A feature documentary by director Oleksandr Balahura is a summary of the past 15-20 years in Ukraine of sorts
Life Span of the Object in Frame began with a photograph taken by Oleksandr Chekmeniov seven or eight years ago at Privoz, a huge market in Odesa. The girl on the left of the picture told the director that the main character of the photograph – the woman sleeping under the counter – used to be a homeless red-haired beauty. She froze to death on the street after an illegal operation to remove her organs.
UW: Don’t you think it’s too presumptuous to plan a conceptual and serious full-length documentary feature film at a time when people are mostly interested in movies that entertainment them?
Yes, everything becomes a “product” these days but some things cannot be valued from a commercial perspective. It’s simple: opera and music, especially classical music, cannot live by market rules because they will not survive or transform into something different – and that’s what is happening right now. Even after a hundred years, cinematography is still art that continues to comprehend and explore itself. It is still able to raise important questions and I hope we do so in our film. We spent three years searching for funding. Everyone realized that this was not a project that would bring profits. In this sense, its value was unknown. I’m not trying to be a snob here, but I have to say that I wanted to make it the way it is now. When you find something that is of concern to you, when you want to do something about it and it is done sincerely, there will be people that are also concerned about it as well.
You see for us, this film is a sort of tour and adventure. At the same time, we’re doing our best to remain ourselves, not lose ourselves and continue raising important issues. As always. Times today are different to what they were before –faster and more urgent, something that cinematography and television use today, but it is a terrible thing that affects people. The possibility to manipulate is endless these days and propaganda films – old and new alike – are all based on it. Albeit weaker than before, but it still exists. A person holding such a weapon must be morally ready for this and know what to say and how to say it. Previously, when people were poorly educated, this weapon took the form of words, which were treated responsibly. Before writing something, monks would apologize to God by saying “I’m helpless and humble”. Hence the phrase: “A thought once uttered is untrue.”
UW: Your film is a compilation of old photographs of people, birds, animals and buildings. It’s also black and white. Is this nostalgia for the past or is it just a stylistic tool to reflect your world-view?
A film is never made just for the sake of it. It always focuses on something – love, war or nostalgia – and it is necessary to determine how it will be shot. In other words, a film is always a film about a film. It’s about the material and the attitude towards it. Take a sculptor: he thinks about how to make his sculpture before he begins, because the material and the language in which you talk to it are extremely important. How do you say “I love you”? Take Romeo and Juliette or Tristan and Isolde – everything was about how they and their feelings were portrayed. Film is the same. You take material that does not lie to you – a photograph that you can use as you like. You can focus on parts of it, experiment with it and move along and away from it, and it will still be the same. This embodies the maxim that cinematography is all about editing. You also have to remember that you are playing and answering certain moral questions: how far can you get in the game and what exactly do you want to do.
UW: Interestingly, you don’t play this game by modern rules. You use the rhythm from the past with the slow speech of a narrator behind the scenes and the slow flow of stills…
It all depends on what you want to say and how to deliver it. You have probably seen the trailer. It will be different in the film. Some episodes are quick and energetic. Others are slow. We are dealing with a piece of reality because the photograph is part of it, and then we discuss it: why did it emerge and why someone pressed the shutter button at this specific moment? But we don’t fully understand the sense of what happened and why it happened this way. Eadweard Muybridge, an English-American photographer of the late 19th and early 20th century, is one example. He catalogued motion and I don’t think he realized completely what exactly he was a part of. Today’s photograph can have a totally different sense in 30 years time, compared to what we wanted it to be. A photograph lives a life of its own.
UW: Their life or yours? Do you show the reality of a photograph or your vision of it? The question is whether your film is a document, the truth or yet another manipulation?
The definition of a genre is often misleading. Some, such as Michael Moore, do it intentionally, as a manifesto. Some do it unintentionally – someone can think they are creating the truth with such beliefs, but in fact, the film will not be truth. Paradoxically, in this sense, a feature film often turns out to be more documentary than a documentary film. It immediately reveals the cards, saying that we will play the history of a Danish prince for you on a specific Thursday of a specific year. On the other hand, a documentary film which represents itself as such, is often not. I’m not sure if LifeSpanoftheObjectinFrameis a documentary film or not. It has many entertainment elements and staged episodes, but is a document, because it concerns serious issues.
UW: Is there an underlying social message in your film? Can the “irreversible 15-20 years” you mention at the beginning, pertain to Ukrainian society as a whole? Are you saying that we failed to notice what happened because we were not looking outside the box?
It’s not even about us being absorbed in ourselves and failing to notice what is around us, but because we contemplate it in depth, thinking only for and about ourselves. Our film has this self-irony. We don’t offer recipes. We only ascertain the state and try to figure it out. In truth, this is a general universal situation, when a person loses himself/herself in life and looks for a way out – something that everyone understands.
UW: Rarely can what you plan in your head and write on paper be embodied in films. Remember Tarkovsky’s Stalker, when you enter the room of wishes? What did you receive once you entered?
You’ve touched upon an important thing. It’s like an amateur video – you shoot picnics, birthdays and people on the street and at some point, it becomes time – something bigger than a picnic and people. What I’m trying to say is that you never know what will happen later, no matter what you do: write a book or shoot a film. Even doing this, it feels as if you are entering this Tarkovsky’s room. It’s a risk because you have no idea what you’ll come out with. It’s a matter of sincerity, soul, heart and responsibility. You should remember that at the end of the road, you will have to pay. But to do something, you have to enter the room. So, you always have to enter it. Tarkovsky’s Stalker is great in this respect, because he explained how it functions: you enter the room of wishes every time you say or do something. Every day. So, should you be silent? But silence is also an expression. The wish you take into the room is what matters. And don’t enter it if you can stay away. Or enter it if you can’t.
Oleksandr Balahura is a the director of more than 20 documentary films. He graduated from the History Department of the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv. Mr. Balahura was awarded numerous prizes. He has worked at the Ukrainian Film Chronicle Studio for 10 years. Mr. Balahura has lived in Italy since the late 1990s.