The Winner: Valentyn Vasyanovych’s Black Level (Riven’ chornogo)

in 8th Odessa International Film Festival

by Einar Guldvog Staalesen

Jury statement
A breathtaking film which was made in a unique way. With beautiful visual compositions which are more eloquent than any words. The film shows a universal portrait of modern man who finds the power to overcome the problems in his life. The film does not say a word, but it sounds louder than many others for years to come.

Black Level was the most experimental film at the Odessa Film Festival 2017. The film is conservative and ultra-modern. It offers the experience of an advanced silent film. Not a word is uttered. The images, the on-screen sounds, choreography, architecture, the small plots and the careful facial expressions are more telling than speech. The long takes provide excitement and dynamism, and room for reflection. Each image could be framed and put on the wall.

Black Level was the least expensive film at the festival. The production cost approximately USD $10,000. Valentyn Vasyanovych created and developed the idea, used his own funds, shot, produced and directed the film.

The FIPRESCI jury awarded The International Critics Prize to Black Level, despite the production value and the film’s differentness. The jury members believe that Black Level will be viewed, analysed and studied for years to come.

There are 35 scenes in the film, which begins with an ironic, modern studio photo session. A group of beautiful women in white dresses are displayed, using poses and body language, while simultaneously looking pretty for their own cell phone cameras. Look at me. See me. Selfies are taken in many of this year’s Ukrainian films. In this film, the time period is completely omitted.

The man arranging the photo session is a wedding photographer. He is 50 years old and cannot remember if he has done anything other than photographing newly- weds. He needs to reflect on where he is in life. He only photographs the happiness of others.

The man cast in this role is himself a wedding photographer, with 20 years of experience. He is also a friend of the director. He has a large room, or storage unit, filled with junk that he may find useful in future compositions. These strange possibilities inspire his passionate relationship with furnishings and scenes. The recording room is one the film’s fascinating locations.

Valentyn Vasyanovych stages the passages that follow in the wedding photographer’s life. They become tableaus, composed and choreographed plot elements and absurd connections which together make sense. Life is meaningless. Perhaps there is hope of something else, somewhere.

The photographer’s cat and his father, who is in a wheelchair, are the most important figures in his life, as he finds out when both pass away.

We cannot predict how anything will develop. We have no clue that the director himself was also unaware of how the film would develop and end.

The origin of the film is also a fascinating story. I have asked Valentyn Vasyanovych to explain it himself:

It began while I was producing another feature film. We had a few weeks’ break in the production, and I was eager to commence something of my own, driven by my passion for filmmaking. I didn’t know what and how, but called my friend, the wedding photographer, and asked him to be part of an experiment. The first location we visited was an underground tunnel. — Stand there, I said. You’re waiting for someone. I recorded, and felt a special dynamic in the images. It was a good start.

Then the wedding photographer asked: — Who am I waiting for? — A woman, I answered. Yes, there had to be a woman involved. The next day, I called an actress and asked if she was available. She came. We recorded. What do a man and a woman with mutual attraction do? Well, they have sex. That was the next scene.

Then we went to the garage of the house in which I live. I have long wanted to use it for something in a film. We recorded.

A person was missing in the setting. The wedding photographer needed a father. The photographer’s own father took the role. The cat was already in place. It was very old and died of natural causes during filming. And so, the cat’s death became part of the plot.

And you still didn’t have a script, I ask.

No, but when we were halfway through the 35 scenes, we saw a direction. We saw that it could become something. I presented the project and was granted production funding to continue. I didn’t use the money, because I understood that additional funds would change the character of the film and stand in contrast to what I had already recorded.

Now I am glad that I didn’t fall for the temptation. I have felt like a painter who begins with a brushstroke somewhere on the canvass. That feeling was an important part of the process.

What about the women dressed in white in the photo session? What did you explain to them before shooting?

They are professional models. They were instructed to enter the frame in an agreed direction, order and rhythm, while they took selfies in and around a large armchair and I photographed them.

In one long take?
No, we did several takes, but the first were the best

Director and photographer Vasyanovych has received several international awards for his documentaries; now he gains widespread recognition for his strange work of fiction. At the same time, it is a documentation of this decade.

Edited by Birgit Beumers