The award just given to the Russian film-maker Alexander Sokurov at the prestigious Locarno festival - the Leopard of Honor - has once again put the spotlight on the master. Alas, in Russia his works are practically unknown.
The reasons are several.
First, Sokurov makes difficult-to-understand, highbrow cinema without mass appeal, which scares off film distributors. Second, he demonstrably keeps aloof from the Russian film-making community and leads an isolated life, which exasperates many. This aloofness implies haughtiness, people imagine. Lastly, his vast number of foreign awards gives rise to envy. But the problem is not Sokurov's works, his personality or his awards. It lies in the fact that Russia has no considered system of opposing the Hollywood mainstream.
To put it simply, no one releases Sokurov's films, and no one ever will.
Earlier this year, this hopeless situation triggered a spat between Sokurov and the two leading cinema academies of Russia. His last film, The Sun, about Japanese Emperor Hirohito, was nominated for the academies' both Golden Eagle and Nika prizes. These gestures betrayed the desire of the institutes' heads to promote both Sokurov and the standing of the academies. But the idea flopped. Sokurov and his producers withdrew The Sun from all nominations.
To explain his action, Sokurov issued a special statement:
"To me it seems unnatural when my compatriots know my name, but do not know my films".
Well, he is right. Of his four last masterpieces, Moscow cinemas showed only Russian Ark, a colossal video about Russia's history filmed in one continuous shot. A camera set on rails rolls through the halls of the Winter Palace, past thousands of extras portraying 300 years of palace history from Peter the Great to the present. Sokurov's three other recent films, Moloch, Telets (Taurus) and The Sun, about 20th century dictators Hitler, Stalin and Hirohito, had only limited audiences. (This writer has been unable to see the last film in Moscow.)
So far, we have been talking about the master's feature films.
Meanwhile, throughout the past 20 years Sokurov has been active in documentary and video cinema. He is credited with dozens of pictures, and he sometimes completes five (!) a year. At Locarno he showed his new film, Elegy of Life, about the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. It is the latest of his many elegies.
But who has seen them?
Who knows such masterpieces as Evening Sacrifice or Spiritual Voices? Who has seen his documentaries Father and Son and Mother and Son?
Western audiences have more chances to see them.
Last spring, for example, Sokurov showed his trilogy about the dictators at St. Ursula University in Naples and held three seminars there.
In short, the situation with the release of the master's films in Russia is catastrophic.
Sokurov's first film, based on Andrei Platonov's short story A Lonely Human Voice, was shot as a graduation degree project at Lenfilm Studios in 1978. It was judged to be pseudo-aesthetic and anti-Soviet and was rejected. Renowned Soviet film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky, however, was enthusiastic about such a strong debut. The film spent the next ten years in a metal can under Sokurov's bed before it was released. It took no less and no more than a change in the country's social and political system.
Well, the system has now changed, but the loneliness remains.
We do not hear Sokurov's solitary voice.