Vol 2, No 7
21 February 2000
Un mensonge que dit la verité...
The complex use of setting in
Vitali Kanevskii's films Zamri, umri, voskresni!
and Samostoiatel'naia zhizn'
It is difficult to discern a structure of metaphor and meaning in Vitaly Kanevskii's perplexingly varied and intricately revealed setting. The bleak landscape of the Far Eastern town of Suchan, where he himself lived in childhood and which he chose as the setting for the greater portion of his two autobiographical films, Zamri, umri, voskresni! (Freeze, Die, Come to Life!, 1989) and Samostoiatel'naia zhizn' (An Independent Life, 1992) evokes a remarkable ambivalence.
Kanevskii confronts the viewer with a portrait of the eastern Primore (Coastal) district in the post-war years that, paradoxically, evokes the simultaneous extremes of recognition and incomprehension. This is at once a fragmented pastiche of memories and a cohesive and believable reality, a world unlike any imaginable and a mode of existence frighteningly familiar to those who understand the word "Zone" in its particular Stalinist-Soviet context. As a consequence, we are repulsed and confused by Kanevskii's conception of "place" and fascinated by its undeniable credibility as a past we know.
A keen eye
We easily forget we are viewing this world through the eyes of the boy Valerka, the director's alter-ego. Setting in both films is grounded in a reconstruction of memory. Kanevskii stresses that he aimed to recreate episodes of his own childhood faithfully in film, and thus the camera's eye cannot possibly be omniscient; rather than document objectively, it must remember subjectively. The generally positive critical response to (especially) Zamri, umri, voskresni! has nevertheless unanimously praised the integrity of Kanevskii's work for its universal relevance to the Soviet audience and its acutely observed recreation of a familiar time and place.
The world of Valerka seems well fleshed-out, with a wide cast of characters and a comprehensive visual sweep of the physical setting. Indeed, the Valerka of both films is relentlessly active, and we follow his ranging movements at a breathless pace through the diverse and numbingly inhuman landscape of first Suchan and then Nikolaevsk-na-Amure. Miraculously, while Kanevskii's conception is telegraphically impressionistic and at times impossibly grim, filtered as it is through the distorting prism of Valerka's personal experience, at the same time there emerges a rich and complete tapestry of character and event.
If Kanevskii gives us a conception of the impossible that we find possible, in which we encounter "Un mensonge que dit la veritÚ..." ("A lie that tells the truth...") how do we decode its meaning? Kanevskii's setting functions in a complex fashion to refer not only to Valerka's world but also to the nature of Valerka's experience within it. The critic Elena Stishova observes that the "topography of [Zamri, umri, voskresni!] is polyfunctional and extraordinarily active."
Allegory and aesthetic
Setting in both films must be understood not only as an aesthetic achievement, but also as a body of allegory. I will seek here to reveal the layers of meaning in Kanevskii's topography, first as a simple backdrop duplicating a remembered "place," then as a figurative expression of Valerka's passage from innocence, and finally as a structure of metaphorical reference to basic human concerns.
Certain critics received the second of these films, Samostoiatel'naia zhizn', hailing the emergence of a new aesthetic ("absoliutno inaia stilistika" - an absolutely different style) in Kanevskii's work. However, without claiming a seamless continuity between the two films, Kanevskii, it is safe to say, has returned to the world of the first film with the second.
Judging by his comments, the telling of a childhood story, replete as it may have been with reference to larger events, was the foremost concern linking the two films. At their simplest, these are the stories of two loves. Speaking of Zamri, umri, voskresni!, Kanevskii says, "I arranged things so that the relationship of the two children remained the central theme of the film." All the characters are based on actual "prototypes," and Kanevskii insisted that the depicted events were drawn from episodes in his own childhood.
With this in mind, we must first appreciate Kanevskii's cinematic Suchan for its documentary-like verisimilitude, which indeed has struck many critics and inspired frequent appellations of "hyper-realistic" and "naturalistic." Certainly, this is not a varnished and idealised treatment of the Stalinist Soviet period. In Kanevskii's readiness to strip his remembrance of childhood bare of sentimental nostalgia, we see a debt to the aesthetic language of Aleksei German's Moi drug Ivan Lapshin (My Friend Ivan Lapshin, 1983, released 1985).
The spontaneity of the amateur
Valerka's entire world is, until his departure, contained within the limited geographical space of this port town, with its muddy bazaar, a maze of short-cuts to school, industrial wasteland playgrounds, a series of backstreet hang-outs, the ubiquitous train-tracks, and the squalid kommunalk'a (communal appartment). Nothing is dressed up and nobody seems to stage act; characters are presented with an apparent frankness that rebels against the convention of the rehearsed delivery.
Indeed, and perhaps this is a fortunate consequence of using non-professional actors, the natural rhythms of speech and the seeming ambivalence of the characters to the position of the camera lends Kanevskii's work a neo-realist quality. There is a spontaneity of movement and interplay that recalls the documentary style of Andrei Konchalovskii-Mikhalkov's Istoriia Asii Kliachinoi, kotoraia liubila, da ne vyshla zamuzh (Asia's Happiness, 1966), and which belies the jealously interventionist style that actually Kanevskii employed. These could be, we detect, the true cursing, confused and grubby inhabitants of any far-flung provincial Soviet mining town.
The naturalist credibility Kanevskii achieves with his characters he also achieves with setting. He is content to abandon the controlled environment of the film set to capture an unfiltered portrait of life en plein air. Fortunately for him, the Soviet Union of 1990 can provide a very close approximation of the quasi-industrial "barracks existence" that he can recall as a child. His camera ranges wildly throughout the locations he employs, yet the evocation of the Stalinist Suchan seems masterfully consistent.
It is a gritty, destitute hell, an environment in which the natural world has been irrevocably destroyed by the heavy hand of Soviet industry. Kanevskii combines the use of black and white film and the winter season, when natural life is suspended and ice and mud present the dominant shades, to achieve a remarkable vision of contrasting extremes of shadow and luminosity. This is an anti-human environment, yet in truth not a foreign one for Russians; Kanevskii films a setting that is both terrible and piercingly accurate. Elena Stishova comments on this achievement: "[eto] - kul'turnaia pochva, na kotoroi rodilos' i vyroslo ne odno sovetskoe pokolenie" ("This is the cultural soil in which not just one Soviet generation was born and grew up.")
Zone sweet Zone
The setting thus involves the viewer, relying on the power of recognition and identification, to universalise Valerka's story. The sophisticated viewer must consider this reality simultaneously as an adult's reviled hell and a child's dear home. For many of the inhabitants of the "Zone," and certainly for the "saboteur-intellectual" zeki(a zek is the term for a prisoner of the Gulag system, taken from the Russian word for "imprisoned" - zakliuchenii), life is a struggle for survival and a desperate urge to escape. Abram the Jewish professor and the nameless woman, frantically asking to be impregnated in order to qualify for a rumoured amnesty, are two characters on whose faces we see graphically the soul-crushing experience of exile in the camps.
More disturbing still is the scene in which a group of Japanese prisoners bring an NKVD officer a new wooden coffin, having misunderstood that they were asked to make a cabinet. A guard looking on finds this ludicrously funny, yet we wonder why these prisoners have assumed a coffin was required, as if it went without saying in these circumstances. Presumably they have built coffins for the camp authority before, perhaps very many of them. Even the free workers of Suchan are visibly oppressed by the presence of the "organs" and the threat of repression. We glimpse utter fear on the face of a bespectacled man at the market, and later, Galiia's blood-curdling shriek when the NKVD agent approaches her to ask a question indicates the terror these representatives of the states inspire.
Yet despite the evidence that Suchan is for most either an impoverished hole or a prison, Kanevskii, quite remarkably, constructs for the viewer an empathy with Valerka's personal experience in this world, one which is altogether less bleak. Valerka's eyes are wide open and curious: in the opening scenes we see how he is fascinated by the filthy and dangerous street market, and the interesting entrepreneurial opportunities is offers. New skates and a pet piglet are marvellous events for Valerka, in counterpoint to the humiliations and disappointments that he also experiences growing up in a brutalised society. A boy can lead a rich and interesting life in Suchan, and he simply cannot know to grudge his surroundings. Stishova remarks:
[on] prosto no znaet, chto sushchestvuet kakaia-to drugaia zhizn'. Zhizn' est' zhizn - dominantnaia intonatsiia i mirovozzrencheskaia ustanovka kartiny..."
The moral gravity of Suchan as a setting resembling hell, where people live in fear and poverty, is removed as Kanevskii adjusts our perception of the place in parallel with the boy Valerka's. We become curious, but not judgmental, prepared to believe anything, yet not willing to probe the signals for their deeper moral content.
If we consider that both Zamri, umri, voskresni! and Samostoiatel'naia zhizn' are in essence love stories, laid out in a coherent, tightly-knit train of events, we begin to detect mythic potentialities in Kanevskii's use of setting. Valerka's is a passage to maturity that resonates with the eternal myth of the proving journey, with elements of tragic loss and movement away from the familiar hearth of childhood, tempering the nascent adult soul.
Rites of passage
Clearly, in remembering his youth, Kanevskii has distilled a vision that reflects the most formative events of this period. From this emerges, considering the formulaically tragic plot structure and the concern with love in the face of all odds, the profile of the traditional folk ballad, with echoes of Iskander's Diadia Sandro (Uncle Sandro) and Babel's Odesskie rasskazy (Tales of Odessa) Valerka, moreover, reconciles himself to his environment with the help of a body of myth and folk wisdom, which surround him in the form of narodnie pesni (folk songs). While these films do not quite tick along at the pace of a detektiv (detective thriller), nor resolve themselves in the facile comedic fashion of most folk tales, they do contain the kernel of the mythic passage story.
Kanevskii's setting responds to this mythic Bildungsroman aspect as a landscape that figuratively indicates Valerka's departure from childhood to youth. In Zamri, umri, voskresni!, Suchan is a contained world, in which Valerka moves comfortably. His life is anchored in topographic certainties: the flat, where he is fed; the school, where he spends his days; and the market, where he sells his tea. This is the maternal bosom of childhood, and it is out from this centre that he must be flung to make his mark on the world.
Thus, to read Kanevskii's vision figuratively, Suchan is an unformed, raw environment, in which civilisation is still in the process of building itself. As such, it is for Valerka a primordial hearth, a tabula rasa, or as Stishova terms it, a sort of kul'turnaia pochva (cultural soil).
Kanevskii's Suchan functions much like Andrei Platonov's kotlovan (foundation pit) in his eponomously named novella, where the setting of a construction site is fused simultaneously with first the facts of narrative, as a literal backdrop, and second, with an allegorical super-structure. Both Suchan and Nikolaevsk are indeed perpetual construction sites, in which vast excavations and tailings-yards become a familiar, if not dominant feature of the landscape.
This is the inchoate material of a coalescing new order in a brash young state, and it is also the blank canvas on which the story of the young boy is projected. The ubiquitous railway and the tracks that snake through the town also impress the viewer with their metaphorical potentialities; Kanevskii himself remarked on the meaning of the "omniscient tracks": "les rail, c'est le chemin, le chemin vers on ne sait quoi." ("The rail is the road - a road to where, no one knows.") The setting of Suchan in the first film may be the hermetically sealed world of a boy, but the transience of the population and the recurring image of the train suggest the possibility of departure, which soon follows on Valerka's path to maturity.
It is the opening up of the structure of setting that marks the visual and thematic evolution from Zamri, umri, voskresni! to Samostoiatel'naia zhizn'. As the title suggests, the Valerka of the latter film is obsessed with departure, which will take him beyond the claustrophobic orbit of his life in Suchan. He crosses over the threshold between dependent childhood and restless youth when his pig Manoushka is slaughtered, a scene of pathos he blames on himself.
This is, in formal terms, the final loss of connection to home and the confirmation of a new rootlessness for Valerka. He sheds all the anchoring facts of his childhood life - his attachment to home, his place at the school, and finally his relationship with Galiia - as he departs to explore new territory.
The brutality of passage
Violence becomes a recurrent and constitutive element of setting in the second film to a greater degree even than in the first, and indeed the theme of "passage" cannot be explored without referring to its role. If the piglet brings relief to the grey world of the boy in the first film, its spurting jugular vein and screeching death-gasps set a key precedent in the second. The critic Camille Nevers comments on this threshold event:
These events are a sort of recurring ritual sacrifice, according to Nevers, suggesting a rending away of the innocence of youth, an "exorcism" of boyhood. Sex and deflowering in all its manifestations - tender, violent, and tawdry - serves just as effectively to strip Valerka, and the viewer, of the naiveté of a younger age.
Even love, which with Kanevskii connotes joy and loss in equal measure, and always ends with the bitter taste of the latter, plays a supporting role in the structure of sacrifice and passage. This cleansing fire is, as Nevers comments, a "passation definitive" (a definitive passage), because "Le passage á l'age adulte ne peut se concevoir, chez Kanevski, sans que soit 'sacrifie' le monde d'enfance..." ("With Kanevskii, it is impossible to conceive of the passage to adulthood excluding a 'sacrifice' of the childhood world.") 
If the rites of passage presume a transformation of the inner life of the hero, they must also involve a departure in physical terms. Indeed, departure and transformation are metaphorically inextricable events. In Samostoiatel'naia zhizn', a series of shots, which are in the context of the previous film's visual language an innovation, underpin a gradual renunciation of the familiar topography of home. In them, we are introduced to the cinematographic evocation of the Russian concept of volia. Volia literally translates as "freedom of will", and in the Russian imagination is inevitably associated with a release from the constraints of an oppressive authority, the freedom to move over an open landscape, and the ability to choose one's fate.
The first long film sequence is shot in a luminescent white-out in a landscape without natural features. Figures seem to float through the picture, detached from their terrestrial reality, and the parting shot sees a group of boys running off onto the monotone white of an ice-jammed river. In contrast to Suchan, which people continually fail to leave, this landscape is incapable of restraining human activity.
Whereas the violence of poverty and the brutality of human relations in Suchan enervates its inhabitants to the point of mad fatalism, as in the case of Abram the Jew, this limitless void invites movement and departure. Later, vistas of water and distant wooded shores pile up to introduce a measure of open space unseen in Zamri, umri, voskresni!. The incessant mist from the Sea of Japan continues to make a small room out of most outdoor scenes, yet we are treated to interspersed visions of contrasting expanse, like the one that emerges as the camera leaves Valerka on the end of the pier and pans out to a shot of the vast Amur estuary.
If the tracks are a reigning symbol of movement and departure in the first film, now they are replaced by the river and the sea, which barr Yamamoto from his island home just as they convey Valerka and Valka along their diverging paths to adult life. If on one hand Valerka's new world is saturated with violence and defilement, where the body is no longer sacred, this terrible vision is broken by glimpses of an awesome natural landscape of sea and mountains that suggest the positive dimension of mature independence.
Valerka never loses his characteristic nonchalance in the face of hardship, but in Nikolaevsk, like in Vladivostok in the first film, he is thrown into a new landscape more varied and surprising by far than familiar Suchan. Kanevskii loosens our already tenuous grip on the nature of this new physical setting by interspersing dream sequences, which introduce a fantastic element corresponding to Valerka's interior concerns.
We find that we have soon lost our moorings, as a familiar landscape becomes foreign and exotic and the fantastic mingles with the ostensibly real. In this sense, the metamorphosis of setting is informed by Valerka's own passage to an "independent life," and we wander with him in a liminal state, suspended between a past and a future in an aimless present.
Indeed, the uncertainty of an "independent life" is the principal sub-textual concern of the "passage" story in the second film. This is a twofold uncertainty, for not only does it serve as a behavioural paradigm for the juvenile Valerka, casting about in Nikolaevsk, it also refers to Kanevskii's directorial presence, and to the authority of both his power of recollection and the mastery of the director's craft.
How else can we understand the opening sequence, which Kanevskii interrupts and orders rolled back for a second take? We recall as well the final scene in Zamri, umri, voskresni!, when Kanevskii (there is only his voice) appears to lose control and the camera's eye wanders of its own volition. He also seems determined to erode the authority of memory, the raw material of this cinematic invention, with the opacity of many shots, whether due to the omnipresent fog, the placement of the subject outside the camera's depth of field, or the failure of the frame to follow the action.
Colour too, non-existent in the first film and washed-out in most of the second, suggests the distorting effect of the fifty intervening years between Kanevskii's experiences as a child and their reconstitution in film. Antoine de Baecque, proposing that this theme of uncertainty is in fact central, comments: "Kanevski n'arrete pas de jouer avec cette opacité, cette incertitude...comme s'il s'agissant pour lui de derouter son spectateur." ("Kanevskii never stops playing with this opacity, this uncertaintyůas he endeavours to unbalance his viewer.") Viewer, director and Valerka all join sympathetically in the experience of "not knowing," a recognisable theme in any "independent life."
Living on the edge
A further aspect of meaning in setting is apparent in Kanevskii's cinematic conception of his childhood home: the metaphorical element of position. Suchan's is a peripheral existence in a peripheral region, truly stuck, as the saying goes, on the tip of the devil's horn. Of course, it is the near complete isolation from the centre of Soviet life in the western half of the country that qualifies the Far East so well to host the politically and socially "undesirables" in the Gulag system.
Not even the free workers of Suchan are true participants in the mainstream of Soviet life, caught as they are in a purgatory, suspended between the more cosmopolitan life lived down the tracks in Vladivostok and the counter-reality of the "Zone." Indeed, Suchan itself seems to lack a critical mass, a defining focus through which it would transcend its transit-camp, stockyard identity. Those that can leave, do, and instead of focusing on a town square or main street, the eyes of Suchan are turned toward the railway tracks.
Moreover, Valerka's world is mired in an awkward compromise of the modern-industrial and the peasant-traditional, where people work in a twentieth century mine but walk home to their wooden shacks along unpaved roads. Suchan is thus not only physically peripheral to the Soviet reality, it is also peripheral to the project of industrial modernisation.
This peripheralisation of setting echoes Ivan Lapshin, in which German conscientiously moves his characters out of the glare of events in the big city to the Soviet North, where he can more easily construct his own conception of Stalinist society in microcosm. But Kanevskii was himself born in Suchan, and his insists that these two films are a simple record of the events of his childhood.
This setting is only peripheral in relation to an "other" which the viewer presumes, whereas Valerka's own conception of reality extends little further than the boundaries of Primore. It suits Kanevskii's objectives perfectly well that Suchan exists outside the surging torrent of historical events, for thus he can attend to the story he wishes to tell. As Stishova comments: "[Kanevskomu] udalos' sozdat' posledovatel'no vneotsenochnuiu, vneideologicheskuiu strukturu..." ("[Kanevskii] has successfully created a uniformly unascertainable, non-ideological structure...")
Finally, it must be noted that Valerka in fact responds to his environment, and is driven by it to strike out in search of the unknown. It is not only the death of his mother and the concomitant disappearance of a home, that drive Valerka out of Suchan. It is also Suchan itself, which he has come to recognise for the hell that it is. The dream sequence, in which indigenous dancers appear on a barge set against the striking beauty of the distant shore, is an indication of the imagined geographic "other" that figures in Valerka's restless wanderlust.
A tragic disappointment awaits Valerka in Nikolaevsk: the one place is just like the other, as he admits himself. The corroded, quasi-industrial material reality of Soviet life has spread like a virulent rust over the entire country, and the most terrible prison walls are not those around the camps, but rather those that encapsulate the Soviet "Zone." Alexander Shpagin writes, "dorogi tut chrezvychaino pokhozhi odna na druguiu i vse oni privodiat k pustyriam i barakam...Vedut v Zonu." ("One road is exceptionally similar to the next, and all roads lead to garbage tips and barracks... lead to the Zone." 
Monochrome not monotony
This element of setting, in its tragic relevance to every inhabitant of the Soviet (and even the post-Soviet) space, transcends the specifics of Kanevskii's story. While a foreign viewer is compelled to read the statement "every road leads to the 'Zone'" on a figurative level, those familiar with the Soviet experience will be satisfied to understand it literally: Suchan, Nikolaevsk, Severobaikal, or Nizhnevartovsk - the Soviet existence was a remarkably monochrome and unvaried one.
The oppressive barracks life has permeated every corner of this vast land, and to understand this is to appreciate the sad futility of Kanevskii's characters' compulsion to madly rush a moving train, hide in a freight box bound for Moldova, and sail off to Kamchatka, itself the very metaphor of "away" in the Russian mind. These characters, as Shpagin notes, flee one hell to find themselves trapped in another.
Nevertheless, Kanevskii's vision is not mired in self-reflective pity and he does not recriminate the remembered environment of his youth. Valerka has a genius for life, a wonderful ability to get along, oblivious to his surroundings, with humour and indefatigable curiosity. This is, we suspect, an observation of the nature of childhood made from the distance of envying older age. Optimism is a kinetic force that compels Valerka forward unknowing, to fully test the frontiers of is inner life and physical environment. In a world of soul-crushing ugliness, poverty and malevolence, we cannot help but admire him, who like the drunk happily sprawling in his frozen puddle, defies his circumstances and thrives.
Niobe Thompson, 21 February 2000
Click here to buy Zamri, umri, voskresni!.
1. See the comments of Ludmila Donets in Soviet Film Vol 8 (1990), p. 17 ("Both time and location are authentic...") and the interviews with the film critics Tatania Moskvina, Irina Rubanova, and Tatania Khlopliankina in Seans, Vol 2 (1991), pp 2-4.
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