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Cinema in the new reality. “Spiritual Voices” and “Obligation” – documentary films about the army by Alexander Sokurov in the 1990s, which are still worth watching today

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Meduza is finishing a series of publications on documentaries that became even more relevant and important during the Russian military invasion of Ukraine. Every weekend film critic Anton Dolin talked about one documentary; these were both new films and those released a few years ago. We were not limited to Ukrainian and Russian authors; All these pictures can be viewed online. The latest issue of Cinema in a New Reality is dedicated to Spiritual Voices and Duty by Alexander Sokurov, documentaries about the army in the 1990s.

Watch movies “Spiritual Voices” and “duty” You can in YouTube or below – in this material.

These films were made a long time ago, in the 1990s. Their heroes, young conscripts of the Russian army, have become parents during this time, whose children may be fighting in Ukraine – this makes Alexander Sokurov’s documentary dilogy even more relevant.

Spiritual Voices (1995) and Duty (1998) remained essentially unseen. Although the director himself has repeatedly said how important he considers them. At one time, the path of films to the viewer was hindered by their “unformattedness” – both genre and related to timing: in the first – about five hours in duration, in the second – more than three. At the same time, in the generally accepted sense, this movie is almost plotless. Now “Obligation” and “Spiritual Voices” are on YouTube, and their actualization happened as if by itself: in the form of two author’s mini-series, they fit perfectly into today’s artistic context.

If domestic critics insist on the uniqueness of Sokurov, then Western critics often put him in the context of “slow cinema”, even calling him one of the founders of this movement. None of the director’s films confirms this view with such obviousness as two non-fiction epics – the volume and scale allow the use of this word, despite the intimacy of intonation – filmed in two geographically opposite points.

The action of “Spiritual Voices” takes place in the unbearable closeness of the Tajik-Afghan border, where the outpost of the Russian Moscow border detachment was located. “Obligation” was filmed in the icy waters of the Barents and White Seas, where a soldier of the Arctic Group of Border Troops catches a camera lens on a patrol ship. Heat and sand fill the air of “Spiritual Voices”, sometimes not allowing you to really see people; the endless snow freezes the space of the Duty.

From the grandiose material, seen and captured by cameramen Alexander Burov (in “Spiritual Voices”) and Alexei Fedorov (in both films) with some non-trivial closeness, the director does not seek to build a kind of “story”. But it is impossible to call dilogy a series of pure observations either. These films allow the viewer to enter into a hermetic and unnatural life based on coercion and permeated with violence, extremely rarely, but all the more significantly falling into the frame.

Sokurov chooses a diary form. In the first film, he himself is present in the frame, talking to soldiers and officers, walking and driving off-road with them, accompanying other episodes with his observations or comments.

In the second, remaining exclusively behind the scenes, he entrusts the functions of the author to a semi-fictional lyrical hero, subtitled: “from the diaries of the commander of the Ship” (exactly, with a capital, as if it were a metaphorical, fictional Ship). That is, the person on the screen is real, and the text, of course, is Sokurovsky. This is honestly warned by the caption, which is paradoxical in the case of documentary films: “The plot and characters of this film are nothing more than the author’s fantasy.” But fantasy here is not some game elements (although, for example, the commander’s dialogue with his mustachioed friend seems scripted), but the world of the two chronicles itself is painfully beautiful, both material and ghostly, phantasmagoric and chronically objective. This duality is fascinating, but also frightening.

The captain, who is also the author, is an ideal, utopian figure. He tries to see the monotony of military service through the prism of reflection, meditation – those hidden possibilities that are contained in compulsion, limitation, monotony. Freezing and thinking is the privilege of an intellectual or an officer who, as Spiritual Voices shows, has the right to his own dugout. That is, loneliness. Soldiers do not and cannot have such a resource. They are doomed to merge into a collective body, forced to live, and if necessary, to die in the name of a higher need that is not quite clear to them. However, in the director’s view of them there is no arrogance – the author’s or the boss’s. Perhaps the fact that this material is very personal for him is affecting: Sokurov comes from a family of a military man, because of this, his entire childhood was spent traveling throughout the USSR.

Sokurov does not try to embellish reality, but dissects it, passing it through the filter of his sight and hearing. One of the main tools for this is musical accompaniment. The great Japanese self-taught and war child Toru Takemitsu is placed in the credits, but the leitmotifs of the films constantly become vaguely familiar, slightly modified, at times even hardly recognizable motifs from generally recognized classics. In particular, the introduction to the mourning march in honor of the failed warrior Siegfried from Wagner’s “Death of the Gods” (later the director uses it again in “Moloch”, his outstanding film about Hitler).

And the meditative introduction to “Spiritual Voices” is the author’s off-screen reflections on Mozart, Beethoven and Olivier Messiaen, illustrated by their music and dedicated to the evolution of culture over the past two and a half centuries. They are accompanied by a seemingly motionless northern landscape, changing slightly before our eyes. Annoying with its deliberate static character, the beginning serves to adjust the viewer’s optics. This is exactly how – dispassionately, wearily, and yet attentively – the border guard standing at his post and not having the right to leave him looks in front of him.

“Spiritual Voices” and “Service” are borderline films in many ways. Here the gap between the personal and the universal, the documentary and the fiction, the newsreel and the artistic disappears, is washed away by cold salt water or is covered with desert sand. And between dream and reality. The author so often shoots border guards and sailors, privates and officers sleeping, that the old wise joke comes to mind: “The soldier is sleeping, the service is on.” It could serve as an epigraph to both films.

In an aesthetic sense, Duty and Spiritual Voices are statements of style and method, almost authorial manifestos. In fact, Sokurov has been filming both fiction and reality all his life, often combining them in one film, as in the same “La Francophonie”. In addition, the border guard for him is a symbolic figure: his endless watch, which from the outside looks like Beckett’s absurd watch, is like a confirmation of the war as a Russian super-idea.

This is a war put on pause, frozen, but unstoppable, permanent, frozen in anticipation of an attack by an invisible enemy. And the attack occurs: the culmination of “Spiritual Voices” is a battle with the Mujahideen, a long, exhausting, terrible, completely devoid of the spectacle to which the war movie voyeur viewer is accustomed.

In Duty, divided into five series-chapters, the parts seem to be mixed up. Only towards the end do we see impressive scenes of a medical examination and sending very young recruits to their place of service, on a warship. But the action here is not linear – it is looped and intertwined with the seemingly antonymous reality of “Spiritual Voices”, where we are present at the scene of seeing off demobilization. The outpost in the middle of a dried-up foreign land will stand still for centuries, the ship will ply the waters of the northern seas until the end of time. The conveyor of cannon fodder will not stop, everyone will have to work out their duty one way or another. It is not for nothing that in the last series of “Spiritual Voices” the border guards will meet the meager and hot New Year in the dugout, one of them will even try on the beard and sheepskin coat of Santa Claus. The embodiment of fragile hopes for a “new happiness”, for some kind of change in fate, and at the same time – confirmation of its ritual immutability.

Perhaps this is Russia – the same Russian ark from another Sokurov film, which looks more like the doomed “Flying Dutchman” than the lifeboat of the Old Testament Noah. Indeed, in a space cleansed of women, and therefore a priori barren, there is no place for empathy, warmth, human intonation, the possibility of sympathy and dialogue. Only drill, only submission, only service to the invisible and all-pervading State, to which you are given body and soul, with which you cannot enter into disputes, which you will never be able to resist. That’s what these two beautiful and rather scary films are about.

We are finishing a series of materials about documentaries. Here’s what we’ve been able to talk about:

Anton Dolin

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