Victor Kossakovsky is a documentary filmmaker of remarkable and wildly varied ambition. Some of his projects seem too large to be feasible. He directed his most recent feature film, Demonstration, with the collaboration of 32 of his students. His previous feature, Vivan las Antipodas!, was shot on five different continents. Others of his films, on the other hand, have the hubris of mundane patience. For Hush! he spent an entire year shooting out of the windows of his St. Petersburg apartment. And for Svyato, he did something requiring even more inspiration and commitment.
After Kossakovsky’s son Svyatoslav was born, the maverick filmmaker covered all of the mirrors in his home. He kept it that way for two years. Then, without warning, he unveiled a large mirror, set up three HD cameras, and let his son react to seeing his own image for the first time.
Much is made of the “mirror test,” the technique in zoology by which scientists determine whether animals can recognize themselves. Chimpanzees pass and rhesus monkeys fail. Dogs fail but dolphins pass, and so do magpies. Yet despite our interest in discovering how many of our furry and feathered friends share the potential for a little narcissistic preening, we don’t spend all that much time thinking about how our own self-recognition begins. Svyato reminds us that perhaps we should.
This 33-minute film is comprised almost entirely of a single shot, the camera pointed into the enormous reflective surface propped up in a room in the director’s apartment. There’s a brief framing shot of Kossakovsky standing on a bridge over a still pond, and there’s a final montage sequence, but for the most part the film is this one, single take. The father lets his son’s innocence run the show. The resulting scene is both adorable and complex.
The first surprise is that Svyatoslav seems to know exactly what he’s looking at almost immediately. The “mirror test,” as it turns out, is not much of a challenge for humans. It is not the fact of recognition that makes Svyato an interesting film, but the layers beneath that cognizance that emerge over the subsequent half hour. For instance, the boy seems more fascinated at first by the mirroring of objects than he is by his own reflection. He beats a toy broom against the mirror over and over again, watching it meet its twin.
Soon after, though, he finds his own motions more entertaining. Kossakovsky watches his son discover performance, dancing and jumping with glee before the mirror. He mimes eating and then makes hand gestures as if he is communicating with himself in a pre-verbal way we don’t entirely understand. The most exciting moment is when he runs to the other room and comes back with a glossy purple backpack, having discovered the ability to evaluate his own fashion choices.
Kossakovsky resists the urge to edit this experience until the end, closing the film with a swift barrage of Svyatoslav’s discoveries, from drawing on the mirror to kissing himself. The boy learns gradually at first, but soon the experience explodes into a symphony of gestures, smiles and giggles. His joy turns this experiment into a sort of fairy tale, a comparison invited by Kossakovsky’s use of a folk song and a quote from a Russian legend at the beginning of the film. First he could not see himself, but within the space of half an hour he seems to truly know himself. Few documentaries are able to capture human revelation in such a primordial form, a reward for all of the ambitious director’s inspired patience.