“It’s impossible to convince producers and investors that you can make a film about water”, says Victor Kossakovsky, the Russian experimental documentary filmmaker. But that’s exactly what he’s done in Aquarela, his new feature screened at the London Film Festival.
The film is composed entirely of footage of water, across several continents. According to the director, this unconventional approach proved tricky to sell: “I told them, if water is my colour, and the camera my brush, I can do it. It took us many, many years to finance it. I don’t like people saying that you have to tell a story. For me, it’s kind of insulting. Cinema was not made to tell stories. Cinema was made for another purpose.”
“People ask me ‘Why don’t you make films about Russia’s political situation?’ I think there are much bigger problems. People always want to prove they are the most imporant. We are just a little part of this planet.” Indeed, Aquarela is a potently political film, showing the effects of global warming with real clarity and patience.
The film’s first segment was filmed on a frozen Siberian lake, another featuring close-up footage of melting icebergs. The extreme weather conditions made filming difficult. “You have to be sure that no-one dies,” says Kossakovsky. “Before the lens is totally wet, you have only a few seconds. The same for the ocean. Even to move the camera from one side of the boat to the other, you need one day. To not lose the camera, equipment, to not die.”
He continued: “My first idea was to design a house and put it on the iceberg. but icebergs are unpredictable. They can turn upside down without warning you. There were a few ideas. First, to see how icebergs look below – we achieved this differently. Also, to see a storm as it is. Normally you see a storm made in studios. Because in a real storm, the camera is jumping up and down; you can’t see the water. This was the main goal. But it was impossible for insurance purposes.”
The reality of the danger posed by the icy surroundings could not have been clearer. In a shocking sequence part-way through Aquarela, Kossokovsky captures a car plunging through the ice, with apparently fatal consequences. “I did not know if I can show it or not. My footage is much stronger, much more horrible for not showing it. The camera was running. We were filming totally different things, and it appeared in the frame by itself. You do not see this man. You just imagine someone there. Same in greenland. An empty boat is running around, between icebergs. You understand there used to be people on it. A filmmaker is not a nice person. But if I don’t show it, it doesn’t change for better. If i show it, maybe someone will say ‘fuck, maybe I won’t go’.” Over the two weeks they were filming in Siberia, there were nine car accidents next to the spot where they filmed.
One of the most striking features of Aquarela is the soundtrack, which is mostly heavy metal composed by cellist Eicca Toppinen. Kossakovsky listened to 272 UK composers in his search for the right music. “Every time we were filming something, my team were screaming ‘woah, heavy metal! That was heavy metal’.” So he flew to Toppinen’s home in Helsinki to convince him to provide a score. “It was a shock, at first. No-one believed it. Eicca was immediately reacting to my ideas.”
Asked why he thought he was chosen for Aquarela, Toppinen says: I kind of understood what he’s looking for. The pictures can be very beautiful, the movie can be seen in two ways. It’s breathtaking, beautiful stuff, but Victor’s point is to show the power, the energy of water, of nature. It needs to be rough and brutal, the same way he sees the water. I like to write music that has a lot of brutal energy, but also an uplifting beauty. It’s not just dirty. I think that’s why Victor wanted me to do it. Many of the previous ones were a bit too sentimental. He doesn’t want to have a National Geographic nature movie. When the icebergs are moving and crashing, for instance, these huge pieces of ice, it’s not just beautiful, it’s really really fucking brutal.”
Toppinen has just finished a world tour with his band Apocalyptica, who recorded on the soundtrack, and is set to begin work on his next album. Kossakovsky’s next film has already filmed in the UK, a black-and-white documentary about the emotional intelligence of pigs, cows and chickens.
Image: Stine Heilmann