Terror Incognita: Julia Loktev on The Loneliest Planet

By Jay Kuehner

Despite the elemental grandeur of its setting and the irony of its title, The Loneliest Planet (2011) hinges neither on the cruelty of nature nor of civilization, but on the betrayals endemic to interpersonal relationships. A deceptively minimal and decidedly haunted pastoral tour that follows a couple of affianced Americans trekking through the rugged beauty of Georgia’s Caucasus, the ambitious third feature by Russian-born, US-bred director Julia Loktev channels a series of oppositions—the distant and the intimate, nature and culture, man and woman, action and reaction—into a terse, pared-down narrative that flirts with allegorical implication while remaining viscerally grounded. Walking and talking constitute the film’s nominal action, but it is silence, a certain existential incommunicability, that prevails.

Nica (the fiery-maned Hani Furstenberg) is strikingly revealed in the first frame, bouncing naked and cold in a washbasin, as Alex (Gael García Bernal, bearded and becalmed) rushes to her relief with buckets of hot water. Though hewing closely to her characters, Loktev discloses little of them beyond gesture and immediate surroundings, a visual strategy that intimates the fundamental inscrutability of other people that was the lesson of Tom Bissell’s “Expensive Trips Nowhere,” the short story that inspired the film’s cautionary conceit. Staying as guests in a small village while seeking out a guide for their mountain trek—the negotiations proceeding without the aid of translation or subtitles, Loktev emphasizing those inevitable confusions intrinsic to travel abroad—the couple, clearly as infatuated with each other as with their upcoming adventure, loiter in their post-Soviet surroundings, doing handstands, having sex, drinking in the disco. This pre-journey idyll establishes an innocuous tone that is destined to be disturbed, but Loktev’s rigorous immediacy eschews easy portent. Her stark editing scheme offers legibility, but not necessarily insight—an aesthetic of detachment that may in fact be a deeper form of engagement, privileging intuition over understanding.

As the film takes to the hills, Nica and Alex are placed at the mercy of their guide, the ruggedly amicable Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze, an actual guide), whose view of the landscape is informed by a far less innocent perspective (the spectre of the Russo-Georgian conflict hangs over the film, but is never explicitly acknowledged). As with all trips, navigation becomes the medium through which dependence is both contested and most nakedly revealed. “I don’t need help, I’m fine,” rejoins Nica to a doting Dato during an arduous river crossing, with Alex lurking dutifully, if ineffectually, on the fringes. (Loktev’s camera stays resolutely attuned to the trio’s continually shifting dynamic, carefully registering each member’s fluctuation from core to periphery.) Shortly afterward, however, through one fateful gesture, this conviction of invulnerability—both personal and (pre-)nuptial—is brutally shaken; and as the trek continues, the sublime stillness of nature makes the unsaid and possibly unsayable weigh all the more heavily.

As Nica and Alex’s bond is corroded by crisis, so too is it implicitly called into question as a luxury born of insulated Western comfort—especially when contrasted with Dato’s harsh personal history, which he unveils in a drunken moment by firelight. The question of whether his monologue to Nica—the film’s sole instance of an expository, self-defining speech—is a performance, a seduction, or a pitiable confession is left provocatively open. The damage, though, is in the details, which no amount of nature or nurture can assuage. This reality, as much as the booze, may be the source of Nica’s (and our) nausea. We may indeed all be fundamentally unknowable, but perhaps more damningly, to quote from the passage Nica reads aloud, “we are overwhelmed and remain silent.” Loktev persistently evokes a mysterious feeling that courses through us, at home and abroad, of beauty and dread pulsing in equal measure.


Cinema Scope: I wasn’t aware upon first viewing that the film is based on a short story by a former Peace Corps volunteer. Did you have a story in mind prior to encountering Tom Bissell’s “Expensive Trips Nowhere,” or did you simply want to make an adaptation? What was the catalyst?

Julia Loktev: I was travelling in Georgia with my boyfriend at the time, and in the course of this trip, though nothing particularly eventful happened, we broke up. He was biking across Georgia, I got on an eight-hour bus. And on the bus ride, I remembered this Tom Bissell short story that I had read a while back, about a couple travelling with a guide. We weren’t travelling with a guide and we weren’t even in the mountains, but somehow being in this space made me think of this story. I found the whole turning point in the story fascinating: it called into question so many things, about how I would feel, how I would react.

Scope: There is an expectation, suggested by the slightly ironic title, that you may be mocking Alex and Nica’s privilege somewhat. But that isn’t the case…

Loktev: You mean the title of the short story not the film, right? The story is called “Expensive Trips Nowhere,” which doesn’t make sense for this movie. The story is transformed quite a lot. The couple in the short story is somewhat unhappily married, travelling on an expensive vacation. I thought, what if this situation happened to very different types of travellers, to a couple in a very different stage of their relationship: young backpackers who are deeply in love and engaged to be married. It shifts things dramatically, but the central turning point remains. The Loneliest Planet seemed to fit the film much better.

Scope: The film has also been read as a comment on sexual politics, but the story could take place among friends, lovers of the same sex; it seems rather universal.

Loktev: I’ve gotten very emotional responses to the film from gay men, for example. In a sense, the film is about men and women today, but it could happen in any relationship. It’s funny because a couple of people have absurdly accused the film of a very reductive form of feminism—using “feminism” as insult, which I find problematic—but I was actually more afraid of it being seen as an anti-feminist backlash! So you can see it from either perspective. For me really it’s a film about confusion… and about love.

Scope: So much of the film happens in a non-verbal limbo, with so much spoken with bodies, landscape. How did you work to achieve this? And language seems like a problem: there are three spoken but none seems to cross over. And there is so much left untranslated.

Loktev: I like that you pointed that out, the role of language, because in a way it’s a film about language, but also a film about people who don’t talk about what’s going on between them. In an intimate relationship, sometimes you don’t really say the most important things, you don’t talk about what’s really happening, but you communicate in other ways. The characters communicate in how they physically approach each other, how they touch, or don’t touch, how they move towards each other, how they pull away. Of course, they also talk, but they talk about the little things you talk about when you travel, like, “Did you shit today?” When you know someone so well…they are about to be married, they are not at a place in their lives where they are telling each other their story. So they can be together comfortably without talking. But then there is a turning point, and it becomes about not being able to talk, not knowing what to say, and then it becomes very uncomfortable.

Scope: They are limited to the trek, of going forth, of walking. It’s incredibly expansive but quite narrow in terms of what can be shared, or not, between them. The landscape is quite beautiful, but that very world also closes in on them.

Loktev: When the turning point comes, they are more than one day’s walk from the nearest village, and that’s very important to keep in mind. Even if they turned back, it would take them over a day to get to town. And then Nica makes a decision to keep going forward, to go on with the trek. They get back into the rhythm of the walk. If you’ve ever backpacked or hiked, it’s a very particular sense of time, and I wanted to capture that sense of how it feels to be out in that expanse, to slowly move through it.

I wanted to go back to something you brought up about language. At festivals I always get asked about why I didn’t translate the spoken Georgian in the film, and I find the question really strange. Because it’s a film about a couple who don’t understand what’s going on around them a lot of the time. That happens all the time when you travel and you don’t understand the language—it’s a fundamental part of the experience. What you do and how you behave has to do with that sense of being lost, adrift, out of your element, powerless. It’s incredibly central to the story, and I wanted to put the audience in the same position as the characters. It wasn’t a radical decision. You are going with them, and it would be strange to know more than they know.

Scope: There is some information that we aren’t privy to; it’s natural.

Loktev: Exactly. Once I was flying over the North Pole to Beijing, and a couple of Chinese guys in the row behind me started arguing. It was really loud and the flight attendants gathered around. I was starting to get scared we would have to make an emergency landing! And suddenly it all cooled down, and the guys were smiling and seemed very friendly with each other. And I asked a Chinese woman what the fight was about, and she said, oh no, the flight attendants were just asking them if they could change seats to accommodate a mother and child. It’s an experience that anyone who’s travelled can relate to; something is happening around you, but you have no idea what’s really going on.

Scope: Given the importance of language, and of the breakdown in communication, it’s possible to see two turning points in the film. Dato’s disclosure of his personal history is the only real story that’s verbalized in the film. His capacity to tell it, in broken English, and Nica’s willingness to listen, changes the narrative; they are communicating. Does his story diminish her sense of victimization?

Loktev: We can’t give away too much, but I think the question of her victimization is debatable. Regarding their conversation, I always felt the guide should come with his own story, a story that inserts itself into the narrative. There’s something inherently interesting to me about the role of a guide, the relationship between a guide and the guided. In a sense, a guide is an actor, a performer. When you go somewhere with a guide, you become an audience, and the guide takes on the role of performer; taking you places, showing things, telling jokes, and you are constantly in the position of responding to this. It’s like a private show. He may have a new audience next week, the next day, etc. It’s a complicated relationship, particularly if you go to the mountains, into nature with a guide for several days. You have fun together, you face challenges together, and you develop a kind of intimacy. But there is also an inherent employer/employee relationship; they hired this man. At the same time, without him, they would be completely lost, they know nothing. So the power dynamic is very complex and tricky.

Scope: His story is powerful in that you can’t remain indifferent to it, to him. Does it shift the film’s focus from being about the couple to being about the world at large, a broader perspective?

Loktev: For some reason I can’t think of an example now, but I’m thinking of the way in some novels, suddenly there’s a kind of inserted other story that enters into and departs from the main narrative, like a chapter heading, “The Guide’s Tale.” The character of the guide is slippery, not what you would expect. He surprises me all the time.

Scope: It’s part of his performative role, a possible seduction.

Loktev: Maybe, maybe not. I can’t dismiss the idea entirely.

Scope: You leave this open for speculation.

Loktev: He tells the story as if it’s true, and I tend to believe it’s true, but then there’s always the possibility…

Scope: This idea of subjectivity, of shifting views, is reflected through your method of shooting, the composition, which is really an act of choreography. Spatially, the way the actors relate to the landscape, how the camera tracks them, each coming and going in the frame, this is quite an achievement, especially considering the terrain!

Loktev: It is definitely choreographed, but choreographed very much on the spot. There was no way to plan the choreography in advance. The landscape varies—no two mountains are the same—the terrain varies, and it affects quite literally how you walk. Usually we would get to a location where we were shooting a particular scene, arriving at a mountain, and I would figure out the movement of the actors and the camera on the spot. And there would be a very narrow window in which we could shoot. We were working with a very small crew and natural light. You can’t negotiate with the sun. You can only adapt to it. So in order to get the right light, we had very elaborate lighting studies, charts that detailed when we could shoot and in what direction. So we could shoot, say, from 5:45 a.m. to 8:15 a.m. And we could only shoot pointing the camera in one direction, a rather narrow window of maybe 120 degrees, rather than being able to shoot a full 360. There was an incredible set of constraints, and this really defined how we worked. And I had these long moving shots, sometimes three or four minutes, with the camera walking, really hiking, alongside the characters and the composition constantly shifting. So it was a challenge to get all three characters and the camera at their best in a single take before the sun became too strong and we had to stop shooting. It was astonishingly challenging. I anticipated that it would be hard, but not quite how hard.

Scope: With a small crew?

Loktev: We had a crew of about a dozen, many of them Georgian, camping, drinking chacha, eating kebabs. We were there, feeling the reality of the film.

Scope: And it was a deliberate choice of yours to shoot in Georgia?

Loktev: I was born in Russia, and I really grew up with this mythical image of Georgia; it was the vacation paradise of the Soviet Union. My parents travelled there, my mother once did a three-week trek through the Caucasus Mountains when she was in university. And then I got the idea for the film while I was travelling in Georgia. One thing that attracted me is that the tourism industry is still quite new, so you still have a chance to have friendly interaction with people—someone might buy you a beer, invite you to their house. And then there’s this incredible landscape of the specific region where we were shooting, which really looks unlike any mountainous region I had ever seen, these huge green mountains but without any trees, almost like science fiction.

Scope: On a technical note, the editing and sound design figure decisively. The stark editing is destabilizing, and the sound design, I’m thinking of the line from the Bissell story, in which a tent zipper howls. You bring this to life.

Loktev: Sound is very important to me; I came to film from sound. So I think of sound as much as image. I write sound into the script, and I’m very involved in the sound edit. There was lots of on-location recording, with some sounds picked up after the crew had left. With Day Night Day Night (2006), I did all the wild sound recording myself; there, I could just hop on a train to Times Square. But for this film, I knew that soon the mountains would be snowed in, so we had to bring all the sound back with us from the shoot. I try to gather as much as possible, and then take it apart and rebuild it, really evaluating every single footstep. And this particular environment is really interesting. It’s not like a jungle where you have lots of birds and insects. It’s actually tremendously silent. Maybe you get one bird, then sometime later one insect. So most of the sound is really the sound of them disturbing nature, of their footsteps. The footstep is an extension of the body, and as the terrain changes so does the footstep. And how you walk also depends on your emotional state, the heaviness and lightness of a step. We talk of having a spring in your step, but also of carrying the weight of the world.

Scope: There is something elemental, even anthropological about the story, it seems as old as the hills. Hemingway told a similar story, set in Africa. The use of long shots exemplifies this, says something about human nature, of us all barely visible in the landscape. Can you comment…

Loktev: Can I comment on human nature?! There’s something so basic at the heart of this story, but the questions it raises, or maybe how we go about answering those questions, shifts with time, with culture, with personal experience. It is interesting to hear how people have responded to the film depending on their own experience. It raises some basic questions about men, about women, about love. Two people sitting next to each other in the theatre can see it as two very different movies. I’ve heard some people say that the central turning point in the film is something no couple can ever recover from, and I’ve heard other people say, “What’s the big deal?” So maybe this says as much about the viewer as about the film. It can certainly make for awkward date conversation! Obviously there is a lot of grey area in-between, and I’m interested in this murky space in-between.