KinoKultura: Issue 47 (2015)
Victor Kossakovsky [Viktor Kosakovskii] is a Russian documentarist of the Eastern European documentary film tradition described as “poetic vérité” (Winston 2013: 247). The common point of departure for his films is an attempt to reinvent the “observational documentary of the everyday” (Winston 2013: 171). In this article I shall focus on his film Hush! (Tishe!, 2002), which was filmed entirely out of the window of Kossakovsky’s St Petersburg flat over the course of a year. The main action of the film comes from the roadworks which take place below as workers repeatedly come and dig up and repave the road. I take this film as my starting point in order to question how the topic of the everyday and mundane can be approached through documentary film. Kossakovsky has been extremely vocal in his approach to the medium, making a list of “ten rules for documentary filmmakers.” One of his principles is that you should not film “if you want to say something—just say it or write it. Film only if you want to show something, or you want people to see something” (Kossakovsky 2006). This analysis shall take Kossakovsky’s own dictum as its basis and consider what he is trying to show rather than what message he is trying to convey.
Bitumen of Judea and lavender oil
Hush! begins with a shot of Nicéphore Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras, believed to be the first permanent photograph (Warner Marien 2011: 12). Taken in the early 1820s, the image shows the view from Niépce’s studio window. Niépce had wanted to find a way of capturing the images formed by the camera obscura without having to draw them. He had the idea of capturing the image using a light-sensitive material so that the light itself would “etch” the picture for him. He called his invention heliography, or “sun writing.” As a source of inspiration for Kossakovsky’s film, it is useful to begin by considering the relationship between this image and the film.
In an interview at International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), Kossakovsky (2006) explained that Hush! was made specifically “against the production system in Europe,” as he filmed it despite the impossibility of receiving any funding for such a project. Its simple and restricted subject matter—the view from Kossakovsky’s window—is testament to the belief that “you need only eyes to make film.” In this approach there is an innocence of perception, a sense of the excitement and expectation surrounding Niépce’s early experiments. In one of his ten rules, Kossakovsky compares his approach to the early films of the Lumière brothers:
Shots are the basis of cinema. Remember that cinema was invented as one single shot—documentary, by the way—without any story. Or story was just inside that shot. Shots must first and foremost provide the viewers with new impressions that they never had before (Kossakovsky 2006).
In these early films the camera was static, showing mundane, everyday subjects such as workers leaving a factory or a train arriving at a station. The technical constraints of early photographic experiments meant that Niépce’s image was created in a similar process of slow emergence. A very long exposure was required to produce View from the Window at Le Gras, estimated to have taken eight hours. Kossakovsky, in remaining fixed in his position, also allows the world to emerge into the image. As cameraman, he directs the focus of each sequence of images according to what he finds interesting in the scene that unfolds below him. However, by using long, uninterrupted shots, he opens up the sequence to contingency. Therefore, he is engaged in an intuitive process in which his agency as filmmaker is shared with that of the subject.
Another interesting point concerns the light-sensitive substance which finally enabled Niépce to capture the photographic image, a mixture of Bitumen of Judea and lavender oil. Bitumen of Judea, a naturally occurring asphalt, emerges as what Michael Taussig calls a “polymorphous magical substance” (2008: 4), through its correspondence with the ever changing road surface which fascinates Kossakovsky throughout the film. It is possible to see the director in Taussig’s description of Goethe peering into chocolate bubbles: “Witness the perceiver becoming part of the perceived. Second point: the wonder. Third point: change, flow, and heterogeneity in a constant becoming. A fourth point: a nomadic following of the trace…” (Taussig 2008: 6).
The window as motif
While Kossakovsky’s restriction of filming only through his window suggests that the content will be fixed and inert, what we actually find is a film full of movement and fluidity. However, this constraint has several important consequences. As Kossakovsky’s perspective is restricted to one point, his subject cannot extend beyond the street below. This is evident in the way in which individual shots are structured: they often start in the middle of an event, such as street cleaners sweeping the road or workmen digging up the pavement. The action is then allowed to reach its natural end, when the workers finish their job and leave. Afterwards Kossakovsky allows a brief shot of the empty space in which the street adjusts to its normal state again. On some occasions, we see a person or vehicle enter and exit in the same shot, such as when a figure walks across, dragging a wooden trolley, and traversing the frame. Rather than having a central character or theme uniting the film, the subject of the documentary is the street itself.
Another consequence is that those going about their business in the street below are unaware that they are being filmed. The window allows us to observe, unobtrusively, but inserts a distance between the viewer and the viewed. The window itself is an important motif throughout the film. At certain points we see the window frame and ledge framing the image. This is accompanied by a sense of violence, such as when Kossakovsky films a group of policemen forcefully apprehending two men while set slightly back into the room, the rough framing of the window emphasizing the clandestine nature of the shot. Such moments have the effect of emphasizing the rigidity of the window frame, while others draw attention to the opacity of the glass pane. At some points this has the effect of dissolving the viewer into the action. When Kossakovsky’s window is being washed we see the same happening to those across the street. Other moments are essentially contemplative. They cause us to recall the pleasure of gazing out of the window at snow falling or a mist of rain.
Occasionally we are given a glimpse into another window. A little boy stands on the sill watching the action outside or an anonymous arm reaches inside the fridge. At such moments we are reminded of the transgressive nature of Kossakovsky’s filming, that the window acts as a permeable barrier which negotiates inside and outside, public and private. At one point, when it is dark outside, we see Kossakovsky himself reflected in the window pane. This is a powerful moment, as we are aware of a sudden reversal, an accidental transformation of perspective, when the window itself takes on a kind of agency and sees Kossakovsky. The transformative power of windows and mirrors is a theme explored in his other documentaries, most notably Svyato (2005). In this film, we witness Kossakovsky’s two year old son Svyatoslav’s reaction as he is confronted by his own reflection in a mirror for the first time. Curious, confused and distraught, his response is dramatic and staggering to watch.
There are also several scenes in The Belovs (Belovy, 1994) where windows play an important role. The first time we see Anna (who, with her brother Misha, is the main subject of the film), it is through a dirty window in the door of the stable, which she subsequently removes to talk to the cows. We continue to hear her voice while looking at the scene outside until she enters the stable and the view suddenly flips to a view of the interior of the stable from outside the window. In another scene, the siblings are in the kitchen, Anna industriously mending the table and cooking while Misha delivers a political oration. In one shot, we leave through the back door and go round the side of the house, seeing Misha stroking the cat in the kitchen window before meeting Anna coming out of the other door. Then we hear Anna feeding the cows while the camera follows the surface contours of a tree. This continues while Anna performs an emotional monologue as if addressing a letter to her absent son. Suddenly, the camera turns back into the house, and we are behind Misha watching Anna through the window. In both of these scenes a window is at the centre of a sudden reversal of perspective. It can represent both physical and contemplative distance, or the removal of such a separation.
Matter out of place
At the beginning of The Belovs, Anna says to the camera: “why bother filming us? We just live here, where the river begins.” Despite her skepticism, we come to realize that the Belovs are exceptional, as is the river mouth. In its own extended sequence, the wide expanse of water is made lushly exotic with a Bollywood soundtrack. In Hush!, Kossakovsky’s camera is equally attentive to every figure who passes below, whether neighbor, worker, cleaner, or drunkard. However, as important is the time spent contemplating dogs, birds, drifts of snow being blown by the wind, and rippling puddles reflecting the light of the sun. These scenes are evocative of the early days of film:
The brickdust, the rustling leaves and the waves were astonishing because they showed that the Lumière films were not an illusion, or a performance, but a grey, flickering mirror of past reality. The cinema, unlike any previous art form, was able to represent the spontaneous—the very essence of life itself (Cousins and Macdonald 2006: 4; emphasis in the original).
In both The Belovs and Hush!, vaporous substances proliferate. In Hush!, dust billows from behind sweepers as they clean the pavements, and steam clouds form around manholes. In The Belovs these scenes are mirrored in the cascade of dust formed behind the brother’s car or in the light, smeared vapors of their steam bath. I would like to tease out two important dimensions of these transmutative substances. The first is poetic: like the reflective surfaces of windows and mirrors, dust, steam and mist offer a point of departure. They represent a break in the surface of reality which encourages divination and transfiguration. I am reminded of Glyn Maxwell’s description of what he calls “poems of mist and poems of smoke:”
By mist I mean something natural that thins or parts or deepens further, something through which a shifting truth is glimpsed with joy, understanding—or spotted with fear. Mist: breathable, water going by in a cloak.
By smoke I mean man-made smoke, complex molecules conjured for reasons obscure, yet emanating from a single, explicable source. Clever to make, not clever to breathe. When you’ve blown it all away you're looking at a shell. By the time you get what it was you can't use it any more. (Maxwell 2012: n.p.)
The steam seeping from the underground pipes offers a counterpoint to the jerky, repetitive and comically treated actions of the workmen as they try to stem its flow. The most beautiful scene is near the end when a mist gently rises from the wet ground, while men stand in front of a yellow truck and watch. A woman sings with a sad voice while bells chime. There is sunlight. In these final scenes even the diggers’ mechanical gestures seem strangely graceful, left at their natural speed. Another understanding can be gained from Mary Douglas’s definition of dirt as “matter out of place,” suggesting “a set of ordered relations and a contravention of that order” (2002: 36). We become aware of the dust and steam because it is dislodged in the worker’s attempt to contain and direct it. Douglas argues that dirt “is never a unique, isolated event. Where there is dirt there is system” (Douglas 2002: 36). The street comes to stand obliquely for the contradictions in a wider system of state bureaucracy. However, its meaning cannot be fixed at this level: while “reflection on dirt involves reflection on the relation of order to disorder,” it also causes us to question that of “being to non-being, form to formlessness, life to death” (Douglas 2002: 6). A profound example of the power of ‘matter out of place’ is to be found in the film Losev (1989). Kossakovsky believes that at the moment of Aleksei Losev’s death, his camera caught the philosopher’s last breath.
Sound as empathy
In the opening scene of Losev, the black screen very gradually lightens as the sun rises over the horizon and the lights of houses flicker on. There is a sudden moment of realization when the scene has been further illuminated, revealing that the shapes in the foreground are not those of a cityscape, but of a graveyard. As was suggested at the beginning of this article, this idea of the slow emergence of the image is extremely important in Kossakovsky’s work. He has claimed that in both The Belovs and Hush!, the final scene is the most important, and the rest of the film is constructed to lead towards it (Baker 2012). In order to further explore this claim, it is necessary to reflect how he manipulates pacing and rhythm, and the importance of sound. While dialogue is important in The Belovs, Hush! unfolds like a silent film. Kossakovsky has included a musical accompaniment to some scenes, which was composed for the film by Aleksandr Popov. Kossakovsky (2006) has said in interviews that he had initially planned not to have music in the soundtrack. However, when filming the police scene, which was necessarily spontaneous, music by Popov was playing in the background in Kossakovsky’s study. Pleased with the effect it had on the mood of the scene, he asked Popov to compose music for the whole film. As this story suggests, like the image, the sound is partially determined by the same allowance of intuition and contingency.
Music is used in Kossakovsky’s films to manipulate a particular emotional response in the viewer. The scenes where workers have come to sweep or dig up the road follow a similar rhythm, sped up so that they carry out their task at an amusingly jerky pace with an accompaniment of dizzying piano music. In these scenes there is a sense that “the human lot is seen as more banal and haphazard than noble and rational. Carnivalistic laughter releases familiar, conformist, bureaucratic reality from its pretensions of seriousness” (Winston 2013: 251). However, this is not the only mood which Kossakovsky evokes. In the more pensive scenes of the street where moments of quiet beauty are captured - the moon through the clouds, a muffled rain—a woman sings gently. In establishing these different emotional landscapes, Kossakovsky sets up a series of contrasts which become increasingly undermined towards the end of the film. The piano music becomes slower and sadder, and the woman singing makes the transition from night into day.
In The Belovs Kossakovsky uses such contrasts to masterful effect. In a painful scene where Anna and Misha are having a particularly vicious argument, Misha strikes out at Anna. At this moment, Kossakovsky suddenly cuts the sound, and we are left in free fall as they continue to fight but all we can hear is deafening silence. In another scene, Anna, wearing headphones, listens to the recording of the fight. Again, we cannot hear it, only Anna’s emotional response in her hysteric laughter mixed with tears. Then, Anna begins to sing and dance in order to fight back her sadness. The accompanying balalaika was added after the event by Kossakovsky, which Maxine Baker describes as “a rare concession to artifice” (Baker 2012: 185). However, I feel that this musical intervention is an equivalent of his physical intervention in the scene when he “realizes the shot of her dancing will die if he doesn’t get up and dance with her”. According to Kossakovsky, “he cried as he danced with her; as he filmed her dancing away her own tears” (McLoughlan 2012). It is an act of empathy and engagement which breaks down the distance between Kossakovsky, the subject, and the viewer.
Between image and word
In the closing scene of Hush!, an elderly woman tentatively leaves her house and cries the word which gives the film its title, “tishe, tishe”, translated as ‘hush’ or ‘quiet’. This is the only word which we hear in the film, and as such it rings out. In this scene we witness a complete event: the woman comes out of a door, calling out, and walks around the corner. After a while a dog appears, and they go back inside. We may ask why Kossakovsky places so much importance on this scene and why he claims that the entire film leads up to this point. There is something intrusive about Kossakovsky filming this woman in her distress. However, it is also testament to the ability of the camera to capture such a fragile moment of human vulnerability. Kossakovsky (2006) has emphasized the importance of “image before words” when making a documentary; however, in the closing scenes of both of these films, speech or song emerges as something profound. In both cases, they reach into an absence, a loss or a grievous hurt. In the introduction, we began with Kossakovsky’s caveat that you should only make a film if you want people to see something. However, I believe that the power of Kossakovsky’s films lies at their ability to capture the space between the image and the word. The filmic medium has the unique ability to exist at the threshold of vision and darkness, sound and silence. Ultimately, it is “caught in the limitation/Between un-being and being” (Eliot 1944: 13).
University College London
1] Based on Goethe’s own description, in which he writes that on the highest point of the bubble: “we see a small circle appear, which is yellow in the centre; the other remaining colored lines move constantly round this with vermicular [worm-like] action. In a short time the circle enlarges and sinks downwards on all sides; in the centre the yellow remains; below and on the sides it becomes red, and soon blue; below this again appears a new circle of the same series of colors: if they approximate sufficiently, a green is produced by the union of the border colors” (Goethe 1974: 194)
Baker, Maxine. 2012. Documentary in the Digital Age. Oxford: Focal Press.
Cousins, Mark and Kevin Macdonald (eds.). 2006. Imagining Reality: the Faber Book of Documentary.
Douglas, Mary. 2002 . Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge.
Eliot, T. S. 1944. Four Quartets. London: Faber and Faber.
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. 1974 . Theory of Colors. Translated by Charles Eastlake. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Kossakovsky, Victor. 2012. IDFA Masterclass
Maxwell, Glyn. 2012. On Poetry. London: Oberon Books.
McLoughlan, Lou. 2012. “Dance the Kossakovsky,” Scottish Documentary Blog, 2 March.
Taussig, Michael. 2008. “Redeeming Indigo,” Theory Culture Society 25.1: 1-15.
Warner Marien, Mary. 2011. Photography: A Cultural History. London: Laurence King Publishing.
Winston, Brian (ed.). 2013. The Documentary Film Book. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Jessica Knights © 2015
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