With Netflix so heavily invested in the documentary game these days, it seems that most non-fiction films are being watched from the comfort of the sofa. But if there’s one filmmaker whose work simply demands the bells and whistles of big screen presentation, it’s Victor Kossakovsky.
Seven years on from the staggering Vivan las antípodas!, the Russian master is back with his most maximalist work to date, an experiential study of water in all its elemental power that scoffs at the very notion of home viewing.
A globe-spanning odyssey shot at 96 frames per second, Aquarela opens with a heart-stopping tragedy captured on Siberia’s frozen Lake Baikal, as a car plunges through the melting ice. Venturing across the open Atlantic – via Greenland – to Miami in the throes of Hurricane Irma, before a miracle of a climax at Venezuela’s Angel Falls, Kossakovsky’s seemingly impossible images are backed by a pounding rock score by Finnish cellist Eicca Toppinen.
Poetic and multi-sensorial, it’s a thundering technical achievement – quite literally, pure cinema. We sat down with Kossakovsky to discuss Aquarela’s conceptual, technical and practical challenges.
Like your previous work, Aquarela is a non-fiction film, but ‘documentary’ doesn’t quite seem the right word to describe it…
It’s the most important question. This is what I’m asking myself, and I can’t find the right word either. I think that until we find the term, there will always be this confusion about documentaries.
Documentary is the wrong term for this kind of film. Cinema itself was born through documentary shots; the train pulling into the station was a documentary, but we don’t call it that.
Then fiction filmmakers stole this idea of cinema, and we were left with these ‘information’ films, talking heads based on journalism, or based on narrative ideas of storytelling. For example, this building, is that storytelling? Is architecture storytelling? Is music storytelling? What about painting?
Why does art have to be about storytelling? We can use art for storytelling, it might be what we want to do, but it’s not the source of cinema. Cinema is something else. Cinema is art itself. Filmmakers like myself need to find a new word to express what it is that we’re doing, otherwise people won’t go to see it; they think documentaries are things you watch on TV.
Aquarela begins with its most narratively-driven sequence, though. Was that a way of easing the viewer into the film on more familiar terms?
It was a total accident. I was shooting something else, just the ice, and then I saw this car, which led to this horrible shot. The first 20 minutes uses more traditional storytelling devices, so I thought at least people would watch that. I knew that if they watched those 20 minutes, they wouldn’t leave. It was a trick, in a way, to keep people there, and then I decided to destroy the narrative.
There must have been some real ethical considerations when deciding what to include for that sequence.
Oh yeah, of course. You only saw the minimum of what was filmed. I didn’t show the body, or the man’s face. I have footage that I could never show, for ethical reasons, but that’s the same with every film.
You have to ask yourself about the consequences of everything you show or don’t show. Maybe if I do show it, maybe someone won’t die tomorrow?
The locals were over-confident; they thought that having lived there all their lives, it was only idiot tourists who died. We think we know everything. Obviously not.
Was there a single image, or an idea of an image, that was the genesis of the film?
There’s a Russian painter called Aivazovsky, who for his whole life painted storms. His most famous one is called The Ninth Wave, which gives this amazing, almost 3D feeling. I was wondering if cinema could replicate this, if cinema could express what water looks like with such rage. What you usually see is made in studios, in swimming pools with wind machines. My idea was to go inside a storm and capture it, but it was technically impossible. With some luck, we found a solution.
Even conceptually, it must have been a challenge to afford a storm and the water its own subjective viewpoint.
And its own dramaturgical licence. I told the producers that I wouldn’t write a script, that I’d go and film, then find it in the editing, depending on what happened. I never knew what would happen next, or where we’d go.
You must have driven your producers crazy.
Absolutely, the poor guys. I don’t think they slept.
What were the technical preparations that led you to shoot at 96 frames per second?
If people could watch this projected at 96fps, they’d never watch 24fps again. 3D has its limitations, not just because of the glasses, but because it’s a little bit against the tradition of art. When you film rain at normal speed, it looks like short lines on screen, and I wanted to see the actual drops. I made tests at 24, 48, 60, 72, 96, 120. In fact, I’d already shot a film at 48, where I was shooting a ballet dancer, and the regular frame rate only captured a blur in movement.
There has to be a dramaturgical reason though, otherwise people just think it’s a technological gimmick. If people could actually see my film using one of Ang Lee’s special projectors, they’d realise how this tool could be used properly. If this technology is going to get out into the world, it has to be driven by the content. It was the same when sound and colour first appeared.
Has an audience seen it projected at 96fps yet?
Only three people, but they went away thinking they’d never be able to watch normal films again. When Emmanuel Lubezki saw Aquarela, he sent me his hat. I like to make films where even the best professionals have no idea how I made it. That’s the goal.