By Iain Cunningham, Graduate Student, Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures
Russian Studies Workshop screened a film entitled Budynok, or “Building,” in Ukrainian. The directors of the film, Tatjana Kononenko and Matilda Mester, were able to speak with us about the film and answer some of our questions.
To call Budynok a documentary film is perhaps somewhat misleading. The creation of the film seems borne not from a desire to explain history or facts, but rather to show life in motion. The film is shot almost entirely in a building in Kharkiv called Derzhprom, built in the year 1928 in a constructivist style.
The film starts with slow moving shots of the outside of the building and then cuts to an intertitle-like poem advocating that “art must not remain a sanctuary for the idle and a justification for the lazy. Art should accompany us everywhere that life flows and moves – at the bench, at the table, at work, at rest, at play, on working days and holidays, at home and on the road – to ensure that the spark of life will not extinguish in man.” The camera becomes, in this film, an instrument to this end, echoing the desire of the early Soviets for life-art (zhiznetvorchestvo, or жизнетворчество ). This idea, prevalent in the 1910s and 1920s in the Soviet Union, expresses the possibility of life becoming art, lived experiences transforming into artistic ones. At several points in the film poems are read, including one testimonial of a woman recounting her life reading from the pages of her own notebook. Art enters into lived experience through icons of Orthodox saints in the Derzhprom elevator, Hari Krishnas singing and parading on the square, a lone trumpeter playing his enchanting melody on the streets in the night, and even the building itself: a lived-in work of architecture allowed to remain frozen in time.
Walter Benjamin, a 20th century German philosopher influential to Kononenko and Mester, theorized on the concept of “The Angel of History,” based on a painting that depicts an angel caught in the storm of progress, wishing only to stop and live in the moment. What do we find then, in the shots of a woman leaving one of the entrances, themselves in disrepair, going about her daily business? Or in the shots of residents ascending and descending in the old mechanical elevator and the short conversations that take place there? In my view the directors give the opportunity to this angel of history to “stay and awaken the dead,” in the words of Benjamin – or as in the words of one of the directors, watch as “time stands still, but things keep moving.”
The film also contains some archival footage from the 20s and 30s of the building and the people living around it. When watching the foot races or military celebrations, I was most struck by how similar I am to these people, and how similar our modern life is to life almost 100 years ago. Often, when encountering the past, the opposite sensation occurs: that people of the past often seem alien to us. Reminded by these similarities, the viewer can understand the poem of Serhiy Zhadan, read during the film, “you should realize, among other things, that the culture at the turn of the century has already imprinted itself into the veins of your arm, has attached itself at the roots of your thick hair, like warm water flowing in the sink, like a clay-colored necklace over pots and ashtrays, like the autumn sky over the corn field.”
Budynok’s experimental style allows us to question the often taken-for-granted supposition that documentary film is intended to inform. The value of this work, from my perspective, is not to give us information about different times, but to give the camera the quality of an eye, watching life in progress.