The documentaries of Sergei Loznitsa, featured this month by Doc Alliance in an online retrospective, are an enigmatic bunch. The occasion is the upcoming release of his newest nonfiction feature, Maidan, a chronicle of the Euromaidan protests in Kiev that would lead to 2014’s Ukrainian Revolution (in U.S. theaters December 12th). Yet such a politically urgent project is something of a rarity in Loznitsa’s body of work.
The films featured by Doc Alliance are quiet, often austere and frequently static portraits of people and their rituals and occupations. Their soundtracks are astounding blends of industrial noise and the rhythms of the natural world, rather than the shouts of protesters and the stomp of police boots. What Maidan shares with these works, however, is a formal rigor and a unique sense of where to place the camera. A Loznitsa documentary is a distillation of a place and time, relying not on context or narrative but rather on the character of its movements and sounds.
But enough about his work as a whole. Two of the best films featured in this program offer distinctive variations on the Ukrainian master’s style. Both present a single event in a single location. Yet while one is primarily interested in the role of humanity in the natural landscape, the other builds a landscape out of human faces. The latter, from 2003, is appropriately titled Landscape. The former is Artel, a 2006 study of a group of ice fisherman.
Landscape opens on the small Russian town of Okulovka, which has seen better days. Loznitsa’s camera moves past a dilapidated church, some wooden barns and a number of other old, towering edifices. The emptiness evokes grief and perhaps longing, though it’s hard to imagine what rosier past this community may have had. Finally, about 12 minutes in, he settles on a town square full of people waiting for the bus. The middle section of Landscape wanders through this crowd, slowly lingering on many faces but never stopping entirely.
Bits of conversations come and go. The residents of Okulovka share memories of the past and doubts about the future, starting with whether the bus will show up on time, or at all. One woman tells a story about her alcoholic husband, another remembers meeting victims of the Chernobyl Disaster. Someone puts forth the wishful thought that the Chinese will save the local economy. For much of the film it seems as if these discussions are happening just off camera, in real time, but careful attention reveals a lack of synchronized sound. The landscape in Landscape is the people themselves. Their words, their winter clothes and their stoic, slightly frustrated faces, always aware of the camera, are the elements of Loznitsa’s palette.
Artel, a Russian word for a workers’ cooperative, is a nearly wordless film of a single day of work by a group of fisherman in rural Russia. Loznitsa keeps the camera at a slight distance, obscuring the men’s faces and lending the event an air of dramatic anonymity. Ice fishing is a remarkably noisy affair, far from the idealized tranquility that we often associate with the pastime. The holes in the ice are cut with chainsaws, the fish extracted with other enormous tools that seem almost otherworldly in Loznitsa’s austere frames. Yet there’s nothing alien about this process for the men involved, who eke out their livelihood with a deliberateness underlined by the film’s near-silence. This cooperative of workers comes across as professional and weathered, their work slow and dignified.
All the while nature itself, gigantic and intimidating, looms above and around the fishermen. The first shot after the title card is of an empty boat stored for the winter, upside down next to a fence. Everything is covered in snow, including the sleepy village in the distance. Winter is a time of hibernation and, by metaphorical extension, death. There is an establishing shot of the frozen lake a short while later, an icy desert under a blanket of snow with dunes and ridges. The wind can be both seen and heard, a constant presence under the mechanical din of the fishermen. Even in its noisiest moments, Artel is accompanied by the enormity of the natural world, woodland mountains hovering in the background. This is a film about the mundane majesty of collaborative labor in the wilderness, the determined presence of humanity in the wintry landscape.
Watch more of Loznitsa’s documentaries free on Doc Alliance through December 14th.