KinoKultura: Issue 25 (2009)

Sergei Loznitsa: Conversations on Cinema – “A Master of Time”

Interview by Anton Sidarenka (Minsk)

They do not write about every director: “He created his own cinematic language.” They do about Loznitsa. Sergei Loznitsa is one of the world's most well-known documentary filmmakers. His cinematic language has an intimate relationship with time: his monochromatic films exist beyond the boundaries of real space. Therefore his film about a contemporary fishing expedition, which seems simple at first glance, could be seen as a universal model of many centuries of human history. His film about the Leningrad blockade, which is a compilation of old war-time newsreels, abruptly transports the viewer in close proximity to the tragedy of WWII. Another signature mark of the filmmaker's work is the absence of a voice-over. The viewer forms his/her own perspective on the films, drawing upon his/her own life experience. To some extent, Loznitsa has returned cinema to the time of the Lumière brothers, when cinema’s most important task was to reflect the outside world. Loznitsa’s films document time and at the same time give it back to us, moving our perception to a different aesthetic and conceptual level.

loznitsaSergei Loznitsa was born on 5 September 1964 in Baranavichy. He finished secondary school in Kyiv. In 1987 he received his degree in mechanical engineering from the department of applied mathematics at Kyiv Polytechnic University. For four years he worked as a research fellow at the Cybernetics Institute in the Ukrainian capital, studying the development of decision-making processes of artificial intelligence. At the same time, Loznitsa worked as a translator from Japanese. In 1997 he graduated from the Russian State Film Institute VGIK (feature film division, Nana Djordjadze's workshop). He has been working for a documentary film studio in Saint Petersburg since 2000. In 2001 Loznitsa moved to Germany with his family. He currently lives in Hamburg. He is the author of four full-length documentary films and six short documentaries, as well as several feature film scripts. He is a nominee and award-winner of many international festivals. And he is an extraordinarily interesting and intelligent interlocutor.

Loznitsa does not like the word “documentary filmmaking.” “Document” means “evidence,” translated from Latin. What evidence does a film give? Could films with orchestrated scenes be considered documentary? Can a feature film claim to be a document (since it is evidence of its authors' thinking at a certain time...)? Sergei Loznitsa poses these questions not only in his theoretical articles and interviews, but also through his films. His most famous films The Siege (Blokada, 2006) and Revue (Predstavlenie, 2008) are composed entirely from old newsreels. The synchronized sound, though, is specially added in accordance with the sequences inside the film. In the classical sense, these films cannot be called documentaries. However, one can go back to the classics of our documentary cinema (such as The Liberation of Soviet Belarus by Uladzimer Korsh-Sablin) in which not only sound but many shots were artificially produced.

Why do you work with film? Most documentary filmmakers have switched to digital technology.

Digital cameras are just attempting to match to the quality of the film reel. Existing technology, including High Definition, lack shadows. Shadows create an enigma around phenomena. The importance of shadows was discussed way back by Leonardo da Vinci. Shadows are those understatements that make the viewer think.

So your main objective is to provoke thoughts and emotions in the spectator?

To “provoke” is not the term I would use, since it has negative connotations. I want my films to urge the viewers to move towards self-knowledge, self-awareness, and awareness of certain important things that they never considered before. This is of the greatest importance to me.

A prominent Russian documentary filmmaker, Marina Razbezhkina, welcomes the era of video —contrary to what you are saying. She claims that the process of the miniaturization of the camera draws the man with the movie camera closer to the object of the film. From this point of view, the ideal camera could be installed into glasses or even simply inside the human eye. You have a completely different philosophy...

Miniaturization allows for the use of a “candid camera” and the foregoing of lighting equipment. I do not see any other advantages. The language of cinema remains the same. What is interesting is not the event, but how this event unfolds in front of the viewer.

What do you think is the place of documentary filmmaking in the arts today, taking into account the fact that many functions of the documentary were taken away by television?

siegeI do not think that television has taken anything away. Cinema, unlike television, attempts to reflect and ponder. Television just broadcasts images. TV channels are fixated on getting more viewers and advertisements. Television is incapable of serious reflection about what happens to a human being or his/her environment. TV news just transmit information. Cinema, like other arts, makes sense of our world and gives it a complete form. Speaking of new technology, new internet services like YouTube have appeared recently. What does that mean for television? The end of a certain era: the viewer does not need to wait until 9 p.m. to watch the news any more. With the advent of the internet, television becomes interactive. The world wide web can also change the identity of cinema, specifically documentary filmmaking. You probably know about books written by online authors in a ‘live’ format. The same thing can happen to cinema. I myself would with pleasure take part in such an experiment if I had a chance. It is not only the result of the creative process that is interesting, but the process as well. The internet allows people to witness the very process of creation.

Undoubtedly there is a downside to internet technology, such as copyright. However, whether I like it or not, someone posted The Siege on YouTube. And still, I think that all the information accumulated by mankind, including art, should be accessible to everyone. How many wonderful old films are just shelved in the archives! And no one will bother to take them out for viewing. The internet gives the fans of these films the possibility of downloading archival footage and viewing such films home on their computers.

What do you consider ideal conditions for viewing films? Most of the time, we just watch them on TV.

When you watch a film in the cinema you experience a shared emotional impact. You feed on others' emotions, and all the sensations you experience while watching the film are intensified several times. The best films to watch in a cinema are comedies. Melodramas and dramas require concentration, and a viewer needs to be alone while watching them. That is why dramas are better watched on TV.

revueUnfortunately, television has eliminated the genre of the newsreels. My most recent film The Revue, compiled from archival footage, is a narrative of life in a provincial Soviet town in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was easier to do than a film about the 1990s, for example. Many things that were filmed on video in the 1990s have not been preserved, but the film reels from forty or fifty years ago still tell us about life back then. In addition, newsreels and television have different objectives: newsreels document time that is passing, while television just manipulates information. That is why we can only regret the disappearance of the newsreel genre.

Cinema gives us back lost time, people's faces, circumstances and surroundings. Even though a lot of things in Soviet documentary filmmaking were artificial, created especially for the shooting, it still reflects the spirit of that era.

How do you find your stories and characters? Why do so many contemporary documentary filmmakers, our Belarusian directors like Viktar Asliuk and Halina Adamovich, love shooting villages and their inhabitants, even though the majority of population lives in the cities now? Maybe the reason is that, for a contemporary viewer, village life is already exotic?

This is a good question that is worth considering... Cinema was always interested in objects that pass away. Ten years from now there will be no villages in the traditional form. The way of life is changing, even the appearance of the inhabitants of these villages is changing. That is why documentary filmmakers are in a hurry to capture this process.

In 1998 I went to the United States to show my film Life, Autumn (1999) which portrayed a village and the old people who lived there. The editor of the French-German channel ARTE came up with a similar question: “Sergei, Russia is changing and developing so rapidly, why do you shoot in the provinces where everything remains the way it was years ago?” I answered that serious changes in Russia are happening in Moscow only, and even those are mostly superficial. Real life happens far away from the metropolis. A few years later we met again and he said: “It seems that you were right. It is in the provinces that you can see real change and real life.” Moreover, it is significant in Russia, where the population's culture was always mostly rural. And one more thing—I am an urban person, and I am curious about working and being in an unusual environment. Maybe other filmmakers think the same.

With whom of these filmmakers could you relate in spirit? As far as I understand, the style of the Belarusian director Viktar Asliuk is not far from your own?

revueViktar Asliuk and I are close in our creative style, not just in spirit. Contemporary technology has made a filmmaker's task much easier. You can edit a film anywhere you like, even on a train. I worked on The Revue in Russia and edited it in Minsk, working literally in Viktar's apartment for about a month. The technical aspects were taken care of at Belarusfilm. The sound was done together with the prominent Belarusian sound expert Uladzimer Halaunitsky, in a studio in Vilnius that belongs to another friend of mine, the great Lithuanian director Šarūnas Bartas. These are the people I am closest connected to.

Some years ago documentary films, such as Stanislav Govorukhin's, had millions of viewers. Right now I am under the impression that only professionals and a handful of fans are interested in documentary filmmaking in post-Soviet space...

This is true. Millions watched Govorukhin’s films or even the film Is It Easy To Be Young? by the Latvian Juris Podnieks. However, these filmmakers performed social rather than artistic functions. To some degree their work could be considered a kind of journalism.

Does this mean that your films are experiments and you do not know what their outcome will be?

siegeNot always. For example, Artel (2006) started off when the crew and I went to the White Sea without any specific plans. Only when we were at the location, we found out about a fishing expedition not far from us. We got acquainted with the fishermen, and it turned out that all the fishermen were members of the same family—and therefore they worked together. I became interested in that and we started shooting. In the case of The Siege I had an approximate knowledge of what the film will be about. The idea of that film was born at the documentary studio in Saint Petersburg. By accident I walked into a room where archival footage from the years of the siege was being copied. What I saw gripped me so much that I stood by the monitor for several hours—all the time that the footage was screened. Then I strolled down the streets for a very long time because I just could not go back to what I was doing. Then I had the idea for a compilation film that would combine archival footage to tell the story of how this wild city was quietly and gradually dying. I also realized that there must be no voice-over, but there had to be a specially recorded, synchronized sound. The sound in The Siege was recorded with Uladzimer Halaunitsky. Some of it is studio recording, some was recorded on the streets, and much of it—such as people's voices, cars' noises – Uladzimer took from his personal archive. Overall I think that at some point a filmmaker gets a so-called “sense of the film.” When you have that sense, then you can be sure that the film will happen.

Do you separate the author from his work? For example, I’d like to know what you think of the documentary work by Alexander Sokurov. This director successfully combines documentary and feature filmmaking, but he himself is a very complex individual who is withdrawn from the public.

The first thing about Sokurov is that he makes excellent films. With regard to your first question: you cannot separate the author from his work. Every author has a personal way of presenting his vision of a certain time. Aleksandr Sokurov has a very original, auteurist, vision, which allows him to make extraordinary films.

You were born in Baranavichy, so I cannot help but ask you about your relation to Belarus. Is Belarus a “cine-genic” country?

I often visit Minsk, because my friends live here; it is also a good place to work. The Belarusian capital is located on the crossroads of my usual journeys between Saint Petersburg, Moscow, and Berlin. About Belarus being a “cine-genic” country: in my opinion, absolutely everything is “cine-genic.” You just have to find the right angle, a starting point. I would be pleased to make a film in Belarus. For world cinema, Belarus is terra incognita—regardless of the fact that such excellent filmmakers as Viktar Asliuk and Halina Adamovich work here. But their work is like a drop of water in the sea. No one has yet managed to make a film that would tell about what happens “here and now” in Belarus.

They say that each documentary filmmaker dreams of making a feature film. Viktar Asliuk is working on his second, and you received your degree in the feature filmmaking.

That’s right, I indeed plan to make a feature film. I have several scripts and have been trying to launch a film since 2002. One project was almost ready, but then some financial difficulties arose because I am a Ukrainian citizen, and Russian government grants can only be awarded to citizens of the Russian Federation. Another script is based on Vasil' Bykau's novella In the Fog. Bykau wrote this very interesting text about a man who has nowhere to go in very difficult circumstances. This is a situation familiar to everybody, but it has a specific time and place—1942, Belarus, Vitebsk region. The story is about two partisans who are seeking revenge on the inhabitant of a small village. I want to shoot this film in Belarus, but I have not got funding yet. However, we are pretty close to the start of shooting another script, a contemporary story. It is a kind of a road movie, based on my own journeys across Russia.


First published in Mastatstva (March 2009)
Translated by Volha Isakava

Sergei Loznitsa’s feature “You, my Joy” is currently being co-produced by Oleg Kohan of SOTA Cinema Group and Hino Deckert, Germany (release date 2011)

Anton Sidarenka

Anton Sidarenka © 2009

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Updated: 11 Jul 09