Friday, 1 April 2011

A disquieting kind of silence

Russian filmmaker Aleksei Popogrebsky's new movie largely avoids dialogue in order to build its tension.

THERE was a lot Russian director Aleksei Popogrebsky was willing to do for his film How I Ended this Summer. He moved his cast and crew to the remote Siberian locale of Chukotka, a desolate, cold place where they spent three months shooting. He had a screenplay with almost no dialogue and only two actors. He allowed the whims of the weather to dictate the look of the film. One thing he wasn't willing to do, however, was go toe-to-toe with a polar bear.

Contrary to their postcard image as docile emblems of the fragile earth, Popogrebsky quickly discovered, polar bears are voracious, fast-running carnivores with a particular taste for 38-year-old Russian filmmakers.

"At one point I had to run for my life," Popogrebsky says. "I was maybe 10 kilometres away from my crew when I encountered three polar bears. They say once you go face-to-face with a polar bear you don't run, you just stand firm, hold your ground. Somehow I did not test that hypothesis and I did run. I felt like I was running for life."

Curious critters though they are, polar bears rarely attack people without provocation. Still, Popogrebsky hotfooted it across the cold tundra to a nearby cabin until his new-found friends moved on. Did his life flash before him as he ran?

"Honestly, it was a very intense experience but I was really thinking that I have to finish this film, I have to make it to Moscow to edit it," he says. "That was really what was motivating me."

Set in a lonely Arctic weather station, the film tells of the blintze-thin relationship between two men: there's seasoned weather station veteran Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis), who likes everything run by the book, and there's Pavel (Grigory Dobrygin), an easily bored college student who's a volunteer there for the summer.

With little contact from the outside world other than a scratchy two-way radio and no entertainment aside from fishing, video games and Pavel's iPod, things come to a head when one is told important news about the other but is reluctant to pass it on.

In a global culture built on instant communication, Popogrebsky relished building his story upon the notion of a person not communicating a vital byte of information.

"There are so few places in the world where you are not subject to instant messaging and instant communication," he says in articulate English. "I also think we now tend to view our life experience as something that we can commodify in the way of written messages or blog write-ups or Twitter comments. That is really a way that we cut ourselves off from a much more important, natural and organic experience of interacting with the world."

With an emphasis on majestic visuals and long silences over words, Popogrebsky deftly invites his audience to read into the thought processes of his characters and respond as they wish to the film's quietly menacing ambience. That said, he insists the fact people are seeing his film in terms of symbols and metaphors — a favourite of his is how the characters represent old and new Russia — was not intentional, even though such responses delight him. ...

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