the idea of what we were talking about on Rohmer. My supposition about this play of Rohmer is that precisely once I was editing and things were – I was not happy at all, everything was falling apart, went terrible, it happens, so then I said: ‘Maybe I should stop and do something else for tonight’. So I decided to listen to Mozart’s Trio, and when I put on the Trio that night – I’ve heard it many times before, and I was so in the story of Adélia and Paul, and suddenly I saw… It was obvious to me then: The clarinet is Adélia, the viola is Paul, and the piano of the Trio is Mozart. I saw this, and maybe this was what made Rohmer write the play because it’s two characters – if you listen and try to make the experience – you put the trio and listen to the dialogues with the movement of the words. The feelings and the meanings with the three instruments, it’s incredible. I said to Pierre Léon: ‘Listen, yesterday I made a big discovery!’ and he said: ‘Évidemment, it is like that!’.
DC: That is true also for the whole structure of the film. There is this line from Paul describing the piece, something like: ‘it’s almost like an improvisation, but it’s not’, and the film itself has this feeling of the same nature.
RA: There is a dissonance in the ‘Trio’ of Mozart. The clarinet flies away, then comes back, and flirts with the viola, then the viola replies: ‘bam bam ba ra ra’, and sometimes they are together, and sometimes they are hard, clashing and embracing at the same time. These variations fit the film well. And it’s also nice to take some liberties and do some foolish things.
DC: Some boleros from Bola de Nieve to Lucho Gatica are suggested by humming and singing. How did that come about?
RA: All the singing and all that came along, I asked them: ‘Do you know any boleros? Okay, so let’s do it!’ Ado was remembering; that’s why he also started putting his fingers on the piano. With ‘La Barcarolle’, Offenbach's piece on the scene at the beach, while they are preparing silly and nonsense things, came while I was editing; I heard it by accident, someone posted it or something, and I was totally immersed in the film and ‘pimpa!’ it just took place, became obvious for me, I don’t know why. Editing has a lot to do with music. I’m so sorry that I don’t play any instruments, and I can’t sing because I have this frog voice – maybe the most accomplished thing someone can do is to be a singer, you don’t need anyone, you work yourself, your instrument, your voice, perhaps acting… but singing is more delirious, it’s something that lifts you off the floor. It must be nice to be able to sing.
DC: The scene with the Eno song is pure magic, it is the most beautiful moment for me when Pierre Léon is playing that song on the piano, and suddenly, he lifts his hands into the air very slowly while the music is still going.
RA: It was very funny, he was listening to it through the iPhone, everybody was saying: ‘But he doesn’t move his feet, he’s not playing the piano, this is so badly made’. And suddenly he was suffering and saying: ‘No! This is terrible!’
DC: There is this quality of the film towards the music, and it is that the music in the film isn’t used as a dramatic effect but as an object in itself or as another character. When Pierre and Rita are near the piano and playing these songs, I thought about An Affair To Remember (Leo McCarey, 1957), where Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr’s characters meet and fall in love on a transatlantic cruise ship. On one occasion, they visit Nickie Ferrante’s (Grant) grandmother’s house on the Mediterranean coast. Behind a dusty piano, Grandma Janou plays a melody that will later be accompanied by the voice of Terry McKay (Kerr). Here, the whole film seems to stop, as if it was held under a spell. There is something particular, I can’t quite explain what it is, but I felt the same thing watching that scene in your film.
CS: In that film, there’s also a repetition later, when Grant returns and the grandmother has died, and he picks up her shawl, and you hear the music again as he casts his mind back, and of course, this is Hollywood, this is a thing that happens, but somehow here it’s not that, it’s almost like what Rita’s saying, this silliness and this play. It creates a third idea when he lifts the shawl, with that magical gesture – it is like something from the Trio.
RA: I’m glad you liked that scene because I know maybe some people won’t react the same way. I was so moved when I was filming that – I’d never be inhibited to put it in the film, even if it seems silly, crazy, or unnecessary – I mean, for me, I don’t like the word magic, but it was so unusual, so beautiful, I was totally emotional with that thing, you know, I could not – and everybody was saying ‘maybe it’s a bit long’, and they were maybe waiting to see if I cut. Still, I thought I could give it a little time anyway, it’s not too long. I have to see An Affair To Remember again.
DC: It’s like everything is talking through music, the actors, the characters, everyone is aligned through these songs. They are speaking another language, something else.
RA: And the wind as well, yes.
by Maksim Selezniov — originally published in Outskirts Issue #1
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.
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.
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.
The Ins & Outs of Outskirts
Editorial by Christopher Small —Issue #1 - August, 2022
This being our first issue, I suppose I should begin with the obvious: the title itself, ‘Outskirts’. This is where we, as editors and cinephiles, ought to put ourselves: at the periphery, consumed by the particulars of marginalia. ‘Outskirts’ is a statement of purpose, a declaration of intent, an assertion of irrelevance, not incidentally a feature of all of our work – in film criticism or curation – that we guard with zealous pride. I am writing these words in Tenerife, on the furthest outskirts of Europe. As I thought about how I might give you, in this editorial, a sense of what this magazine is about, I wandered the streets and buildings of La Laguna, a UNESCO world heritage site and the first European city built in the Canary Islands. I found only a single acknowledgement of the conquest of the Guanches who lived on the island before Castillian colonisation: a statue of a warrior brandishing a spear beside the offramp to a highway.
What exactly does it mean for an imperial city – however splendid – to be preserved as a site of heritage? What does it mean to preserve roads and stables and churches and colonial mansions whose foundations were laid by conquerors and came at the expense of a culture doomed to extinction by their arrival? Two small dogs adorn the Canarian flag. A friend explained that in school they were taught that the archipelago’s name came from canis, the Latin for ‘dog’, apparently because Pliny the Elder wrote that the islands were uncommonly full of them. Of course, this too was only the preservation of a lie: canari was the name of the indigenous inhabitants. The islands were filled with people, not dogs; and yet now only dogs sit there on the flag as the reminder of this fabricated historical anecdote. Cíntia Gil, in her essay on the work of Vincent Carelli, comes at similar ideas through the path of cinema. In Carelli’s films, made with and – principally – for indigenous Brazilians, the act of filming is often a violent but necessary work. In some cases, the only way to ensure a people’s survival and to put a halt to ‘progress’ is to capture their existence in celluloid or pixels; as she shows, Carelli’s work is built around such ambiguities and imperatives.
There is, of course, a simple answer as to why we named the magazine Outskirts. Like many magazines dedicated to cinema, we took our moniker from a film we love. Here that is the 1933 film by Boris Barnet, the Soviet filmmaker who is the subject of our first dossier. This masterpiece, about as good as movies get, is also something of a UFO in cinema history: an unclassifiable classic that eludes easy interpretation at every turn; shifting tones, sounds, and forms not simply from one scene to the next, but also within each and every moment, as when a soldier in the trenches pretends to be dead after a shell explodes next to him to get a laugh out of his buddies and his brother, with mixed results.
There is also a more complicated answer, one that doesn’t necessarily explain why ‘Outskirts’ came into being, but rather why we decided to stick with it. In mid-February 2022, we had our first editorial meeting, during which the outlines of this first issue were hashed out over a video call. I would shortly head to Moscow and then to Siberia for the festival Spirit of Fire, along with Lucía Salas, the Argentinian critic, curator, and contributor to this issue. In our schedule there were three or four Barnet screenings organised for us at the cinema of Gosfilmofond in Moscow, including Masters of Ukrainian Art in Concert (Kontsert masterov ukrainskogo iskusstva, 1952), unseeable other than in 35mm and perhaps only at this archive. That title would quickly come to haunt us; by February 25th I was on the last flight back to Prague and Lucía, as she describes in her dispatch from the festival, would leave by bus to Estonia a few days later. In the previous issue of La Vida Útil, our Spanish-Argentinian sister magazine, Lucas Granero spoke of a pandemic-induced need for life to be ‘reconquered, first and foremost, against everything’. I hadn’t realised how painfully prescient the specific way he phrased this would prove to be in 2022. The days I had planned to see Masters of Ukrainian Art in Concert with Lucía and my Russian friends in Moscow, I instead spent assembling IKEA furniture with my new Ukrainian neighbours, who had fled Kharkiv for Prague in the first days of the war. As Daniel Witkin notes in his text on Barnet’s film, the word ‘outskirts’ in Russian even shares a linguistic root with the country the Russian military has been pulverising with artillery since February 24th – okraina.
Today of course, the record of our work – and the contributions of our collaborators – doubles as something of an historical document, both intentionally and unintentionally. The composition and structure of the issue ought to suggest to our readers that we tried to preserve this particular character as much as possible, while also striving to write about and speak with new films and filmmakers far from these subjects. There is also, for instance, as you will read in detail in our dossier, an unintended but welcome consequence of Barnet’s seemingly undistinguished years spent toiled as a gun-for-hire in the Soviet republics: his work doubles as a record of the specific cultures (and even accents) of regions conquered and dominated, culturally or otherwise, by the Soviet Union, whether the Donbas, obliquely, in A Night in September (Noch v sentyabre, 1939), Moldavia in Lyana (1955), Azerbaijan in By the Bluest of Seas (U samogo sinego morya, 1936), or the Ukrainian city of Odessa in Poet (1956). In a related way, much of the magazine focuses too on the traces of a cinema existing on the periphery of other artistic works, whether the ‘revenant cinema’ described in Sofie Cato Maas’ text on the incomplete remains of Richard Oswald’s Different from the Others (Anders als die Andern, 1919) or the films of Alain Guiraudie, the plots of which, as Nathan Letoré notes, are often cobbled together from fragments of his own far longer and more labyrinthine novels.
This being the first issue, we have no audience of readers yet to address – you are an imaginary people whose constitution we cannot yet even guess at. For now, we skirt the periphery, like the citizens and soldiers of the peripheral Soviet town in which Barnet’s Outskirts takes place, also during an epochal war that nevertheless seems so far away from the pitter-patter of quotidian life. For now, we can only thank the many writers who contributed texts to this issue and to the translators who worked to put these and other documents into English, as well as acknowledge the extraordinary help and council of a few names in particular, without whom we simply wouldn’t have got off the ground: Bernard Eisenschitz, Lucía Salas, Boris Nelepo, Pierre Léon, and Stefano Knuchel. The generosity of all who contributed has already made this magazine what it is and what it should be: a document marked by many fingerprints.
Tenerife, June 2022