In a Year of Six Kostrovs

By Christopher Small

The fact that at one time there was a camera in front of some people, which made them act in a certain way, and everything they may have thought or said or done at that time no longer has any importance. It is dead and gone; the only thing that counts is what remains, and what remains is a crystallization of it…It’s the moment when you pass from the stage of raw recorded reality into the dimensions of a film: that’s the point where you have the greatest responsibility, because that is when the film—whether you like it or not—is going to start to ‘say’ something. But it, itself, must say it, not me nor anyone else.” —Jacques Rivette on L’amour fou (1968), Cahiers du Cinéma no. 204

Do not quench the Spirit.…Test everything; hold fast what is good.” —Thessalonians 5:19, 21, as quoted in Vadim Kostrov’s Kometa 

In 2021, the world was introduced to Vadim Kostrov, a young Russian filmmaker with an entire body of work waiting in deep freeze. One film after another appeared in a matter of months, at such a pace that a proper collective accounting could be made. Though these six works vary greatly in texture and tone, style and content, what unites them is Kostrov’s detached, universal perspective on the passing of time. Today he is 23 years old, though he began to make films in 2017 after moving from Nizhny Tagil, a prominent industrial town in the Urals, to Moscow, where he lived in a hostel and worked intermittently as a food delivery courier after dropping out of VGIK, the film school at which so many great Soviet, Russian, and Third World filmmakers found the means and institutional support to make their movies. This wasn’t the case for Kostrov, whose belief that the work of cinema is to “manifest” certain sensations from the world (and from his life) made him a poor match for the master system by which VGIK has long functioned, in which students are paired with veteran filmmakers. 

After Kostrov left VGIK, Moscow itself became a source of inspiration, allowing him access to a world of galleries, lengthy walks around the city, cinephilic and literary discussions, and regular screenings. After making Cherdak Undergound (2019), a VHS-shot film that has not yet screened outside of Russia, Kostrov returned to Tagil with fresh eyes, now capable of imagining a private production model free of the constraints imposed by the school. Once the epitome of entrapment and provincialism, Tagil now seemed to teem with possibility. This has become a hallmark of practically all of Kostrov’s work thus far: the filmmaker’s hometown as a near-mythic terrain, an environment that, in its range of possibilities, visual and otherwise, provides him the raw material with which to sculpt time. 

In Kostrov’s films, Tagil’s industrial smokestacks line up amidst the city’s block-like apartment buildings like rockets awaiting launch, silently spewing curling plumes of smoke into the air. One of the most polluted cities in Russia, Tagil takes on a sinister dignity in Kostrov’s work, the cityscape stretching before us in wide shot like a row of obelisks left standing after a nuclear winter. These smokestacks are quite often the first or the last things we see in the films, as blurrily majestic as the images of London in one of Whistler’s nocturnes. They act as introductions or conclusions not only to the narrative proper, but to Kostrov’s particular reconfiguration of a place that, in all its apparent complexity, means much to him and will, over the course of the films, come to mean a great deal to us as well.

After returning to Tagil, Kostrov discovered Narodnaya (translation: “For the people”), an underground artist’s collective populated by messianic young curators and musicians and fitted with small-scale social projects for the community, such as a lending library. Here, Kostrov found some of the same uncontrollable artistic energy he had witnessed in the underground squats in Moscow that he frequented, only with an even more improbable foundation. Narodnaya had absolutely no institutional or cultural support, whether from the city, local arts institutions (if any existed), or private individuals. Its project sought above all to create bonds of abiding friendships within this community of young people “trapped” in Tagil; each time one of its members invariably left for the capital, this delicate social ecosystem suffered a blow. One can see the ethos of Narodnaya in Kostrov’s artistic impulse and method both: he has spoken often of his work as attempts to “help” his friends and family by working through their troubles in the making of films. For Kostrov, cinema is a social act, a gesture of solidarity, a direct extension of life itself.

After joining Narodnaya, Kostrov took up a camera and began recording its work. What emerged, in the simply titled Narodnaya (2019), was an epic documentation of a small-scale utopian project, a grandiose vision of the most intimate of social experiments produced with the most modest of means. After over an hour of screen time alternating between performances and spontaneous conversations about what the work of the collective all means and what it might engender (most of which are filmed in continuous, handheld long takes focused on the speakers’ faces), the band Lazy Comet—which would later become even more important in Kostrov’s life and work—take the stage and cycle through their set, in a more than 35-minute take. With each passing minute, their performance grows wilder and more erratic, as singer and guitarist Gosha Gordienko’s intense process of performance so possesses him that his physical presence in the space becomes increasingly dangerous: he leaps into the crowd, erratically swinging his guitar in the cramped space of the garage before laying it on the ground and pressing his foot on the strings. 

In this sequence, which accrues even greater power from Kostrov’s unblinking camera, Gordienko becomes a veritable embodiment of the energy, both creative and potentially destructive, of Narodnaya’s utopian enterprise: just as it was brought into being by a great effort of collective will, so too can it decouple under the ferocity of its internal energies, whose very nature tends toward entropy and chaos. The later films that grew out of Kostrov’s affiliation with Narodnaya—After Narodnaya, about a party that takes place after the collective’s collapse, and Kometa (both 2021), about Lazy Comet’s short Moscow tour—see the filmmaker creating an almost excruciatingly personal cinema in which the barrier between artist and subject comes close to breaking down. This is especially so when Kostrov himself enters the films as an active participant, often letting his camera dip clumsily to the ground as his focus is drawn away from the demands of composing images and toward the collective energy that is being unleased. Kometa concludes with the logical endpoint of this ethos: an extended sequence, shot by multiple cameras passed around the crowd, of Kostrov fronting Lazy Comet himself.

Simultaneous to the Narodnaya project, Kostrov launched into a frenzy of autobiographical filmmaking, shooting on small digital cameras with mounted directional microphones and with friends as his subjects and performers. A producer friend, Gleb Piryatinskiy, lent crucial help by supporting Kostrov financially, not only providing him with a miniscule income, but also with the meagre equipment with which he worked. From this welter of activity Kostrov produced no less than ten feature films (six of which have now seen the light of day), shooting one while editing another while conceiving the next. The fantastic industriousness with which they were made gives these works a signature sense of unity: as with the cinema of Hong Sangsoo or John Ford, while watching Kostrov’s films one feels as if we are witnessing the creation and evolution of a contained universe governed by its own laws and logic, and populated by quickly familiar inhabitants who freely trade roles from film to film. 

When the initial batch of Russian programmers who saw the films were not impressed, Kostrov screened them for friends and small groups of spectators at impromptu private screenings, often recording moments from these events for use in other films. This, naturally, only increases the interconnectedness of the works: in Narodnaya, we hear Kostrov mention from behind the camera that he is shooting Orpheus (2021); later, in Orpheus, we recognize Lazy Comet’s Gosha Gordienko as one of the viewers at a screening of one of Kostrov’s earlier works. In another film, eagle-eyed Kostrovians will spot Gordienko and Mira Talanova (an onscreen and apparently offscreen couple) in the background of a party; they also both reappear in a major way in the final party sequence in Orpheus and in Leto (Summer) (2021). For those steeped in the vagaries of Kostrov’s cinematic realm, a casual appearance like this explodes the possibilities even further; this is a world where fiction begets reality, and vice versa. 

The final part of the Narodnayatrilogy, Kometa, was shot overnight between February 29 and March 1, 2020, with the pandemic looming over it like a black cloud. It wasn’t until June of this year that Leto, which was shot the previous summer (centuries in Kostrovian time), premiered in the International Competition at Sheffield DocFest, where I worked as a programmer. The festival took place in the grip of pandemic restrictions, which, at that point, essentially made it an entirely local affair, absent the many international guests it normally attracts. Kostrov himself couldn’t attend, and, apart from a single in-cinema screening, Leto was primarily seen online through the festival’s platform for delegates; nevertheless, the tidings of this richly intimate epic spread through the festival world, like a secret codeword passed between cinephiles.

In Leto, Kostrov reconstructs the landscapes and textures of his childhood in what can paradoxically be called vast fragments: fragments in the sense that they exist in scattered form, vast in that they somehow encompass entire lifetimes. A fictionalized avatar of Kostrov himself, Leto’smain character, Vadik (Vova Karetin), is experiencing the kind of summer in Nizhny Tagil that he will remember fondly for the rest of his life, despite the fact that, like all great summers before the onset of adolescence, not much happens. Gordienko and Talanova reappear here as the kind of young adults that dominate the free time of a child in a small town over the holidays; though they are fully formed presences, vividly real in their lived detail, they nonetheless exist before us as if remembered in hindsight. Shooting on MiniDV, Kostrov imbues this floating world with a quality entirely in keeping with the gauziness of our memories of childhood summers. Conversations, too—a grandmother, sunlight gently illuminating her grey hair as she reads from a Bible—feel more like impressions than properly unfolding experiences. Even in the moment, it is as if we are watching and listening to everything before us in retrospect.

A month after Leto’s Sheffield debut, Kostrov premiered Orpheus—which stands as perhaps the locus classicus of Kostrovology—at FIDMarseille. Shot the summer before Leto and parallel to Narodnaya, the film features Kostrov himself as Vadim, a young filmmaker returning to Tagil in search of closure with a former girlfriend, Anya (Anna Naumova, playing herself). The first half of the film is relatively staid, following Anya around familiar spaces in Tagil; at other points, she plays the guitar and sings, or Vadim plays the piano in a living room that will become one of the defining spaces of the film. At the halfway point, Vadim and Anya have a conversation on the hill above the city, with a watchtower illuminated by spotlights in the background. Lighting and holding several candles, cupping each of them in their hands to keep the flame alive, they speak about the stifling conformity of the people in Tagil, who move “as if on rails” from home to work. “Every one of your thoughts can change your life,” Vadim says. “There is always a choice to follow these thoughts, even if you have nothing…Thoughts themselves create a future.” Subsequently, the film follows Anya to a nightclub, in what becomes a scene of long, drawn-out tedium and numbness. This, we sense, is Eurydice’s uncertain voyage into a banal underworld.

As always in Kostrov’s movies, the intensity of the music, whether played live or over speakers in a club, can divert the entire trajectory of the film. From the nightclub sequence forward, Orpheus seems to spin out in all directions, growing ever more dispersed in its ideas and formal makeup. We see Kostrov’s own grandfather, who, after a hurried second marriage, mirrors Vadim’s quotidian version of the Orphic quest through his routine of guiltily recollecting and paying ritualistic tribute to his deceased former wife; we witness more parties, whose shifting energies Kostrov catalogues in what feels like their entirety; we meet Anya’s girlfriend, who is watching TV on the sofa when she returns from the club. 

This latter scene is an instructive one for the way in which it gets at some of the mystery of Kostrov’s art. There is a subtle interplay between the blaring TV—from which we hear salacious news reports about extortion, blackmail, multiple plane crashes, school girlfriends slipping into comas, infanticide, and the like—and the girl’s sedentary position on the sagging couch as she quietly reads a book. The contrast between onscreen and offscreen, the shabbiness of the décor and the crazed tenor of the news report, is completely non-metaphorical: Kostrov is operating in an altogether purer, more beguiling realm. After watching Orpheus, I couldn’t help but think of Dave Kehr’s great line about Chaplin’s Limelight (1952): “Overlong, visually flat, episodically constructed, and a masterpiece—it isn’t ‘cinema’ on any terms but Chaplin’s own, but those are high terms indeed.” 

In September, the news broke that Doclisboa would show a further four films by Kostrov: one, Zima (Winter), from the same seasonal cycle as Leto, and the aforementioned trilogy of concert films about the formation and dissolution of the Narodnaya collective. Zima is, as one would expect, the formal inverse of Leto: the warm DV images of the latter replaced by flat, icy digital, the long, free-flowing zooms that tracked both the languorous motion of early-evening walks and the characters’ tender, murmured discussions traded for severe wide shots of landscapes blanketed in snow along with cramped, austere interior scenes. For the opening ten minutes, the teenage protagonist is hunched at his PC playing Counter-Strike for what feels like an eternity; the image, shot Hammershøi-like from the opposite side of the room, captures not only his screen, bustling with violent movement, but also the fresco of windows that look out onto the dead of winter. For 90 minutes, we follow the unnamed protagonist as he trudges silently through the snow, watching him pause to work with spray-can or paintbrush to create highly intricate but nonsensical graffiti on the crumbling walls of the city’s industrial zones. As programmer Boris Nelepo astutely noted in his introduction to the film in Lisbon, these sequences are a perfect synecdoche for Kostrov’s own practice: just as with the boy’s industrious creation of art with no seeming logic or purpose, Kostrov’s films are purely about the beauty of the gesture.

Kostrov’s eleventh feature and third entry in the seasons cycle, Osen (Autumn), was shot in September of this year (with Kostrov once again the sole crew member for production), and the edit locked in his hotel room at Doclisboa a month later. Kostrov’s flight from Russia, along with his wife and the rest of the festival’s Russian contingent, gave ample time for the completion of the screenplay for Vesna (Spring), which surely will be either underway or even completed by the time this issue hits the stands. This is a truly never-ending tour, a song that never fades out: Kostrov will continue to make movies forever, moving outward in ever-widening concentric circles like air particles shuddering after the strings of a guitar are strummed, or rings expanding outwards after a stone is tossed into still water, “the parents becoming weaker and dying off from within as the progeny conquers the land about them,” as W.G. Sebald once wrote. Kostrov is guided by something on this wavelength, one that isn’t easy to tune into on first pass. We see so many people doing just that in Kostrov movies: strumming, noodling on a piano, bobbing along as another person plays music, creating a space through an erratic, overpowering style of performance. This is what Kostrov too is driven by: a mad quest in search of a melody that exists beyond the limits of individual works. His is the kind of odyssey that takes a lifetime. Small Christopher