Vitaly Mansky’s film Pipeline (The Czech Republic – Russia – Germany) starts and ends with the same scene: masts of electric poles are, almost completely covered with snow, jut out in an endless snowy valley. Silly or cosmic repetitiveness is one of characteristic features of the film.
The idea is simple, the execution is impressive. The shooting crew got on a car and went along the famous gas pipe Urengoy – Pomary – Uzhhorod and further – from polar Urengoy to carnival Cologne. The film is divided into geographic episodes, shot in the places where the pipeline runs through; each episode has a plot and characters of its own. The scenes are divided by static inserts – unmanned compressor stations, which buzz because of the voltage and which I sometimes want to compare with painted iron intestines of a gas Leviathan.
Three image motifs pierce the film: actually gas, religion, and animals.
Someone brings cats to a vet, another one keeps pigs and cows, yet some other drives a big shaggy dog in a truck cab. Animals don’t pray, don’t ask questions, they are simply living their simple lives depending on people, but at the same time serve as a mirror for two-leg creatures who are fussing around. Copulating cats make the nonsensical speech of a communist at a small provincial meeting about the raped “children, grandmothers, and grandfathers” look especially comical, like the joyful dog in the truck cab emphasizes the loneliness of the emigre driver. The vet, who is not on a permanent staff of the hospital, after curing two white cats, bursts with a long speech about training dogs and meanwhile finds an animalistic comparison for Russians.
However, religion and gas rhyme rather ironically. God’s spirit and methane go wherever they want, but at the same time the ways of transportation are determined by the circumstances: the church-carriage, which came to feed the remote Siberian railway halt Kalach by its cosmic effect is probably less funny than a gas cylinder, which all of a sudden is taken from underground to extinguish the eternal light, lit for two hours to conduct rituals on May 9 in Mena, Chernihiv oblast.
On the whole, the infernal element is shown here with great variety, as well as artistic precision. The theatricality of the Czech crematory with its standard Ave Maria echoes with the fog surrounding the masts of the power transmission line poles to an off-screen story of a witty Grodno pensioner who tells cemetery lots before the gas plumbers who came to repair a stove in his old kitchen. Mother tells her son in Kalach: “We’ve spent the night – now we are closer to death,” and in another remote place of Russia for a whole episode people for a long time hollow the frozen ground with bars, spades, and axes to make a grave, whereas singing and dancing does not stop in the local Palace of Culture; the icons on the walls of a gypsy house in Uzhhorod are bright and naive, just like the ribbons that decorate a road altar in Poland, near which local believers pray.
All these parallels, leitmotifs, rhymes, and paraphrases tie Pipeline up into a whole perfect thing, where there are no heroes and where everyone is a hero. Germans who celebrate the 30th anniversary of pipeline construction to GDR songs and Nenets who tame a mobile phone in their hut are equally funny, but the eternal yesterday of the former is as sad as the latter’s catch of fish that becomes foul because of gas. Communists with Lenin who points at the church, a priest from the carriage, and retired general from Chernihiv with his tale about Gorbachev’s 300-room palace in the Dominican Republic are as sad as they are dramatic. Everyone is performing their tragicomedy, unaware that he is broken.
A silent elderly man with a dog, who in the final of the film delivers the gas cylinders across a joyful, but not funny Cologne, is not just an emigre, but an emigre from Russia. After that the screen gets stuck up with the snow. This is the world where the pipeline reigns – an eternal infernal path that leads simultaneously down and circle-wise.
You cannot get a different reality from the ground; you won’t pump it into the reservoir. However, you can drive the one you have along the pipeline and do this in quite a funny way – until it is the end.
Vitaly Mansky is a Russian film director of Ukrainian origin. He was born and lived for 17 years in Lviv. He made a career of film maker in Russia. Since 2004 he has been an artistic director of Vertov-Realnoe Kino Studio. He is the president and producer of the Laurel Palm, a national prize in the sphere of non-fiction cinema and television. He is the president of the Artdokfest Festival. He is a member of the Russian TV academy “Nika.” He is the founder of an online periodical on documentary cinema. Pipeline received an award for the best director’s work at Russian film festival Kinotavr in Sochi and a prize for the best documentary film at the 48th International Film Forum in Karlovy Vary. Last week it was shown in Kyiv at the Festival of Cinema and Urbanism “86.” After the screening Mansky answered the questions of The Day.
How did you come up with the idea of Pipeline?
“Any movie I make is based on the internal processes that trouble me. While making the film, I was asking the question, which is not present in the film: why are we like that? When I asked it, I started to think how to answer it. We are like that, but there are people who are different from us. Why are they different? Who are they? I came up with two spaces, Russia and Europe. I started to think how to unite them, and I came up with the story of understanding the pipeline. So, the pipe is not the outgoing point of constructing the film, but a kind of an applied element. At first, when asking my question, I did not expect to get a fundamental answer. It emerged as a need to formulate everything in a certain way.”
There are many comic moments in the film, but why is it getting less funny, the farther into the West you go?
“I tried to make the West lest predictable. Do you remember? At the beginning of perestroika it was trendy to show that we are living very well, and they are living badly. I did not want any mirrors. My approach is based on the opinion that there is no happiness anywhere. The very process of life is the way to happiness none of us will overcome. The life in Europe is unhappy, too, it is simply more comfortable. And I tried to show the unhappiness in greater comfort. Therefore it is probably not funny, because we want happiness and comfort to be present everywhere. But the best place of all is where we haven’t been at all, and we have been everywhere, so there is no better place.”
How was the shooting process going?
“When I understood that we were going to travel from Russia to Europe, I started to think on practical realization. We decided to go on a home mobile, where one can travel, live, and sleep. We agreed on this with our German partners, they bought a secondhand trailer for us. It was stuck all over with seascapes, palms, umbrellas, and beach chairs. It is okay for Cologne, but when we came to the north Ural village, we looked just like Ostap Bender on ‘Antelope Gnu.’ For the whole way I was nervously tearing off these palms, but I tore off the last one on our way back, near Berlin. On the whole, it took us 104 days to go from Cologne to the polar circle, after which we came back to Germany.”
You shot one episode in Ukraine, in Chernihiv oblast. Could you tell us about it in more detail?
“At first, we were considering several regions in Ukraine where the gas pipeline runs through. But it was not a matter of principle for us. I knew that the eternal lights did not work; I knew that if the eternal light is switched on, it is switched off as well. So, I was going to shoot how it is switched off. Mena was good because it was on our way and there were three eternal lights, and they were going to switch them off. We came as usual, two days before the events, held preparations. We shot nearly 200 hours of the footage, we filmed the general, the hero of the episode, in a very detailed way – by the way there was a wonderful situation for a separate film. His talk to veteran soldiers is simply a gift of fate, because we could not even hear him. The person behind him had a microphone which received the sound. I asked the cameraman to shoot how they talk when they gather– from a long distance with a close-up. And when I was watching the material in Moscow, I simply lost my head because of this conversation about the 300 rooms in Gorbachev’s house, which seems very conceptual to me. And it was very simple with gas there: they put the cylinder, they took it off.”
Animals are present almost in every scene. Is this a coincidence or you did this on purpose?
“If you want to understand anything about a society, look whether domestic animals are present there. At the moment I am shooting in North Korea, I have lived there for 1.5 months. They don’t have any domestic animals. And this characterizes very clearly our North Korean future. And in Pipeline we were looking attentively at animals and they were helping us.”
You have many shootings in private houses. Was it easy to get to the families? For you had only 100 days.
“You cannot enter when doors are closed or when there are no doors at all. Taking into consideration the limited terms, we entered the doors that were already ready. We failed to get in some. Like in the episode with crematory in the Czech Republic, I wanted to make it an analogy to the Russian episode, when relatives come to the crematorium to bid adieu to the dead, but we failed to ‘open’ any family. Therefore we went through the family of the employee of the crematorium. This is a question of openness or closeness. In my opinion, one of the best episodes is in the house of a woman and her son (in the village where the church-carriage comes), when she says, ‘We have spent the night, now we are closer to death,’ and her son replies, ‘Suffer, suffer.’ We simply went there, asked whether we could warm ourselves for a while, they treated us to tea, we had this conversation, we shot it, and it turned out to be very important for the film. Each time the circumstances were different.”
You have mentioned the episode in the crematory – like the others, it connects the topic of gas and death.
“For me crematory was important as a system – an alternative to a lack of system. The entire episode about the crematorium is quiet and slow-paced. The film does not have explicit monologs, but it seemed to me that the narration of the employee should be included, because among other things he marks with his narration the attitude to death. He speaks about his job, like a baker would speak about his bakery. I will finish my work today – meaning burn the corpses – and I can come later in the morning. We still don’t have an adequate perception of the West as a space of perfection. But I think that their life coldness is as doubtful as our Russian involvement and anxiety. Our emotionality is as high as their non-emotionality. You cannot even bid adieu to the image of a dear person – you come to the hall, listen to Ave Maria; the coffin moves away at a long distance, and you see it from the stage like from the second floor, the closed box is moving away to the sound of music.”
“I have built one episode like this. At first it is not clear where the people are going, maybe to a conservatoire. Such extremities are needed to mark our differences. To show these differences is the main task of the film.”
In a Ukrainian scene you show a department of the bank whose owner announces now awards for heads of separatists, and speakers in the meeting talk about the heroes who were killed, about those who have not returned from the war. Although it was shot a year ago, taking into consideration current events in Ukraine, it looks like prophesy.
“On the whole, it is strange, but it is difficult to work in today’s chronicle, because it already exists in some conceptual way. For example, you watch a chronicle of the beginning of the century and understand what is going on and you can immerse in this space. It is hard to do the same in today’s shooting. Therefore we tried to offer such visual images that would allow the audience to exist there. Therefore I hope that Chernihiv scenes will serve for many years as an important document of history, they will give an opportunity to analyze and understand in 20 or 100 years what an institution of May 9 in modern society is.”
Is the pipeline an evil?
“The pipeline is wonderful due to the many meanings of the Russian equivalent of the word. We had a serious problem how to translate it into other languages: no language has such a rich word as Russian ‘truba’ – it is not a pipeline at all. I even thought once that any film shot in Russia can be called ‘truba.’ But in modern Russia namely the gas pipeline is an evident evil.”