Interview: Aleksandr Sokurov
Aleksandr Sokurov’s Days of Eclipse screens August 22 in Strange Lands: International Sci-Fi at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Genre is the great friend of political allegory, particularly inside authoritarian states. While Chinese film of the late Nineties and Aughts preferred historical costume dramas to comment on the corruption that accompanied neo-Confucianism, many artists in the Soviet Union’s heyday seized upon the themes of disillusionment and persecution recurrent in science fiction. Aleksandr Sokurov’s Days of Eclipse adapts the Strugatsky Brothers story about a Leningrad-based astrophysicist prevented from finishing a revolutionary study by an apparent conspiracy to tell the story of a medical doctor in Turkmenia who’s being prevented from studying the relationship between religion and illness by mysterious events. The mirrored relationships between the novel and film—and the implications of setting the film in a barren, far-flung region of the Soviet Union that had its traditional way of life destroyed after resisting Bolshevism—drives home the alienation and oppression.
Sokurov was at the Locarno Film Festival to present short films made by his students, which is where FILM COMMENT Digital Editor Violet Lucca and Lucas Neves of Folha de São Paulo caught up with him to speak about adaptation and politics.
Days of Eclipse
Violet Lucca: Days of Eclipse will be playing in New York next week, and I wanted to ask you a few questions about the film. Specifically, why did you choose to adapt Strugatsky’s stories in the way you did?
There is a huge distance between literature and cinema. I would say that they have nothing in common. The script or a history told in words—as in the Strugatsky novel—are absolutely different kinds of storytelling, and in this way the visual nature of the story and the script are completely different.
So it’s impossible to put a novel on the screen, or any story told in words. It’s impossible to make a cinematic transposition of Hamlet or King Lear. Because Shakespeare has said all of what he wanted to say—he’s made all of his points. He doesn’t need some explication or transposition to another field. He is endless in his words. With cinema, we have to start from the beginning, without words. By making a film, we make a completely different story—something that’s not even the script, actually. And if we are making something Shakespeare wrote, we are not making a King Lear. Because the word is saying something, and the visual instrument is saying other things. The word is free, is open and endless. And the visual, unfortunately, is ending during each screening. The word is like a free man, and visual art is a man in prison, in jail.
The Strugatsky Brothers themselves told me that it was impossible, that this didn’t need to be made into a film. They allowed me to use their novel only for financial reasons. They don’t need the film. It’s me who needs it. So they told me, you could do all that you want. Unfortunately, most writers aren’t able to understand that literature and cinema are completely different fields.
Lucas Neves: But you have adapted Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Platonov, Goethe. It’s hard work, but you’re willing to do it. I once read that you consider yourself to be more of a literary person than a cinema person.
The plots created by writers are more certain, more significant. I think the future is the written plot by the writer. Because the plots written by George Bernard Shaw, Charles Dickens and William Faulkner will exist in the future. For example, Faust by Goethe is a work we have not yet finished decoding. Like Dostoevsky’s works.
In my opinion, cinema as an art is a small child who needs to be supervised by an adult. And the plots that have been proven by time, that have lasted until now—I can find a good base from them. Using plots from literature, I can avoid some mistakes that I can make while making the film. And that’s really important, because a director is going to make a lot of mistakes during filmmaking. There are no timeless films at all, or timeless filmmakers. We all make mistakes. We know about the existence of very gifted composers or writers, but no filmmakers. We are condemned to make mistakes. Because we are filmmakers, we are dealing with temporary instruments, and this is the reason for our mistakes. These instruments are not proven by time. They are too young.
We are pushed to make films about contemporary things. They seem to say: “Look around, life—modern life—is so various, please shoot it, not other things!” Only some filmmakers are able to say: “Wait. We are not able to understand this life, we don’t have the necessary distance. We don’t know the direction of this progress, so how can we say something if we can’t understand it?” So in my opinion, this love for crime plots, for representing crime on the screen, is slowly pushing literary plots out of our consciousness, our mind. In this way, people are not more interested in the mind, for work of the mind. They are not going to engage the mind, and we can observe the results of this everywhere. The politicians who are completely ungifted, aggressive; they have power now. You can also see it in the aggressive behavior of people today.
LN: You just talked about cinema as a small child that needs support from a higher being, a higher institution—that there are great musicians, great writers, but that there aren’t great moviemakers, great directors. Do you really stand by this idea? Eisenstein or Tarkovsky weren’t great filmmakers?
It’s provocative. No, I don’t think that in cinema there are big personalities. No. The tradition is too young. We don’t have enough people to compare. We can compare the cinema as an art to a physician who is trying to study a million health problems of people without knowing how to help them. Every physician makes a discovery and then proclaims his method as the unique and best one to help people, but the disease or problem continues on.
Every physician thinks, “I’m the great one,” putting themselves on a pedestal. Therefore none of them has the intention of uniting forces. Even now we don’t have a common language of cinema. Can you imagine science or medicine without the Latin language? It’s a system by which you can name things: the language can help concentrate on the most important aspect to study, and, at the same time, to get a look from the other side. In cinema we don’t have such a language, a common language.
VL: When Days of Eclipse was made, it was 1988, the era of glasnost, near the end of the Soviet Union. What was it like making films at that time, especially compared with now?
In 1988, I used to work as an absolutely free man. Now the question is, once a film is finished, how to be happy with it. But even in Soviet times, I used to work as a free man, like now. And I’m very lucky, because I continue to work. Documentary or fiction, the films are my films. I’m not given scripts—I can say that I am working with myself and with a scriptwriter. It’s always my choice to make a film.
LN: In your films you’ve portrayed the intimacy of leaders like Hitler and Hirohito and Lenin. What would the intimacy of Putin look like if you were to portray it?
I never have any latent wishes or goals. I think if I had an idea to make a film whose main figure is Putin, I would do everything I wanted to do, completely freely. I could make the film following Putin’s life as it’s going, with a level of intimacy. I’ve met him many times, and I spoke with him many times. And I have absolutely no fear to speak with these people, these representatives of power.
From my personal experience, I met with Yeltsin for many years. From observing Yeltsin and studying historical figures like Hirohito, Lenin, and Hitler, I can see that they are the most unfree people in the world. They have no freedom at all. Maybe they are more human than we are. President Obama is a slave to the system. He is completely unable to follow his own wishes. Even if his personal ambitions can be satisfied as the president of the United States, few know that he is a slave of this system. People in power all have a phobia, and it is the most horrible phobia that we can imagine: what should we expect tomorrow? They are sleeping with this nightmare every night, and they wake up with this nightmare. I don’t recommend anyone having such a nightmare.
LN: And what do you think tomorrow holds for Putin in the wake of the Ukraine, the sanctions from the Western countries?
In 2008, I publicly declared that the war with Ukraine and Kazakhstan would come soon, that it would be unavoidable. But I don’t think that we can create politics as a kind of direct movement on the highway. We can’t follow this idea. Politics are another kind of movement: one step forward, two steps back, and three steps left and right. And then back. Then really quickly forward, very slowly back, and then… stop!
Russia, the United States, and China are condemned to have these big and tragic actions. They will damage other countries involuntarily, into the future. To avoid this problem we have to get rid of all the nuclear weapons, and get rid of the amount of land these countries have. Because even though we are rapidly developing technology that gets enormous results from a political point of view, we are still in the Middle Ages.
You can announce that the zone of the United States’ interest is the Middle East. And Russia can announce that the zone of their interest is Ukraine, and that France’s zone is Africa. Why? England has India as its zone of interest. Why? It’s really strange as an ideology because there are no more kings or kingdoms. What do these intentions mean? It means it’s time to re-educate politicians. The international police have to arrest all the heads of huge states, party leaders, and all the United Nations representatives, and deport them to the Sahara, just to make them leave the field. Give them some little food and water, and teach them from the beginning. But instead, we are supporting these aggressive types of people and this aggressive cinema based on violence.
VL: Land and language are really important in Days of Eclipse. Why did you decide to set the adaptation in Turkmenistan?
Because it’s a marvelous place from a visual point of view, and they are a marvelous people. It was really interesting from an ethnographic point of view. I know that I like them because I spent my childhood there with my parents. I lived there. I know the Turkmen, and how proper they are. I’ve never seen aggressive people there. It is an astonishing thing, people without aggressiveness.
VL: But that region was really important in the Basmachi Rebellion.
They were just fighting for freedom, for independence. But not all people are able to live in peacetime without aggressiveness—with freedom and peace. Just compare with Ukrainians, who are never happy to live together with Russia, or so we as Russians have perceived it. There is no doubt that Ukraine has to be an independent state. No doubt. This anxiety to live together—it was hard. And by the way, from an historical point of view, the Ukrainian communists, supporting the communist regime, were particularly cruel and particularly devoted to the communist cause.
VL: Your casting choices also favored ethnic minorities, or parts of the Soviet Union that had been historically maligned. How did you choose Aleksei Ananishnov for the lead, Malyanov?
I chose him, a nonprofessional actor, to play Malyanov because it’s a really rare human story to be performed in a human way. His friend [Eskender Umarov] is a Tartar from Crimea, just like he was in the script and the novel. There is no [professional] actor capable of performing the destiny of these people, the Tartars of Crimea. Ananishov really was a scientist at this time: he worked at the university in St. Petersburg, Leningrad. He was really convincing at representing scientific practice.
LN: You recently wrote an open letter to the president in defense of artistic freedom and tolerance in Russia in the wake of a problem with an independent TV channel. I’d like to know about the current state of artistic freedom of speech in Russia today.
I wrote the letter not only for the imminent closing of these two channels, but defending Dozhd (Rain) TV and the young people who are in jail at the moment—guiltless, but unfortunately there are no results of these appeals, except some difficulties for myself. The situation is really heavy at the moment. We are trying to convince the president that he can’t follow these politics. But we haven’t received any answer. None of my appeals were answered. It wasn’t a personal letter to the president, but a public appeal, and it hasn’t been answered yet. It’s a bad situation. I don’t know what is the future for news stations. Because from one side we see that the rating of Putin is going up: the people seem to like him more than Stalin, for example. And from the other side, not so much: we have these protests, appeals, letters, and opposition movements. Unfortunately, we cannot reach any result through the law.
I fear that in the future there might not be the possibility to make such an appeal because all of these institutions will be closed. This political fight is really heavy, really hard. I fear that the small group of very rich people who have power now fear that the balance will change, so they will not permit an open society to exist. If it were open, their manipulations and affairs would be well known in society. And the situation will take a long time to change, because Russia is a huge country. When our president is going to sleep, the people on the other side of our country are getting up for work.