Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 2
 Issue 2 
21 Jan

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Artur AristakisianRUSSIA
"This film is dangerous"
Artur Artistakisian defends his
Mesto na zemlie (A Place on Earth, 2001)

Aristakisian's second film was widely perceived to be a let-down after his astonishing debut Ladoni (Hands, 1994). Christina Stojanova introduces a text by Aristakisian, in which the director explains why the film's refusal to pander to mainstream viewers and intellectuals has caused them to fear it.

Artur Aristakisian is a truly post-modern phenomenon, and he is as much part of his own films as they are part of him: both are rather difficult to conceptualize when taken separately (or even when scrutinized together, for that matter) and elude any attempt to be pinned-down. This explains, to a large extent, Aristakisian's well-advertised aversion to "professional film criticism" and to the understandable attempts by critics to make sense of the very powerful images and narratives of his films and of him as their author. However, as can be seen from the following text by Aristakisian, professional critics can never get it right.

Aristakisian stormed the festival circuit in the mid 1990s with his first feature-length documentary Ladoni (Hands aka Palms, Russia/Moldova, 1994)—and with his personality. Long-haired, dark-eyed, thin and somewhat unkempt, he was drifting through the culloirs of the Karlovy Vary Film Festival (where the film was first presented, noticed and awarded the Ecumenical Prize) with the humble and yet alert (and sometimes mischievous) expression of a world-weary passer-by who knows a lot, has seen a lot, but does not mind to see even more, even though he is sure it is not quite worth it.

Like himself, his past is veiled in mystery: he does not want to talk about it, and what is known fits into a couple of sentences. Born to a Jewish mother and an Armenian father in 1961 in Kishinev, the capital of what used to be Moldovan Soviet Republic, at some point he went to study in Moscow, at the prestigious All-Union State Institute, and Ladoni was his graduation film.

There are many Aristakisians, actually a palimpsest of Aristakisians, co-existing historically and contemporaneously: one apparently is Aristakisian the anti-social anarchist, part of the down-and-outs whose life he was living and filming for a considerably period in his home-town of Kishinev. The result of this filming was Ladoni, a collection of ten short stories about the life and loves of beggars. At some point in time, Aristakisian the anarchist was apparently for a while Aristakisian the flower-child, peace and sex-loving member of a hippie commune in Moscow, which he went to in order to film his second feature, Mesto na zemlie (Place on Earth, Russia, 2001), a fiction film with non-professional actors, featuring the real members of Aristakisian's commune.

Another Aristakisian is the favorite of the prestigious international film forums such as the Directors' Fortnight at Cannes, the Sundance Film Festival and Berlin, to name but a few. Yet another Aristakisian of late is the vulnerable and timid artist, who almost lost control of his second film to an overly ambitious producer who seized the material in an attempt to re-edit and release it as his own picture.

Then there is Aristakisian the intellectual recluse, who stays and home and reads, and values only the enlightened discourse of a few selected persons, among whom, Raisa Fomina—Aristakisian's guardian angel—surely features highly. She is his distributor and promoter (Intercinema Agency, Moscow), and an incredibly loyal supporter. It would not be an exaggeration to say that thanks to her his first film got the initial attention it deserved. Fomina's reputation and intervention however were decisive in salvaging Aristakisian's second opus, literally snatching it from the hands of the producer, and distributing it in its original form and shape to international acclaim.

Artur Aristakisian's Mesto na zemlie (2001)
Mesto na zemlie : A hippie's eye view of the world

I have known Aristakisian since his first success at Karlovy Vary back in 1994 and have always wanted to interview him. Last year, again at Karlovy Vary—where he received the prestigious Freedom Award for his second film—we agreed to that interview: I sent him the questions, and he replied.

When I received his answers, however, I found them to be a rather free associative improvisation on the themes of my questions. Therefore I am including those questions at the beginning of the text, but decided to let his words flow, uninterrupted for I believe they allow for a better glimpse into the inner sanctum of one of the most interesting and controversial film personalities of our time. Thus the reader could judge for themselves—from what is said or left unsaid—about Aristakisian and his complex inter-relatedness with his films.

It appears that there are many more, sometimes mutually exclusive sides to him—Aristakisian the social critic and teleological thinker, Aristakisian the pagan atheist and iconoclast, Aristakisian the refined film connoisseur, Aristakisian the post-modern eclectic, Aristakisian the preacher and the dark prophet... But I would rather let his words speak for him.

The original questions
  1. This is the second film you have made over almost ten-year period about the life of people living on the margins of large urban centers. Where does your interest in the down-and-outs of the world come from?
  2. In both films, certain very strong Christian motifs are discernable: self-sacrifice, friendship but above all—love. The importance of love, the need for love, love as sex, and love as a substitute for comfort and security, love as a panacea is the central motif in both films... Do you believe that, to quote Dostoevsky, "love will save the world," or, like John Lennon that "all you need is love."
  3. It is true that Jesus Christ taught love for one another, but He also taught his followers to work the land, not to idle and not to indulge their senses too much... Don't you think that such an understanding of love; such an attempt to examine it as a pure extract, not contaminated by mundane conventionality, could very easily turn into its opposite—hypocrisy or manipulation?
  4. In your second film, Mesto na zemlie, you tell us about life in a hippie community. I was personally disturbed by the faith of the children in this community who, among other things, are denied any other choice but to become hippies like their parents. Does it not strike you as unfair that, while their parents have chosen to defy society and to become hippies out of their own free will, the kids are stuck with this choice since it is much easier to leave the mainstream and become a hippie than to re-integrate into that mainstream... Do you think these kids would be that wise as to understand the noble ideals of their parents and forgive the chronic deprivations, misery and suffering in the name of love?
  5. Your films have an extremely powerful message, that is unquestionable, although it is very difficult for me to formulate it... Are you only trying to attract our attention to the life of the down-and-outs so that the (Western) society could become more sensitive to the suffering on the margins? Or are you just sharing with us your hardly won and suffered through observations about these people? Are you admiring them or are you examining this post-modern jungle as an anthropologist?
  6. You are most likely aware of the fact that, in order to make a film with human subjects in North America, the filmmaker has to obtain the signed permission of his/her characters, certifying that they were/are well aware of the contents and the meaning of the film, and that they are consciously aware of and approve of the way they have been represented on screen... Does anything similar exist in Russia? Have your personages seen the finished film about them, and if they have, what do they think?

Aristakisian's response

It is difficult to imagine, for example, a browbeaten person who would get offened by my film or who would find it incomprehensible. According to the laws of commercial cinema, however, a film is usually made for viewers who could easily recognize and identify with its characters. And since in our film there are no characters that mainstream viewers could identify with, they feel cheated by what they see: the screen overtaken by people from the lower depths, by sick, dangerous people, all kinds of people and no-one like them. Therefore, the true reason for all the attacks against our film is the inability of mainstream viewers to handle their first encounter with cinema that ignores them.

According to their perceptual stereotype, they would rather die than accept a film that has no use of them. If a painting features rabbits, or natives from some exotic island, that is okay, for the exhibition venues belong to the mainstream establishment anyway. They would attend these exhibitions and gaze at the natives, and the fact that they are absent from the paintings would not bother them a bit. Nobody would find Gaugain at fault for not focusing on more knowable, white local girls as models for his visual narratives.

Cinema, on the other hand, is a completely different story—it is a window into the world of intimate desires, and should therefore always keep in focus the mainstream viewer and his social personae. In tune with this deep-seated prejudice, films should be like [Luis Buñuel's] The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. All films, without exception! Each and every blockbuster features knowable, successful people and apartments: that is, everything the viewers wish for, that reflects their innermost desires—cars, guns, sofas, safes. And there are no sofas, or safes or cars in my film, only filthy mattresses on the floor of a house marked for demolition, and filthy-looking, long-haired young people. And if they were identified as the refuse of society, that would be fine. But they are not what you would habitually call tramps, or fascists, or terrorists, or avowed drug addicts. They are kind of normal and, in spite of the filth, good-looking young people who live their life like everyone else.

In addition, they are underground people, people-apocrypha, and this is also annoying. The so-called civilized people, what do they say? You are hippie? We would not discuss your ideology then. You eat like the rest of us. Sleep the way we do. Make love the way we do. You probably sometimes pay for your food. So please, stop claiming you are different from us... This approach makes the so-called civilized people believe they have grasped some hidden reality and exposed the whole truth about the hippie. The hippie, they conclude, is simply someone who has failed where we have succeeded.

Artur Aristakisian's Mesto na zemlie (2001)In spite of the perceptual prejudices, however, our film does meet the conventional expectations of the viewer unequivocally, by offering him a brief encounter with his most extravagant desires. These desires, however, are satisfied in a rough, primal mode and not in some exotic place like ancient India, but right here, within reach, behind the wall and, yes, by filthy hippies.

The mainstream viewer believes he could enter this world as easily as a stranger enters another country. He also believes that hippies are only pretending and do not take their way of life seriously. On the other hand, he is convinced he has full control of his life and could easily slide in and out of the hippie way of life, while the reverse—hippies ascending to his righteous way of life—is impossible.

The main reason for the general misunderstanding of our film by intellectual viewers is again some form of frustrated expectations. The so-called intellectual viewer goes to see a film in order to find arguments and solidify his already existing conviction that life is hard. He does not seek entertainment, nor aesthetic pleasure but a topic for discussion. For this type of viewer, any civic achievement acquires meaning only if it could be bragged about, and he is no less of a consumer than his brother, the mainstream viewer for he also expects to be indulged and entertained, albeit intellectually. He is ready to watch any nonsense if told it is the cutting edge of (post-) modern cinema.

He watches Stalker [directed by Andrei Tarkovsky] or [Aleksandr] Soukurov's films, for example, only to be able to show off his intelligent judgement. It represents a transitional, but very important phase, where his personal life intersects with that of cinema. This type of "salon" cinema perfectly meets his expectations, for it is no more than an interlude to the cocktail party to follow. The cocktail party stimulates his indulgence in futile discussions while allowing him to pay his demonstrative respect to the existing hierarchy, which is actually the purpose of the whole exercise.

During the 1960s, cinema still enjoyed the reputation of a miracle, and the viewer had no problem with interpreting films in terms of images as symbols. At that time, he was much closer to the universe of the symbolic and the fabulous than the contemporary viewer is. Nowadays, the viewer does not perceive cinema as miracle. For him, it is just another way of entertainment, excitement, titillation; therefore, he is not much of a viewer any more but rather a public client of sorts. He comes to the cinema to be titillated and entertained, if he is a mainstream viewer, and to indulge and excite his cerebral apparatus, if he belongs to the intellectual elite. In any case, his ability to perceive cinema as language of symbols or symbolic language, is disappearing progressively.

And the point is not that he lacks understanding. The worst attitude towards our film I have encountered amongst people who are very well aware of the film's meaning. Those who understand it, however, are no better than the ones who, after having seen it, get so deeply involved with its meaning as to fundamentally change their ways. Our film prevents people from covering up their reluctance to change their ways by resorting to intelligent interpretation of its meaning. It does not allow them to go on pretending they do not realize what is the change that is expected from them.

If a tramp knocks on the door, the master might choose not to open it. But if the butler has announced the tramp, it is impossible not to let him in. How does this relate to our film? It could be defined as an annunciation, perhaps... "That is your problem, and we do not want to know about it." Why do people say this so often? Because, if they permit themselves to hear it, that means they have already gotten involved with it...

"My attitude towards bums has not changed a bit after seeing this film," a famous filmmaker said once. What is the hidden meaning of this? His words are obscuring his arrogance. He wants to treat the tramps better. What if the tramps do not care about you treating them better? They know perfectly well that you would never treat them better anyway. They need money. That is all.

As for you, all you want is to picture yourself as the center of the world. As if everyone around is concerned with your attitudes. Who are you anyway? Have you ever thought of this? Maybe you suffer from an even worse emotional deficiency? They have always known, even before you were born that you would never be able to treat them better. In the best of all possible worlds, all they could expect of you is cold indifference. You despise them and they know it. You just want to spoil yourself by feeling sorry for them. Or maybe you need sympathy more than they do? In that case your situation is more hopeless than theirs. At least they have made a profession out of begging for their wants. They have clearly identified themselves as needy and down-and-out, while you are scared of your needs. And you are insulted by the very fact that they do not use the film as a means to address you and beg for your help, but as a way of ignoring you...

Most importantly, the film does not leave room to maneuver and avoid change. This is not a film that provokes discussions and intellectual excitement. And that is another important aspect, I believe. This is a film-exercise, a film-essay. It precludes the very possibility for indulgence in collective delusions after having seen it. Like after having seen The Last Temptation of Christ. A film is usually approached on its own terms—by inferring its claims. In the process, the viewers' opinion is ultimately formed in conjunction with their own claims. With our film, the viewers are disoriented since there are no cues or leads. They come to the screening for the intellectual thrill but find themselves at school instead. And there is nothing to be done but start ruminating. But they are unable to do so since they need a clearly defined system of intellectual co-ordinates in order to reason. A system the film refuses to offer.

It also precludes the possibility for neatly sweeping its contents under the intellectual rug. It is difficult to confuse its meaning by finding a middle ground. This is not a socially conscious film. There is no society. It is nonexistent. It is not a philosophical film either. There are no authorial points of view or ideas. It has to be admitted—this film is dangerous. Truly dangerous. As a matter of fact, it undermines the authority of the state. For it, too, is nonexistent.

People fear more the threat of dejection than its reality. The viewers, for example, are afraid that the film could unleash anarchy, putsch, and then destruction and famine. They fear it could unleash pogroms. And then they would be totally paralyzed and confused and unable to reason. For the time being they at least know they should avoid seeing it. And those who realize this should be counted as friends rather than enemies of the film. The most intelligent enemies of the film are not going to attack it openly, however. It is important, therefore, that one should not disclose in full the hidden weapons of the film so that they can't neutralize them. For the objective of our enemies is to change the film's idea through carefully orchestrated criticism. These enlightened enemies realize perfectly well the danger in showing a self-reliant commune. That means there is an alternative to the Mafia.

The prevailing opinion of a film as either modish or outdated plays a decisive role in its fate. Form does not matter, content does not matter wither – all that matters is whether its style is considered trendy or not. The hero of the British film Gulliver, for example, finds himself in a roughly similar situation as our main character. Gulliver, like Mesto na zemlie, features an eccentric personage, marginalized by society as insane, but the British film does so in the cheesy manner of the famous "Golden Butter" commercial. Viewers just love watching a deranged man who is otherwise well-groomed and wears fine-looking make-up. He suffers, but his suffering is accompanied by a background refrain of gorgeous landscapes and beautiful period costumes. And there is always something very chic happening, which is bound to attract (or distract) our attention... Like an ancient savage, the contemporary viewer just loves beautiful adornment, even if it is only cheap custom jewelry.

At the same time, the multitude remains insensitive to the aesthetic virtues of Mesto na zemlie. Very few would notice the magnificence of all those locks and curls of hair, flowing across the screen, but everyone would promptly register their shock at seeing these beautiful young people eating leftovers. Had we used special lighting effects and framed the same personages on a background of attractive props, everyone would have been happy to comment on our stylish shots and no one would have even noticed what they were eating. Our film also shows these young people lighting a fire on the floor, and sleeping huddled together like dogs. How could this be beautiful?

Actually, our film seeks to challenge not only its professional critics but also some staunch atavistic taboos, consistently nurtured by mainstream TV and deeply seated in the collective consciousness. Our film shows people that are astonishingly unique. Even the ominous members of OMON [Russian special forces], sent to destroy and disperse the hippie commune, are unique. They behave like hysterical poets and speak in metaphors, albeit sadistic.

Our film does call to action. What action exactly? Return to childhood?

Sight is the ability of a particular way of reading. Only viewers endowed with such sight would be able to see something in our cinema, comprehend something.

It is difficult to watch our film relying solely on the mechanism of one's conventional references and associations. Wouldn't it have been better if we were able to let go of our aggressive reactions and prejudices and watch the film like children watch TV, ignoring its illusionary nature and trying to push a finger through the screen in an attempt to stop a fleeting image.

The feeling of being trapped dominates our film emotionally. What else could it do? It could make the viewers feel vulnerable. The film itself is vulnerable and urges the viewers to abandon their protective armor.

Our film is often incorrectly identified with a court trial. It is believed that Mesto seeks to take an accusatory moral stand. Now I realize what must have triggered the vehement moral indignation of our respectful audiences. The film reveals our worst fears; it shows the scariest version of what might happen to us. Our film demonstrates a version of the proverbial Last Judgment in its ultimate, most harmless stage. On the Day of the Last Judgment, we will become like the people on the screen. The film (I realize only now) came to pass like a denunciation. A report for the Prosecutor's office, denunciation before the court of God, deposited with the Heavenly Chancellor's office.

A professional filmmaker has every reason to be outraged with the film. It is like a grand symphonic orchestra refusing to play a popular folk tune. When our civilized viewers hear the word "cock" coming from the screen, they realize they have been duped. You could imagine all those important and famous people sitting in the audience. They would look like idiots in their own eyes and in the eyes of those around them. Although, I hoped, the word "cock" might trigger for a split second a distant childhood image, and remind them of that long forgotten innocence, buried under their important adult personalities.

(Post-) modern, so-called surrealist films could flaunt any old nonsense but everyone agrees they belong to a sophisticated, and a very complex art trend. Such films encourage various interpretations and it takes exceptional courage and enviable aesthetic background to venture into their formal systems. On the other hand, we never negotiated Mesto as a surrealist film. On the contrary, primitivism and naturalism seem to dominate its aesthetics. It even looks somewhat amateurish. The personages are always framed against bare walls. But if a clown had appeared medias res and began throwing cakes at Malevich's Black Square, then everyone would say, well, yes, this explains everything.

And another important point—it seems that the film could not be separated from Christ. It is generally believed that it offers no solution outside Christ. It is easy to say that the shared body of the commune replicates the body of Christ. But the leader of the commune is asking his comrades not to be united in Christ, but to create a multi-headed and multi-bodied hydra. His attempts are interpreted as savagely perverse vulgarization of the mystery of Christ's body of the worst kind—monstrous and primal. If his attitude fails to scare the viewer away, it, like any propaganda effort, worse, like any arrogant provocation, would be dismissed.

His attitude is as vexing as a reversal in the traditional roles of the civilized, white master race and the natives from other lands and cultures. If the whites are scrutinizing the natives as representatives of an inferior, animalistic culture, this is considered normal. But if the situation is reversed and the whites are submitted to a similarly detailed scrutiny, it is considered exasperating. The subjects of all those graphically naturalistic scenes are not Eskimos or dark skinned Southerners but Caucasians—and this must be repulsive for our mainstream viewer. There are no naked natives, dancing and making marry, but nonetheless the film abounds with non-ideological references to the tribal, primal roots of the personages.

True, what we have here is a peculiar tribe, doomed to perish—it would be culturally slaughtered like a pack of rabid dogs. A dog, meek as a sheep, enters the frame and sits next to the ancient fireplace, surrounded by the wild tribe of modern Caucasian members of the self-proclaimed, anti-social body of Christ. These are young, healthy, beautiful people who like to indulge their primordial nature like animals—have sex and live amongst ruins, wreckage and slop—in this place, where, in their view, the knowledge of Christ's body is hidden.

And there is another meaning here. The film shows the affectionate touch, which is non-existent in society. Or rather, is absent from society. Society has lost it, and pretends it never knew it. It is impossible to imagine a member of this primal tribe who would become tense because of anything that touches their personality or body. The whole tribe is like one body. When one of the personages is moaning and losing his mind over a girl who is leaving the tribe and the commune (and later suffers over others who are also leaving) he is clearly aware that, in his understanding, the end of the body of Christ—of their common body—is drawing close. And along with them, the hope for a successful end of the experiment is also coming to an end. And he cuts a part of his body in a way of making his point since he is unable to explain this act of self-mutilation. Others would do so in his stead.

The tribal way of life does not allow for personal space. Even cats and dogs sleep together. Once I saw a stray dog and a cat sleeping huddled together, warming and cuddling each other with their furs and tongues. What primordial wisdom has helped them overcome their naturally existing (or culturally constructed) animosity and (yet another anthropomorphic projection?) incompatibility of their species? Contemporary society strictly observes the autonomy of personal space. Everyone lives for himself/herself. Everyone sleeps on one's own bed. There is a strict, albeit not that obvious, taboo against sleeping in the same bed. Even if people share one bed that is an exception to the rule. It is impossible, however, to imagine a tribe where people do not lie or sleep together. Like cats and dogs that lie on top of each other. Such is the tribal, primordial, pre-Christian, if you will, sacrilegious knowledge of the body if Christ.

Artur Aristakisian and Christina Stojanova

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Also of interest
About the author
Dr Christina Stojanova teaches theory and history of film at University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada. In addition to her specialized academic publications and entries in anthologies and encyclopedias, she is a regular contributor to Ciné-bulles (a Montreal bi-monthly journal for film history and criticism) and to Kinema (a University of Waterloo bi-annual journal for film theory). She has curated four major restrospectives of eastern and central European cinema in Canada. Dr Stojanova has sat on the FIPRESCI and other juries at a number of international film festivals. Her book Dual Vision: Eastern European Cinema and the Totalitarian State, will be published in the UK early next year.

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