Today’s special guest on CSReview is a Russian film director Boris Dvorkin, master of documentary and non-fiction short film, talking about his film Eitaph, dedicated to internationally recognized composer of classic music Dmitry Shostakovich.
CS: Boris, I was deeply impressed by your short film Epitaph, where every scene is emotionally charged. Why did you chose Dmitry Shostakovich for your film, what did you see in this composer, who in my opinion was just as great and extraordinary, as beaten by the authorities and the time?
Boris Dvorkin: You know, Camilla, I am not that much into Shostakovich’s music. But, the thing is, I was born and grew up in Leningrad. Both my grandmothers and my father lived through the blockade during World War II, and Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony has always been a symbol of this city for me. Despite having been living in Moscow for many years, I am still deeply in love with Leningrad. I consider myself a Leningrader, mind you, belonging not to the new St. Petersburg, but to Leningrad. My family members, war veterans, have medals where it says ‘for the defense of Leningrad’. And a little medal that I received at birth, it said ‘to the Leningrader’. It’s not the name of the leader of the revolution that I see in the city’s name, not at all. But, I digress…
The idea of the film about Shostakovich doesn’t belong to me. Once at the studio where I worked I heard of a new script set in Leningrad, and that was the main reason I signed up for this project – knowing that I will be going to Leningrad, exploring its past, the blockade, and the story of the composer in it.
The script needed work, of course, and the more work there was with the material, the more continuous interest it seemed to evoke in me. The best part of being a film director is in always learning something new. Submerged in doing what you love, you also learn what you perhaps have never known before, and alongside this wonder you’re also getting paid! This can’t be bad, you know…
My aunt is a passionate music lover, ever present at philharmonic concerts. When she found out that I am doing a film about Shostakovich, she exclaimed ‘How can you shoot such a film, you know absolutely nothing about music!’ Oh well, I don’t think a director making a film about a composer needs to have a degree in music science – this will only spoil the work, increasing a risk that instead of making a picture, director will make a scientific research into music. No, of course I wasn’t planning on filming another routine ‘326th’ film about the composer with his biography and creativity exposed as was initially suggested in the script. I wanted something unique. This is when I got help from a wonderful musician and conductor of the famous orchestra Kremlin – Misha Rakhlevsky. He told me about the 8th Quartet by Shostakovich, which the composer used to call his own life story. And so I began listening to this music. Again and again. And while listening, I imagined the picture, the film. You know what they say about composers, that they do not create music, they simply record whatever comes to them. That is, the music comes not from the man, but from another world, or worlds. Same is with poets. And, evidently, sometimes with film directors.
Slowly, but steadily I realized that I need no words, no dialogue, that the music will tell it all. Anyhow, by the time we arrive to ‘Piter’ (Leningrad), the film was already practically done.
CS: You are using documentary footage and scenes from the movie Andrey Rublev by a legendary director Andrey Tarkovsky. In my opinion this adds to the dramatic effect of Epitaph, and hence my next question – do you think the genius of Shostakovich could have existed outside history, the tragic and tough times he lived in?
Boris Dvorkin: I visualized this film by using different sources. Some of my own memories of the city, some things I knew of its history, the time, indeed, and what I learned about the composer’s life. And mostly, from what I felt while listening to his music. This is how I became inclined to use cuts from Andrey Rublev. There was something in it, a juxtaposition of the composer’s fame and the reality of his private life under Stalin regime. In a way, that scene with the clown, is the scene starring Dmitry Shostakovich himself, though not in person, – for he was, too, beaten and thrown down.
Speaking of his genius in relation to history, I think he existed outside it all together. A diamond becomes a jewel under the influence of the external force. Just that everything that happened to Shostakovich, eventually found its way into his music, and that was his genius. This is what he heard when he lived through some tough events.
Is there a hidden meaning to this? Well, the entire film is built on such hints. The important thing is for me to enable the viewer to decipher these hints, to read what I wrote, to want to read. A curious fact – Epitaph was well received outside Russia, in England, Czech Republic, in Argentina when the film was screened during the festival Mar-del Plata. Surprisingly, since our history seems to be so far away from other continents.
CS: Historic backdrop in Epitaph makes me think of something else. For instance, about humanism, the love of life. Would you agree that Shostakovich had his own course, that is to be – or to remain – a mensch despite being thrown under the wheel of the political machine?
Boris Dvorkin: You know, this skill, to remain human, is a quality of a real artist. As they say, genius and villainy are two opposites. Shostakovich did not live in isolation. He lived in the world that was around him, a complicated world, a complicated life. But, as they say, God does not give you a burden what you cannot bear. And also they say, what doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger. I discovered archived footage that even Shostakovich’s widow did not know about. That part of the film where Shostakovich is being accepted in the Communist party – very telling. That he resisted. You can see the torture in his face. His son remembers seeing father cry twice only – when his first wife died, and when he was being herded into the party.
CS: Shostakovich has a distinct signature in his music, somewhat rough and refined at the same time. Perhaps symbolic to the time he lived in, where there was room for the living soul to fly, and to be toppled into submission. Do you think the composer remained true to himself, his character, his personality and his unique music, or was he hiding, masquerading, and eventually losing himself in his own orchestra?
Boris Dvorkin: I think he would stop being a composer if he had to compromise. He remained a genius till his very last day.
CS: Do you think Shostakovich was happy? What would be his happiness, and is it realistic, attainable for anyone to be happy?
Boris Dvorkin: I don’t think he was unhappy. Remember those scenes where he listens to his own music. His face says it all. Can’t say about an artist that he is unhappy, that because God ordained him with the greatest gift – the ability to create!
Shostakovich was a very vivacious, energetic person. He loved soccer, was an active supporter. But life is not a straight line. Stuff happens. That phrase I used from one of his letters was uttered during his moments of weakness, fatigue, loneliness. Only idiots are always happy. That’s why we even have a saying about it. But, every person’s life has white and black stripes – white when things are good, black when things are bad. And of course we all want to have more of the white ones, but if we had no black ones – we would never know that what we have are the white ones. Everything is known by comparison.
CS: What do you want to tell the Western audience prior to watching your film Epitaph?
Boris Dvorkin: No, not only Western!!! Eastern, Southern, Northern… I wish them all that those 26 minutes of this film were uninterrupted. No ringing phones, no inquiring family members, no meowing cats… Every scene in this film, just like in every other real film (me hoping here that I created a real film), every detail is important. So please, be attentive. Because… and this is not a wish, but hope… like a good wine is recognized by its rich aftertaste. Same is with the film. And I hope that the aftertaste will move you to watch the film again. Have a great time watching!
CS: Thank you for being here with us, Boris, and thank you for a delightful thoughtful interview.
Translated from the Russian by Camilla Stein.
Copyright Camilla Stein ©2012. All rights reserved.
(click to watch the film)