Four Stories About Alexander Sokurov

Documentarian Victor Kossakovsky dedicated his new film Aquarela to Russian cinematic great Sokurov. Here he explains why.

I dedicated my new film Aquarela to Alexander Sokurov and people have asked me why, so I thought I’d write something to explain. Everybody knows that he’s an outstanding filmmaker, a scientist of cinema who’s made an incredible contribution to cinema language with films like Russian Ark, Mother and Son and Faust. And people in Russia know he’s a real fighter – someone who’s trying to save St. Petersburg, where they’re destroying buildings to put up a 400-meter tower in the center of the city, and fighting for human rights, arguing with Putin to try to save Oleg Sentsov.

Alexander Sokurov with Vladimir Putin.

He has this reputation as being difficult because if he watches your film and he doesn’t like it, he’ll tell you the truth. When he came to St. Petersburg 40 years ago, he was so brutally honest, which is where he got this reputation of not being a nice person, but it’s not true at all. I’ve known him for almost 40 years — he was 29 and I was 19 when we first met — and have seen a different side of him, and know how lovely and noble a person he is. Sokurov has done so many incredible things for me in my professional and personal life that I could write endlessly about them, but instead I’ll just share four stories which show how generous he is.

After Sokurov finished studying at V.G.I.K. – then the only film school in the Soviet Union – he moved to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and Tarkovsky helped him get a job making his first movie. It was 1980, and at the time I was an assistant cameraman at the Leningrad Documentary Film Studios, but I was also an assistant director and was always watching people edit. His editing room was next to an editor I visited a lot, so we met often. Sokurov knew that I wanted to understand everything – especially editing – but at one point the studio administration wanted to get rid of me because of a stupid political conflict. I’d come up with a politically incorrect idea to make a film about Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko dying one by one – a tragicomedy – and my boss at the studio got freaked out. It was a dissident idea, so they decided to push me out, but as I was no one – just an assistant – and they didn’t have a reason to fire me officially, they invented a reason. They told me, “Victor, you cannot be an assistant cameraman because you have health problems and if you carry a heavy camera, you could die and we’d be responsible. You have to leave the studio.” But Sokurov said, “Wait a second, he can be an editor.” They replied, “No, we have no male editors in the U.S.S.R.” (This was true; there was actually no male version of the word “editor” in Russian.) Sokurov said, “He’s a talented editor, so let him be an editor. Lev Kuleshov and Lev Felonov were male editors, so Kossakovsky won’t the first one.” He convinced them and, in doing so, changed my life. If they had fired me, I would have lost any possibility of working in cinema, but because of Sokurov I started editing and cut many movies over the years.

Sokurov in 2016

Next, I decided to study in Moscow, and there I made my graduate film about Alexei Losev, who at the time was in his nineties. He was one of the great philosophers in Russian history, but during Stalin’s time he’d been sent to the Gulag and his work suppressed. It took me two years to convince Losev to allow me to make a film about him. The problem was, I was a student and I didn’t have any film to shoot on. So I sold my books, my private library, and started buying short ends to shoot on. Then suddenly one day, someone knocked on my door. It was Aleksandr Burov, who at that time was Alexander Sokurov’s cameraman. He had six big rolls of 35 mm black-and-white film and said, “This is a present from Sokurov to you. When he heard who you’re making a film about, he wanted to send you this film.” I was so afraid to waste this precious film by shooting the movie myself that I found the courage to knock on the door of Georgi Rerberg, who had shot Mirror for Tarkovsky. I told him what I was doing, showed some of my footage and he agreed to shoot the film. The film we shot on and what we captured was priceless. I was talking to the greatest living Russian philosopher, and no one had ever seen him. He was sitting alone in his house, like it was a prison. It was amazing. For this, my first film, I did the impossible by making a 58-minute film from the 60 minutes of celluloid Sokurov had given me.

In the Soviet Union, nothing belonged to you and everything belonged to the Soviet Union. For example, my family once had a house in St. Petersburg, but after the revolution they lost it and everything else they owned. After I finished Losev, I didn’t have an apartment and had to stay with friends at their places. When Sokurov saw Losev, he took the six rolls of film to the mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, and said, “This boy has no place to live.” He convinced Sobchak to watch my film, and then Sobchak gave me an apartment in the center of St. Petersburg. If that had not happened, I would have had to wait 25 years for an apartment and spent that time living in small communal apartments. My wife and I had just had a baby a few months before, so having this apartment was unbelievably important for us.

I have many more stories about the generous things Sokurov has done for me, but I will share just one last example. When I was already a well-known director whose films had won international prizes and played at festivals around the world, I was still finding it difficult to finance my movies. For my film ¡Vivan las Antipodas!, which is about opposites in the world, it took more than two years to finance the film. After two years, though, I was so desperate to get started that I decided to look for funding myself. I asked for help from my filmmaker friends in St. Petersburg, who are all famous, successful and quite rich, but was totally shocked when they all declined. I hadn’t called Sokurov because he’s not rich – he’s an artist who’s dedicated his life to cinema – but when I failed with all my other friends, I called him and said, “Listen, I need to fly to New Zealand because I have to start this film, but I don’t have the money.” He said, “OK. How much do you need?” He didn’t ask me exactly why I needed the money, he just gave it to me.

The whale and the rock in ¡Vivan las Antipodas!

The following week, I was in New Zealand when I suddenly saw a huge whale on the coast, and I started filming. Then I said, “What if I went to the exact opposite side of the world? What would be there?” I calculated where it was and then flew to that location in Spain. In that spot, there was a huge rock, the same size and shape as a whale. It was absolutely unbelievable, and it immediately shaped my film. If I hadn’t gone to New Zealand, ¡Vivan las Antipodas! would have been totally different. And I wouldn’t have been there if it weren’t for Sokurov.

Victor Kossakovsky is an innovative documentary filmmaker whose films have been honored with more than 100 awards in national and international festivals. His distinctive filmography spans many different subjects but always explores the interplay of reality and poetic moments. Aquarela, is in select theaters through Sony Pictures Classics. In 1989 he directed his first feature Losev and then in 1992 his most famous documentary, The Belovs, which won both the VPRO Joris Ivens Award and the Audience Award at IDFA and dozens of other awards at international festivals around the world. In 2011, Kossakovsky’s ¡Vivan Las Antipodas! was selected as the opening film of the Venice Film Festival. In many of his films, Kossakovsky is the director, editor, cinematographer and writer. He continues to serve as a teacher and mentor to aspiring filmmakers and documentarians globally.