Entertainment

The Most Improbably Great Documentary This Year Is About... Water

aquarela
Sony

I have a vivid memory of sitting in a Presbyterian church in Columbia, Missouri, watching the horizon of the world corkscrew on a projector screen and feeling like I was about to throw up. This was during the 2012 True/False documentary film festival, at a dizzying screening of Russian director Victor Kossakovsy's film ¡Vivan Las Antipodas! A visual poem about global antipodes -- the points directly opposite each other if you drew an imaginary line through the middle of Earth (like Argentina to China) -- it was beautiful, freewheeling, and strange, the most genre-breaking documentary I'd ever seen at that point in time. 

With his latest documentary, Aquarela, Kossakovsky has burnished his reputation as a singular creator of difficult, but necessary, films: It's a trilingual (yet mostly wordless) globetrotting escapade set to instrumental heavy metal music by the band Apocalyptica in which the "main character" is water, in all its forms, shot at a rare 96 frames per second. At a press screening, the film was accompanied by a thesis-length stack of papers that included quotes from producers like, "Really, Victor and water are the same," and, "It felt to me like a painting from Genesis."

This effort, which might read like a galaxy-brain-level experiment, is actually remarkably successful in executing its vision. Kossakovsky does find the delicate "breath" of oceans and icebergs, the screeching of hurricanes, the roar of crashing waves. At the same time, Aquarela pits this stoic, common force against humanity's struggle to overcome its unpredictability as its properties change ever-faster; one of the earliest scenes of the doc depicts cars skidding across the frozen Siberian Lake Baikal -- until one tragically plunges underwater with two men still inside. It's a climate-change movie, to be sure, but one that lets viewers walk away with their own sense of the chaotic, destructive powers we've unleashed.  

Thrillist Skyped with Kossakovsky one afternoon after Aquarela's release to talk about how he approaches making his wild, idiosyncratic documentaries, why water and heavy metal go together so well, and advocating for shooting at a challenging frame rate. 

aquarela
Sony

Thrillist: This film spans the entire globe with sequences that might have taken weeks or months to get the perfect shot. How long did it take for you to make Aquarela?
Victor Kossakovsky:
Oh, mama, it's five years. But most of the time was waiting for money. Maybe three [and a] half years was spent just to try to convince people that it's possible to make a film about water because people cannot imagine my style. If you say it's a film about water, "Oh… but what's going to happen? [laughs] Or, "Who's the main character?" If you say "water": "Uh huh. Water, but who is the main character?" "Water is." "What about people?" They cannot imagine that water is the character. So now I have the same story. I'm starting this film about architecture and again, they're saying, "But can you film something? Can you show us something?" So I guess my 10 films I made prove I can do this, right? Yeah, but no, people still don't believe me. So it was three and a half years of suffering, waiting. 

The shoot itself was not long. What is for me amazing is, if it's so difficult for me, then how it could be for young filmmaker, who just want to make documentary? It's absolutely absurd system. So, of course, it's stupid for me to complain because I finally made it. So, I have to be grateful for the fact I made it. But seriously talking: something going wrong.

aquarela
Sony

Like you said, water is the "main character" here, which is surprisingly effective -- so many of its subtleties are heightened so that it really feels like a breathing organism, and at other times like you can't really place what you're looking at, the micro or macro, and it's like you're on the moon. How were you thinking about balancing water as this massive, unpredictable, still unknowable force versus something more intimate, like "feeling" its "breath"?
Kossakovsy:
You describe it -- even Cervantes wouldn't say it better than you [laughs]. You need to understand, I'm from Russia, right? We have same kind of President with same kind of ideas, "Russia is the best country." Same as you have a president who believe US is the best country. And I would say if it was like 200 years ago, I probably will let them be because this is the way it used to work at that time, right? But not anymore. Now, we actually have to understand that this is our world and the way we live… We came to the land and there was trees we cut for some stupid reason, or good reason, but we did not leave this country in a way it used to be. If we take oil, we have to think why oil exists in the world? Who even questions this? We take oil, we take gas. But why Earth produce it? Do we know? We don't have the answer. We just take it, and then we're surprised about changing climate.

Now there is a moment when we need to think, what hell we are doing to this planet and -- I'm sorry to be pathetic -- how we can continue in a way that our children do not say to us, "Guys, what did you do?" Why when you find it was one way, and then when you die, planets became worse? We have to do this now. Not tomorrow. And this is why I wanted to just to show to everyone -- to those who believe in global warming, to those who don't believe in global warming -- I wanted to tell them: stop discussing. 97% of scientists believe, but some president don't believe. Enough! This is absolute knowledge. Why are we still discussing it? Today on the planet there is no water for 1 billion people, in the same time we have water for 2 billion pigs and for almost 2 billion cows, which each of them needs 30 times more water then every human. And then we have to kill those animals. Each American eat 120 kilogram of meat a year. It means you have to kill huge animal, cut bones and skin. And then to feed animals, we need to cut forests. And if we cut forests, there is no rain. It's all connected. We are doing wrong, in my opinion. 

Before I made this film, it was just to make it. At time when I finish this film, I'm fighting for climate. I cannot be just silent. I cannot be because when I see what we are doing is disaster. It's unbelievable. And what is most unbelievable is these country, which is supposed to be Russia, China, India, and the USA, they're supposed to be most responsible for the climate, and they just ignore it. This is reality. This is so simple, but people pretend it's so difficult.

Obviously, this is something that you're very passionate about. Because you mentioned your next film is about architecture, are you thinking about how you want to address these themes about the urgency of climate change in that as well? Or do you feel it's a step back from that?
Kossakovsy:
It's not stepping back. There are two important things happening. First of all, the population is growing very rapidly. If you think that only hundred years ago, it was 2 billion, and now in certain time, we will be 10 billion. And what is also happening is urbanization. In the beginning of 20th century, only 10% of people live in a city. And now it's more than 50%. And in 2050, 75% will live in cities. It means if you look to the megacities at the moment -- Delhi, Mexico City, Mumbai, Cairo -- all of them are surrounded by slum where people live without water, without any sanitation. If we will continue this way, then we will have same story every day. During next 30 years, every week, non-stop, we need to build houses for 1 million people. It's like one Barcelona every week. 

That's why I want to show people what it means in visuals, same as I did with Aquarela. What if water will say, "enough?" What if planet will say, "I'm fed up with you guys? Now I'm going to punish." And what will happen? This is what I want to show. I want to show we have to decide how we want to live. Because now the idea is to produce more to consume more and that's how it worked. Maybe now we have to say, no, we have to produce less, you have to have less, you have to have meaning. You have to have only necessity. You go in the city, you go to any supermarket and you see things no one needs. But someone produced it. Imagine you are 60 years old, and someone ask you, "What did you do in life?" "Oh, you know, I was producing this crap." Sorry. It means 30 or 40 years, you spent doing something no one needs. So, are you going to be happy, in the end of the day? Are you going to be the one who thinks about something good, or you work for anyone who give you job?

I guess I'm calling for minimalism. I want us to be models. I want us to say, let's dispense this plan. Let's not cut a tree if you don't need. Let's not produce any plastic, if you don't need. If we can live without this, let's live without this. Let's not kill any animal. Let's eat vegetables. Let's be modest and polite to planet.

aquarela
Sony

I wanted to go back to the thought about water revolting. That idea comes across right away with these men skidding their cars across the ice on Lake Baikal. You caught the terrifying moment of a car going into the water, which I feel like is exactly what you're talking about nature having enough. The ice is getting thinner and thinner, earlier and earlier--
Kossakovsky:
Yes, two or three weeks earlier.

Right, so it does feel like this tragic moment of revolt. In the production notes, you talk about how you struggled with the idea of even including that scene, when they're trying to excavate one of the men out of the ice. And you decided that it's a moral imperative for you to show this to the world. 
Kossakovsky:
Of course, I was confused to show it or not. But, you know, I was there two weeks, and it was nine accidents. It was not only one person. It was nine accident like this, and even one really famous person die. In a way, it was accident because it was appearing in my frame, I was filming completely different thing. But it was not accidental in a way because people are too confident. We believe we can do whatever. It's like changing direction of the river, and then we know result. I said, "I have to show it in order to prevent next death." Actually, in two weeks, I go to Baikal and show the movie, and maybe next year, they will come down, they will not do these things. Probably my film will save lives, I hope, because it cannot continue like this. It just cannot be. We are too confident. Like, you don't teach me, I was born here. I know what I'm doing. And then... this is really metaphor of what we are doing in the world. Just too confident.

aquarela
Sony

There's a sense of power that comes from your choice of music, too. What was the appeal of pairing heavy metal and water to you? 
Kossakovsky:
There are two things, one is very sad, one is very beautiful. All critics love my film, all newspapers are full of compliments. Another thing, the cinema box office not good. People don't go watch it, right? Of course, I am not famous in America. People in Europe, they probably know me, but in the US, no one. Number two, films I'm doing are not kind of popular, mainstream movie. It's quite special, even for even for film people. It's unusual. So I'm not doing things like anyone else. It means it's quite difficult for people even to mention what kind of movie I'm doing. That's why I have difficulties to raise money because people think documentaries are talking heads.

So I said to myself, of course, I can make films for history of cinema, and make it all the sound of water. And it will be film, which will never die for film people, for students, and it will be in every book of documentary. If you read "this man made a movie without music, just the sound of water and it's a great sound;" of course it's great sound. But then I said no, I still need to be close to public, I need to invite public, I need to find the language they can easily understand, those kind of moods. Don't forget, this kind of film is without narrator -- 90 minutes without voiceover. 

I was trying to work with best composers but it was not enough brutality, it was not this unbelievable power, which we found in heavy metal. And it happened also because when we film this kind of shot, scaling an iceberg and the big waves, every time after we stop shooting, everyone say, "[gasp] it was heavy metal." When I came to editing, it was kind of obvious choice to try to use heavy metal. So, this is how it happened. Especially after rough cut, it was obvious it needed heavy metal.

aquarela
Sony

Another part of your mission with this film is to push for more filmmakers to use 96 frames per second. If you just do a cursory search on cinematography blogs, everybody talks about how tough and finicky it can be to shoot in this frame rate. There also aren't many projectors in theaters that can handle that frame rate. How were you able to overcome some of the more difficult technical aspects of shooting, and why is it so important for you to evangelize this specific frame rate?
Kossakovsky:
There are many aspects, I can talk endlessly about this. To make a long story short, a few years ago I was making kids documentary, which already does not exist. I was making film about little ballerina, a little girl who is a ballet dancer. She was making fouetté, and I realize when anytime she turns on one leg, she is turning fast, and I notice I cannot see her face. I just see something blurry, I cannot see her reaction. And in her face, a lot of reaction because her mother is there, her friends are there. The jury, best ballet dancer of the world watching her dancing. So she's full of emotion, she's afraid to fall because she makes fouetté, she's counting music, she's afraid to fall. And then she's achieving it -- you want to see her face. But in all this, you don't see anything. So I started to experiment with frame rate, and I realized that 48 is already good. 60 is good. 72 is good, but 96 is perfect. 

So then I started filming water, I made few months research, and I came to same conclusions: 96 frames per second is the perfect... when you see every drop separate. Not just rain like stripes, but every drop separate. But I need to explain to you, I will make it a little bit too simple. First of all, you need to know, to film fast frame rate is not a big deal. Because every day, everyone who watch TV and see commercial of beer, he sees thousand frames per second. It's not 96. The question is not to film fast frame rate, but to film 96 frames per second, and show film in 96 frames per second, which will give you impression of real time. If I film 96 frames per second, but I will project in 24, it will be slo-mo. But if I projected at 96, and film in 96, then it will be real time. But you will see much more, much more. 

We came to 24fps because 24 was that minimum amount of frames in a second which your brain can connect constant movement. But now, there is no reason why we still film at 24. Technically, there is no limitation. The only limitation is no one doing it because there is no projector, and there is no projector because no one doing it. This is why I want to push. If they watch it in 96, they will never film 24 again. Simply enough.

You know this expression of Jean-Luc Godard, that "film is truth 24 times a second..." I will not argue now with Godard about if art is supposed to reflect life, but I propose another formula. I believe life is more complex than truth. Life contains lies as well, not only truth. So it means 24 frames per second of truth; 24 frames per second of lies; then 24 frames per second of doubt. Because doubts are important for art; you cannot make art without doubt and you cannot live without doubt. You can say "I love you," but still you can have doubt. And most important: magic.

As you're talking about pushing the medium forward, I'm thinking about the sequence in Aquarela of wild horses crossing a river, their legs trudging underwater. The first thing I thought when I saw that was, "Oh, this is like a Muybridge homage" -- it's like you're going back to the first recorded images of movement. 
Kossakovsky:
Thank you very much! You only one who got it. It was my secret weapon, and you got it. You know, I always say filmmaking is like iceberg. So in an iceberg, you can see in the surface only 10% and 90% is below surface. Same with filmmaking. You don't have to accept that people understand how it was done.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Leanne Butkovic (@leanbutk) is an entertainment editor at Thrillist.