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Three films make Japanese premiere at Sokurov festival

by Mike Hamilton

Special To The Japan Times

Acclaimed Siberian director Alexander Sokurov, will be the subject of a two-week film festival between July 23 -Aug. 5. The Cannes Film Festival regular is one of Russia’s greatest directorial exports, responsible for such celebrated films as “Mother and Son” (1997) and “Moloch” (1999). However, it was the historical drama “Russian Ark” (2002) that brought him his current international prominence.

Sokurov was born in 1951 to a World War II veteran in the coldest depths of Russia. As his family moved around a lot during his childhood, Sokurov would not discover his interest in film until he reached university, when he became an assistant television director at just 19 years old in Gorki, Russia’s third largest city. In his 20s he moved to Moscow and became acquainted with filmmaking and garnered respect in the local industry fairly early on.

It was at this early stage in Sokurov’s career that he built a close relationship with celebrated Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. It was Tarkovsky’s film “The Mirror” (1975) that attracted Sokurov’s attention and influenced his own cinematic style, which consists of shooting long takes, drawing out a raw acting style from his performers and using unrefined sounds from nature.

Sokurov’s skill at filmmaking was not fully appreciated in his own country under the Soviet regime, and it was not until the end of the 1980s that his films were able to be released. His first feature film, “Lonely Human Voice” (1987) based around several stories by renowned Russian writer Andrei Platanov, was completed in 1978 but not released domestically or internationally until 1987 when it received the Bronze Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland.

Among his peers, Sokurov’s best film is largely agreed to be “Russian Ark” — a film that saw no bounds in what it sought to achieve in filmmaking style, location and narrative. The film, about a ghost that travels through 300 years of Russian history, is 96-minutes long and, amazingly, was shot in one take — albeit with two years of preparation. Such an unbroken sequence was only possible due to the advent of high-definition digital cameras and it was the first feature film to take advantage of the new technology.

Sokurov also managed to secure permission to shoot the film in Russia’s most historic building — Saint Petersburg’s Winter Palace, once home to Russian monarchs, now housing the Hermitage Museum. For an avant-garde director who rarely received positive feedback from his own government, this was a significant achievement.

The Sokurov Film Festival will take place at Shibuya’s Euro Space and screen 16 films over two weeks. As well as “Russian Ark,” other well-known Sokurov movies such as “Mother and Son” — about the relationship between a dying mother and her son — and the controversial homoerotic followup, “Father and Son” (2003) will be among the films screened. One of Sokurov’s more recent films, “Alexandra” (2007) starring opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya, about an elderly lady who visits her son at a Chechen army barracks, will also be shown.

Three films will make their Japanese premiere at the festival: “Moscow Elegy” (1988) a documentary narrated by Sokurov about the then-recently deceased Tarkovsky; “Sonata for Viola. Dmitri Shostakovitch” (1981) and “Soviet Elegy” (1989).

Euro Space Theater : Q-AX Bldg. 3F, 1-5 Maruyama-cho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, (03) 3461-0211.

Ticket giveaway

The Japan Times is giving away five pairs of tickets to the Sokurov Film Festival. The screenings will take place at Shibuya’s Euro Space Theater between July 23 and Aug. 5. Winners will be able to attend a screening of their choosing but please note you cannot reserve seats in advance. To apply online, see http://jtimes.jp/sokurov.