Marie André  À Alexandre Sergueïevitch Pushkin, 2007, 57’, 16mm, French

Everybody has claimed him as forebear, spiritual leader – ‘representative’.

Russian literature per se begins with Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin, but it is especially his influence on non-literary, religious and socio-political movements that is striking. Ever since Dostoyevsky’s rediscovery of Pushkin as Russia’s first poet, he has been ‘read’ as a personal hero by monarchists, Bolsheviks, Stalin(ists), and – most recently – the Orthodox Church and nationalists.

Pushkin – his poetry, his life – seems to speak to everyone, or to address everyone’s ideology. Each subsequent Russian generation gives his work another specific meaning – carefully cutting away those parts in his writings and biography that may disturb. The Orthodox Church turns a blind eye to his promiscuity and heavy drinking and gambling; his cosmopolitanism and internationalism go unmentioned by the nationalists.

And so now, in 2008, one of Belgium’s earliest video artists, Marie André, herself a third-generation child of Russian immigrants, does her take on Pushkin – not on video, but on film. Unlike Pushkin’s admirers cited above, André focuses on Pushkin the man.

She presents him as an artist and an outsider, a person whose physical presence and personal excesses (his eating, drinking, gambling, bathing) deserve the same attention as his literary production. André directly links her subject’s physical presence to the materiality of things (fish, meat, alcohol) represented close-up in the film as well as to the materiality of the images’ support – a mixture of black-and-white and colour cellulose acetate from the 1970s and ’80s.

The fact that this film was made using reels from Boris Lehman’s stock of cellulose acetate film is highly significant. Lehman, ‘Belgium’s greatest filmmaker’ (André), is the film’s cinematographer, one of its protagonists (quite hilariously, he plays the role of Avvakum, a 17th-century dissident Russian priest and martyr) and a personal friend of André’s. In fact, the entire cast is made up of André’s friends and fellow-artists. Thus, the film is not only a biography of a writer who lived in the past, but a ‘documentary’ (a putting into film) of a group of friends, poets and artists living today.

This ‘today’ is not a naturalistic one. A narrative poem heard in a voice-over by Russian-Belgian poet Eugène Savitzkaya, who is also a character in the film, runs through the work. Chronologies and narratives are deliberately mixed. The story of the 19th-century Russian poet Pushkin is interwoven with that of contemporary Polish-Belgian poet Yves Colley. Colley, who plays the role of Pushkin, has African roots, just like Pushkin himself did. Since at no point does the film attempt to reconstruct 19th-century Russia (or 19th-century Belgium, for that matter), the anachronisms brought into play purely indicate the artificiality of the film and of the genre of narrative cinema as a whole.

Slightly outdated clothing, 1930-model cars, a 1930s record player, a gun-duel: strung together in a narrative, these elements heighten the viewer’s sense of incredulity, non-identification and distance. Still, the camera’s obsession with material detail (food, clothing) and the shifts in the materiality of the film medium itself, make one aware of something living: a shiny, fat, always decomposing life.

A life that, just as the protagonist’s, heads ineluctably towards its own end. But not without having been fully lived: the filmmaker cherishes the community and the life portrayed in the film, and she clings to them. “This film will be despised by the cinephile and the artworld alike,” André muses, sipping a glass of white wine. But of course she hopes otherwise. And she knows that audiences, as always, will recognise in him what they wish to see. Sitting in the dark looking at a screen, or around a table eating, drinking and chatting happily, they will say, ‘That’s our Pushkin!”

This event is part of FRONT-end: Launch of the online media library catalogue

  • Thu 18.9.2008
    20:30 - 23:00
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    Werfstraat 13 Rue du Chantier
    1000 Brussels

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