The new film by Alexei Fedorchenko "Big snakes of Ulli-Kale" is a mockumentary about a sensational find, a pre-revolutionary film almanac telling about the relations between Russia and the North Caucasus. Nine novellas of the almanac were filmed in different genres and techniques, and the director who “found” it, performed by Alexei Fedorchenko himself, is trying to restore the lost episodes, using a wide arsenal of artistic means, from reconstruction to theatrical production and animation. This is not the first time Aleksey Fedorchenko has turned to a genre rare in Russian cinema: for his debut First on the Moon in 2005, he received a prize in Venice. In both fiction and documentary films, Fedorchenko explores the workings of memory, bringing forgotten and little-known episodes of the past back to life - from the culture of the Mari to the history of the Sverdlovsk film studio. Aleksey Fedorchenko spoke about his relationship with history, decolonial cinematography and tales of repressed scientists Konstantin Shavlovsky.
Mockumentary is a genre of alternative history, often humorous. But in "First in the Moon" and in "Big Snakes of Ulli-Kale" you are not joking at all. How and why do you use this method to work with historical material?
I have a respectful attitude to history and I think that this is not the kind of material that should be laughed at. And I don’t like the name “mockumentary” at all, I fight it in every possible way. I am sure that I am working in my own genre, which I call "pretense". We take amazing historical facts, their sum is so unusual for the viewer that the movie looks like a fantasy, like a fairy tale. Although all the facts, for example, in the same "Snakes" are 95% real. They are amazing and each individually, but together they turn history into a real extravaganza. What she really is.
But that's not how First in the Moon works, is it?
The main fiction in First on the Moon is the fact that Soviet cosmonauts traveled to the moon in the 1930s, and everything else is more or less reliable. For example, I took sketches of the lunar module from a designer of the 1920s, and the whole history of rocket science is real facts that now look like invented ones.
What drives you in such an almost manic passion for collecting these unknown facts?
This is an interesting activity. I am doing such a strange thing: I work with primary sources and dig out what few people know in the world and in our country. Of course, I then artistically comprehend it. But in general, lately I perceive cinema more as a hobby, and I consider working with books as my main work. I collect a large collection of books by repressed authors and try to find out everything about them.
How did you come to this?
I have lived in libraries all my life. My grandfather had a huge library, my parents had a library, and so did I. And not so long ago, when I was 50 years old, I decided to do something new for pleasure. And I decided to collect a library, where each book is the fate of a person. Quite by accident I came across a book by a member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee who had been shot, and I first began to deal with his case, then with those who had been shot in the last years of Stalin, then I began to look for their books - and so I gradually got carried away and waved. And, by the way, I came across the fact that when there is only one book and you found material about the author, about how he lived and died, found out who the autograph is dedicated to, under what circumstances it was written, then the pain of losing this person is beyond. When there is a shelf of such books, the pathos of the loss decreases. And when there are a lot of closets, everything turns into statistics. I still cannot think of how all this could be artistically generalized, the whole volume of this horror. And my co-author Lida Kanashova and I began to make stories first, and then fairy tales about these people. Such a strange genre: tales of repressed scientists. Now we have written about fifty stories, and someday, I hope, we will publish them.
And where is the fairy tale?
We study a person, we study time, we study his work, we find some fact that stirs us, and on the basis of this fact we make a little story. Moreover, we write in different genres, from fairy tales to micro-pieces and even poems. They all turn out to be very different, because each person - and these are very different people and mostly scientists - whispers his own genre. Among them are, for example, an expert on earthquakes, on permafrost, on some special types of spiders, an explorer of the northern ice, or an engineer on tram lines. Such books rarely appear in our lives, but then one after another, one after another, they began to come to me.
To what extent do you see the return of names, events, contexts and memory of them - almost all of your films are about this - as a mission, or is it just a collector's passion?
Look, I'm currently making a new film under the working title Mitrofan Aksenov's Sausage. Once, at a book auction, I saw the book “There is No Death” by Mitrofan Aksenov, about whom I knew nothing, but intuitively realized that it was something strange. It turned out that this is a Russian philosopher who formulated the theory of time as a fourth dimension, one of the postulates that formed the basis of the Einstein-Minkowski theory of relativity. Wikipedia has only question marks: where was he born, when was he born, what did he work for. It touched me, I was surprised that this is how we treat our great people. During the year we managed to collect a biography of Mitrofan Aksenov, it was supposed to be such a bibliographic detective story. But after February 24, all our Ukrainian business trips fell through, and he lived there - in Kharkov and the Zhytomyr region. I tried to return this person so that he would take the place that he deserves to occupy. And the mission - well, it probably exists, but I don’t think about it and, to be honest, I’m not interested in thinking about it.
Do you think it is possible, by highlighting the unknown past, to somehow change the future and influence it?
Yes, but, alas, not in the way propaganda does. I get to make films like this. And if we talk about some kind of mission, then I think that I am engaged in the fight against obscurantism.
When you watch “The Big Snakes of Ulli-Kale”, sometimes it seems that this is a film adaptation based on Kharms – all these stories with Gogol’s top hat, Pushkin the Shaitan, Lermontov the bully. What is behind these anecdotes about the classics for you?
Real facts. I just tried to find some stories that no one had touched or known before me. They look strange because we compare them with our ideas, with what we know. So these are not “post-Kharms”, but “pre-Kharms” - real stories, after reading which, Kharms could write his own. Well, these are all cliches: the first thing that comes to mind about the Caucasus is Lermontov and Tolstoy, the first thing that comes to mind about Lermontov and Tolstoy, Pushkin and Gogol is Kharms. I largely relied on the view of Caucasian authors on Russia, on a strange, large and absurd country that is nearby. Ridiculous from the point of view of the Caucasian peoples. Big, formidable, alien, and everything is so different there.
When you talk about the history of the Caucasus or the Finno-Ugric peoples, do you catch yourself thinking that by resurrecting these people and events on the screen, at the same time, you seem to be re-colonizing, appropriating their history?
Of course, I appropriate all the stories that I meet, and I live by it. By the way, the Mari people, after watching the film "Heavenly Wives ...", divided into two camps: half admired the film, and half cursed and promised to send their sorcerers.
Because I eroticized Mari women. I say: well, let's meet with the sorcerers, it's okay. But I am sure that a Mari would not have made such a film. Not only broad knowledge is needed, but also some detachment. Therefore, I am completely calm about the fact that I come to the Caucasus and shoot a film there. And in my new documentary "Summer and Mnemosyne" there is a short story filmed in the "Heart of Chechnya" mosque in Grozny. As they say, “try it in the mosque” - well, I went to the mosque and took pictures. History needs a kind third-party look.
Good look - what is it?
I try to shoot in such a way as to tell a true story, so that the hero of the film (a person or a whole nation) will not be offended.
You are almost the only director who, without accusatory pathos, but very consistently works with the trauma of Russian colonialism. Why do you think that in the time that has passed since the collapse of the USSR, we have practically not had our own decolonial cinema?
Because our cinema is based on Soviet clichés. In my films I take stereotyped themes and try to break them down. That's how I tried to make a movie about the war, where it seems impossible to say a new word, and Anna's War appeared. My cinema appears contrary to the common position: we take ethnographic cinema and make our own, we take the Russian avant-garde and make our own. On any topic, you can make a dozen films new, unlike others. It’s just that everyone is trying to please the audience, so they repeat the same thing, and this is the trouble and death of cinema. Cinema made in this way destroys cinema. And, if you look further, not only cinema.
How and why does history turn into a dangerous myth, and is it possible, with the help of the return of names, the publication of documents, evidence, to somehow disenchant it in order to finally let it go?
When there is a task to use history for selfish interests, for example, to maintain power, how will you let it go? Therefore, we must carry out the work of memory and preserve new primary sources, we must be such a transmission link to the future, we must do something, on the basis of which historians of the future will study these events further.
Is your documentary project Summer and Mnemosyne about that?
It is literally about memory and unconsciousness. About how people forget their history, how they look at it differently. It's an almanac film, I started making it eight years ago, and it keeps growing. Now I have finished one of the last novels, which is called "Mark Soskin, Mark Soskin and the Immortal Regiment". I went to Brest and made a film about the first prisoner of the Great Patriotic War - this is a man who was captured on the very first day. his amazing fate and how his fate is viewed now.
Could you be interested in a story that is happening here and now?
I do history precisely because reality is too much and boring. This reality is so tired - both in the news and in TV shows, it has turned into a kind of soap, mass, into some kind of kefir. And if I make a film about today, I will just spread this kefir further. Even documentary films have always interested me, but in my documentaries I also explore people's attitudes towards their history. Memory and unconsciousness. I plan to make a film about today in 30 years - before that, all the years are painted with other stories.
"Great snakes of Ulli-Kale". Cinema "Artistic", December 3, 20.30
The screening will take place as part of the film festival. "Winter"