What drew you to filmmaking?
I studied mathematics at the university of Moscow. But I understood what my field led to when a delegation from the military came to make selections among the students with the best results, and showed us our future work environment, underground labs where every possible sort of armament was produced, nuclear included. I had to run away from that.
When consulting with the rector about possibly specializing in architecture, he dissuaded me, pointing at what architects were asked to build at the time… So I chose filmmaking and entered the State Film Institute (VGIK), even though it was a period of total stagnation in that area too, with about 10 films only produced per year in all of the USSR. [It got a bit better in the late 50’s with Kalatozov’s The cranes are flying and Chukhray’s Ballad of a soldier, and a few cute films by young Georgian filmmakers.] So when I started I had no particular hopes or prospects. I made two short films, which were banned by the censors, as was my first medium-length film April. But honestly I didn’t really suffer from these bans, they were even quite well regarded by the intelligentsia! I just had fun, took my time, went to work on a fishing boat… Things changed for me when another of my censored films, Falling leaves, was sent by someone to the Cannes festival.
Could you talk about the prominent role that music, and musicians, play in your films?
Of course, music is very special to me. Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Kabalevsky were my contemporaries! But their works kept suffering public condemnations. They were accused of being formalistic, abstractionist and what not. Even Stravinsky was looked at askance. So forget about Debussy or Schönberg: you couldn’t even find their records. Good music was thus almost a form of resistance, while the upstart wooed the powerful.
Except for the Singing blackbird, no lead character is a musician, but it’s true that there are orchestras, farmers who play instruments, etc. Actuallly, I did Pastorali to explore the paradox that professional musicians, despite their refined, almost spiritual occupation, are not necessarily very "sophisticated" themselves, except for the great ones, such as Richter, Van Klibern, Boulez, etc. Becoming a professional musician is a long, hard battle: it imposes to work day and night, from a tender age, only to discover after the fact that you didn’t really have that talent!
In films I never use classical tunes composed by the masters, such as Mozart and Beethoven; they didn’t write them for me to use so I think it would be ill mannered to do so. Therefore, I used to write the scores myself.
I am very cautious about music in a film, attributing it a specific, simple role: you hear it when a character plays an instrument, whether in the foreground or in the distance, through an open window. And it is heard at the same level as the sound made by passing trains, horses, chickens and turkeys… It’s all mingled. But it would never accompany a scene or even the whole film in the banal way American cinema does, warning you of a danger or emphasizing emotions.
What is the first spark in a film’s creation? A character, a story, a scene?
Aesop’s language, made of fables and parables, is interesting and frequent in the work of novelists and screenwriters. Voltaire popularized it, and the tradition spread through the ages, with writers such as Hamsun and Maeterlinck, then Queneau in France. When writing a film, I am not interested in meddling in intimacy and flirtation. If you’ve read enough Homer, Shakespeare, Schiller, Goethe, and above all, Rabelais, you can’t be bothered with the banality of people’s intimate stories. I try to explore the complexity of living in this world, through different angles and forms.
But I wouldn’t adapt great literary works, for the same reason that I’ve exposed about music. How can one be pretentious enough to change a word from a book by Gogol?
This year Locarno focuses on the Caucasus, and Georgia in particular. Could you talk about the nature of your ties with your native country?
The native country is an important concept for me. It’s everything you experienced through your childhood and adolescence. If, during these formative years, you were lucky to be surrounded by mindful, tender, intelligent, and, most importantly, honest people, you will carry with you the benefits from it all your life. But everything flows and changes, and you can be obliged to leave the country of your youth behind. And if, years later, you go back, you won’t recognize a soul, as if entering a foreign country. People from the French Belle Epoque would not recognize today’s France as their own!
Because of censorship, the protagonist of Chantrapas, a film that strongly echoes with your own life, goes through such a quandary, between attachment to his homeland and exile.
This character is the quintessential mix of all the honest men I’ve known in my profession: Paradjanov, Tarkovsky, Dovjenko, Eisenstein. They were subtle, sharp minds, but their wiles to cheat the censors didn’t always work, even with an ode to Stalin’s regime like Ivan the Terrible. America also pushed away one of its greatest talents, Orson Welles, who aimlessly wandered through Europe as a result. And even in a country like France, censorship is ruthless, though in a more disguised form. Jean Vigo’s Atalante was shattered by this indirect and tyrannical censor, namely the “public taste”. As a result, this magnificent film was butchered, and its original version is nowhere to be found in France. I saw it in the secrecy of a private screening at the Russian cinematheque, and it’s impossible to forget even a single vision of L’Atalante, because it is a true film.
Chantrapas cannot be called autobiographical because of a clear distinction between my itinerary and that of the fictional young man: I was able to make all the films I wanted to make, and in the way I wanted to make them. And even those that underwent censorship are out there, palpable. Whereas my character is lost to the kingdom of sirens.
How did your film Brigands take form? It is quite unique, whether in the history of cinema or even in your own filmography.
Brigands is an amusing parable on human viciousness, a reflection on everything that happened, and keeps happening, through the world. Characters from the KGB, careerist ones, or those blinded by ideology, illustrate these evils in the film. But, and it is key, there are honest people, even if they aren’t legion. This is why I am fond of this film: among the generalized chaos, there are, here and there, diamonds of human spirit to be found. And, in order to push forward the character of an honest person, you have to first picture the nightmare in which they are immerged. Tati’s Monsieur Hulot, for example in Mon oncle, is one of them, not bending to the surrounding course of things. He is like an alien, a visitor in this mad world. It’s a long tradition in the history of fiction. Going back in time, we find such an “alone against all” resistance to nightmarish circumstances in the characters of Don Quixote, Candide, Hamlet’s prince of Denmark.
Does courage go hand in hand with honesty?
Not exactly. At artist should produce works he won’t be ashamed of. People like Paradjanov or Tarkovsky did not purposefully go against the flow: it was in their nature, they couldn’t do otherwise. Then of course, what they did wasn’t “proper” in the eyes of the masses. After time has passed, they are called “classics” or “heroes”, but that’s not exactly relevant. They did what they were meant to do.