Does what we do really echo in eternity? Do our lives matter? To us they do, of course. To our nearest and dearest as well, we hope. And presumably to a wider circle of people and things around us. But outside of that? And if so, to whom? Lithuanian scientist Ausra Revutaite dedicated 30 years of her life to the lonesome study of the Tuyuksu glacier in the Tian Shan Mountains in Kazakhstan. The glacier has become everything to her. But is she anything at all to the glacier? Could the glacier care about her work and dedication? Is her presence even registered?
These questions and many more arise from watching The Woman and the Glacier (Moteris ir Ledynai), Lithuanian director Audrius Stonys’ latest film. A documentary that stood out at the International Documentary Competition at the 57th Krakow Film Festival not only for the philosophical questions it raises, but most of all for the visual way in which it did so. Philosophy and quiet contemplation, without the need for words, of which very little are spoken throughout the film, not even via narration. Even though The Woman and the Glacier is ostensibly a nature documentary, it’s a far cry from the popular Planet Earth series or from Werner Herzog’s personal explorations of natural phenomena. There’s no need to express in words that humans are insignificant next to the majestic glacier, just showing this in all its glory says it all.
The contemplative film has become a staple of world fiction cinema, but is not that often seen in a documentary format, even though one would think that it lends itself more to this kind of experimentation than fiction. What are long takes of natural environments and occurrences after all, but bits of documentary? It makes just as much sense to edit these into a long (or semi-long) format documentary, than to edit them into a fictional narrative, however experimental it may be. And this observational style works just great for Audrius Stonys’s hour-long documentary.
The Woman and the Glacier begins with traditional music, played on the Kazakh dambrai instrument, which returns sporadically since the use of music is sparse overall, allowing space for the sounds of nature and the overwhelming silence of solitude on the mountain. The focus is almost entirely on that mountain and the glacier, showing it from several sides. Sometimes the camera glides under the glacier, creating unique images. At other times (several, in fact) streams of water flow down the mountain slope and down the screen as the film slowly flows past our eyes and into our minds.
Besides the glacier there is of course also the woman. She observes the glacier and the mountain, just as the camera patiently observes them all. Since there is hardly any dialogue and no monologue, no explanation is given about her scientific observations, or of whatever she’s doing on the mountain. It doesn’t matter really. Snow will fall. Rocks will roll down the slopes. The sun will rise and set. Audrius Stonys and cinematographer Audrius Kemezys register all these breathtaking scenes of nature without commenting on them, but their images are telling a story of their own.
The woman (and we as humans) are like the butterfly that appears twice in the film. Once, it sits upon the glacier, just perched on a rock as if observing its surroundings, remindful in a sense of the woman. Later the same butterfly is consumed by the glacier, and encased in ice. The glacier however remains icily indifferent to its presence and its existence, as it is to the woman and the cameraman observing it, and to the tourists that appear at the very end of the film. None of us make any difference to it, whether simply passing by or dedicating our lives to it.
Edited by Christina Stojanova
© FIPRESCI 2017