Kira Muratova
© Uldis Tīrons

What do I film? Provincial drama. I have no desire for any noise, poise or pride.

Kira Muratova

in conversation

“Possibly the only thing she likes in Odessa is the sea.” This is what her husband seems to have said a minute ago. It’s about a ten minutes’ walk through a park from her apartment; the sea was calm—a rarity in autumn—it was almost hot under the oblique rays, and some insouciant members of the public even dared to take a dip; the pier was full of fishing rods; nearby, an elderly woman was doing some vigorous exercises, and, sitting in the sand, men were quietly sipping beer. Something seemed off-kilter, and it had to do with Kira Muratova. After my conversation with her, just like after seeing her films, I felt slightly confused—I was reminded of Lars von Trier’s project where the everyday life of Copenhagen’s residents depended on the behaviour of a Mexican anthill’s inhabitants. 

“After The Asthenic Syndrome, Muratova’s films stopped casting a shadow”, I read yesterday, sitting in a small Kiev restaurant whiling away the time before my train to Odessa. The article went on: “Having become a poet of ‘the era of the collapse’, she seems to have lost any feeling while retaining an agility of fingers, sharpness of eye, monstrous mind and fine-tuned hearing, directed at the hustle and bustle.”

The menu was only in Ukrainian; the soup for some reason was called ‘Yushka’, so, without delving much further into it, I simply ordered borscht. 

Among the articles about Muratova, there were a couple of interviews. In one she was interviewed by Renata Litvinova. Her first question was “Do you believe in fate?” I underlined a part of Muratova’s answer to the question about whether or not talent is something final: “You know, that has to do with men. If a man’s life as a male has ended, it means the end of his entire life.” Taking a sip of beer, I underlined another passage: “…this pendulum of everyday existence—it’s like you’re drowning. All the time you have to make the effort to stay above water and live.” 

For the longest time, I revelled in how delicious the borscht was. I looked at the photo accompanying the interview: Muratova on the street with her husband, the artist, Yevgeny Golubenko. The husband looked small.

Contemplating which to choose, vareniki or deruni, I underlined: “You think that a ballet dancer is stupid. But I don’t. She knows how to move her foot intelligently.” Deruni seemed more Ukrainian and appropriate to the situation. I looked at the title of the interview. It was called “Art Was Born of Prohibitions, Shame and Fear.” I got a craving for some sort of Ukrainian alcoholic drink, but it turns out that gorilka is simply vodka. I underlined: “All my life is an obstacle to me. It’s just structured wrong.”

For a change, I glanced through the critical articles about Muratova and came across the following: “But it’s difficult to watch her; it’s not so much hard work as something like the so-called delirium tremens: hallucinations of an alcoholic on a long binge. This is exactly what I tell myself: I was on a drinking binge and just barely got off. A binge, what am I saying? I was in hell. Muratova is showing hell to people—and not some extraordinary Gulag or Auschwitz hell, but an everyday, every-night hell.” I found this in the article by Boris Paramonov, ‘The Waste Land of Kira Muratova’. There I also stumbled upon Camille Paglia: “Metaphorically, every vagina has secret teeth, for the male exits as less than when he entered… In sex, the male is consumed and released again by the toothed power that bore him, the female dragon of nature.” OK, I got it: “…Muratova had chosen her theme without mincing words: woman not as a giver of life but as an engulfing abyss wherein life cannot be distinguished from death. Woman as death, this is Muratova’s theme.” 

The waitress brought me the gorilka, and for a long time I couldn’t figure out what Paramonov was talking about, although the end of his piece—about people who envy horses—was good.

As you watch Muratova’s films—it doesn’t matter from which ‘period’—you puzzle over the same question you’d puzzle over any time you meet an extraordinary person: Where does he or she come from? It’s not fair—after all, we live practically side by side. Sergei Paradjanov once tried to trace Muratova’s genealogy to the Romanian princes, but the ‘princess’ simply cut him off, “First of all, it’s not true, and second of all, I don’t care. A Romanian, a foreigner (Muratova was born and grew up in Romania)—that at least makes some sense… The first who managed to make non-Soviet films in the Soviet film industry”, although it isn’t at all clear what’s so non-Soviet about them exactly. Paramonov made clever use of a quote from Ilf’s notebook: “It’s not that she doesn’t like Soviet power; it’s that she doesn’t like the structure of the world.”

Having read for about three hours, I had another go at the menu with sicheniki, galoushki and vareniki. I decided that kidney vareniki would do just fine before the train. And beer.

And isn’t it just the damnedest thing? When—owing to appeals “at the topmost level” by her teacher, Sergei Gerasimov—Muratova was finally authorised to make The Long Farewell, a cholera epidemic broke out in Odessa. There were no vacationers; people were running from the city, and since there was no one there ready to shoot and this jeopardised the Odessa film studio’s production plan for 1971, she was allowed to start her film. Isn’t it just like the story of Oran in Camus’ The Plague? So Muratova made a provincial drama about an ordinary woman who cannot part with her son. It was only natural. From the start, Muratova had rejected ‘big cinema’, its themes and its ‘damned issues’, turning instead to the very commonplace, while highlighting the horror lurking in everyday occurrences. 

Somebody by the name of Levchuk wrote about The Long Farewell in far-off 1972: “From the very first frames we enter some strange, bleak and morbid world: a mother doesn’t understand her son, and everyone else likewise fails to understand one another. There’s no bright frame, no pleasant face. Instead of speaking, people mumble. Everyone’s eyes convey emptiness and sadness. The streets are grey and leaden, and so are people’s souls. One feels an icy breeze from this grim, joyless atmosphere of a quiet world inhabited by all these hollow, indifferent people. The public rejected the film…” I read this and felt happy—even though it was stupid, the guy was actually right! As I turned the last frames of The Asthenic Syndrome over in my head—where a woman is cussing in a subway car (this was the official reason for not wanting to release the film), I immediately remembered what someone had said about Bergman: that he lacks enough barbarity. At the time, the life of man and the entire world was sheer hell for her; she was doomed to dissolve in her fight with biology and death, and only art could…

The vareniki were remarkable, though I felt I was overdoing it a bit. I ate and thought about what it is exactly that I like about her films—if ‘like’ and ‘what’ are the right words to use. There was no doubt Muratova managed to be honest—if you can consider this a virtue—in the sense that onscreen was what she felt and thought, an uncertainty that directly corresponded to the fragmentary nature of everyday life. Surprisingly, even the everyday mess, or precisely the everyday mess, was what interested her. What was amazing was that despite (or owing to?) the psychopathology of the everyday, there was a kind of Muratovian beauty present, a cold beauty, as in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus

Muratova is absolute beauty, the most non-human lady who ever descended from heaven. This is how she was described by the extravagant composer, Oleg Karavaichuk, who wrote music for her first films. He judged Muratova’s character in an unusual way, by how she sits down as she prepares to listen to music. Karavaichuk claims that people differ by how they take their seats at a concert and that the music about to be played really depends on it. And so Muratova, according to him, is taking her seat on a chair just wonderfully! Perhaps she’s even doing it better than she’s making films…

Before leaving, I thought to ask the waitress, “Do you know who Kira Muratova is?” The girl almost took offense, “Of course I do. But generally I don’t much like Soviet cinema. Solovyev…even he…”

There was no dining car on the train. Before falling asleep, I managed to read: “The mind of a woman is the changed consciousness of man.” In the light of the train at night, the tiny letters were difficult to make out: “I really do not like the way nature and matter are organized, how animals suffer; I don’t like that they eat one another…and actually, what happens to me or how neighbourly love further develops really doesn’t matter to me.”

I don’t like talk about the ‘artist’s bravery’—the wheels of the train cars kept explaining—I agree with Helvetius…people are moved by their drive toward pleasure… I don’t need conversations… If I lack something… If something is lacking in me…it’s being alone… They are beginning…to fear me… I am very particular…very particular…very particular…

Uldis Tīrons

Do you know that you’re called a provincial anarchist?

I was the first to call myself provincial. What do I film? Provincial drama. Even physically, I live in the provinces, and, like it or not, I breathe this air and try to scoop up some interesting moments…

Kira Georg…iev…

Make it simply Kira; it’ll be easier.

But being provincial means taking a certain position, and that isn’t easy. 

I think I must have said it simply for the sake of a nice turn of phrase. I don’t know. Maybe there’s even something feminine about it. I don’t like, or rather don’t know, how to inhabit large spaces. I may be afraid of them. I seem to tend toward something enclosed, so that I always have these little things before my eyes—fragments, people—so that everything would be very lengthy, but then it gets broken by a prolonged noise, sorts of uttered silences, like this: silence—word—silence—word. Just as dark and light replace each other to physically rest our eyes, here it’s silence… Yet long silences begin to make me worried and even anxious. I think this something small is probably a characteristic of the province. It isn’t like a megalopolis, where space is different, rhythm is different, and where the understanding of oneself and the world isn’t this modest. There’s a great deal of snobbism and the idea that you’re the centre of the Universe.

But I know my place. Don’t do what you don’t know how to do, what doesn’t come naturally. I feel that I’m constantly trying to draw the outline of my space as distinctly as possible. I’m increasingly aware, but I neither know, nor need to know, how to do this. And I won’t even go there; whereas in this thing, I will delve deep. And it’s all very modest, tiny. Sometimes I have the urge to view things microscopically: to take a tiny point and look at everything there, say, a minuscule button on a minuscule plate or some tiny person…

It’s like my favourite Godard film, My Life to Live. To live one’s own life: this may be limited to a very small and narrow space, but it can also expand all the time. The provincial consciousness lives its own life, and if it’s never taken out of there, it could just live like that endlessly. I have no desire for any noise, poise or pride.

Furthermore, women are more cunning creatures, just like any kind of slave. They have to fight and adapt all the time; they have to pretend that they’re stupid: “We’re not doing anything special; we’re just sitting here quietly…”

Kira, do you really feel that way about yourself?

Unconsciously… It may be a character trait that exists in me genetically. 

The scale of your films belies what you’ve just said. 

What scale? In The Asthenic Syndrome, it’s all been pieced together from small fragments. It just seems vast. It’s cheating, very sly, cunning. Overall, one gets an impression that’s, I’d even say, grand. But it’s cunning. It’s provincial if we assume that there’s something small and unpretentious in the universe instead of these strong, haughty, definitive life positions. 

I really don’t like this format—cafés, dances—to me it’s boring. I don’t like sit-down events. I don’t like sitting at a table to eat, get up and leave. Social events especially, to me there’s nothing more boring. As opposed to, say, Renata Litvinova who is very good at this; she socializes very well, she likes it very much and gets something useful out of it, just does it all really well. And she really likes to converse. She gets pleasure out of talking about herself. And it’s productive for her profession, to have this sportsmanlike attitude. 

Somebody called her your alter ego.

The way they write about her, they’re simply bastards. Jealous bastards. All of them. Strangely enough, even men. Jealous shit. Furthermore, they write badly, so they turn it against themselves. She is so amazing in her gift, in her talents, even biologically…

But who do you like, Kira? In film?

Who do I like? I like Sokurov.

But everything is very deep for him too… 

Yes, it’s deep, but at the same time it’s art. I don’t like to talk about art or to philosophise in life. For him it’s deep, but everything is made an image, it’s alive… There are deep-thinking people in life. Yes, they’re that, but they’re living people, right? And if such deep-thinking and reasoning people are expressed well in art, then it’s wonderful. Yet art transmits something that it itself is not. One and the same actor can play something and then something completely different. Just like, for instance, in my Tuner, the actor, Degterev, played Litvinova’s boyfriend, a bleached blond who holds forth about Byzantium, blabbing some sort of nonsense, all so lively, talking a mile a minute—that kind of a person. But in Chekhov’s Motifs, he plays a clergyman, a very calm, feminine, sublime clergyman, in other words, a completely different protagonist. But what is Degterev himself like? Who the hell knows? Maybe he isn’t like anything; maybe he’s simply an actor and that’s all.

That’s what art is, a reflection of life by means of art. Life is life, and we simply reflect it and complete it. 

But that’s how it is with anything, not just art.

What do you mean ‘not just art’? What else?

Well, there isn’t any life without our…

Well, if you continue this train of thought, then art is a part of life. It too is life. I don’t really like all this searching, all this digging, this cultural science, cat breeding science…

Does cinema seem like something natural to you?

I don’t know. I don’t think that art can really…

save us?

…change anything, although it’s managed to at times. In principle, it may keep us from something bad, but at other times, it’s just the opposite, attracting us to the bad. It’s not important. Art is a good and pleasant way to spend one’s time for those who do it and those who love it. But sometimes there’s this illusion that cinema overshadows everything else, and this illusion is wonderful. Illusion is an essential part of life. 

Yes. But if it’s an illusion, then it’s assumed that there’s something real. 

I don’t know. This is exactly what I don’t know how to do—all this play with words. You know, we’ll continue talking, and it’s possible to make a circle and the next time to do it in a completely different way, but all of this will only be a spiral and come to either the truth or something like the truth. What can be true in art? An illusion of the truth, a trivial illusion or the final illusion—what can you say? It’s simply an undertaking, a way to pass the time. A wonderful way. It involves the brain, the nerves. And it gives pleasure. And pleasures from art are so diverse! I mean, it could be the pleasure of, say: Oh, how lifelike this is! My God, it’s life itself! Catharsis and such. But it can also be a marvellous rhythm, magnificent sound, something that inebriates you, takes you somewhere, bewitches you; maybe it’s the same thing, but there’s also some sort of seductive lightness. And it takes you somewhere; it’s like you’re in a dance. And you may like it, and it’s different, different, different… 

See, Tarkovsky thinks of himself as an author; you know, he’s present in all of his characters… He engages in self-adoration, reminding us constantly that he’s the author and that this is how he… This immediately turns me off; I don’t want it. It’s not art; it’s something else. These are some sort of quarrels with one’s conscience or with something else, and they have no relation to art. Please do it so that I don’t notice what you’re doing, or it’s of no use for me.

Separation between life and art exists only for perceiving art and setting it apart. But other than that, it’s also someone’s life. No, not life… Even death is life. At least until your death is final. Afterwards there’s the life of those looking at your corpse. And the corpse is a participant in their lives. There is nothing except life…there is only the Universe, and that’s it. See, now we’re beginning to make wisecracks and play with words.

Why did you ask me if I’ve seen your films?

I thought you came here because of that film, which will be shown at Arsenāls1. But then I hear you asking some sort of general and roundabout questions. And I thought perhaps you hadn’t seen anything at all. (Laughs.)

Kira Muratova and actress Renata Litvinova, who starred in many of Muratova’s films

In your film, Brief Encounters, you’re touching Vysotsky and saying, ‘I know this hair, I know this nose, but you—I don’t know you.’

So what? It’s an expression of a real feeling. So what? This is said by a loving woman to the man she loves. A woman who wants to take him apart, like a toy, to understand what’s inside of him. So what? 

There are people I really like but have no desire to know thoroughly. In love there’s always something selfish. There’s the desire to know: What will I get out of this? (Laughs.) So this is my approach to you: I want to know what makes you tick. Perhaps you’re just pretending, perhaps you don’t really love me, perhaps you’ll stop loving me, perhaps you’ll leave me… So I want to know what makes you tick, in what way I should be sad or happy and will it last long or not… See, it’s a kind of selfish desire to know the other person. But there are people I like, and it’s not at all necessary to take them apart; I simply like them, and that’s that. It’s fascinating to observe them, amusing. And also, eventually you realize that it’s impossible for one person to understand another. (Laughs.) You can’t even know yourself. You can’t understand why you behave this way, why you feel that way, why you think this way…

Strange. Your teacher, Sergei Gerasimov, once said that this is exactly your subject matter—understanding man.

Yes, I’ve certainly got this in me, but it’s reasonable. I mean, it knows how to impose reasonable limits on itself. Final analysis: it’s already something dead; it’s just chemistry. From here sadism arises, and then you kill that creature. You think that you want to know him, but in fact you’re beginning to cut him up, limb by limb. And then you stop, all done! He’s already dead. And what did you learn? Nothing. Emptiness.

You speak in metaphors.

No metaphor—that’s how it happens. Just like a child breaks toys, a grownup, going crazy, can ruin another person. My friend, Galochka, had a neighbour who used to come to her and complain that he perceived a woman in fragments. That he found himself unable to perceive her as a whole. And it really tormented him. A hand, an arm, fingers and so on—he was unable to put it all together. He used to come over to my friend’s, fix something or other and talk. Well, he was obviously a crazy person, just a quiet one. But it seemed to me that in time he would really cut her up limb by limb. (Laughs.) He had a desire to understand and put together.

Sokurov says that you have deep roots. Do you know what these roots are?

(Laughs.) I don’t. I’d like to ask him, but I’m too shy. Besides, I see him only rarely. I like him very much. But I’m afraid I’d somehow ruin his peace and ask him something that would put him on the spot and embarrass him, forcing him to be polite and answer. I feel great adoration for him, yet a sense of humour too. Sokurov is like Solzhenitsyn—he’s very important. And I’m not. I’m not important; do you understand? (Laughs.) He is, after all…a man, I would say. And men in art are very hungry for recognition. You’re supposed to walk around them like this, make these circles…like a woman from the Orient. (Laughs.) You have to behave yourself. But this is in no way unpleasant. Well, the man needs this; he’s so nice, so sympatico, so talented—wonderful. Women stand, men sit, women bring food. So what? There’s nothing offensive in that. 

But Sokurov does take offense. I was on the panel of judges in Japan, and he had a documentary there. Naturally, I defended him in all kinds of ways; I wanted him to get first prize. But he didn’t get it. And you can’t imagine the kind of disappointment he felt—in terms of his status!—it was amazing. He was so offended! He took offense against the panel, the festival, and he was unable to hide it. But he didn’t even try. I felt sorry for him, but it was also ridiculous. Why would he give it such importance? It’s just a festival… It’s simply a game. Is it really worth getting all bitter over?

Actually, I think there isn’t any point in taking part in these festivals because it affects even the smartest person; you fall into a state of competition, listen to all kinds of talk and rumours going around; you know: the judges are leaning toward so-and-so, everyone liked this or that film… And even though you’ve gone to this festival with the intention of just hanging out, looking at the surroundings, looking at the films of others and just not caring who might get what, gradually you’re drawn in. Just like a child who stands in the doorway and there’s Father Frost giving out presents. So you become a fool, just increasingly stupid, waiting for a present. And if it’s not the main one—horror, horror, horror…

But do you read articles about yourself?

I do, because I’m interested in knowing how my films are perceived. 

What would be your comment for an article titled ‘Kira Muratova as Death’?

Well, it doesn’t matter to me. (Laughs.) It’s very amusing. They like using that kind of mumbo-jumbo for effect. No comment! Just hogwash. What does it have to do with me? They used to write like that about Renata Litvinova: Renata as death. But if they were to write like that about me, it would be really amusing. And how would they explain it? It would be interesting for me to read it, of course: How would that work? (Laughs.) Аnd someone else could write ‘Kira Muratova as Life’. So everything little by little. (Laughs.) Мuratova as death—that’s beautiful… 

Kira Muratova and actors on the set of the movie A Change of Fate, 1987. ©AFP

Is how the audience perceives your films important to you?

To some degree. To simply say no, it’s not important, would be silly. But the main thing is that I need to like the films myself. For instance, The Tuner…you know, Zemfira has this song: “I didn’t mean it, it was just a coincidence…” She shot and wounded or killed someone, and so she has the lyrics: “I didn’t mean it; it was just a coincidence…” What kind of coincidence isn’t important; it simply took place. I like Chekhov’s Motifs much more than The Tuner, but I’m very happy that in the end a great number of people liked my film. It was a coincidence that many people liked it.

After The Asthenic Syndrome, female viewers said that it shouldn’t be like that, that they needed to be comforted and given some hope… 

You know, my favourite director is Charlie Chaplin. There’s sadness that’s joyful. In art, there should be nothing redundant, and yet there should be plenty of everything. Everything is structured musically, ornamentally, precisely and at the same time substantially, full of beauty and economy; if you succeed at this, you have a talent like the kind Chaplin had. It’s form that is absolutely fulfilling and that gives you joy. That’s what art is. And when cinema attains that kind of rhythm, when everything flows from one thing to another, stopping where necessary, accelerating where necessary, it can be very sad or very funny, but either way it gives you pleasure. Sadness in art is interesting in that it gives pleasure, when you communicate with images instead of stating, ‘See how awful!’ Of course, there are things in life that put a stop to art. I’ve had situations where the grief was so great that for some length of time I couldn’t stand music or poetry. Anything rhythmically organized generated disgust in me, a desire to destroy. About everything artistic—and that’s what art is—and artistically organized chaos, I felt it was wrong, it was an untruth, which even bordered on something murderous, horrendous, criminal…

This reminds me of the grief that woman experiences after the death of her husband at the beginning of The Asthenic Syndrome…

Probably. But it was simply this neurotic state. Then it went away, and I could read poetry again. Or I remember these horrible photographs, the kind you tend to see in newspapers… Just horrible. Shootings. A person is standing at the edge of a pit, being told to bend down so that he’ll fall in. And a moment later, they’re going to shoot him. I saw this picture, and then there was a stop. Why make films after that? If there’s a person bending over, and another person is shooting him in the back of the head? But it goes away. Life goes on, and you simply go off into an illness or into art. Art is healing, healing and illness at the same time.

At the beginning of The Asthenic Syndrome, three grandmas are having a discussion, saying, see, nothing came of Lev Tolstoy’s project…

When I was a child or a young person, I thought that if people read Lev Nikolayevich very carefully, everyone would become good, kind and wise, kind and wise, kind and wise…

And why doesn’t that work?

Because literature can’t teach you how to live.

And what can?

Nothing can. Nothing. There’s nature… For a while you can think that you’ve become different. You can even live differently for a while. Like the Germans, right? But then, before you know it—concentration camps! There we are—we only cross the street on green, we’re so cultured, we brush our teeth, right, we only discuss Schiller and Schubert, but then… 

Well, Russians did it without any Goethe or Schiller…

Not at all…communism, that’s something sublime, ideal… Well, I don’t know. Both wise and stupid people have talked about it so much that I won’t be able to. 

No, you obviously don’t like words very much. 

I love them, adore them! But only the ones pronounced in works of art, in literature; whereas I don’t like shooting the breeze, and I like arguing even less. 

You know, when I discuss what I like and what I don’t like for such a long time, I get so sick to my stomach! It’s just disgust with what I’m talking about for such a long time… And what for? To me only the films I make are important, whether I’ve succeeded or not. And what I am outside my films… I wish there was no me. I’m closed. There’s my last name on the screen, but who it was isn’t clear. I’m done. There are the credits, the end and that’s all, good-bye. 

But what should we listen to?

I don’t know. To the sound of the wind, to leaves. To music. You can listen to anything. Why should you listen to me? That’s not my ambition. You should watch the films and then discuss them if what you’re interested in is discussion. Express your opinions or not. But I’m done. Credits, the end and that’s all, good-bye. 

But you weren’t born in a film.

What do I know?… No. That’s not me. But it’s all in me. It’s like I consist of shells that feed on those that are inside. But that’s not really interesting to me. It isn’t interesting to me to meet a former classmate. I wouldn’t know what to talk about. I’d be curious to look at her but without her seeing me; to see how she’s changed, how she presents herself. But to socialize… I wouldn’t find anything to talk about with her. I would just smile shyly, and that’s all. Whereas others are very open to their past; they have a nostalgic love for their past, for their roots, like Sokurov. 

I guess it would be wrong to generalize about your films but… 

I don’t know. Some say, ‘Oh, she’s just shooting one and the same thing.’ Or the other way round, ‘Oh, you’ve never filmed something like that before!’ But I really do like jumping to something else, if only on the surface, so that the texture and environment have nothing in common with what was happening previously. Texture and environment are very important to me. If there was a construction site, then here it will be some sort of salon, and further on there could be an empty field, so that there’s no repetition in the environment. It’s just that I get sick of the same apartment, the same city, everything the same. 

But how then do you manage to live in the same apartment?

So what? I would like not to! (Laughs.) I would have liked having apartments all over the world and living for a time in a tent, then in an empty field and then in a desert. 

Recently I read a play where the action takes place in a cemetery. I like cemeteries very much. I like them as a location for action—they’re so picturesque and at the same time mysterious. I read it, and then I thought, ‘So what, what’s so special about this? All you liked about it was the environment.’

And what kind of people do you find interesting?

Colourful ones. My teacher, Gerasimov, put great emphasis on hearing people’s intonation, the way people talk. And I really follow the intonation of actors. 

As to what kind of people? I’ve actually filmed a lot of non-actors. For a very long time I was interested in this kind of problem: Who exactly is an actor, and to what extent is there an actor present in any person? For me it was interesting to squeeze acting possibilities out of people and to observe how they liked it. The majority really enjoyed acting. So I’d invite a person to act, ‘Let’s give it a try.’ At first he’s all shy, but then he suddenly begins to really like it—you can deprive him of food, just let him play. We had a woman by the name of Sasha Svenskaya, a very fat woman; she did have some connection to art—as a child she played the tuba. I filmed her, but then her outer appearance changed, she lost weight, she was no longer as colourful, and it was all over for her. You know, that’s how it happens, particularly to non-actors: suddenly it’s all over for them. But she really wanted to act; she kept coming over, looking around… She works as an elevator attendant. A colourful Odessite. 

I keep thinking that you dress like an ordinary woman, go to the market, meet the milk ladies, listen to conversations… 

Right. I don’t change into anyone; I’m an ordinary woman. Of course I go to Privoz… And you, do you live some totally different life? I told you, I lived very well as a child and didn’t even have to iron my skirt once. It was all done by the maid. But ever since I moved to Odessa, I do everything myself. I really am an ordinary woman. Both ordinary and not so ordinary. And complicated. So what? 

But then from where… 

From curiosity. I simply like colourful people. Even at the Privoz Market, when you talk to them, you inadvertently begin imitating the Odessa speech. You know, the way people talk to foreigners: me you don’t understand. Why? You could simply say, ‘I don’t understand.’… Normal life. Only Cinderella strives for another life. Those who lived a different life as children are very interested in and curious about everything.

A film still from the Muratova movie The Asthenic Syndrome, 1989. ©Vida Press

Sven Birkerts tells the story of sitting in a bar with Brodsky as the bartender, a fat woman, is looking for something in the refrigerator by practically crawling inside, with only her backside out. Brodsky then said that when you see something like that everything seems senseless…

I was once, a long time ago, in a creative house, and the house had several phones. And suddenly I see that a very famous script writer, Yezhov, is standing there—he wrote White Sun of the Desert, for instance—but there’s a woman using the phone—let’s say, someone’s mother-in-law, someone’s relative—and she’s conducting a thorough inquiry into the feeding of a small child: how his porridge was made, how much of this or that was put in it. And he’s basically losing his mind; he’s thrashing about like a tiger, pulling his hair. He needs to make a phone call about some important script matter, but this old hag is carrying on about some stupid porridge, some stupid child, complete bullshit, in other words. And it was all so funny! Because who says it’s bullshit? And what he has to say isn’t? Who’s the judge of that? 

Why is it that in your films only bodies move, without any soul, without any conscious plan?

Of course it’s so. Everything is corporeal. Lermontov once said that even if just his small finger were to be chopped off, his entire soul would change. 

But the human does not depend directly on the body. 

How so? Of course it does. A human being is flesh. I can’t separate the two, soul and body. They’re just words! In words, the separation is possible. But I don’t know how to do it. To separate them I would have to be religious. But I’m not religious. For a religious person, it’s much more pleasant to live in the world—everything is co-dependent, everything is promised. If you’re good, you’ll be fine. The world isn’t chaos; it’s ordered by someone…

But for you it’s chaotic?

Yes, generally speaking. “Do you like the compote?—No.—But would you like to like it?—No, because then I would have to drink it.” There’s no getting out of the fact that he doesn’t like the compote. What do I need this God for, the God who’s set it all up in such a disgusting way? He’s an asshole. Here, you have the right to choose, etc. But what kind of right to choose is it if you created me and then sent me to a concentration camp? Why do you need it? You’re simply a sadist. I don’t like it. What do I need such a God for? 

What do you do when you don’t make films?

I make soup. I mop and clean. I read books.

What for?

I enjoy it. I read through all of Petrushevskaya, I got a huge, colossal pleasure out of it, but it didn’t move me to film anything. Every time I think, “I should make something based on her work.” I begin to re-read her; I like it all very much, but I can’t choose anything, so I put her aside—she’s already something beautiful and wonderful; it already exists. There’s no point in making something else out of it. I need something imperfect, so that I have some point of departure.

Kira, who do you resemble more, a cat or a… 

A dog. I was born in the Year of the Dog. A dog is very loyal and very happy. It’s a simple, intelligent, loyal creature. It wants to be good, enjoys it. And if it isn’t successful at being good, it gets sad. It doesn’t have this mysterious, selfish character like a cat does—unpredictable. This is how I think of myself. I think well of myself. (Laughs.)

Kira Muratova, an old photo

In your films, women are smarter than men.

Why? Well, perhaps because they’re more selfish, they have to be more cunning. It’s like in an illness: in an illness, a person becomes more intelligent, he understands more. But in The Asthenic Syndrome, I like the teacher. And in A Change of Fate, I like her husband, the one who hangs himself. I really like him. I understand him completely. He is kind; he’s a victim, he’s very good. Meek. I like meekness.

Then you must like Venichka Erofeev—he was meek.

No, I don’t like alcoholics. I can’t stand alcoholics. They disgust me, that’s all. I don’t know why…well, I can’t even stand the smell. I don’t feel like talking anymore.

Questions by Uldis Tīrons

Translated by Ieva Lešinska

1 The international film festival Arsenāls took place in Riga between 1986 and 2012 and was one of Latvia’s most brilliant cultural events. Muratova’s films were screened there with some regularity.
From Summer 2017 issue

Related articles