Issue 63 (2019)

Victor Kossakovsky: Aquarela (2018)

reviewed by James Norton © 2019

The title of Victor Kossakovsky’s latest documentary, Portuguese for “watercolor,” suggests an ethereal, delicate work rather than the elemental, monumentally impressive force of the film itself. The element, naturally, is water, and the film is designed as an experience which demands to be seen on the biggest screen with the most immersive sound system possible to do justice to the striking clarity of its gigantic images, shot at an ultra high-definition 96 frames per second by Kossakovsky himself and Ben Bernhard.

aquarela Each of Kossakovsky’s films has concentrated on a single, apparently simple but powerful subject and this strict limitation has yielded a wealth of profound insights into the rich variety of human experience and the global environment that we share. The Belovs (Belovy, 1992), the early masterpiece that brought him cinephile fame, conjured a world from two elderly squabbling rural siblings that bore comparison with the great Slavic poets of slow cinema; Wednesday (Sreda, 1997) gathered the life stories of all the St. Petersburg residents who shared Kossakovsky’s 19th July 1961 birthday, and Hush! (Tishe!, 2003) recorded the street view from his apartment for a year. Kossakovsky’s last feature documentary ¡Vivan las Antipodas! (2011) was an ingenious global operation that mirrored three pairs of locations on opposite sides of the planet, and Aquarela develops the single-issue but multivalent epic sweep of its predecessors.

Aquarela opens with a return to Russia and to one of these antipodes and indeed to the kind of bizarrely awful human drama to be found earlier in Kossakovsky’s career, a drama, moreover, that is only gradually revealed after distant observation of the frozen Lake Baikal where a rescue team is engaged in some kind of activity. Reckless cars speed across the ice in the distance and as the camera moves closer it emerges that a vehicle, which has fallen through the thawing surface, is being winched out. The sequence then takes a tragic turn as the team race to another plunging car, one of whose occupants who has escaped desperately scrabbling across gaps in the ice, trying in vain to reach his drowning companion, making the spectator a helpless voyeur to his anguished panic.

aquarela The overt human drama of this prelude is at odds with the remainder of the film, although it does introduce contrasting themes that man is both at the mercy of nature and responsible for its destruction, whilst avoiding the didacticism that Kossakovsky deplores. The film is structured as a succession of sequences filmed across the globe, without commentary or any obvious narrative progression other than a general drift from ice melting to calm then tempestuous seas, to rain, to cascading vapor. At the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam (IDFA) in 2006, Kossakovksy presented his “Ten Rules for Documentary Film-making,” in which he stressed the importance for the spectator of perception and feeling over narrative, and the priority of instinct and intuition for the film-maker. His second rule reads: “Don’t 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. This concerns both the film as a whole and every single shot within the film.” Aquarela is an exemplar of this kind of revelatory cinema. 

aquarelaThe subsequent sequence in Greenland allows Kossakovsky to behold the grandeur of the natural world, to play with its sense of scale as icebergs the size of mountains dwarf passing ships, to witness the catastrophic effect on the melting ice cap of climate change, and in one unsettling image,  to glimpse another tragic accident as a powerboat spins out of control, its occupant flung overboard by the swell from a calving glacier. The presence of a narrative guide would have diluted the power of these sequences, but while these icebergs viewed both above and below water have a breathtaking beauty, they do ultimately become repetitive before the next episode sweeps into view.

This episode pitches us onto the deck of a transatlantic yacht in the teeth of a raging storm, the vessel flung back and forth by colossal waves as intrepid mariners Hayat Mokhenache and Peter Madej expertly secure its equipment. The spectacular adversity and technical challenges of this and other scenes in the film are reminiscent of the maniacal Romantic exploits for which Werner Herzog is justly famous. The risks yield great rewards in majestic images of the force of nature: images and also sounds, capturing the primal roar of the elements. Yet Kossakovsky then makes the horrendous mistake of drowning this magnificent and thunderous music of the ocean with ghastly chugging heavy metal guitars, despoiling his film of its hard won beauty, as surely as pollution has poured into the sea.  

aquarela The action then moves to the Americas and to the sight of water cascading around the damaged Oroville Dam, where disaster was averted in California last year, before another overwhelmingly immersive scene in the heroic register, shot from a vehicle creeping through deserted Miami streets, in the midst of Hurricane Irma hurling sheets of water and tearing down palm trees in its implacable path.

Kossakovsky’s grand finale is another cinematic coup, swooping down on the Angel Falls in Venezuela, the world’s highest waterfall, plunging 800 meters from a remote jungle mountaintop. After hazardous approaches by helicopter, Kossakovsky filmed this wonder of the world close up for the first time and even more impressively landed on a precarious pinnacle of rock that flanks it. This spectacle, mixed with the silhouettes of enraptured observers behind the falls, is a fitting climax to an achievement that is sublime, torrential and occasionally grandiloquent, but whose ambition is salutary, justifying its closing dedication to another Russian cinematic visionary, Alexander Sokurov. Kossakovsky’s rules insist on the importance of a unique vision and that “the very best shots capture unrepeatable moments of life with an unrepeatable way of filming... Shots must first and foremost provide the viewers with new impressions that they never had before.” Aquarela delivers on these promises.

The film was premiered out of competition at the Venice Film Festival in September 2018, and then shown at the London Film Festival in October, at which Kossakovsky announced that he was working in Norway on his most ambitious project yet, Krogufant, whose entire cast consists of a cow, a pig and a chicken.

James Norton

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Aquarela, UK, Germany, Denmark, USA 2018
89 minutes, Color
Director: Victor Kossakovsky
Script: Victor Kossakovsky, Aimara Reques
Cinematography: Victor Kossakovsky, Ben Bernhard
Music: Eicca Toppinen
Sound:  Alexander Dudarev
Editing: Victor Kossakovsky, Molly Malene Stensgaard, Ainara Vera
Producers: Aimara Reques, Heino Deckert, Sigrid Dyekjær
Production:  Aconite Productions,, Danish Documentary production, Louverture Films.

Victor Kossakovsky: Aquarela (2018)

reviewed by James Norton © 2019

Updated: 2019