Birds on The Set

in 15th Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema

by Pedro Butcher

It would be easy to mistake Playback for an ordinary “making of”. Buteven if the heart of the film is therecordof activities on a movie set, the final result overcomes by far the limitations of most documentaries of this kind. Playback, to be sure, has a life of its own — a very rich life.

Directors Antoine Cattin and Pavel Kostomarov follow the shooting of How Hard It Is To Be a God, Alexei Guerman’s adaptation of the homonymous sci-fi novel by Arkadi and Boris Strugatski (who also wrote Stalker, the basis for Tarkovsky’s film). But Cattin and Kostomarov couldn’t have imagined that Guerman’s project would become a tragic epic, the never concluded opus of an outcast, almost-legendary Russian filmmaker.

Born in 1938, Alexei Guerman directed five features in the range of two decades — from Sedmoy Sputnik, in 1968, to Khrustalyov, My Car, in 1988. He never got proper recognition. Although Khrustalyov, My Carplayed in competition at Cannes, it was quite badly received at the time and only later rediscovered, reappraised and appreciated as a kind ofcult movie. The film version of How Hard It Is To Be a God was a project Guerman developed overa long period. He finally started shooting it in 2007.

Playback’s first stroke of luck was to find such a great protagonist in Guerman himself. Authoritarian, rude, tempestuous, sardonic, he’s never shy for the camera. On the set, he treats everybodyequally — and that means with equalcontempt and rudeness — from his lead actor to the technicians and extras. He doesn’t even spare his wife and partner, Svetlana Karmalita, cowriter of the screenplay (though later he’ll make a sweet atonement and recognize her importance in his life and work). Guerman is very close to the cliché of a Russian character, intense in his display ofemotions and subject to sudden variations of mood.

Then there’s the most evident parallel between the film that’s being shot andlife on the set. How Hard It Is To Be a God tells the story of a man who lands in a distant planet, with the mission to study its people. He has a small camera attached in his forehead, which transmits images to his fellow scientists on Earth. In this foreign planet, people act and dress like humans in the Middle Ages. When they see the scientist, they thinkhe is God. The political metaphor, as in most science fiction works, is clear.

Like his protagonist, Guerman is also a sort of a God among his fellow workers — moreover, he’s the typical auteur divinity. On set he is a man with a vision, obsessed with controlling every detail, determined to create order out of the chaos and establish a particular universe. One could see Playbackas a testimony to a kind of creation process that has become increasingly rare. For good or bad, we’re living the era of the “death of the auteur”, a time when the great, visionary directors are fading away, giving place to a new kind of creativity, much more based on multiple visions, collaboration processes  and new boundaries regarding the signature of an artistic vision.

But then a new layer starts to emerge, and things start getting darker and darker. Shooting is too complex. Delays are inevitable.The cameraman, who worked with Guerman on all his films, dies. And so, unwillingly, Playback becomes just like one of this great tragic Russian novels.

Finally, after all that, one can easily perceive Guerman’s production set as a kind of a microcosm of a certain tradition, a Russian way of being that’s also undergoing transformation. The way people talk and behave; the harsh oppressiveness of the dark, claustrophobic art direction; the birds (turkeys and chickens among them) running freely between the props before getting trapped to participate on a scene. It’s a fantastic atmosphere, captured thanks to the openness of the directors’ approach, which is perhaps the greatest quality of a modern documentary.

Playback was finished and started to run the festival circuit last year. Alexei Guerman died last February, leaving what would be his sixth feature unfinished.

Edited by José Teodoro