Elena Gutkina is a Moscow-based filmmaker currently researching community-based dance and site-specific performance. The artists of TaikaBox have been lucky to collaborate with her on the ”Keho On Dacha / Body Is Dacha” project. It unites artists in the North of Finland and Russia in a long-term research on reviving communities through artistic practices.
In this TaikaTalk Elena shares her experience of capturing the dance – its sensation and energies – and talks about framing the body.
When and how did you decide to make movies?
I link the moment when I decided to dedicate myself to filmmaking with my journey to India in 2010. It was a journalistic business trip to cover the spiritual workshops of the Dalai Lama. I recall being really sick in Dharamshala, but through the high fever I was blindly persistent that I’d never leave the place until I’d have interviewed the Dalai Lama. I even changed the plane tickets to go for it. Still am I not sure how exactly I managed, but I was lucky to have met him in the end. A photo of me with the Dalai Lama lived for a long time on a shelf in my grandparents’ apartment. I remember that with great tenderness. Both my grandparents passed away recently. And that photograph was gone too.
After returning to Moscow the fever finally got me tied to bed – and it was then that I first truly wanted to shoot a movie, particularly something capturing strawberries floating on top of the fruit stew drink… Then I bought a camera and started coming to one of the vivid Moscow landscapes called the Sparrow Hills doing my first dark evening shoots…
Did you feel the images and their video capturing are more powerful than words? What are words lacking – as well as books and articles – that cinema has?
I haven’t thought much about images and capturing them in videos. It felt more like an instinct and momentum: I need to shoot it and I need a camera. I didn’t even fully realise what I was shooting. I was following the picture and the sensation. When you shoot you don’t think. That’s the greatness of the shooting process. Only after a while do you begin to bind the threads together, yet not all of them end up bound, not everything is possible to distinguish – including what the camera captures and how – and what it doesn’t.
Is this the reason you preferred cinema to journalism?
I remained in journalism for a couple of years afterwards. On the last day of every month I went to capture the protest rallies called Dissenters’ Marches. I liked a lot to see and hear people who wanted change in their country, to be close to them, I was recharging from them. But then something changed. I don’t like being in a crowd nowadays. At some point the cinema took me all, drove me to itself, and I entered Moscow New Cinema school, the workshop of Arthur Arastakesyan. Meeting him was a turning point in my life.
Your film ”The Wolf and The Seven Kids” – the one most known to the wider public – is a sensitive and emotional story about a father and a son with disabilities. The son is locked inside his body – and inside his house, neither allowing him to express himself freely, both engaged in equally joyless rituals. What was most important in researching this connection between the body and the house – and in making this film in general?
Ever since I met the hero I wanted to capture the way he moves, interested in everything he does: how he gets out of bed, how he lies in there, how he eats and how he doesn’t, how he walks and stops, how he speaks, how he listens or remains silent. The camera witnesses his movement, inside and outside. It was crucial for me to capture all his micro- and macro- movements. Then when editing with my coauthor Ganrikh Ignatov we were trying to figure out how to solve that all – how to allow the hero to enter the frame and leave it too.
The movie is made in a manner one could call impressionistic. We get to see just a part of a body, or a spoon making circles in a cup of tea, and fingers holding it tell you about the pain of the whole body, its whole history. How did you come up with this creative method for the camera, what was the hardest and the most favourite in the camera work?
The house where the two heroes live consists of two rooms: a kitchen and a bedroom. The camera bumps into the bed or into the table and captures everything which is happening around those two objects. The most favourite part of the shooting process was being inside the movie’s space. The most difficult perhaps was finding out what to do with everything that prevents the film from happening…
The concept of no boundaries, inseparability and unity, the postmodern stream of consciousness, interlacing the thoughts, the feelings and the physical ”outside” events, the thought-action cognitive equality – all markers of your film-making as well as of contemporary dance – go in line with the philosophies of buddhism and hinduism. You are one of the few journalists who has actually managed to speak with the Dalai Lama. Do you recall what he said to you? How has meeting him influenced your life?
The interview itself was quite formal. When trying to remember his quotes one pops up for some reason. I’m not citing it literally, but it was somewhat like: ”Everyone thinks I’m some kind of a demon or a devil, hahaha” (and he had a long laugh).
What is dacha for you? What do you dream to research in ”Keho On Dacha” project?
I don’t like the word ”dacha”, the ”village” seems closer to me, and Russia is more about villages after all. Both dacha and village are about land though, a piece of land where you can plant a tree or a blackberry bush, and every year come visit to check whether it survived or not. There is a lot of sensation in these villagers’ or dacha people’s checkups. It is very rewarding to go look whether the grain you had planted has sprouted, whether the land accepted it or not – and then to lament, wondering why nothing worked, whereas you seemed to have done everything properly.
The videos you were sharing during the first Summer of ”Keho On Dacha” project are different from what usually is seen as traditional ways of documenting a performance. You play with the focus, with the boundaries of the visible, the ”hero” is in moments a whole body or just fingers… Such way of capturing the dance gives a chance to feel much of the things that cannot be translated from the body language to the one of words. What was the most difficult in filming the dance?
The hardest was perhaps not to move myself – stay motionless behind the camera. Site-specific art has turned out to resonate with me a lot. In certain locations I wanted to try to participate in improvising myself sometimes.
When we went to film on the location, nobody knew what actually will be filmed, everything was happenning spontaneously. Sometimes it turned out that the guys – dance artists Susanna Voiushina and Dmitry Melnikov – were not happy with themselves, while I was absolutely delighted with the shooting. Sometimes it was the other way around: the dance occured, but the camera didn’t capture it. Maybe allowing this was the hardest in the end.
One of the big ideas of ”Keho On Dacha” – and contemporary art – is improvisation. Dance artists Susanna Voiushina and Dmitry Melnikov were improvising in the dacha space and in the studio. You weren’t just capturing their movement, but in fact participated in the improvisation with the camera. How did it affect the very approach of capturing the dance and your personal movements? Have you felt that your movement with the camera is also a dance?
It is more sophisticated. If you move together with a camera, you might lose a chance of actually seeing the dance. The moving bodies will remain moving bodies, but one might miss the dance like that. I had to be still to see the dance. To freeze. Like on a disco party back in the childhood days, when you’re standing frozen, staring at the one you have a crush on!
One of the main tasks of the ”Keho On Dacha” has been overcoming the fences and the borders – both literally and metaphorically. Which fences were the highest and how did you manage to break through them?
I wouldn’t say a high fence could stop me – I just don’t insist getting past it. I hope I respect one’s boundaries, because I myself am an introvert and understand very well the wish not to get closer. It wouldn’t hurt me if someone doesn’t let me into a house or gives me a cold look. This is the right everyone has. Maybe I’ll stay a little offended for a while, but then I’d let it go.
I don’t think one needs to break through the fences, because if something is about to happen, there can’t be an obstacle, everything is easy there, with tea and bagels served. I have a short memory, however, and easily forgetting everything, I can end up knocking on the door of the Bluebeard’s castle again. That’s a different story though. Walking around with pockets inside out is a favourite practice of mine.
You spent the whole Summer in Arkhangelsk and its suburbs, where the nights are white. How did it influence the filming process and your vision of the project? Did you miss the darkness, the ordinary night?
I did. Hardly have I imagined how difficult a challenge of constant light can be. I missed the night badly. When the lights started to show up out on the streets, I finally calmed down. It was a long forgotten feeling. I was going to film in the blue hours, and the white night bless you with this light gap – the moment of transition, when the light is so fragile (although this time was not always comfortable for everyone).
A selection of photos you, Dmitry and Sussanna, taken in Kalinushka, were exhibited in the Gallery of Arkhangelsk Centre For Social Innovations within the ”Keho on Dacha” first Summer exhibition, hundreds of them formed a zine. How was the idea born and what can photo capture that the video can’t?
I would argue that the video just can, while the photo can’t, or rather can, but in a different way. The video has legs, and it can run away. Photography in its order has this natural ability to freeze, look with the eyes wide open and hold the whole thing together. Maybe that is the reason why I film in the same – static – manner as I take pictures.
I am very happy that we managed to complete the idea of making a zine with pictures of people’s houses’ handmade numbers in a form of a tear-off calendar – there are 365 photos there. At first I thought it would all be about those numbers, they have inspired me to think about various important things… Then, however, it became clear that the zine is covering the whole dacha context, including glimpses of trees or leaves, a doll on a window sill or a scarecrow, window or door, wires and patterns on the houses. I feel the zine with these images should be appreciated by those who admire the evenly lying firewood in a woodpile… Or maybe they would completely dislike it (laughs).
Elena Gutkina was talking with Lölä Vlasenko