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03: Summer, Winter
On Summer (2021) and Winter (2021) by Vadim Kostrov, and on making films about climate and season.
“Then his flesh will be healthier than in his youth, and he will return to the days of his youthful vigour.” - (Job, 33:25)
Marginality is a funny thing. It seems strange to think that a filmmaker whose work has barely screened outside of their home country could be considered to have broken through, and yet, with two different feature films competing at international festivals barely a month apart, Russian filmmaker Vadim Kostrov seems to be on the precipice of something. Described by film programmer and festival consultant Boris Nelepo as not only “the best director now in Russia” but also “one of the very best in the world”, Kostrov seems to be at risk of falling victim to the sort of hyperbole that few artists could live up to—not even the sort that make eight (?) feature films prior to celebrating their twenty-fourth birthday.
Two of Kostrov’s features make a fine pair. Summer (which screened last month in Sheffield Doc/Fest’s International Competition), and Winter (which does not yet have a festival premiere announced but presumably soon will) mirror each other well. Both, as might be guessed from their titles, are atmospheric portraits of seasonal life, and both take place in the filmmaker’s home of Nizhny Tagil, a city located in the Middle Urals that was an early centre of Russian industrialisation and which has long been a major producer of iron and steel. An area with a subarctic climate, Nizhny Tagil experiences mildly warm summers and very long, cold winters, a basic fact which informs the rough premise of this pair of unorthodox city symphonies. Exploring the ways in which the inhabitants of the city interact with its seasonally shifting landscapes, the two films share many similarities but also diverge in significant ways. Far from being narrative-driven, both feel primarily like aesthetic exercises, focusing on the sensations that arise from the weather patterns of each period and how this informs living as young person in this place.
Both films open with a landscape image that shifts slowly from indiscernibility into definition, effectively embodying the weather conditions that will dictate the mood of each film that follows. Summer begins with a sky washed in crimson, showing a sunrise that slides from red to hot orange. As the blanket of colour lightens, a panorama of rolling mountains and a grid of power lines that diagonally intersect the square image appears. As this hot fog fades into the yellow light of day, the smoke of industry rises in the background and factories start to become visible as more and more crisp light filters into the frame. Winter, shot in a sharper widescreen, opens with this image’s conditional opposite. Here, darkness also turns bright as the black cloak of a winter night shifts towards the cool white light of morning. First a snowy sea of trees pop up in the foreground, then a tower block becomes clear in the background, standing forebodingly tall despite its well eroded facade. Both scenes show a still morning in the industrial city, yet one image sweats whilst the other shivers. Both images set the tone for the films that follow, one of which is warm and welcoming, and the other harsh and lonely.
The way that Summer opens is fitting, as the film is above all a study of how light lands within spaces: how fine light caresses skin and surfaces, making landscapes look alive with possibility and causing bodies to glow as it bathes them. Consisting of a series of vignettes that follow the activities of a small set of interconnected individuals, Summer spirals outwards from its main character, an 8-year-old named Vadim who is mostly seen playing alone or with his older sister. A fiction film made of observances that seem informed by a lived reality, Summer feels loosely auto-fictitious, a reflection of various assembled reminiscences rather than anything that is strictly autobiographical in terms of its depiction of event or detail. It shows what summer feels like when remembered most fondly.
A supremely languid film, Summer also feels like an exploration of time, looking into the particularly luxuriant, leisurely sort of time that you can only experience when young and unburdened. Time here is something slack and stretched; this is the sort of time that accompanies a summer that feels—up until it is suddenly, irreversibly over—like it will never end. Accordingly, the film’s images are sensual and elegant, captured regularly during the golden hours and mostly depicting characters undertaking routine activities unhurriedly and without concern. In a late scene, Vadim smiles while dipping his ankles in a stream, and in another, he sits on a step, idly sliding a skateboard back and forth under his feet. In another particularly idyllic feeling sequence, his sister flirts clumsily with a boy around her own age. First, they traipse silently through the woods, the day’s fading light piercing the treetops as they walk arm in arm, before settling and starting a fire. "What is the sunset for you?”, the girl asks, for the boy to reply that, for him, “it is the end of an old life and the start of a new one.” Replying with a bashful smile, she says that “for me, it is an explosion.” Nothing in the film could be described as dramatic, and yet each moment feels like a perfect encapsulation of the way that real occurrences transform into hazy memories, starting out sharp-edged and crystalline before fading into nostalgic vagaries over time.
Using a controlled camera, always tripod-mounted, which is sometimes fixed and sometimes tracking, the film feels self-conscious in some ways, somewhat affected in its slow, laboriously considered movements and the occasional pronounced zooms that draw attention to themselves and to the sense of this as a film that has not been improvised but instead precisely constructed. The choice of miniDV as a tool furthers this effect. Each beautifully grainy square frame, with its saturated colour palettes and glitching pixels, bring a materiality and medium-specificity that suggests a director who has watched lots of films in his life and wants his viewers to sense this. Yet, as this is a wistful film about youth and youthfulness, being made aware that its maker is still self-serious in a way that many young people are only adds to the film’s effect, lending it a disarming naivety.
Midway through the film, Vadim and his sister sit on the porch of their home, splashing their arms with cold water in an attempt to ward off the scorching sun bearing down on them. Like all of the vignettes in this gentle, laconic film, it is a simple sequence, more of a glimpse of a detail of a story than something that could be an actual anecdote in of itself, and yet, without the use of any words or any real narrative contrivances, it reveals more about the situation it is aiming to depict than a scene shot by a more experienced director might. Summer is sitting silently next to someone under the sun, watching as the water evaporates off your arms in real time.
The mood in Winter is the polar opposite of this. In what could be seen as a parallel scene to the one just described, two teenage boys sit inside facing a snowy window, hunched over computers linked together for a local network game of Counter Strike. Blank faces grimly illuminated by the green light of their screens, they shoot each other expressionlessly, dying and respawning endlessly as the night stretches through its longest, darkest hours. Time here is again stretched, maybe even more so than in Summer, but its infinitude is not a source of joy but something that proves beleaguering. The temperature is freezing, the days are not much brighter than the night, and time feels slow and heavy. Time now is no gift, just something that needs to pass so that the harshness of winter can subside.
If Summer seems self-consciously cinephilic, Winter moreso. The film stretches the sense of inactivity that is present in Summer to its outer extremes, utilising a style of “slow cinema” aesthetics that, despite a wave of popularity just over a decade ago, has now become somewhat unfashionable. With next to no dialogue and shots that regularly run uninterrupted for many minutes, the film’s pacing is slack enough that it shifts frequently between being mesmeric and agonising, producing a tension that is productive, if not exactly always pleasing. One scene, which seems to be included purely to draw attention to this designed slowness, features a character walking extremely slowly across a mostly empty landscape, moving from the very left side of a fixed shot to the far right over a take that stretches across multiple minutes.
Other sequences are similarly slow, if generally slightly more eventful. The closest that the film comes to a dramatic incident is a meeting between two characters who share a terse exchange under a bridge before mutedly parting ways. In most scenes, characters trudge around various outdoor locations, striding through the thick snow that is persistent across the film’s various vignettes. Winter is wearying, and people in this film are small and isolated, drowned in the snow and dwarfed by the crumbling tower blocks that punctuate the landscape like totems bursting out of the ground.
Like Summer, this film is all about atmosphere, and the mood is decidedly oppressive and icy. If these are the same areas of Nizhny Tagil that are seen in Summer, they are largely unrecognisable as such. Shot in widescreen with a DSLR, the film’s palette is murky and muddy, made of dirty greys, the dull, bright whites of the snow, and natural lighting provided by a perpetually overcast sky. Days pass without distinction, little changes, and all of the characters seem to exist in a suspended state of time and motion, waiting out the end of the winter. A minimalist film, the images are often searchingly empty, and with such stripped back image-making, sound becomes an even more important element. As the figures walk their way through the endless winter, the wind howls persistently on the soundtrack, interrupted intermittently by the sounds of an occasional barking dog, birdsong, the rumbling of train tracks, or a sporadic police siren sounding out from some far-away place. As evidence of signs of life happening out of frame that can never be seen or reached, these sounds serve only to further the film’s prevailing sense of isolation, becoming something that is increasingly impossible to ignore as the imagery becomes emptier and more desolate.
The film’s most arresting sequence sees the young teen lead—who is again named Vadim and whose life is also presumably informed by the director’s own upbringing in the city—tagging one of the tower blocks with a distinctive scrawl of graffiti. Seen from afar over a series of very long takes, the teen slowly and purposefully sketches out a complex piece across a crumbling sidewall, spraying large yellow and orange shapes first before shading these delicately in black outlines. Striking in contrast to the film’s largely grey-white palette, the inscrutability and slowness of this extended sequence proves its great appeal. The scene’s length and centrality seems to suggest it has some kind of singular importance within the narrative, but this is likely a misleading conclusion to draw. This act may in fact be nothing special, but like all the others in the film, just something to do.
Indeed, time might not exactly be leisurely for the characters in Winter, who seem to suffer in a numbing sort of silent solitude, but it is luxuriant for the filmmaker, who takes the time to craft something truly atmospheric and absorbing out of the most ordinary elements of day-to-day life. The effect is sometimes entrancing and sometimes dull, but, as with Summer, it is always intentional. Seen as a pair the two films make great counterpoints, both effective spatial studies that show how climate affects place and how weather conditions affect individual memory and emotional psychology. As odd as it may sound, one of the most riveting things to watch is a talented filmmaker creating magic from the most mundane elements, seeing people live life someplace else just as you do. There are no narratives in these two films, just real life situations skillfully transformed to feel magically more than real.
Vadim Kostrov’s Summer (2021) screened recently at Sheffield Doc/Fest, and was recommended to me by Christopher Small. Another feature by the filmmaker, Orpheus (2021) screened recently at FID Marseille. Winter (2021) does not currently have a premiere date announced. Another film in the same series, titled Autumn, appears to be currently in the works. Little information (in English) is currently available about Vadim Kostrov, but some details can be found here. To receive more articles like this, do subscribe to nonlinearities. The writing in this newsletter will always be free-to-read, but donations are very welcome.