KinoKultura: Issue 31 (2011)

Interview with Andrei Stempkovskii: The text is not important…

By Birgit Beumers (Bristol)

BB: You used to work in photography, and I think this shows in the carefully constructed frames of Reverse Motion.

reverseStempkovskii: Indeed, we worked carefully on the frame construction and we agreed on a lot of details ahead of the shooting, because the style and the visuals are very important for me. Ultimately, the screen is like a rectangle, the canvas for a painting. Therefore my experience as photographer has probably left a significant trace on my requirements for the frame. I probably made no compromises here. And really, the shooting process was quite unusual for contemporary Russian cinema, especially our extensive work on color and texture. I hope it worked out, but that’s for the viewer to decide.

BB: The camera is often in a static position…

Stempkovskii: Indeed, this is deliberate and serves the same purpose. Any episode can be staged in different ways: it can be composed of close-ups, or contain numerous cuts, or consist of one long shot. The same scene will look entirely differently, depending on whether it is edited or filmed in a single take. So we made a conceptual decision that we wanted to achieve a particular rhythm.

BB: During the press conference you said that the text is not important for you. So what is the role of the script?

Stempkovskii: I don’t want the dialogue to play a decisive role. I don’t want the text to function as a prop, to support the visuals, to play an explanatory role—as is the case largely in contemporary cinema, where the text footnotes the relationships between characters. I would like to adopt a different approach. After all, the text can play different parts, say, a decorative one, as in Kira Muratova. In her work the text is an elementary force; it explains nothing, but works solely as sound, through intonation and repetition. And that is beautiful, but quite unusual. In most cases the text merely serves to move the plot. I would like to make films without text, where the plot is moved through cinematographic means, or where there may be a text but without a driving force. I tried to do this in my film, but I did not fully leave behind entirely the text as a carrier of meaning. I tried to go down that path, and move away from the usual function of the text. This is what people have noticed in the film, so that’s not a bad thing, although many critics are irritated when parts of the dialogue cannot be heard properly. Maybe one day I will do a film without dialogue, but that is a project for the future.

BB: You probably saw the film Another Sky (Drugoe nebo) by Dmitrii Mamuliia, which contains very little verbal action.

Stempkovskii: Of course, Dmitrii Mamuliia is an old friend of mine; we studied together. We discussed our projects quite a lot. He is a very educated man. We started production around the same time and consulted with each other quite a lot. During the filming it emerged that we were both concerned with the same issues: the adequate representation of our contemporary Russian reality in cinema. There is no such adequate representation. We share that view and those concerns, even if our films are completely different. But we were inspired by the same ideas, and came to different results.

BB: This is a really interesting point, because in Another Sky we have a text that we hear but can’t understand, unlike in your film, where you deliberately prevent the audience from hearing what the characters say…

reverseStempkovskii: We are both very cunning: Dmitrii has completely done away with the Russian language, because his characters speak Farsi—and who knows the Farsi language? The film is not really “Russian:” these people are not Russian, but come from a different cultural background, they have a different mentality, speak a different language, belong to a different faith. It is hard to call this “Russian cinema.” I talked with Dmitrii about the state of our cinema and was surprised when I told him that I cast Russian actors. He wrote a script for characters from Central Asia, and when he got to the stage of casting, he found foreign actors: the Iranian-French actor Habib Boufares, who had wide-ranging experience working with European directors, who can say things like: don’t speak, don’t act, don’t play! Our Russian actors are scared when that happens, as the director was trying to stop them from acting. Dmitrii was lucky with his actors, who have extraordinary skills and delicate facial expressions. So he got out of the language issue, cleverly moving away from the false intonations that prevail in our cinema. But I could not go down that route, so I muffled the text instead. We really discussed these issues a lot.

BB:  How important was the script for you? Did you stick to the script?

Stempkovskii: The script by Anush Vardanian was totally different and I made a lot of changes to adapt it for my purposes. I agreed to work on a read-made script and change it, although of course I had to make compromises. But now it really is my script. Maybe it is better to start with your own script, but this one contains a lot of myself, too.

BB: I would like you to tell me a little bit about your work with the actress Ol’ga Demidova, who works in the theatre with Kama Ginkas. How did you find here? Did you see her on stage?

Stempkovskii: I saw her on stage, and I realized that it would not be easy to work with her. She has indeed worked with some great theatre directors. But the film I wanted to make is an antithesis to theatre, if you like. I needed a middle-aged actress with plasticity, who had not been exploited in the mass media and would come across almost like a debutante. I looked at a lot of actresses for this role. The main thing was that the actors should not be known: they should not be media faces. The difficulty was also that Demidova works in several theatres and is used to a different style of work. It was certainly not easy for her to be restricted so much by my requests not to over-act.

BB: Could we talk a little about your work with the cinematographer and the production designer? Where did you shoot the film? Did you rely on the texture of a real, authentic location or did you “artificially” create the setting?

Stempkovskii: I wanted to find a location that required little change, because we were pushed for time and had a very small budget. So we filmed in a real house, in a real flat, on a real railway station. Of course, we had a production designer to put the finishing touches on the set, but I wanted to show the real walls of real flats. I did not want to adopt a decorative approach, but emphasize the authenticity. The cameraman – well, I already told you that we had a very precise concept, so he worked according to our plan.

BB: As a photographer, is there a danger for you to control the cameraman?

reverseStempkovskii: Probably yes: as a former photographer you see the frame, and thus limit the opportunities and freedom of the cinematographer. But when you have a cinematographer who sees the nuances and knows how to capture them, then there is no need to fight with him. […] The location where we filmed is in the provinces, and this is an extraordinary setting: the dilapidated houses, a dying landscape. It is an environment where life has expired. This part of our country has already died: it is not a space for a “winner,” but a country that has been scarred by pointless wars. And this is precisely the environment for a man who returns not as hero, not as winner. I think this atmosphere is accurately contained in the location we chose. I tried to capture this feeling quietly, without pointing out the obvious, without shouting out loud. And if this achieved through the cinematography, if people have grasped this sense of expiration, then we have achieved a goal: that texture is more important than action. I deprived my film of any attractions, showing the reactions to events and consequences rather than action. I deliberately limited the devices I used.

BB: How did you arrive at the title of the film?

Stempkovskii: A good title, no? I decided not to explain the title of the film. It is quite easy to decipher in philosophical terms. But we did have a different title at the beginning, which was for the first version of the script, before I rewrote it.

BB: Thank you for your time.

Sochi, 11 June 2010

Birgit Beumers
University of Bristol

Birgit Beumers, Andrei Stempkovskii © 2011

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Updated: 13 Jan 11