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10 Years of Discovering the Best Documentaries for You

- 8.12.2014 9:26 -

Celebration of Everydayness


Poetic Documentary as a Sensory Experience; On Films by Sergei Loznitsa

In the mid-1990s, I had the opportunity to watch Nikita Mikhalkov‘s documentary series A Sentimental Trip Home and its scenes are still branded on my memory. In each part dealing with a work by a different Russian painter, the camera takes a close look at the canvas. It follows the depicted details of a traditional Russian interior, village or still life as if it were a story unfolding in time, just like film does. However, Mikhalkov goes even further in his effort to transcend the limits of the visual medium, adding a soundtrack to the visual journey of each painting. The voices of people, the sound of the wind or the barking of a dog convince us that we are witnessing an event that is taking place right now. In this way, Mikhalkov is trying to get under the surface of the two-dimensional canvas and find the real world under the stylization and the artist’s signature style.

At the time when patriot Mikhalkov was making the documentary homage to his homeland, Sergei Loznitsa, whose very first online retrospective is now available at the DAFilms.com portal for free, started making his first cinematic impressions. He, too, employs the language of documentary film while becoming a poet, a landscape painter and a portrait painter. His image compositions create a linking point between film and landscape painting enriched with a third dimension by means of movement and sound. They capture the atmosphere of the times and the genius loci. As a sensitive observer, the film poet has chosen an observational approach to the events taking place in front of the camera. However, he transcends the boundaries of cinéma vérité by far, turning everyday events into a ritual, a celebration. He discovers a constant presence of the intangible in the details. However, rather than looking at things from God’s perspective, he approaches them from the position of a painter who allows the depicted object to find its own face.

Loznitsa has an ability to view reality in its compactness. It is perhaps due to this fact that it is difficult to separate the animate and the inanimate in his films. Both represent a complementary part of the same world. We can therefore say that to the filmmaker, the human figure is both an essential object and a complement of the landscape. Man is a staffage, completing the composition as a variable and moving point in space. The human being becomes part of a large functional organism. The moves of the protagonists who do their daily chores are strictly functional and automated; as if the workmen casting steel or fishermen performing an endless row of routine acts when fishing out a frozen pond were machines pulsating with life.

The filmmaker abstracts the individual elements of the events taking place in front of the camera, emphasizing their poetic character and sensory appeal; whether it is the beauty of factory machines, the hot steam rising from a locomotive, ice floes flowing down the stream during the thaw or the silence of the morning fog above the village. They are no sentimental genre landscapes but meditative compositions. Loznitsa employs various means of expression, however, he always deals with the motif of movement and time; with a similar intensity like Béla Tarr does in the field of film. In his film Portrait, he stops the time, as his characters turn into static objects looking into the camera. In his film Landscape, he goes even further, setting the very filmed environment in motion. Thanks to the long panning within a single shot, we are continuously watching the changing environment of the village. This innovative way of framing produces a constant supply of new image compositions.

In his radical formalistic film Milky Way, Bence Fliegauf put a motionless camera on a single spot. The characters thus entered the scene and walked out of it while action was taking place out of shot and was only suggested by the soundtrack. In his re-enactment of a real event Just the Wind, Fliegauf employs ambient sound, creating a strong, authentic, spontaneous atmosphere without using words and music. Loznitsa experiments with the audiovisual component in a similar way. He creates harmonies of voices and sounds without words, using the sound expressions of the surrounding world as a means to achieve both authenticity and a lyrical atmosphere. He employs the means of cinéma pure, flawless compositions, rhythm, time, movement, light, experimenting with form while remaining true to the poetic and universal message. Whether he is using found footage to capture the archetypal environment of the village, the ideological thinking of the Soviet society of the 1950s or whether he is bringing scenes from the current events in Ukraine, he is bringing a timeless message of the times, place and man at the same time.

Written by Janis Prášilů

The article was published on December 4, 2014 at the Dok.revue portal on documentary film

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