Askhat Kuchinchirekov in Tulpan (dir. Sergei Dvortsevoy, 2008)
There is little that is typical about the career of Sergei Dvortsevoy. A trained aviation engineer, he turned his back on his first vocation and entered film school in the early nineties on a whim. His award-winning observational documentaries about the hardscrabble lives of marginal communities in Russia and his native Kazakhstan quickly established him as one of the most vital filmmaking voices in the post-socialist sphere. Dvortsevoy moved into fiction feature work with 2008’s Tulpan, the story of a family of shepherds eking a living out of the Kazakh steppes. Tulpan’s win in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard strand was matched by the Best Actress award for Samal Yeslyamova in 2018 for her performance in the director’s follow-up, Ayka.
Dvortsevoy’s diploma film Bread Day (1998) has been selected by fellow documentary trailblazer Mark Cousins as part of his Klassiki Picks watchlist, available to subscribers from 1-22 June. The film concerns the isolated residents of Township No. 3, a dilapidated hamlet outside of St Petersburg. Once a week, a passing train delivers a bread this dwindling population, who must push the decoupled carriage with its precious cargo by hand back to their homes before they can share out the meagre supplies. We spoke with Dvortsevoy about his peripatetic career, and how Bread Day fits into his broader project to document the unique and the universal in the post-Soviet periphery.
I’m sure this is a story that you’ve told many times before, but could you tell us how you came to filmmaking? You had a career in aviation before deciding to go to film school in the nineties.
I worked for Aeroflot for nine years in Kazakhstan, and to be honest it was quite boring. It’s just technical. I dreamed about creative work, but I never dreamed about filmmaking. I was just an ordinary guy. I saw ordinary films, mostly fiction films, mainstream films. One day, I read an article in a local newspaper. It said that if you wanted to go to film school, you needed to submit some essays. I sent them something that I thought was rubbish – they accepted it. For the next step, I had to go to the capital of Kazakhstan – and somehow, I passed again. Then they invited me to the main exams in Moscow and I passed again. I don’t know why because I wasn’t prepared at all. I didn’t know anything about films. So, in one month I completely changed my life and joined film school. It was a very casual decision, I think.
The first couple of films you made were short or medium format documentaries. Was that always your intention, or was that something you arrived at while you were at film school?
No, it was just because the course advertised in the newspaper was the documentary course. If they’d offered an animation course, a fiction course, a dancing course, I would have joined those – I just wanted to change my life. That’s all.
I hear about a community somewhere, and I start shooting. It’s something that touches me, touches my soul, and I understand that I need to spend part of my life observing these people. I don’t know why. They’re spontaneous decisions
Your early documentaries, including your diploma films Paradise and Bread Day, already seem to have a distinct sensibility and stylistic approach. Was that something that you spent a long time developing? Was it the result of any particular influence, perhaps how you were taught at film school?
I think that while making my first film, Paradise, during the shooting and editing I realised exactly what I wanted. I wanted to shoot real life, to observe real life, to present real life without explanation or strong direction, [without] pushing any ideas. I wanted just to observe life and share it with audiences.
There’s a particular kind of life that you look to capture and share, a particular kind of location and people: what we might call “marginal” or “peripheral” communities, whether that’s in your native Kazakhstan, or in Russia with Bread Day.
I don’t know why, it’s just a matter of fact. Sometimes I hear some information about a community in Russia or Kazakhstan and I start shooting. It’s something that touches me, touches my soul, and I understand that I need to spend part of my life observing these people. I don’t know why. They’re just spontaneous decisions.
How exactly did you hear about the township at the centre of Bread Day?
I saw a news piece on Russian TV. They presented this village, a very remote place. [It was] jsut some information about old people living there, nothing special. And when they said that they get bread once a week, I decided to go there – to see how they live if they get bread once a week, what kind of life is that? I went to the village by myself, without a camera. I went to the village with [the bread merchant], inside this wagon with her bread. I talked to her, she told me about the situation: how she transports the bread, how they push the wagon. [When] I saw this situation, exactly like at the beginning of the film, I was very surprised. I could never understand why they pushed the wagon, why they didn’t make bread themselves. There was a kind of absurdity to their life. I spent a couple of days there without a camera just to understand why, to understand the essence of their life. Then I decided to make a film. I realised that the key moment of their life is when they buy their bread. Not only when they push the wagon, but also when they buy the bread.
Bread Day (dir. Sergei Dvortsevoy, 1998)
If you had to describe that essence, how would you put it? There’s something so absurd about it, it seems almost like an existential parable. It’s very cinematic – it demands to be recorded.
It’s quite difficult to describe in a few lines. I would say that it’s like the absurdity of real life. This story is about people who carry their cross. The wagon is a big cross that these people carry. Everybody, all of us, we carry some kind of cross. When I say “cross”, I mean their life, with all its difficulties. And it’s not just about difficulties – this film is also about communication, about their community. The wagon is the only possibility for them to communicate, to talk, to joke, to speak, to fight. It’s like life. They live on those days. I can’t say that it’s a bad life or a good life. I don’t want to judge; I just want to observe how people carry their cross. The wagon is a metaphor for their life. For me, this film was very fortunate, because I saw in real life a metaphor for life. The wagon is an incredible metaphor.
That’s what’s so interesting: the fact that the material reality and the metaphor are one and the same.
It’s a very rare example of a documentary filmmaker being able to capture such a metaphor for life.
You say that the bread deliveries also represent a chance for connection and humour. Seeing as you seek out characters who are in such difficult situations, how do you approach the question of balancing humour with darkness? Over the course of your career there are really interesting tonal shifts between the gentle and the severe – I’m thinking of the difference between a film like Tulpan and your most recent film, Ayka, where the former is very gentle and the latter very severe.
This balance is inside myself, inside my soul, because I accept life as it is. Life is paradise and hell at the same time. Because of this inner feeling, let’s say, I capture such contradictory moments. I want to present life like that, paradise and hell. Even when life is very hard, like in Bread Day, I need to find light. That’s why I capture jokes. I want to find balance. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s very difficult. With Ayka, it’s the story of a very hard life, but still, I try to find tiny moments of paradise, tiny moments of joy.
Life is paradise and hell at the same time. Because of my inner feeling, let’s say, I capture such contradictory moments. Even when life is very hard, like in Bread Day, I need to find light
How did your experiences making these documentaries inform your approach to telling fictionalised stories when you moved into fiction feature filmmaking with Tulpan in 2008? There are clear stylistic continuities across that documentary-fiction divide.
Initially, I didn’t want to make fiction films, I was happy with documentaries. For me, making this move to the world of fiction was not easy, but it was very organic. I knew that I didn’t want to make typical fiction films, with typical montage, typical dialogues, and so on, I wanted to make more or less the same things as I had in documentary form, but with some stories, some moments which require the tools of fiction tools. I make the same films as I did before, but in documentary, sometimes you cannot go deep; you cannot go deep into private relationships, you can’t show very private moments. That’s why for me it was a very organic shift. I wanted to go deeper than documentary filmmaking could afford me, so I couldn’t only use documentary tools.
The types of characters you’re drawn to are marginalised, whether by the geographical location where they live, like in Tulpan or Bread Day, or by their social status, like Ayka, a Kyrgyz migrant woman living in Moscow. I wonder whether you see your characters as having a universal quality? Or are you more interested in the specifics of each situation? Do you think a Kyrgyz migrant woman like Ayka and a pensioner in a village outside St Petersburg have more in common when they’re put onscreen, or do they need their own filmmaking approach?
Sometimes, I shoot very special people, not universal characters. Like in Bread Day. Also, Ayka, that’s a film about a special woman. From the first moment, it’s very unique. But even when I’m making films about unique people, I talk about universal things. That’s why people accept Ayka everywhere. Because people accept that it’s a film about a woman, about the love between a mother and child. That love can be very difficult to achieve, [but] it’s a film about love. A very difficult love, but love is love everywhere. The difficulties in Bread Day and Tulpan are also universal. Films about family are universal. That’s why people like these films. Even when they show a strange, magical [side of] life, I talk about the universal aspects.
Watch Sergei Dvortsevoy’s Bread Day as part of Klassiki Picks with Mark Cousins, available to subscribers from 1-22 June.