Issue 55 (2017)
Ol’ga Stolpovskaia: Year of Literature (God literatury, 2015)
reviewed by Joe Andrew© 2017
Ol’ga Stolpovskaia’s short documentary (it lasts just about one hour) Year of Literature is deceptively simple. Although there are no date titles given, it appears to track a year in the life of the director and her partner, the writer Aleksandr Snegirev, who won the Russian Booker in December 2015 for his novel Vera. Starting in the winter darkness at a party, whether New Year or Christmas is not stated, where Snegirev opens his presents, it concludes a year later on a more subdued note, with Ol’ga and Aleksandr warming themselves in near darkness by a stove, with just their adopted dog for company. On one level, then, it can be read simply as a year in the life of this couple, and the home-movie sensibility deployed for most of the film reinforces this impression. At the same time, however, primarily through clever and intricate structuring, Stolpovskaia has managed to create something much more complex and moving. In this regard, the title too is rather deceptive. While Fedor Dostoevskii and Lev Tolstoi are invoked on more than one occasion, Daniel Defoe is quoted, and Vladimir Maiakovskii, Konstantin Balmont and Igor Severianin are mentioned in a radio broadcast, the film seems to have very little to do with literature at all.
The apparent story of this film is that there is no story: it is simply a selection of episodes in a family’s life. (Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage [Scener ur ett äktenskap, 1973] might have been an alternative title). With a largely hand-held camera, the director of photography, Tatiana Stolpovskaia, and her cameraman, Georgii Polishchuk, simply observe and/or interview Ol’ga and Aleksandr, alongside her mother and his father, and a few others, as they discuss their lives, decisions they have to make, and what’s going on around them in 2015 Russia, in and around Moscow. Winter becomes spring, and then it is summer and autumn, before we return to an almost primeval winter darkness. However, although the feel of the film deliberately aspires to make the director and her writer-partner seem very ordinary, at the same time they end up discussing some typically Russian “accursed questions,” of death, bereavement and grief, fertility and children, the destruction of the old traditions in the name of modernity, the rape of the environment, and much more besides.
After the opening festivities, we cut to an interview with Ol’ga. She is sitting at one of the several kitchen tables that will feature in the film, talking about the birth and death of her boy Vania, who had lived less than four years, and who had died about eight years previously, in 2007. Later the film will return to this interview, intercut with scenes of Ol’ga and Aleksandr visiting the grave in the autumn. Although it is never made explicit, it seems likely that Vania was not Aleksandr’s son.
We then cut to scenes at their dacha, on the edge of an ever-expanding Moscow, and observe the apparently inconsequential moment of their trying to order some decent cement for some building work they want doing. The feel of “this is just a year in their lives flowing by” is reinforced by the next sequence, when Ol’ga recalls Aleksandr’s mother who had had him at the age of 40, and had since died. Now they live with Aleksandr’s father, whom we meet in another kitchen as food is prepared and eaten.
Life goes on. We see Aleksandr doing pull-ups at Yasnaya Polyana’s Tolstoi Museum, where a writers’ conference is under way, and he talks in extended metaphors about inspiration being like getting a tractor to work properly. But now the second major strand of the film emerges, when we cut to scenes of the couple walking through the countryside before setting off to the Foster Parents School. They reveal that they have been trying to conceive for about ten years, IVF has failed, and now they are seeking to adopt. Over a lunch of fried egg sandwiches, they discuss whether and when they would tell their adopted child that she or he was adopted. Ol’ga’s mother Vera, and then Aleksandr’s father are interviewed about the same topic.
Much of the first half of the film is taken up with their plans to adopt, preparations of their house, the great deal of paperwork required, and so on. Throughout, the filming and staging of the scenes seek to reinforce the impression that these people may be famous intelligenty, but at the same time they are just a couple approaching middle age and desperate to start a family of their own.
Meanwhile, spring has passed into a glorious Russian dacha-based summer, and they continue their talking and discussing while nude sun-bathing, painting each other with therapeutic mud. But suddenly, just before halfway through the film, we change direction as it is revealed that a road is planned that will cut right through their house, and they feel powerless in the face of officialdom and bureaucracy. In turn, and for the next quarter of the film, adoption, parenthood—to say nothing of the ostensible topic of literature—are all forgotten, as their little local difficulty merges into a broader consideration of the despoilation of the landscape, accompanied by shots of looming building cranes juxtaposed with beautiful woods, and a TV report of some nasty-looking gluey gloop that is threatening the neighborhood.
But summer passes as it must, and autumn takes us to the cemetery where we see affecting shots of the visit to Vania’s grave, accompanied by Ol’ga’s voice-over talking of how she had come to terms with his loss and all the ensuing dark emotions. Aleksandr, in turn, talks of faith and we have another interpolated clip of him appearing on a television round-table discussing belief.
Autumn then becomes winter, and we sense the return to the opening, the completion of the cycle. Although the adoption story seems to have been forgotten, it now returns obliquely in that they have adopted a stray dog who bounds through the freshly fallen snow as Aleksandr chops wood and barbeques in the open air, before they return to walking in the wood, now magnificently snow-clad, and discuss all the wild animals they have seen, which are now at risk from the encroaching greater Moscow and the planned road.
The next sequence sees them once more indoors, surrounded by darkness, as they peer into their twinned laptops, looking, it now emerges, at pictures of a certain young Serezha, who is significantly disabled, but whom they are thinking of adopting. In turn, in an extended interview to camera, Ol’ga talks of another child that might be available after the mother had committed arson and killed her own mother in the process, and now has to give up the child. Ol’ga wonders whether schizophrenia may be inherited.
We never know the answer to their quest, as the film soon draws to an end with more primeval darkness, and Aleksandr reciting a story involving concrete, before the film concludes with a reprise of its title, and the announcement of his Booker Prize.
On the face of it, then, this film may be read simply as a year in the lives of these people, and the apparently inconsequential structure, and lack of conclusion to the “stories” (will they adopt? will they have to leave their house?) reinforces this sense. The “home-movie” style of the film emphasizes this reading. This is a film without artifice almost throughout. Most of the camera work is hand-held, lighting is natural, the people wear very ordinary clothes and the settings are either very domestic—kitchens primarily—, or natural, the unspoiled Russian woods and fields. Editing is unobtrusive, and one scene just flows into the next without any apparent intervention. Stylistically the film says “this is just life unfolding before us, these are just ordinary people, with everyday, human concerns.”
However, the film may be read has having a different, more closely and densely structured architecture. In this reading, the film’s shape speaks of its meaning. Life is a cycle, even a circle, and things are returned to and repeated in different guises as we grow older and die. Vania, Serezha, the unnamed other possible adoptee, their dead parents, even the dog are all part of this cycle or mosaic. We are all interconnected, and life has an ancient, immutable pattern as each season slips into the next, and one year begins as the previous one ends.
In a similar way, all the apparently disparate themes may be read as being interconnected. Vania’s death, other deaths, the threatened “death” of the old Russia under the onslaught of new developments all tell a similar story. Life is very precious, evanescent, and we need to treasure and cherish every moment of beauty, and every dear person, as they will die, we will die and beauty will be destroyed unless we prevent it.
Given all this, why is the film’s title apparently the “wrong” title? Well, here too, Stolpovskaia has created a different meaning while seeming to be doing something else. By calling her film what she does, and letting it unfold in the way that it does, she is suggesting that, actually, this film is about literature, because it discusses the “accursed questions” that inspired Tolstoi, Dostoevskii, Maiakovskii and so many others.
All in all, then, this is a very fine film. It looks like a short, simple documentary. In reality, it is more like a work by Anton Chekhov who wrote that “What happens onstage should be just as complicated and just as simple as things are in real life. People are sitting at a table having dinner, that’s all, but at the same time their happiness is being created, or their lives are being torn apart.” These people indeed spend a lot of time at kitchen tables talking about how their lives are unfolding, potentially being torn apart, and their lives, and this film, are both very simple, yet very complicated.
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Year of Literature, Russia, 2015
Color, 64 minutes
Director and Scriptwriter: Ol’ga Stolpovskaia
DoP Tat’iana Stolpovskaia, Georgii Polishchuk
Sound: Sergei Rasskazchikov
Production Design Ol’ga Stolpovskaia
Music Aleksandr Belousov
Editing Maksim Shvets
Producers: Andrei Silvestrov, Ol’ga Stolpovskaia, Sergei Troitskii
Cast: Vera Dmitrochenko, Alisa Ganieva, Vladimir Kondrashev, Valeriia Pustovaia, Pavel Sanaev, Sergei Shargunov, Elena Shneiderova, Aleksandr Snegirev, Ol’ga Stolpovskaia
Production Malevich Production, with support from Kosmofilm, companies Elixir and League of Experimental Cinema
Distribution (RF) Sole Trader Silvestrov A.V.
Ol’ga Stolpovskaia: Year of Literature (God literatury, 2015)
reviewed by Joe Andrew© 2017