Documentary Spotlight

Why 'Aquarela' Filmmaker Made a Nearly Wordless Doc About the Beauty and Danger of Water

Stine Heilmann/Sony Pictures Classics
'Aquarela'

Russian filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky traveled the world to capture the brute force and beauty of water and the way humanity has been affected by it and affects it: "Water is a massive energy that never dies."

Victor Kossakovsky's shortlisted feature documentary Aquarela, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival, is a stark reminder of where human beings stand in the grand scheme of things. The doc chronicles seven locations around the world and how water enchants and endangers within each. The film begins in Siberia, where cameras happened to capture an SUV of locals chancing their way across a frozen Russian lake to tragic results. From there, Kossakovsky's footage of a 100-year storm on the Atlantic Ocean, plus a Miami hurricane, make it apparent that mankind is only a guest of Mother Nature. The Russian filmmaker, 58, spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about what drove him to document the beauty and danger of water and why he decided to forgo a narrator in his nearly wordless film.

What compelled you to document water in this fashion?

If you type "films about water" in Google, all but two or three in the past 10 years are just talking heads. They're what we think about water, and I don't care about what we think. I want to see water. If you use cinema, let cinema show you something, not tell you something. This is what cinema is supposed to do.

Since there's no narration, do you want viewers to attach their own meaning to the imagery and sound?

Yes. You can't trust my opinion because I'm not a scientist. If you come to the cinema, just open your eyes and ears and feel it. Whatever you think is your decision. We cannot live for five days without water, yet we still think we're most important. Water is a massive energy that never dies. I'm not a teacher, but I can show you something you've never seen before.

Were conditions even more dangerous than they looked?

Of course. In the two weeks we were at Lake Baikal [in southern Siberia], nine cars fell through the ice, and there were a few dead people. The arrogant behavior we have toward nature is why I included one of the accidents in the film. We're so confident that we know everything. We cut down forests. We kill animals. We do whatever we want. I respect human life, but we're as important as anyone or anything else. Our mistake was putting ourselves above everyone and everything.

When that SUV fell through the Lake Baikal ice and someone drowned, did you question whether you should keep filming?

The camera was already filming something else, and suddenly, we saw this. So, we screamed for them to stop, and we went there to help them. I didn't know if I should include it or not. I know it's hard to watch, but I included it because the entire film shows the power of water. It was not an easy choice.

Were you able to get insurance to shoot in such perilous circumstances?

It was difficult — just like the entire production. I didn't have a script, so the producers didn't know where I was going next. I would finish a location, and then I would tell them where I was going next. It was filmed in the order you see in the film, and it was complicated for producers and insurers. Risk is part of being a professional.

Did technology make production any easier?

Not at all. We only used a drone twice. It was also essential for me to use 96 frames per second. I simply don't understand why we still use 24 FPS. The best frame rate for water's motion is 96 FPS. It's time for everyone to increase frame rates.

Given water's ferocity, did you have the symphonic metal soundtrack in mind from the start?

When we finished a shot, we'd say, "That was a heavy metal shot." When I started editing, we knew we wanted to use big orchestral music, but it didn't work. So, I said, "Why don't we just try heavy metal?" I also wanted to make a symphony from sounds of ice and water, so we did.

What are you capturing next?

I already finished a movie called Gunda. It's about pigs, chickens and cows. I've never done anything more beautiful in my life.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.