Cinema’s Thoreau Is Begging You Not to Make Another Movie or Write Another Book

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Victor Kossakovsky has no time for fools, especially when it comes to directors and cinema. He’s even came up with ten rules for would-be helmers, the main one being: “Don’t film if you can live without filming.”

He nods. It’s 10:30 AM, and the no-frills Russian filmmaker, with his graying beard, disheveled silver locks, and bohemian charm joins me in a Mondrian Park Avenue Hotel suite. A publicist monitors the door as the director/screenwriter/editor/cinematographer and winner of 100 worldwide awards for his past work, chats up his critically acclaimed paean to tumultuous water, Aquarela. Variety describes this current effort as a “grandiose, sense-pummeling documentary ride.” The British Film Institute settles for “poetic and multi-sensorial . . . a thundering technical achievement.”

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Back to his rule: “I guess I steal it from Tolstoy,” Kossakovsky laughs, which he does a lot. “I believe Tolstoy wrote something somewhere in his diaries or somewhere. . . . This is my way. I believe we live in a time when there are too many products, too many films, too many books, too many music . . . and it’s actually pollution, intellectual pollution. . . . Every piece of crap has someone who likes it. With every piece of shitty music or crap film, someone will go, ‘Ohhh! What a good film!’ … So I say to everyone, you should not make good films, only incredible films, only unique. . . . That’s why [filmmaking] must be necessity. Must be like you cannot live without it. You wake up with necessity to grab up camera and show something to people. Otherwise, why? Otherwise, why?”

Why, indeed!

“Every piece of crap has someone who likes it. With every piece of shitty music or crap film, someone will go, ‘Ohhh! What a good film!’”

“You know people always say good films contain story, good characters, and an original way of doing it. This is cinema language. Character, story, and language, right? I would say it’s always missing something else. Magic! Magic! For me, it’s not enough to have these three components. I need magic.”

Aquarela — which boasts few words and no framing devices to inform you whether the frozen lakes, pounding seas, death-defying floods and hurricane winds are in Greenland, Russia, or Mexico — wants to showcase a nature untamed. With its numerous international crews and its unexpected scenarios, Kossakovsky woke up each morning thankful that no one had died the day before. Well, almost no one.

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An exception is in the opening segment on Lake Baikal. The footage was not supposed to record a death. First there is the beauty of white upon white upon white. Then we see two men scraping away at the ice on the frozen water. A car has sunk. There is a body under that ice. How did this shot come about?

In his earlier film, the never-less-than-stunning ¡Vivan las antípodas!, a young 11-year-old girl exclaims, “I’d like to be water in my next life. I don’t want to be a cat or dog. Sometimes people treat them bad.”

“And I put camera in exactly the same spot where she said it,” recalls Kossakovsky. “The first shot in Aquarela after the credits was exactly there. The same place. So actually I came to Baikal to see beautiful ice, the cracks on the ice, and all this, but suddenly on the first shooting date appears this car, and then a person dies just accidentally in my frame, and I realize I cannot continue the film in the same way as I was planning so I just forgot the script and I start [anew].”

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However, before the viewer can realize what’s happening, before the camera comes upon the tragedy caused by the folly of men driving an auto over ice, there is some comic music on the soundtrack.

“You know why? Because it’s actually . . . in the patterns of our lives,” he explains. “The men who live there are so confident that when I said, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t go there, they say, ‘Come on. You don’t teach me. I was born in Baikal. I know ice like the lines on my palm. I can see on ice. I can see the cracks, and I know if I should go or if I shouldn’t. You don’t teach me, boy.’”

“This is overconfidence. This is what we are doing in the world, right? We are all overconfident. We know everything,” Kossakovsky chuckles. “We think we can do whatever we want. That’s what happened to us but unfortunately. That’s why after this moment, of course, I was not able to continue with my plans.”

“My original idea was this one,” he notes, “to show at least one thousand powers of water. . . . It’s a kind of film that changes you, right? I became a different person because of this film. I realized that we are not the most important creatures. So what do we say? We say we can live without water for five days. That’s abstract. But when you make film like this and being in an extreme situation, you really measure yourself [against water’s] power, and you really understand that we are really tiny.”

As for Kossakovsky’s next film, Krogufant, with which he’s in final edit, “It’s about pig, chicken, and cow.”

Pig, chicken, and cow?

“No people,” he insists. “No slaughtery. No concentration camps. Nothing like this. Only chicken, pig, and cow. How they are. How they really are. No voice over. Nothing.”

This animal epic was shot around the globe. “Pig I film in Norway, I film chicken in Whales, and cows I film in Spain.”

Why no imagery of animals being slaughtered?

“I understand that people are filming such stuff, and it doesn’t help,” Kossakovsky insists. “It doesn’t help anything. It’s like people still don’t think. They just ignore and they don’t want to know. That’s why I decided to do it this way. People like to worship the dolphin or the elephant or chimpanzee, and I say, “No! No! No! I will show who is cow. Who is the other kind. You think chickens cannot teach you. Chickens can teach you how to survive, and cows can teach you to survive, and pigs can teach you to survive.” And Kossakovsky can teach you if you will only watch.

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Brandon Judell has published in The Village Voice, The Advocate, and 50 or so other outlets. He is currently a lecturer at The City College of New York.

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