Issue 43 (2014)

Aleksandra Strelianaia: The Sea (More, 2013)

reviewed by Elise Thorsen © 2014

moreThe Sea is Aleksandra Strelianaia’s second feature film after her adaptation of Ivan Bunin’s story The Dry Valley (Sukhodol, 2011), and reflects a similar focus on the ethnographic. Indeed, The Sea is, among other things, an exploration of how such details provide a tangible entrée into an elusive and disappearing sense of origins and of the ontological question of whether they can truly be preserved on film. At least, that is the guidance we are given as a young photographer from Moscow (Il’ia Rigin, the only professional actor in the cast) sets out for the village of Varzuga on the Kola Peninsula on the White Sea. He vaguely intends to make a film record of the lives of the people there, and particularly their relationship to the “boundless sea,” the repetition of which talismanic phrase encapsulates, in a sense, the inarticulable nature of his object.

moreThe plot is minimal: a summer love affair with a young woman, Tasia (Taissiia Krammi), interspersed with interviews, found footage, and nocturnal scenes featuring scavenging bears. In principle, this relationship and the physical interference of the camera in the intimacy underscores the problematic that is implicit to the interviews the photographer conducts with the grannies and fishermen of the village, about whether this documentary style can capture the essence of the boundless sea. Neither interviews nor excursions with Tasia as guide seem to provide the connection that the young photographer seeks; this is reflected in particular in the way in which he and Tasia talk past each other. If neither ethnographic details nor natural grandeur have quite satisfied his need, though, they have perhaps prepared him gradually for an ineffable and climactic moment of connectedness among ancient petroglyphs.

moreThe journey to the Kola Peninsula begins from and returns to Moscow, inviting typical comparisons of the two spaces on the basis of naturalness and artifice. But perhaps such comparisons do not do justice to the representation of Moscow, which, for all that it only occupies about 6 minutes of the film, is the first place the audience encounters. The opening shot of a cityscape from across a frozen expanse deliberately alienates the landscape, before in the next shot it is framed and domesticated by windows from the inside of a room (Moscow will henceforth be characterized by interior shots). This initial frozen outer space is coded as inaccessible, in a similar fashion to the far north.

moreThe operative aesthetic in Moscow is perhaps not one merely highlighting the authorship and implied “inauthenticity” of glamour culture, but ruins, the sense of which is produced equally by the barren room with antique-looking blue walls with white moldings (a motif that will reoccur in the almost exclusively exterior shots of Varzuga) and piles upon piles of old Pravdas. To wander among ruins is to seek to harness the residual erotic energy of a dead or dying community—or even an individual, as one might gather from the insertion of the tableau of young people listening to Violetta’s “Sempre Libera” from La Traviata. To invoke the romantic elegiac figure of ruins, is, in fact, to suggest that both Moscow space and northern space are characterized as repositories of cultural value and inspiration that can be seen as dying away; the poetic problem arises from artistic parasitism, transforming potentially procreative energy into an aestheticized experience like glamour. In a sense, this is a point for comparison between the two documentarians: the photographer and Strelianaia herself.

The narrative and poetic trajectories of the photographer’s journey are perhaps overdetermined. Those moments when he is out of frame, behind the camera or elsewhere, offer an alternative engagement and pleasure in extraneous details. The artlessness of the story-tellers that the photographer interviews meander away from the authorial odyssey of self-discovery behind the words “boundless sea;” rather, it is details about how the price of firewood went from 25 rubles to 2.50, or the poignant moments when an older woman reflects on how nice it is not to be forgotten that characterize village life for the listener.

morreThese individuals tend to be held in the center of the frame in medium shot, in long takes that allow the human element to unfold as a visual fact on film. (Indeed, there are actually very few scenes that do not feature human bodies—this is a film about the people of the North—and even landscapes are revealed to be inscribed with the results of human activity, whether petroglyphs or the Second World War.) In spite of the visual focus on the center of the frame, there are ambient noises—a fly’s buzz, a radio playing, or a dog barking—that consistently expand awareness beyond the frame and re-place the isolated and self-conscious individuals in their larger context. Such details push back against the photographer’s visual style, which, in Tasia’s twist on the photographer’s explanation for how he used to prefer inanimate objects as his subjects before he switched to people, is centered on immobile individuals, on “watching how people grow old, rust, and reflect light.” The filmic presence of the movie camera makes unclear whether the photographer is present in diegetic space when he is out of frame. Clearly he sometimes is not there, as when Tasia and her grandmother argue about whether the young woman should not be casting her affections closer to home. In these and other, more ambiguous cases, Strelianaia, the film’s writer and cinematographer in addition to its director, might be there instead, adding a certain double-voicedness to the dominant cinematographic style.

moreThe creation of film facts, the cultivation of a cinematic life on film, diverges radically from a different sort of document, the home video that Tasia shows the photographer early on. Such a document is a natural by-product of un-self-conscious actors in the process of living outside of film. The home video also highlights exactly what is figuratively absent from the film—the procreative and vital generation of parents. In the service of pointing up this lacuna and its significance for the survival of tradition, the film perhaps overburdens the symbolic connection between Tasia, an orphan, and the feral horses on the outskirts of the village. Tasia knows traditions and is prepared to be the ambassador of the village—at one point she expresses certainty that so few people will watch the photographer’s film that it would be feasible for her to visit them herself, to greater effect. Yet she is also unpredictable, and occasionally her behavior strays beyond the whimsical and into a more foreboding sort of wildness (the highest expression of which is, perhaps, her attraction to the photographer, as exogamy typically threatens community traditions).

moreStrelianaia combines documentary research and non-professional actors from the village itself with the fictional narrative of the photographer. Much like the identity of the figure behind the camera, the boundary between documentary and fiction is productively unclear. Strelianaia consulted with villagers in preparatory work; for example, the woman who plays Tasia’s grandmother was asked how she would react to a Muscovite like the photographer courting her granddaughter, and in response drew upon this exact sort of experience with her own granddaughter (Tsumankova 2013). As such, the film’s script becomes in a way an iteration of a story that already belongs to the villagers. In this, and in its handling of the documentary cinematography and narrative-building of the naïve photographer, Strelianaia’s streamlined film quite effectively turns into a kind of meta-documentary, opening up questions of ethics even as it documents the lives of the people of Varzuga with beautiful attention to detail and evident respect for its subjects.

Elise Thorsen
University of Pittsburgh

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Works Cited

Tsumankova, Dar’ia. “Aleksandra Strelianaia: U liudei Moria osobaia generatsiia,” (interview), Novosti ‘Dukh Ognia’. UgraNow (2 March 2013).

The Sea (Russia, 2013)
Color, 82 min.
Director: Aleksandra Strelianaia
Screenplay: Aleksandra Strelianaia
DoP: Aleksandra Strelianaia
Music: Aleksandr Laneev
Sound: Aleksandr Laneev
Art Design: Mabruk Duvanov
Costume: Veniamin Kuz’minskii
Make-Up: Marina Dederer
Cast: Taissiia Krammi, Il’ia Rigin, Liudmila Shevchenko
Producer: Aleksei Uchitel′, Aleksandra Strelianaia, Kira Saksaganskaia
Production: Rock Films, Studio Kolomna

Aleksandra Strelianaia: The Sea (More, 2013)

reviewed by Elise Thorsen © 2014