Water World: Victor Kossakovsky’s Aquarela Spans Oceans and Lakes at 48 Frames per Second

One of the most unusual theatrical releases this summer blockbuster season is Aquarela, a 90-minute documentary whose central subject is not a human being or a living creature—or is it? The focus of Victor Kossakovsky’s globe-spanning project is water: a frozen lake in Siberia, the icebergs of Greenland, the powerful waves of the Atlantic Ocean, the floodwaters of Miami during Hurricane Irma. Heightening the impact of Kossakovsky’s often abstract imagery is his decision to film in very high definition at 96 frames per second. Sony Pictures Classics opens the doc in New York and Los Angeles on August 16 and is making an effort to screen it in select venues at 48 frames per second.

A native of Saint Petersburg, Kossakovsky has been making experimental documentaries since 1989. His 1992 feature Belovy won numerous awards, including the VPRO Joris Ivens Award and the Audience Award at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IFDA), and his Vivan Las Antipodas! opened the 2011 Venice Film Festival. His latest film was partly inspired by an episode from Belovy in which he made a 1,000-kilometer journey in a tiny boat from a small village in Russia to the North Sea. Another inspiration: a visit to a house overlooking the Baltic Sea. “I noticed that the sea was different every day, every hour, even every minute,” he recalled. “I was never bored because the water was never the same.”

Interviewed by Skype, the convivial director recalls his difficulty explaining his project to potential financiers until social issue–oriented production company Participant Media came along. “How do you convince people about visual things? If you say it’s about water, they ask you: ‘OK, but who is the character?’ And you say: ‘Water!’ ‘No, no, no, who is the character?’ ‘Water is the character.’ ‘Water? But what is the story? What happens?’ ‘Well, water goes from ice to water to steam to the clouds to rain.’ ‘But what is the story?’ People cannot get it. And of course if you say I want to make it so every single shot contains water and every single cut is motivated by that, they don’t understand. This was the biggest challenge. But by luck, Participant understood it—they saved the project.”

Kossakovsky adds, “They have a human agenda, but they also have an agenda of quality. Most documentaries are about issues, but let’s not forget we’re still cinema, still art, still part of culture. It’s about the aesthetic imagination of the filmmaker, not just as a citizen of the planet, but as an artist. The fact that they responded for me was just bliss.”

Kossakovsky’s first stop on his ambitious world tour was the 395-mile-long Lake Baikal in Siberia. Due to climate change, the ice on the lake has been thawing earlier in the season and faster, which has led to tragic consequences for a shocking number of locals accustomed for years to driving their cars across the vast lake. Kossakovsky and his crew were there to witness one such fatal accident, which they caught on film while recording some area residents working to recover a sunken SUV from beneath the ice.

“Accidentally we filmed this horror story,” the director recalls. “So the whole idea of the film changed completely. We understood that this was just in front of us, the death of a real person, and we could not continue the same way. Nine people died there while we were shooting. It’s not accidental, but it was just accidental for us because we didn’t know. That lake is really big—it supplies 20 percent of the fresh water on the planet. It’s frozen and transparent, and suddenly it develops holes. And people are overconfident. People say, ‘I was born here, I know the lake, you’re not going to teach me.’

“Most filmmakers would put this at the end [of the picture], but I said no, it happened this way and from this point I will just follow intuition.”

In Greenland, Kossakovsky and his crew rode the Polski Hak, a 100-foot expedition schooner, and captured remarkably close and vivid images of its imposing icebergs. Next on the schedule was a three-week transatlantic crossing, battling 30-foot ocean waves that will awe and unsettle viewers of Aquarela. The production’s high-def cameras also recorded the overflowing of the Oroville Dam in California, a hazardous drive through Miami during Hurricane Irma, and—in a more tranquil mood—the wonders of Angel Falls, the world’s tallest continuous waterfall in Venezuela’s Canaima National Park.

The film eschews narration but delivers an unspoken environmental statement about the monumental power of nature and the crisis facing planet Earth. “I don’t believe in messages,” Kossakovsky asserts. “First of all, we are creatures. I believe our instincts are more important for us than our intellect. That’s why I try to amaze you. I have to fascinate, do something that will make you go [takes deep breath]. And then you will see it. If I tell you, you have to think about it, then I will lose half the people immediately who don’t want to think or have a different idea about it. I don’t want to divide people who think this way or that way. I want to make a film for everyone. I have to appeal first to your heart. It doesn’t matter if you’re Chinese, Japanese, American, or Russian. I just want you to say wow. And when you say wow, you might say we need to respect this planet. I’m not a teacher. My job is to show. I don’t do messages. I just open your eyes and show you something you’ve never seen before. That is my goal.”

Regarding the dangerous situations he placed himself in to record those images, Kossakovsky says it’s his duty. “I said to myself, listen, let’s be honest. You are pretty rich, right? You’re very rich in the [sense that] out of seven billion people in the world you are privileged to do whatever you want—even create a film about water. And people finance it: German, English, American, Spanish, Danish, Mexican people. They gave you money to make this film. Then you have to say: OK, you guys have been so generous to me, I will do something you’d never be able to do yourself. I will go to the limit of what I can do. In the documentary world, I have this privilege to do exactly what I want. And I have to pay it back. I have to go to the limit.”

Kossakovsky’s philosophy of filmmaking amounts to a kind of manifesto. He observes, “In the last 70 years we have made an exceptional situation for artists. The amount of film we produce is so extraordinary, almost too much. So this is why I will say I will not make many films. I will only make exceptional films, unique films no one else can do. That’s my goal. I say to all my professional colleagues, we should not make good films anymore—we have to make unbelievable films, unique films. Otherwise, it’s intellectual pollution.”

As for his decision to film at 98 frames per second, “I made a previous film where I was filming a young ballerina and she was turning, and I realized that I could not see her face. I just saw a blur. So I started to improvise with speed. When it came time to do a film about water, I wanted to see what water would look like if I increased the amount of frames. I did experiments in 48, 60, 72, 96, and 120 frames per second. But there’s no computer that can handle 96 frames, so we had to invent this technology. We collected brains from the U.S., England, Germany, Spain. We came to the idea that 96 is the most emotionally powerful image. When big filmmakers and cameramen watch my film now, I hope it will change the industry.”

To date, the director reports, Aquarela has had three public screenings at 96 frames per second: in Barcelona, Shanghai and Finland. “Ninety-six is a jump,” he says. “You see every drop of rain.” He also notes that “shooting fast frame is not a problem anymore,” explaining that many TV commercials use high frame rates to capture their products. The roadblock, he says, is the end destination, exhibition.

Asked about his inspirations, Kossakovsky responds, “The best filmmaker for me would be a combination of Chaplin and Tarkovsky. One who is funny, full of life, full of human emotions, tragedy and comedy altogether, and one who is a champion of cinema language. If I put them together, that would be the perfect filmmaker. Of the living people, I would say [Aleksandr] Sokurov is one who is a scientist of the cinema, who thinks in cinema language and can still surprise us.”

For Kossakovsky, filmmaking is very much a learning process. “This is what I believe is the purpose of making movies. If you know what you want to say, don’t make film. If you want to teach someone by making your film, don’t make the film. If you want to say something, say it. Say political speech, environmental speech, just do political activities, human activities, whatever. But if you don’t know something, this is the point to make film. To make a film about what you understand is not difficult. For me, it’s interesting when I don’t understand and I don’t know, and when I learn from a film it will change me. I don’t want to change the planet or change people. I want to change myself. I don’t want to make people better; I want to make myself better in a way. And this is the most perfect example. When I made this film, I became a different person. I understood my place. I understood that I’m just nothing compared to nature. I understood that we are not the most important creatures on the planet. We are too self-confident, too proud. Arrogant. Everything is for our comfort. And this is wrong. I was amazed by the huge power this planet and its waterways have. You could not finish this film and be the same person. You see this film and you think: I have to respect this planet and think about what I can do not to spoil it or destroy it.”

With Sony Pictures Classics as distributor, Aquarela is about to bring Victor Kossakovsky the widest audience of his career—and he’s palpably excited. “This is my biggest dream. The reality is if your film is not shown in the U.S., your film has never been shown. I have 100 prizes. So what? Who needs them? Who knows me? No one. I want only one thing: in the U.S., people standing in line to buy tickets to my film and watch it with Atmos sound and at 48 frames per second. And if there’s a buzz in screens in the U.S., then everyone will want to watch it. This is how it works in the world. I’m so lucky that an artistic documentary like this is being distributed.”

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