Dialogue: Alexander Sokurov


A visionary filmmaker often favorably compared with legendary Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky (1972's "Solaris," etc.) whose 30-year career encompasses Soviet suppression, the freedoms of Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost and the challenges of the near-collapse of the Russian film industry post-Soviet Union, Alexander Sokurov is nothing if not an iconoclast. His visionary and versatile use of the camera, light and dark, action and inaction on subjects ranging from a man's return from death to the cynical world of the living ("The Lonely Voice of Man") to the almost inexplicable emotional tour-de-force of "Russian Ark" -- shot in one, continuous 96-minute take in St. Petersburg's Winter Palace -- can thrill, devastate and at times bore viewers and critics alike. But if what he says about this year's In Competition film "Alexandra" is anything to go by, it seems for the moment that Sokurov has stepped away from familiar themes of mortal power to more attention on personal issues.

The Hollywood Reporter:
You are no stranger to Cannes. What was your reaction when you heard "Alexandra" had been accepted?

Alexander Sokurov: I am glad for producer Andrey Sigle that his film is In Competition at such a well-known festival. It will have important consequences for the boxoffice of this modest film. I must admit I was surprised; I was convinced that such a modest, noncommercial film would not be selected. It is personal, a chamber piece and utterly non-European. Remembering how "Russian Ark" failed at Cannes, I thought "Alexandra" had no chance at all.

THR: To what extent is "Alexandra" a departure from your concern with power and the abuse of power? To what extent does it touch on this theme -- it is, after all, about an elderly woman's trip to Chechnya to visit her grandson, an officer serving in the Russian army in Grozny?

Sokurov: There is nothing political in this film. It is a film where the war has ended and is about people understanding each other and about the necessity that life must go on.

THR: You are said to have "long wanted to shoot a film where an actress performs and from where her role will become an important event of her creative life." Did you write "Alexandra" with your lead, Galina Vishnevskaya, in mind?

Sokurov: Yes, I had dreamed for many years of making a film with Vishnevskaya in a leading role. Without her, I would not have shot a single frame of the film. Vishnevskaya is a woman with a huge dramatic experience of life, a woman of unique beauty who is without vanity. As a child, she lived through the Leningrad blockade. She knows the trifling value of war and the great cost of peace.

THR: What does "Alexandra" tell us about the war in Chechnya? What does it tells us about Russia today? And what does it tell us about the attitudes, emotions and truths the old and young, men and women bring to war and conflict?

Sokurov: In "Alexandra" there is no shooting, no corpses and no violence. It is a film about the ability of people to understand each other, about all that is best in a person. It is about people and the fact that the main thing for people is other people and that there are no greater values than kindness, understanding and human warmth. As long as a person lives, there is always a chance to correct mistakes and become a better person.

THR: Your last feature, "The Sun," is about man's susceptibility to the allure of power. You plan another film on power, "Faust." How far advanced are those plans?

Sokurov: "Faust" is going slowly; I have been busy with the documentary film and now opera. I am trying to get to grips with Goethe's deep sense of Faust. It is very hard going. But the work is progressing.

THR: Your latest creative production is a new version of the opera "Boris Gudonov," which opened at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow the day Russia was officially mourning the death of Boris Yeltsin. Why did you decide to direct an opera, and how is it different from film?

Sokurov: Rostropovich persuaded me to work in opera. The Bolshoi gave me the opportunity to do so. Frankly speaking, directing an opera is much more difficult than film or theater. In an opera, the composer is indifferent to what happens onstage -- his only concern is with the music. A composer's interests begin and end in the orchestra pit. The stage adaptation of the music, the actor's performance and character, dramatic talent, all of these are minor considerations -- the main thing is the sound. I did not approach this as a director for myself. I wanted to put on a national performance that was within the traditional aesthetics of Russian opera. I wished to learn from the actors and musicians. I wanted to understand this masterpiece of Russian opera and to study it.

THR: The European Film Academy lists you as one of the 100 best directors of world cinema. You have a reputation for making films of widely differing genres noted for their emotional impact. What drives you? What questions and themes do you still wish to address in film?

Sokurov: I want to plunge into the interior space of the soul of the person even more. My love of people is so great, my sympathy and grief are so strident, that I am afraid that will power is not enough. Like many people, I am surrounded by cynicism, hatred, bitterness and complexes. I am tired of the sense of dread that presses down upon me for the destiny of my native land, my compatriots. This anxiety destroys me and robs me of the calm so indispensable for concentration.

VITAL STATS:

Nationality: Russian; born: June 14, 1951

Selected filmography: "The Lonely Voice of Man" (1987), "The Stone" (1992), "Mother and Son" (1997), "Moloch" (1999), "Telets" (2001), "Russian Ark" (2002), "Father and Son" (2003), "The Sun" (2005)

Notable awards: Toronto International Film Festival Vision Award, "Russian Ark" (2002); Festival de Cannes best screenplay, "Moloch" (1999); Moscow International Film Festival Special Jury Prize, "Mother and Son" (1997)
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