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Cinema of Cascades: Victor Kossakovsky on Aquarela

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By Yun-hua Chen.

Watching Aquarela, a documentary under the section of Out of Competition in Venice International Film Festival, is definitely one of the most inspiring experiences during this year’s program. It is everything that cinema should be and at the same time, something that we have never seen on screen before. Water being the most important character throughout the film, Aquarela is a narrative about the element in many different forms, from ice to water, from iceberg to water, from rain to storm, from water to waterfall, and from water to vapor. As the title “Aquarela”, meaning “water color” in Portuguese, aptly suggests, the film looks like a series of abstract water color paintings about water, drawn by water. Here, water is personified into an emotional being with feelings and temper, and through water the powerful message about climate change and its consequences are conveyed in a very visceral way. Yet Victor Kossakovsky does not dictate. He lets images and sounds speak for themselves and leaves the interpretation completely up to the viewers. It is a pure feast of images and sounds, which delights, frightens, and provokes.

At Venice International Film Festival I grabbed the chance to talk with Victor Kossakovsky about water, water color, images and sounds, and cinema’s power.

What really strikes me is that it is a film which is truly universal. You don’t really need words at all and you let water speaks in its different forms. My first question would be, why water? What exactly attracted you to this portrait of water in the first place?

For any filmmaker, the basis of cinema is to film changes. If it is something static, something that doesn’t move and doesn’t change, it is not interesting for cinema. Static things might be interesting for photos and paintings, but for films in general, it is interesting when you are sad one minute and then you laugh the next minute. How things transform and evolve is interesting for cinema, such as how it starts off with sunshine and suddenly becomes cloudy and then rainy. This is what is beautiful for cinema; different feelings and different situations all in one shot. And I was thinking, what would be the pure subject to achieve this. Of course water is absolutely perfect for this. There is no acting that is more extravagant than this one. So, my starting point was to film these changes, these transformations. For example, there is this waterfall, Angel Falls. Water is falling from the one kilometer high and suddenly in the middle, bam, it disappears, and then in the end it becomes a river again. That is magic. It is absolutely magic.

It feels as if you were painting with water.

Aque 04This is the concept we thought about. We said, if camera is brush, what is water color? That’s why I agreed to make this film. When my producer Aimara Reques asked me to make a film about water, I first said no. I didn’t want to because there were already too many films about water. Then a week later she said, what if it’s called “Aquarela”. At that suggestion I said, yes, I like it. This is what I want to. I want to open up to cinema in an artistic way, in the way of documentary and not in a way of journalism. There are good journalist films and they can exist, but I cannot do it. I am just a different person. For me, the most important things are the feelings, and not rationality. I prefer to touch your heart rather than touch your head.

How do you engage with abstraction? There are many beautiful shots of water as abstract images.

It came out so naturally. I started thinking about it and filming, and the more I filmed, the more fascinated I was with water and more eager I was to eliminate people. I came across a place and said, we need to film this because people haven’t seen this. More and more it was clear to us that water so beautiful and powerful that we should just concentrate on water. That’s how I realized that we don’t need people in the film. They would appear from time to time and it’s ok. Generally I do not search for human stories anymore. In the beginning the producer would of course ask what the story of human beings is and tell us that a human story is better for distribution, so I was kind of searching for this. And then in the middle of the project it was clear to me that if there are more powerful things happening, why do I have to think about conventional and traditional storytelling. So, I said no and decided to focus on water and then see what we do. We had to first convince the producer and then our audience. By luck we found our way.

As we could see in the film, you started from filming stories of human beings on a frozen lake in Russia and then continued with sequences without human presence.

In my previous film there was a little Girl, Elina, who was 12. She said, in the next life she would prefer being water, and not human being. It was such a beautiful sentence. She said it accidentally and I kept it in the film. When it happened that I was making a film about water, I said that I would go to that same place, start from there and see what would happen. So, I put the camera in exactly the same place and first started filming transportation on ice. Then bam, something happened, and the story turned to a different direction. It was totally unexpected. It became totally different from what I had in mind in the beginning of filming.

There were many moments in the film which made the audience worried about you. What you were doing was very dangerous. How was the process for you and your team?

I wanted to achieve something that people have never seen before, and my team is excellent. We put a lot of effort into finding a way to surprise the audience and make them think, “how did you do that?” I was very happy to see that we achieved this. This morning we got such an incredible phone call from a renowned cameraman. He asked, “What is this? How did you guys make it?” But then, the filmmaking process was very risky indeed. My team was 30 years old on average. I can die, it’s ok. I have seen things and been so happy all my life. I may be the happiest person in the world. I saw so much beauty, so many beautiful people and unbelievable things. I can only say my life is a total bliss. On top of it, I am in the position to see things that people don’t usually see, to see beauty of the world. But those young people in my team, they need to be alive. So, I was always concerned about finding a balance between achieving something surprising, and not to risking their life for that. We did a lot of tours which were a complete nightmare for me. For example, when we were in a boat on our way towards Greenland, we knew that in the night we wouldn’t be able to see small icebergs on the radar and could be hit by an iceberg and die. So, we had to keep watching all night long. And then there were 600 containers which were lost from the ships and they were floating on the surface. You don’t see them, and they can be very dangerous. It was especially dangerous when the waves rose to 10, 20 and 50 meters high, and then suddenly a container appeared in front of us. In fact, every time we went for boat trips, we might not wake up again. When the film was done, thank God that no one, apart from Kolyan whose car fell into a hole on the ice and who died accidentally in front of our eyes, my team by luck stays all alive. This is for me the biggest relief. I did not destroy anyone’s life. For the next film, I feel that I have the necessity to continue with this dangerous life, but I told myself not to play with fate. So instead, I did something calm.

What is the next project?

I am finishing a film now. I have almost finished shooting. There were only two shooting days left, tomorrow and after tomorrow. It’s about a pig, a cow and a chicken. It’s 90 minutes long, and there is no human being and no slaughtering. It’s not anything you have seen before. It was made in Norway and is the best film that I have done so far. It will be ready by the end of the year. It’s a big surprise because we usually don’t think about what a chicken can tell you, and what a cow can tell you. If you stay with them for two months, you will learn life and you will be surprised.

You are a firm believer that if you observe something long enough, anything at all including water, cow, human beings, or trees, you would find a story. Would you like to talk about your method of observation?

Aque 03 newJust take them seriously. It’s the same as human beings. If you don’t respect them enough, you wouldn’t understand them. You have to give them a chance. You have to listen to them instead of talking, and then you will see their beauty and you will see how beautiful every human being in this universe is. It’s the same with chickens, cows and pigs. Give them a chance, and they will tell you their stories. You will see how unique every living being is.

The sound design in Aquarela is very powerful. How did you achieve this?

The sound designer Aleksandr Dudarev did an amazing job. Imagine, there are 180 channels running at the same time. You watch the images and listen to 180 sounds at the same time. It’s really unbelievable. In fact, sound-editing took much longer than image-editing. We decided that we wanted to grab everything and give it to the audience, so it was a really big challenge. The sound studio deserves recognition for their amazing job of recording all of this and finding a way to present it.

And the volume of the sound that you set added up to the cinematic experience.

Indeed. We always think that water is silent. This is also why this film has been a challenge to us. It is kind of against logic. Water is actually not silent at all. Just listen. Sometimes you listen with your own ears and don’t hear anything, and then you listen to water with a microphone and you will experience that water is talking constantly. Our senses are not capable of understanding everything, but different lenses and different microphones would help. Our sound designer Aleksandr Dudarev was experimenting a lot on how to record with a microphone, how to record under water, and how to achieve the feelings that we want. Sometimes technology is not enough for what we wanted to do, so he was inventing things himself. For example, when we were shooting the hurricane in Miami, we could not record sounds on the spot. It was not possible. But he reconstructed all the sounds in his studio. It feels totally real, but it is totally fake. He collected all these different sounds from his previous recording in different locations during the film shooting to build this soundscape. It’s very beautiful.

It feels more real than the real hurricane experience.

Exactly. Unbelievable.

Speaking of the hurricane in Miami, we could all feel that there is a very strong message in the film, especially in terms of how water could come with a hurricane and affects us in a very detrimental manner. Judging from the reception in Venice, do you think that your message has come across as you expected?

It’s unbelievable how the film talks to people. Without explicitly saying the message or any statements, people from different countries could all understand. This is the beauty of cinema. You don’t need language. All you need is cinematic language. After the screening, people from Chile, US, China, Japan and Russia came to me. They cried and hugged me. That’s the power of cinema. That’s a very beautiful way to talk to people, without actually talking to people.

What are your thoughts about documentaries as active engagement in broader society?

I am different in this case. I think if we talk openly about our ideas, we can spoil it easily. We are just filmmakers. We are not scientists. We cannot give messages. What we can do is reveal problems through filmmaking, like a homeopath, or not even a homeopath. We try to make people think differently and take action to prevent problems from happening. For me this is more important. That’s why cinema is not there to prove ideas such as human rights ideas or political ideas. If we keep cinema in its place, rather than using it for utilitarian needs, it would work better. Cinema is supposed to be art, like when it was born. Sometimes it could be journalism, but the language of cinema is the main tool of cinema.

What was the most memorable moment during the shooting?

We came to Greenland and we saw a man cutting a little iceberg in a village by the coast. I said, what are you doing? He said, this is the water we are going to drink. I said, this iceberg may be one million years old. He said, no problem, it is life. And then I realized that he is right. Water is life. It’s probably an one-million-year-old iceberg, but you can just put it in your glass. In five minutes it would become water and you can drink it. It’s unbelievable.

Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar who contributes regularly to Film InternationalExberliner, the website of Goethe Institut, as well as other academic journals. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs is funded by Geschwister Boehringer Ingelheim Stiftung für Geisteswissenschaften and was published by Neofelis Verlag in 2016.

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