Master filmmaker Alexander Sokurov philosophizes about cinema, culture, and politics in Finnish helmer Leena Kilpelainen’s enjoyable docu “The Voice of Sokurov.” Those hoping for a full biography should look elsewhere, and the film does little to illuminate his working methods. Instead, Kilpelainen’s interviews, shot over five years yet compiled as if done in seven days, looks at the breadth of the man’s achievements rather than the details, and is most interesting when the cultivated director offers insights into his way of thinking. “Voice” is an appealing fest item, likely to get further traction out of a 52-minute smallscreen edit.
Each interview is in a different locale in Sokurov’s beloved St. Petersburg, a city that’s nurtured him and features significantly in his oeuvre. In a prologue, the vet director speaks of his fearlessness, and offers that if he couldn’t work in Russia, he’d certainly leave. This pull, between the refined city he loves and his uncensored views on the troubling Russian state in all its recent permutations, forms the most revealing element of Kilpelainen’s elegant docu. Sokurov’s pessimism comes from years of bucking government control, and while his sense of resignation is informed by the past, he’s also very much aware of the present.
His first significant brush with state control came in 1978, when he made his debut feature, “The Lonely Voice of Man,” and discovered that it was banned (release came with glasnost, in 1987). In fact, he had to break into the storerooms of the Russian State U. of Cinematography (VGIK) to steal his own reels, slated for destruction, and replace them with something more disposable. Moral support from Andrei Tarkovsky was comforting, yet Sokurov spent years under surveillance, constantly fighting censorship, until Mikhail Gorbachev came to power (presumably Sokurov must have had some high-placed supporters, though this isn’t mentioned).
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His tribulations with power obviously inform such films as “Moloch,” “Taurus,” “The Sun” and “Faust,” the latter ironically partly funded with backing from Vladimir Putin. The Russian president is clearly a man Sokurov disagrees with, yet difficulties finding financing forced him to accept Putin’s support — dare one suggest that Faust’s pact with the devil spawned another troubling contract? Dictatorships need art, Sokurov says, democracies not, since they’re geared toward the lowest common denominator.
Later, he states that culture lies with the far right and the far left: The rest is just swamp, with a few practitioners crawling in and out on occasion. This very Russian pessimism suits Sokurov and his films, with their strong sense of decadence (using the true definition of cultural and moral decline), though he’s clear in stating that none of his movies is in any way autobiographical — including “Father and Son,” around which several theories continue to swirl.
At the end of the interviews, Sokurov speaks of his fight to preserve historic buildings in St. Petersburg, and his sadness that Lenfilm is now a privatized concern (without naming him, the director makes a dig at Fedor Bondarchuk, among others, when he states that the people now in charge of the historic production unit are a dubious lot). “Cinema won’t survive the quality test,” says the filmmaker, “its language is aging.” One suspects even Sokurov wouldn’t mind being proven wrong, and glimpses on-set of his new film, shot in the Louvre, suggest the master, at least, isn’t the one aging.
Kilpelainen makes good use of clips, and the interviews are handsomely lensed. One major hole is the near absence of Sokurov’s superb docus (apart from his film on Mstislav Rostropovich) — a peculiar deficiency as their themes neatly elide with the filmmaker’s interests and obsessions. Given Sokurov’s sensitivity to music, it’s surprising Kilpelainen doesn’t engage him on that topic, although she makes good use of various scores.