Aleksei Balabanov, The River [Reka] (2002)
reviewed by Neepa Majumdar©2005
To anyone who has seen Aleksei Balabanov’s films, The River (2002) might seem uncharacteristic, yet it shares with his other films an interest in staging encounters with the Other in scenarios that carry a fable-like quality. It received limited theatrical release and was distributed primarily as an art film. [i] The film is set in the Arctic region of Yakutia and uses Russian voice-over narration and Yakut language dialogue. Based on a Polish novel by Vatsslav Serashevskii, this 50-minute film tells a story of jealous love and betrayal that end up decimating a small group of outcaste lepers who have been banished from participation in Yakut community life. They are two young men, Kirgelei and Dzhanga, an old couple, a little girl, Byterkhai, and Kirgelei’s pregnant lover, Mergen, who has no leprosy but is also an outcaste because she is a thief. The narrative is set in motion by the unexpected arrival Anchik, the healthy wife of Kirgelei, whose presence precipitates Mergen’s jealous hostility, which culminates in her setting fire to the hut of Kirgelei and Anchik. But perhaps the best-known detail about this film concerns the circumstances of its production, and the death of its star, Tujaara Svinoboeva, in a road accident well before the film was completed, resulting in a film that looks nothing like the original screenplay. [ii]
Accidents, Literal and Textual
No discussion of The River can ignore the impact of the car crash on the textual body of the film, whose structure overtly displays the provisional nature of its form, requiring intertitles and voice-over narration to bridge massive gaps in the footage. As such, the film is a reminder that its final form is really no more accidental than any film that is the product of a ratio of edited and discarded footage, and numerous other behind-the-scenes decisions. Thus, any textual analysis of this film (and any film, for that matter) must always be provisional, open-ended, and multivocal.
The River is divided into seven segments, each signaled by an intertitle such as “Anchik’s Second Journey” or “Love.” Transitions between segments take the form of voice-over narration mostly over lengthy landscape shots with minimal movement. While the voice-over narrates what happens, the filmed sequences are structured like vignettes, which align the everyday and the habitual with the dramatic. Here, the accidental form of the film becomes obvious, as much of the dramatic action, such as the death of Mergen’s baby, has to be narrated rather than shown. Death dominates this film, both in its production and in its diegesis, but its textual form takes on a generational logic. While the old couple dies a natural death, in the context of leprosy and harsh Arctic conditions, the idea of the “natural” emerges only in contrast to the next generation’s violent death in Mergen’s murderous fire, which takes the lives of the two young men and two young women. The temporary survivors are the third generation, the little girl, Byterkhai, and the newborn baby she has rescued from the dead mother, Anchik. The final segment of the film, titled “Byterkhai,” is of necessity without dialogue, and devotes lengthy shots showing her washing and feeding the baby in the hut inhabited only by the dead body of the old woman.
The River is starkly minimalist in style, using cuts, camera movement, and close-ups sparingly. It reuses the same landscape shots more than once, just as the film’s only score is provided by a single song. Far from rendering the film static, such a style opens up its suggestive quality and has the refreshing aesthetics that Jean-Luc Godard once described “as if” motion pictures had just been invented. [iii] In fact, both in its minimalist style and its subject matter The River hearkens back to early cinema, with particular echoes, more obviously of Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) and less obviously of Edward Curtis’s Land of the Headhunters (1914). Like the latter, The River stages its ethnographic spectacle in the form of what feels like an archaic tale of sexual tension, jealousy, and murder that is minimally explained in psychological terms. The implacable force of Mergen’s jealousy drives the narrative forward, but it would be a mistake to designate this emotion simply as the jealousy of a rival newcomer, the wife of her lover. In this predominantly gestural film, the introductory shot of Mergen hacking a block of ice with a knife produces an excess of emotion that spills over such explanatory limits. In fact, her baleful (though not evil) gestures, actions, and words seem fundamentally inexplicable and archaic in the same way that the fairy tale “The Snow Queen” is baffling. The only textual explanation that seems adequate to her emotions’ semantic overflow is that of the old woman who remarks to Mergen in that first scene that leprosy can be as much a sickness of the soul as of the body. Only oblique characterizations seem adequate in this film, as when the first sequence ends suggestively with Byterkhai saying, “It’s boiling over. Watch it,” referring literally to the pot on the fire but equally to Mergen, who, it turns out, will boil over and set everything on fire.
The River’s affiliation with certain types of early cinema recalls Noel Burch’s discussion of the shared aesthetics of avant-garde and “primitive” cinema. [iv] More importantly, the film also foregrounds some of the fundamental affective qualities of cinema as a new medium that assails death and time, and memorializes the past in ways that are akin to photography. Andre Bazin’s “mummy complex” [v] becomes immediately pertinent in a film whose star has died during its production. When viewing, for example, the final sequence featuring the star/character pair, Svinoboeva /Mergen, which precedes her diegetic and extra-diegetic death (in the fire and car crash respectively), are we not acutely conscious of the dialectic of presence/absence and present/past that is basic to all of cinema? As we watch Svinoboeva /Mergen in a long shot, transfixed by the sight of the burning hut that she has set on fire, and just before she herself rushes into it, our knowledge of the extra-filmic star text of Svinoboeva overlaying the powerful diegetic text of Mergen, producing a momentary flash of documentary power within a fictional setting.
The ethnographic filmmaker David MacDougall writes: “Even as a film is being shot, its [human] subjects are in transition, moving toward a future that the film cannot sustain.” [vi] In this context, the final shot of Svinoboeva/Mergen, operates on multiple levels. It occupies an eternal present, which can be replayed multiple times using what Anne Friedberg describes as the “time- shifting” capabilities of VCR technology. [vii] But this replayed shot is also a fleeting moment in transition, poised permanently on the brink of death and the ever-receding past. As the last moment of life in the diegesis and one of the last moments of Svinoboeva’s filmed life in reality, it is also thus irrevocably in the past. The impact on the viewer is similar to MacDougall’s discussion of the freeze frame that ends Les Quatre cents coups (François Truffaut, 1959): “Seized out of the flow of events, the [freeze frame] excludes us from the film and bears us away from the story like passengers on a train, leaving someone behind on a station platform. The character’s life in the film may go on, but for us it must stop, to be replaced by a memorial image, like the snapshot of a loved one.” [viii] In The River, of course, neither the character’s life nor the star’s life continues, and every level of life, diegetic and non-diegetic, is replaced by a memorial image. The overall impact of these multiple layers of fiction and non-fiction is of the uncanny. Ultimately, The River feels like a powerful brush with mortality, foregrounding what MacDougall calls cinema’s “noeme of loss.” [ix]
Ethnographic Authority and Authenticity
The improvised feel of The River produces a cryptic text, only inadequately explained, and hence all the more suggestive in its outline of the most implacable of human emotions. The archaic, suggestive quality of this film evokes a range of associations, from early cinema to folktales. But by virtue of its language and setting, it equally invites association with popular ethnographic films, such as Nanook of the North and In the Land of the Head Hunters, including the recent spate of indigenous-oriented fiction films, such as Atanarjuat (Zacharias Kunuk, 2001) and Whale Rider (Niki Caro, 2002), which have been received as ethnographic films.
If ethnography is at some level a relational practice between Self and Other, this relation is often figured more in the circumstances of production and distribution than in the actual text itself. For example, while Nanook of the North carefully erases most traces of Inuit-White contact, its production, distribution, and popularity in North America and Europe mark it as a relational film. Looked at through an auteurist lens, The River shares its director’s fascination with, and occasional demonization of, the Other, most notably in the representation of the Chechen warlord in War (2002).
The River deploys several easily identifiable ethnographic tropes. The ethnographic imperative to represent “whole” cultures with minimal trace of the camera’s invasive presence translates into the avoidance of close-ups or excessive editing. The preferred formal mode in The River is the long shot, the long take, and the static camera, so as to appear to intervene minimally in the spatial and temporal dimensions of culture. For example, most of the interior shots are long shots that take in the entire layout of the hut and arrange figures, tableau-like, in background, middle-ground, and foreground, often in stark visual representation of the tensions among the characters. Such a layout is rarely disturbed by continuity editing protocols, even when characters are in dialogue. I would argue that the inexplicable quality to the human emotions in The River is directly caused by its studious avoidance of close-ups on the faces of the characters and its preference for registering their behavior in terms of the gestural language of the entire body. Here, ethnographic and early cinema aesthetics coincide just as the voiceover narration might be said to function equally like the voice of an ethnographer or early cinema lecturer whose spoken words accompanied the slideshow or film.
>Despite its visual interest in the Yakut Other, The River eschews another ethnographic trope, which Renato Rosaldo identifies as imperialist nostalgia. This is a paradoxical desire, “a particular kind of nostalgia, often found under imperialism, where people mourn the passing of what they themselves have transformed”; it is a longing for colonized cultures to remain “traditional” and as they were prior to colonial contact. [x] Usually, it is the areas of religion and ritual practice that have most fascinated the ethnographic gaze, and in which the absence of Western contact is most desired. In contrast, The River comfortably includes references to Russian religious practices as part of everyday Yakut culture and focuses its visual interest less in ritual (a mode of exoticization) than in everyday survival practices. Much of the film’s screen time is devoted to showing the characters melting snow, cooking food, mending nets, fishing, drying fish, dressing wounds, building huts, making hay. One of the rare close-ups in this film is tellingly of a pan of frying fish on the fire. Yet, despite the absence of a focus on ritual/religion or a desire for pre-contact cultural authenticity, it is precisely the camera’s fascination with the external details of the Other’s everyday practices, rather than the facial expressions of characters, that aligns the film with ethnography’s voyeuristic gaze, which is taken to its predictable National Geographic limit by the film’s inclusion of numerous nude shots of Svinoboeva.
Ethnographic films are almost invariably engaged in a dialectic of authority and authenticity. Ethnographic authority or validity demands an outsider expert who mediates between spectator and image, while the desire for cultural authenticity demands absolute erasure of evidence of outsider contact. The structure of ethnographically invested films will reveal this dialectic in a number of ways. For example, one could map Nanook of the North in terms of two kinds of shots. Shots in which Nanook looks at the camera acknowledge outsider presence and lend validity to the film as evidence of the filmmaker’s actual encounter with the Inuit. In contrast, shots in which he must not look at the camera (for example, when he bites the gramophone record) invite us to believe that he is entirely unfamiliar with Western technology, including the camera that is filming him and that he does not acknowledge. In many ethnographic films, the authority/authenticity dialectic shows itself in the relation between two kinds of voices, the narrational voice of authority and the authentic speaking voices of ethnographic subjects. As I have argued above, The River is not interested in the kind of authenticity that relies on erasure of evidence of Russian influence. Rather, the dialectic between authority and authenticity plays itself out in terms of the hierarchy of voices in the film, with the narrating Russian voice enclosing, framing, and explaining the “authentic” Yakut voice inside the narration, and clearly indicating the film’s intended audience. Lars Kristensen says that the choice of Russian, rather than Yakut, for the voiceover narration was because of the haste with which Balabanov had to finish the film in time for its film festival release, [xi] which I take as another detail in the accidental final form of the film. What differentiates these voices is not only their language but also the kind of information they provide, ranging from the omniscient temporal sweep of the Russian narration to the localized specificity of the Yakut dialogue. I would argue that there is also a third kind of voice in the film, which is the voice of folklore as Dzhanga tells Byterkhai a folktale. This voice is perhaps the closest the film brings us to some kind of ritual space. Of course, as far as language goes, all distinctions are erased in the uniform English subtitles of the video version provided by producer Sergei Sel'ianov for screening at the Russian Film Symposium (“Prophets and Gain: New Russian Cinema”) at the University of Pittsburgh in May 2004, where I saw this film (http://www.rusfilm.pitt.edu).
Finally, despite references to the precise time of its narrative (“Over a century ago in late winter”) and the inclusion of Russian religious practices, such as the description of Shrovetide celebrations, The River inhabits a fundamentally timeless chronotope, partly because of its explicitly signaled affiliation with folktales. In its representation of the indigenous Other in a timeless, near-mythic past, The River shares the ethnographic investment in locating the Other in a radically different temporal order than that of the Self. The film’s inclusion of the lengthy folktale (whether real or invented) about the old woman with the five cows invites speculation about its relation to the main story and cements the idea of myth as a substitute for history. The oblique connection between the story that Dzhanga tells Byterkhai and the narrative of the film becomes direct when a shot of Mergen adding wood to the fire is inserted into the part of Dzhanga’s narration when he talks about the man falling in love with the beautiful girl in the folktale. Folkloric associations are also present in various narrative symmetries, such as Kirgelei fathering two babies, with the one by the “evil” Mergen dying and the other by the “good” Mergen possibly surviving.
Furthermore, in keeping with its overall fable-like quality, the film ends with the familiar and archaic “abandoned baby in basket” figure. The final overhead shots of the baby in the boat, adrift on the open sea, are less like the end of this story than the beginning of the real story. Does this film set up a fictional myth of origins in which the “pastness” of origin stories is rendered into a forever suggestive future story yet to be told?