All images from Karelia: International with Monument (Andrés Duque, 2019)

In 2007, the Las Palmas International Film Festival in the Canary Islands curated a program devoted to a so-called “D-Generation” of Spanish filmmakers: the “D” was for Documentary, but also for Digital. Under that label, figures such as Isaki Lacuesta, Lluís Escartín, or Los Hijos collective shared a common interest in documentary as a playground for experimentation and the crafting of film essays. Among the D-Generated directors, Andrés Duque—born in Venezuela but based in Barcelona since 2000—presented himself as a perfect child of the digital age, ready to leave his mark in short, ironic, and fragmented travelogues (Landscapes in a Truck, 2006) or in medium-length portraits of eccentric misfits, like Iván Z (2004), dedicated to Iván Zulueta, the director of the ultimate Spanish cult movie, Rapture (Arrebato, 1979). The promise of an uncompromisingly original voice was confirmed by the one-two punch of impure cinema that Duque delivered with Color Runaway Dog (2011)—a film diary which meditated on national estrangement and the difficulties of building an identity in a fragmented digital world—and Dress Rehearsal for Utopia (2012), where a trip to Africa and the illness of the filmmaker’s father provided the elements for a hypnotic and affecting film about otherness, beauty, and loss.

With the delicately majestic Oleg and the Rare Arts (2016)—a portrait of the virtuoso pianist Oleg Karavaichuk—Duque incorporated a new location, Russia, into his transnational cinema. This immersion in the Russian spirit ended up taking the director on a journey to the border region of Karelia, between Russia and Finland, where he shot Karelia: International with Movement, a film in which the two main affluents of Duque’s oeuvre—his devotional portraits and his self-referential film essays—finally meet. In search of the roots of Karelia’s singularity, Duque finds both the vestiges of an ancestral culture—in the daily rituals of a family committed to a non-dogmatic spiritual life—and the sinister reality of a nation (without a state) pounded again and again by the repressive policies of the Russian state, from Stalin to Putin. I spoke with the filmmaker in Barcelona prior to the world premiere of Karelia: International with Monument at the International Film Festival Rotterdam.

Karelia screens April 23 in Art of the Real at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

While watching Karelia: International with Monument, I wrote down a thought which may encompass the film’s dialectics: “Paradise and Hell shaking hands in the body of History”. The movie fashions the portrait of a Karelian family, the Pankratievs, who live in a sort of earthly Eden, full of harmony and deep communion with nature. But on the other hand, you also show how the most blatant indignity—engraved in authoritarianism and repression—flows through history, in this case from Stalinism to Putin’s Russia.

The evidence of that indignity is very noticeable in Sandarmokh, one of the sites I show in the movie. Ten thousand dead bodies have been found there in approximately 240 mass graves. What happened there was a genocide, and it’s only a small part of the massacres carried out by Stalin’s government. And now Putin is trying to efface all that from the official account of Russian history.

Regarding the encounter you perceive in the movie between the notions of Paradise and Hell, I guess I would prefer to present it as a dialogue not preconceived but constructed organically and open to mutations and evolutions. My method of filmmaking is not conceptual. My movies erupt from personal experiences which take me into obsessive journeys. I don’t see my movies as intellectual objects. They operate as affective responses to my life circumstances, which at the same time are always linked to filmmaking. In the case of Karelia: International with Monument, the project germinated from a remark made to me by Oleg Karavaichuk, the Russian composer and piano player whom I portrayed in my previous movie, Oleg and the Rare Arts. One day, after watching my movie Dress Rehearsal for Utopia, and moved by the way I addressed the death of my father, Oleg, in his wild manner, told me: “You are Karelian!” Knowing almost nothing about Karelia, I started studying its geography and history, and I was captivated by its mystery.

I believe in what Alexander Kluge once pointed out, that chance is mostly intentioned. Following my sudden obsession for Karelia, it took me only a year to make all the arrangements—including the project’s funding—to travel there and give shape to a movie. A movie which could capture the magical, shamanic traces of traditional Karelian culture. Along the journey of making this film, all the Russian people I came across kept telling me those cultural remains were untraceable today, but after a long search I had the luck of coming upon the Pankratiev family. In this family’s connection to nature and its non-dogmatic approach to spirituality, I saw the potentiality of a movie. I met them in November [2017] and I told them I would visit them again on July 21st [2018], coinciding with the solstice, so we could “work” on the movie. They don’t have phone or Internet access, so I had to trust they would be waiting for me, which was indeed the case. When I saw they had everything ready for my visit, I knew I had a real movie in my hands.

But how did you know about the esoteric, shamanic roots of the Karelian culture? And how difficult was to “unearth” them?

As strange as it may sound, the only people who held records of the esoteric traits of the Karelian culture were the Nazis. When they founded the Ahnenerbe to study and search for the origins of Aryanism, their first expedition was to Karelia because they thought that could be the cradle of their race. In that journey, they took pictures and shot footage which has never been shown. I’m looking for it and it could be the seed of another movie. On the other hand, Karelian culture has been an inspiration for many artists, including J.R.R. Tolkien when he wrote The Hobbit, or the Catalan photographer and conceptual artist Joan Fontcuberta, who did a series of “spirit” photographs [Milagros & Co, 2000] inspired by a course on “miracology” imparted by the monks of a mysterious monastery in Karelia. Both Tolkien and Fontcuberta made their own version of Karelia, and I wanted to make mine. I was seduced by the ancestral magic of this region located between Finland and Russia, a nation which has never been officially recognized and that has always been at the center of territorial disputes.

Despite the complexity and turbulence of Karelian history, as soon as I met the Pankratiev family I thought I could make a bright, warm-spirited movie. But then, between my meetings with the Pankratievs, I came across the case of Yury Dmitriev, an activist who, since the early 1990s, has devoted his life to locate the execution sites of Stalin’s Great Terror in Sandarmokh, identifying the buried victims and contacting their families—pursuing justice. Dmitriev was arrested in 2016 on false accusations of pedophilia and allegedly for making pornographic images of his foster daughter, Natasha. While shooting with the Pankratievs, I couldn’t stop thinking about Dmitriev, and when I came back to Petrozavodsk, the capital city of Karelia, I asked Katerina, Dmitriev’s natural daughter, for an interview. It was shocking to find strong connections between Katerina’s testimony and the images I had shot with the Pankratievs. For example, the way the kids dig and turn over the soil, or how they look into holes made by insects in the ground had for me a physical-historical connection with Katerina’s memories of the mass graves discovered by his father. I explored those connections through editing and also through the sound. The sound of the flies which were always surrounding the Pankratiev kids in their games acquired another very sinister meaning when put together with the Karelian graves.

As in your previous film portraits, your approach to the Pankratiev family indicates a personal interest in people who create their own emancipated world away from the social order. The difference here might be that the Pankratievs, unlike your previous objects of study, are more at ease in their territory—the exuberant nature. There are no sites of evident conflict in their daily life. And your camera also seems extremely attuned to that human-natural environment. The almost anarchic freedom of your mise-en-scène made me think of Jean Vigo.

In my previous films, I’d portrayed people who were “over the rainbow,” people with schizophrenia, deeply affected by addictions or extremely isolated in their creative worlds. Situations in which the possibility of establishing a normal dialogue was almost impossible. But this notion of rational dialogue is of limited importance for me, as my main interest is to capture the mystery and beauty of these strange people. In this sense, meeting and filming the kids from the Pankratiev family has transformed my way of filming. With them I could feel a relation of love and equality, and somehow it brought me back to my childhood instincts. There’s a scene in which one of the kids and the mother show me a tree, and they tell me the tree is a giraffe. At that moment, I felt I had to tilt up the camera to show the tree, and then I decided to cut to a tilting down take in which we discover another kid sitting on the same tree as if it was an actual giraffe. This is a clear example of what I would call playful filmmaking. It was joyful and liberating.

In a way, I think that Karelia blends the two main paths I’ve been following as a filmmaker. On the one hand, the portrait of people I’m fascinated with. And on the other hand, a sort of self-referential film essay, which I explored in Color Runaway Dog and Dress Rehearsal for Utopia. When I say self-referential, I mean not only that I appear in the film but also that you can feel the camera as an actor, a presence, in the movie.

There’s a very beautiful moment in Karelia in which a girl shows a portrait of you that she has painted, and the kids call you by your name. All that made me think about the way Robert Flaherty left traces of his presence in his movies, traces of the time he spent with his protagonists and the personal dialogue he established with them. I’m thinking about Nanook looking to the camera in Nanook of the North.

It’s funny you mention Nanook of the North because I’m not a fan of direct homages but the scene in which the Pankratiev family goes out of a small cabin—which is in fact a montage, because the seven members of the family didn’t fit in there—is a reference to the scene of Nanook’s family emerging from the kayak. And there are other moments in which you could find traces of the Maysles’ Grey Gardens or the cinema of Kidlat Tahimik. I kept finding traces of classic documentaries here and there, but didn’t include them all in the final cut because I didn’t want it to feel like a collection of homages.

Going back to the scenes with the kids, I have to say that, though you can feel a sense of shared intimacy, there’s a strong mystery as well, not only in their meditations, but also in their games, especially when they act like contortionists.

That was magical for me as I truly believe that the essence of cinema lies in the affective power of the body. I felt a strong emotion in front of these kids who transmitted so much purity, or nobility, or beauty through their body language… I don’t know exactly how to put it. I could feel a deep natural intelligence in the way they played mimicking animalistic movements, or in their conversations, full of strange knowledge, as when they discussed the bees’ apparently “inconsistent” behavior and they tried to “think like bees.” It’s not a normalized, orthodox knowledge, but is as valid and beautiful as poetry.

Despite your refusal to consider your movies conceptual, your editing in Karelia not only confronts opposed realities and historical dimensions but also creates magic, as when you intercut the kid’s reading of a passage from The Lord of the Rings—which alludes to a subterranean search—with shots of the kids looking for something in the depths of a lake.

I didn’t propose or instigate those situations. They were not constructed. In fact, I wasn’t aware of that visual correspondence during the shooting. I discovered it in the editing process, which was full of freedom, creativity and joy. I really had the feeling that the movie was being edited all by itself. I tried not to function strictly on rational terms. I spent three weeks editing in Petrozavodsk, and it felt like knitting, cutting viscerally, in a very natural way. Although I have to admit the conscious influence of Les désoeuvrés [1960] by the Canadian filmmaker René Bail, a movie which I discovered in the Doclisboa festival in 2017, and which encouraged me to trust my intuition. Bail built up his movie around his relationship with a series of characters while allowing himself to occasionally drift away, embarking on “film fugues.” There’s a scene in Les désoeuvrés where a man opens a door and through a series of cuts we see a montage of houses and houses and still more houses. In my movie I’ve recreated that scene with the Pankratievs’ father opening a door and then showing the very particular architecture of the Karelian houses.

Before commenting on other aspects of Karelia, I would like to confess how moved and inspired I was by the Pankratiev parents and their dedication to their children.

In the Pankratievs I see a return to origins, to nature, to Walden. But beyond any specific cultural reference, there’s the celebration of transmission, which is the movie’s most universal aspect. It is very present not only in the Pankratievs’ daily life but also in the words of Katerina Dmitriev, when she explains how her father’s decades-long search for historical justice inspired her to continue his work.

I think it’s important to note that your portrait of the Pankratievs is not idealized or naïf. It’s unsettling to see how one of the daughters imagines war scenes in her meditation. And the movie may confront the viewer with prejudices related to religious cults.

Yes, I agree. When the Russians read the film synopsis they don’t understand how an Orthodox Christian family can be interested in Shamanism. And why not? The Pankratievs are not into New Age, they just have a genuine and anti-dogmatic interest in spirituality, probably as a result of their Karelian roots.

There’s a very poignant moment in the movie when you cut from a speech of Nikita Khrushchev praising Stalin in 1937 to a POV shot of your feet standing on a circular monument made of stones, then you cut to pictures of massacres and prisoners from the Stalinist era, and finally you show the Pankratiev kids meditating with their eyes closed. And this is all sonically unified by a buzzing sound. It’s a powerful and purely cinematic way to reflect upon the multiple layers of Russian history.

I’m aware that I don’t have enough knowledge to pontificate on the intricacies of Russian history, but through the sensory tools of cinema I think I can invoke a certain historical and emotional truth. I’ve noticed how shocked Russian spectators are when they see those images and sounds. After hearing the speech of Khrushchev celebrating the triumph of the Soviet regime 20 years after the revolution, we see the ruins of the first Orthodox church, founded in the 10th century and turned into a gulag by Stalin. Many intellectuals perished there. But now the memory of Khrushchev and Stalin is being whitewashed by the same government that has Dmitriev behind bars.

Your portrait of Dmitriev through his daughter’s testimony is tinted by a deep humanism, as when she talks about her father’s repeated visits to the grave of a German soldier, who had no one else to be remembered by.

An essential part of Dmitriev’s activism consisted of keeping official viewpoints away from the memorial to the Karelian victims of Stalinism. He wanted the memorial to be just a forest with plaques that remember the dead. I was lucky enough to shoot there three weeks before it was militarized. The Russian Military Historical Society, constituted by Putin in 2012 to rewrite Russian history, alleges now that there are Soviet soldiers buried in that forest, soldiers from the Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland. Putin’s goal is to equate the massacres ordered by Stalin with the Finnish warfare.

I’d like to finish this interview by asking you about two very strange images from the film. I think it’s something relevant given your interest in the notions of rarity or oddity.

Yes, by invoking what is rare, odd, what is understood as an anomaly, I try to escape from any dominant system, call it heteropatriarchy, gender binary, or any historical official line. I tend to feel an attraction for people who have been pushed to the margins for their unclassifiable talents, like Rosemarie in my short Paralelo 10 [2005]—a Philippine woman who performed strange rituals in the streets of Barcelona—or Iván Zulueta in Iván Z.

The first strange passage is the cut from a boy looking through binoculars to some cave paintings shot with an infrared camera. What’s that?

Those are petroglyphs, the first vestiges of the Karelians. I have to say that the petroglyphs are very difficult to shoot. You can only capture their shape and texture if you clean the rock with water and you shoot them when the light is very faint. As I couldn’t do that I had to use the night-shot effect of my camera, which I think give the image a very interesting rarefied feeling. It was very important to shoot the petroglyphs because they contain traces of the magical roots of the Karelian culture: there’s a figure of a man with horns which clearly refers to a shaman.

The other strange image is a sort of macro-shot of a pair of micro-insects or unicellular organisms.

The important thing in that moment is the sound. You can hear one of the few recordings of a folkloric Karelian song. It’s not easy to study the origins of Karelian culture because their whole tradition was transmitted orally. It was not until the 19th century that a Finnish man called Elias Lönnrot travelled through Karelia compiling all the Karelian imaginary, which was the basis for the national epic known as the Kalevala [1835, expanded in 1849]. In a way, Finland adopted the Karelian culture as a foundation for its national-cultural identity. As a result, Karelia has a fragmented identity, Russian and Finnish. My idea now is to make another movie exploring the Finnish Karelia. This new movie would begin where Karelia: International with Monument finishes, as the Winter War and the Stalinist massacres provoked a mass migration of Karelians to Finland. I’m planning to be back in Karelia this next summer.

And how will you finance this new project? Exactly as you did with Karelia, with a grant from the Spanish banking group BBVA?

Yes, that would be ideal. These movies are conceived as travel diaries where I portray the people I find along the way. This for me is the perfect way to work. I need money to travel and spend the right amount of time looking for and then living with the people I want to portray. There are people who help me with technical logistics, but the movie is my journey looking for the oddities of our world. They still exist and that gives me hope.

Manu Yáñez Murillo is a film critic and journalist, and has written for Fotogramas, Rockdelux, Ara, and Otros Cines Europa. He is the editor of the anthology La mirada americana: 50 años de Film Comment.