Shots From the Canon #10: ‘The Belovs’ (Viktor Kossakovsky, 1994)

Every week or so, filmmaker and writer Robert Greene will attempt to push for a new canon of cinematic nonfiction.


Viktor Kossakovsky is a sensual formalist, a theorist, ethicist and one of the great documentarians alive. His “Ten Rules for Documentary Filmmaking” has been widely circulated and its challenges accepted. Thanks to a festival presence at places like IDFA and True/False, his work has become more well known in the last eighteen months. His recent mind-bender ¡Vivan las Antipodas! has gotten a real release throughout much of the world. He is a name to know and his work should be seen and studied. I happily nominate his second film, The Belovs, as the tenth entry into our new canon of cinematic nonfiction.

The Belovs are a family in a small village in rural Russia, and Kossakovsky’s film is a portrait of their lives. Anna is the twice-widowed toughened heart of the house and she does housework, takes care of the animals on their farm near the Neva River and talks to the camera. She lives with her brother Mikhail, whose drunken/philosophical rants are wildly entertaining. Sometimes their other brothers, Vasily and Sergei, stop by to hang out and get into vicious fights. “Why bother filming us?” asks Anna early on, “We are just ordinary people.”

“Ordinary” is sometimes anathema in nonfiction filmmaking, where “quirky” and “eccentric” are overvalued currency. There is a myth that compelling characters must have an innate charisma or a particularly dramatic or interesting story to tell. I have no idea if the Belovs would be fun to sit in a room with (though I have suspicions they’d be a blast to get wasted with), but the way Kossakovsky films them and loosely structures his encounters with their lives makes them endlessly fascinating. Nonfiction is the intersection of life and structure, “compelling” an interplay of reality and construction. Kossakovsky is a searcher for moments of ecstatic observation that transform ordinary into cinema.

The striking black and white images in The Belovs move back and forth between straightforward intimacy and wild lyricism, with passages of joyously evocative music helping to create a sense of lived-in and breathing poetry. Sometimes wickedly funny and oftentimes tender, the film is pure cinema, injected directly. Scenes of family life conjure the deepest pathos and give a glimpse of lives unseen. At just under one hour long, the film feels perfect: epic yet digestible, expansive and searching yet wound tight. A six minute dinner scene that turns bitter is done in one distant yet profoundly personal shot. The steam bath scene is mesmerizing. Every moment bristles with emotional immediacy; kinesis and stillness dance brilliantly.

It all leads to a painfully visceral confrontation between sister and brother, an awful fight that lays bare lifetimes of familial angst. Yet there’s nothing sensationalizing or patronizing here. The Belovs engage with each other in a real and excitingly direct way, so the viewer never looks down on them when they are screaming their faces off. As the climatic fight escalates, the sound is lost, and we watch the remaining minute or so in stunned, terrible silence. It’s one of the most electric moments in documentary history, an exhilarating present tense smashing together of form and content. We then watch Anna listening to the argument on headphones, sobbing. Her heavy emotions give way to an uncontainable need to get up and dance the pain away. Such is life, such is cinema. This film needs to be seen, celebrated, canonized. ¡Vivan Kossakovsky!

Sadly, the film is not currently available.

Past Nominees For the New Canon of Nonfiction Cinema:

#1 News From Home (Chantal Akerman, 1977)

#2 The Store (Frederick Wiseman, 1983)

#3 Below Sea Level (Gianfranco Rosi, 2008)

#4 Tokyo Olympiad (Kon Ichikawa, 1965)

#5 The Century of the Self (Adam Curtis, 2005)

#6 Edvard Munch (Peter Watkins, 1974)

#7 The Battle of Chile (Patricio Guzmán, 1973–1979)

#8 How To Live in the German Federal Republic (Harun Farocki, 1990)

#9 Man of Aran (Robert J. Flaherty, 1934)