Issue 34 (2011)
Bakur Bakuradze: The Hunter (Okhotnik, 2011)
reviewed by Masha Salazkina © 2011
The opening, pre-credit sequence of Bakur Bakuradze’s The Hunter perfectly sets the tone for this two-hour exercise in controlled stillness: First appears a still image of a field at dawn—or is it dusk—shot with a wide angle lens in saturated colors, which nonetheless bring out subtle tones of blue, grey and green. The shot is absolutely still except for the barely perceptible movement of leaves on trees, and after a few moments is followed by another, equally still shot, now with a car visible at a distance in the middle of the field. The movement within the frame is matched by the soundtrack—it is almost silent, save the rustling of leaves or the noise of cars passing somewhere in the distance.
These images are perfectly ordinary yet strangely haunting. One returns to them after the film is over, wondering where they belong in the temporal continuum of the narrative. Do they evoke a key scene mid-way through the film? Do they precede the first post-credit scene which begins inside the car and in stark contrast to the opening—one all movement, the other static; one noisy, the other silent; one centered on the two protagonists, the other beyond the speckle of a car, which looks more like a ruin or a forgotten monument surrounded by grass—free of human presence.
One’s aesthetic experience of the opening mirrors much of what happens for the remainder of the film; and one’s appreciation of it depends on one’s patience for a development in world art house and festival circuits of the past decade—slow cinema. The frustrations of many critics—and presumably even more viewers, however, are perhaps not the result of the film—which, indeed, focuses on “dead time,” the in-between moments, when not much is being said or done. What will infuriate so many is rather how little we learn of the protagonists over two hours, of their past or present beyond what is on screen. Information is carefully withheld, not for the dramatic effect of some future revelation (although the film has several surprises which make us question our observation skills), but to offer, as in the opening sequence, everyday moments linked together in a peculiar kind of temporal continuum. Adding these fragments together, slowly and patiently, is the only way the spectator can construct a story.
The story revolves around the everyday life of the co-owner of a pig farm in the Pskov region named Ivan (Mikhail Barskovich, a professional game-keeper who was discovered by Bakuradze in Belorus where he was location-scouting). Ivan is married and has a teenage daughter and handicapped son, Kolia. He sometimes hunts with his friend and pig-farm manager Viktor. He takes Kolia to the doctor and to a spa for treatment. He teaches Kolia to hunt, assuring him he can shoot a wild boar with one arm. He hires two women from a nearby penal colony to work on the farm because the flax factory has closed due to shortages. He traces, finds and confronts poachers. He visits a nearby sausage factory and installs the same equipment on his farm. A sow gives birth, gets sick and dies. Kolia and Viktor go looking for a fighter jet shot down by the Nazis and drowned in the local lake. One of the women quits, the other, Liuba (Tat’iana Shapovalova, a real life gallery administrator in St. Petersburg), serving sentence for manslaughter, stays, and a silent rapport develops between her and Ivan. She goes back to the factory, and when Ivan realizes she has gone, he tracks her down and they become lovers. Kolia frees the raccoons Viktor breeds for a winter hat. Relatives of the downed WWII pilot come for a visit. Ivan takes Kolia to see a monument to Aleksandr Matrosov. Liuba’s sentence ends, releasing her to St. Petersburg where her son and mother wait. After parting with Liuba, Ivan shoots a wild boar with one arm.
Punctuated by long silences and devoid of much dramatic action, the film’s only traditional expressive means are the protagonists’ restrained gestures and tense, exhausted, beautiful faces, all of which suggest a deep and tragic inner life which remains hidden, like the fallen hero’s submerged jet, keeping the audience guessing about the characters thoughts or emotions. The protagonists themselves offer meager help—showing little, saying even less. There are no authorial voice-overs and none of Tarkovsky’s monologues to narrate the images. And there are no historical or literary character references, none of Sokurov’s emotionally and culturally-charged music to help us make sense of opaque representation.
All this makes Bakuradze’s second feature a rare animal in Russian cinema. It seems to give a direct—although much delayed—answer to Mikhail Iampolskii’s rebuke, made in his early 1990s essay “Cinema without Cinema,” about the lack of pure cinematic expression and inescapable logocentrism in late Soviet/Russian cinema. The Hunter is anything but logocentric, not only because of the sparse dialogue and lack of overarching metaphors or allegorical constructions, but because of the inaccessibility of the characters’ psychological processes, which so much traditional realist narrative depends on, and its acute attention to its world’s landscape and soundscape—from the squealing of pigs and grinding of machinery, to the constant screeching of tires, to the rustling of leaves and splashing of water. It is the work of an acute observer whose attention is focused equally on people and the world around them, and in this sense Ivan is a stand-in for the authorial figure, exhibiting and demanding an almost zen-like focus, concentration and awareness.
The film’s extraordinary critical reception is not surprising given its aesthetic and technical qualities: the careful framing that highlights the characters’ smallest gestures; the beautiful colors which make even the slaughter house look beautiful yet not aestheticized or romanticized; the “naturalness” and authenticity of the people and surroundings (the film is shot entirely on location with all non-professional actors); the remarkably complex and subtle sound design, which includes only natural ambient sound; the calibrated formal structure, alternating movement and stillness, exterior and interior, long shot and close-up. Like Bakuradze’s previous feature Shultes and his short “Moscow,” The Hunter was shown as part of Un Certain Regard at Cannes, a category reserved for some of the most original art-house films. It has since won the Critics’ Prize from the Russian Union of Cinematographers, as well as Best Direction and Best Actress at Kinotavr 2011. No one doubts the film’s limited box office potential, made to join the ranks of recent Russian films at international art cinema festival circuits—Silent Souls (Ovsianki, dir. A. Fedorchenko, 2010), How I Ended This Summer (Kak ia provel etim letom, dir. A. Popogrebski, 2010), My Joy (Schast’e moe, dir. S. Loznitsa, 2010), and Elena (dir. A. Zviagintsev, 2011). But while it shares with these films a proto-documentary hyperrealist aesthetic, it uses this aesthetic to a different effect, avoiding, despite its location and subject matter, overt poeticism and all elements of chernukha and the grotesque. Its treatment of this subject matter leaves it, as some reviewers note, the least recognizably “Russian” film of the bunch.
And while it belongs to the development of the world art cinema scene, whose new forms of cinematic realism bordering on docu-fictions often characterize “slow cinema,” The Hunter does not fit easily with any director or movement to which it is inevitably compared. It lacks Carlos Reygadas’ elevated spiritual drama of kidnappings and miracles, Apichatpong Veerasethakul’s exotic mysticism of reincarnations and shape-shifting, Pedro Costa’s biting social and political critique of labor and globalization, Wang Bing’s viscerally-inflicted condemnation of industrial modernity, Elia Suleiman’s over-determined political context of Palestinian history, the New Romanian Cinema’s detailed socio-anthropological analysis of institutional and interpersonal networks, and Dogme’s dramatic psychological unraveling. Its rewards for the viewer are smaller yet all the more noticeable for their uniqueness.
What makes Hunter a hauntingly memorable film—and a bit of a mystery—is how it infuses with grace all the familiar, hyper-realistic aspects of contemporary provincial Russian life without removing any of its harshness. With remarkable gentleness which mirrors that of its main character, the film navigates affectively and viscerally charged spaces—the slaughterhouse, the factory, the penal colony—, and potential melodrama—the intelligent handicapped child, marital infidelity, lovers’ separation—with visual tact, sympathy and a tinge of melancholy. Its hyperrealism, its commitment to the banal and the everyday, hints at something sublime and otherworldly without ever embracing allegory or symbolism. Its distant camerawork and framing establishes a particular intersubjectivity, with the cinematic perspective hovering in the space between characters, sometimes suggesting the curiosity of the child’s perception, others the calculated observations of a seasoned hunter, alternating too between the “objective” recording of a static camera and “subjective” shots which communicate the characters’ physical and emotional states (the welcomed relief of the shower after a long day of work; the urgency of the unsanctioned liberation of raccoons from captivity; the awkwardness of the loving family unintentionally reminding the son of his handicap). This intersubjectivity extends to the natural world, the animals the characters treat with love, respect and dignity, onto whom they inflict suffering and death.
Similar ambiguity governs the film’s temporality. Our sense of time passing within the narrative depends on the slow seasonal changes reflected in nature. We are never quite sure how much time passes within the episodic structure of the plot. But even more puzzling is the historical temporality the characters inhabit. There is a clear archaic quality to the film, suspended in time somewhere between the present and the heroism of the Second World War. While the décor of Ivan’s house, car and clothing are all recognizably contemporary, the TV shows the family watches seem throw-back (are they watching the Nostalgia channel, which shows only Soviet-era programs? That’s unlikely for a struggling small business entrepreneur given the cost of cable access in the Pskov region. And yet, given the film’s otherwise meticulous reconstruction from careful on-location research, one wonders). The proximity of and relentless string of references to the war is misleading, making us question the temporal plausibility of the drowned pilot’s relatives’ visit, showing pre-WW2 photographs of their parents; and when Kolia asks his father, with restrained excitement, what he would do in the war, for a moment we are not quite sure what war he is referring to. Yet there is no doubt it’s the Great Patriotic War, the monuments to which permeate the landscape like ancient ruins. And despite this affective proximity, the war’s history is abstract and incomprehensible. In an unforgettable moment Kolia, having read the inscription on the memorial to the war hero Matrosov (a name familiar to those of us having grown up in the Soviet era, it having practically entered the vernacular language), asks his father, “What is Soviet Union?” He receives no answer.
And in this peculiar historical temporality of Soviet Union as our antiquity, whose ruins are everywhere and yet beyond reach, perhaps The Hunter is the most Russian film within the current resurgence of the country’s contribution to global art cinema.
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The Hunter, Russia, 2011
Color, 124 minutes, Dolby Digital 5.1
Director Bakur Bakuradze
Script Bakur Bakuradze, Il’ia Malakhov
Camera Nikolai Vavilov
Design Kirill Shuvalov
Cast: Mikhail Barskovich, Tat’iana Shapovalova, Gera Avdochenok, Vladimir Degilev, Oksana Semenova, Iuliia Melikhova, Ekaterina Maksiutova
Producers Sergei Sel’ianov, Arkhil Gelovani, Julia Mishkinene
Production Film Company СТВ, “Salvador D”
Distribution Nashe kino
Bakur Bakuradze: The Hunter (Okhotnik, 2011)
reviewed by Masha Salazkina © 2011