Despite the fact that the Kinotavr International Film Festival takes place in Sochi, Russia, there are no Russian films in the festival program. The organizers are convinced that the Kinotavr National Film Festival, which takes place in Sochi just a few days earlier, presents these films sufficiently.
Yet, the 2004 International Competition couldn’t do entirely without Russian landscapes. They appear in “South of the Clouds”, a road movie by Swiss director Jean-François Amiguet. The film’s main hero is a quiet and hard-working old cattle-breeder from a small Swiss mountain village who decides to fulfill a lifelong dream to go on a long trip. Unlike other elderly Europeans who travel through Italy, France and Spain, the Swiss farmer has different priorities — to travel through Germany, Byelo-Russia, Russia and Mongolia to reach the Great Wall of China. He takes the Trans-Siberian Express to reach his destination.
Our hero’s not alone. He’s joined on his trip by two friends and a funny lanky nephew, who’s chronically depressed after a divorce. As they journey towards their destination, all the landscapes passing in the windows look the same. It’s a deliberate directorial decision. There is nothing more superficial and fleeting than the glance of a tourist, capable of snatching from the colorful palette of reality only snippets and details. The camera captures the surface-like quality of the tourist gaze, most often seeing the new worlds opening up before the our heroes from the perspective of a train compartment, through the windows of a hotel, from the train platform.
However, we do not see the glossy images predicted by tourist guides, instead we observe small touching details of subjective impressions that contribute to the meditative mood of the film. A funny hippopotamus from the Berlin Zoo, a Byelorussian stripper provoking the tourists’ delight with her shameless dance, a fragment of the Kremlin seen through a window of the Radisson Hotel, Russian gingerbreads on the journey, an old wooden door of a break train station in Ulan Bator, The Great Wall of China with no beginning or end — all these little blocks of impressions will not build up to a complete picture of a foreign country; they are more like snapshots that reflects small passing moments in the lives of those who make them.
Trains, stations, hotels and landscapes — the viewer sees no more than the characters of the film see. The camera prefers to look at the world around through windows, distancing us from it, making it impossible to truly experience.
The main hero has a chance to get closer to the understanding of the mysteries of these unknown worlds only when all his travel companions abandon him on the trip (first the two friends, who can’t stand the boredom of the trip, return to Switzerland, and then his nephew unexpectedly finds love true love in Mongolia and stays behind).
The man finally leaves the train, gets on a bus and goes to a remote Chinese village where he witnesses a real unique sight. It’s a Chinese bullfight where bulls spear each other bloody with their horns in front of thousands of people. Here our character finally doesn’t have the need to hide behind the walls of the train’s special car for foreign travelers.
Is it really worth it to run from Swiss cows for so long just to see a fight for Chinese bulls? Sometimes, apparently, it is. Well, sometimes it is. For the hero this strange trip is the only possible road back to himself. The film takes both him and the viewers full circle. It subtly and inventively proves a cliché: you can run but you can’t run away from yourself.
© FIPRESCI 2004