Wojciech Kasperski’s documentary is not only a postcard from a Siberian hell, but also a story about the human soul and its maladies, and the limits of knowledge.
When ten years ago the documentary series Poland-Russia: A New Look, featuring films by Polish and Russian authors, appeared in cinemas, one of the presented pictures was particularly memorable. Wojciech Kasperski’s The Seeds, a story about a family living somewhere in the Altai Mountains, about a dark secret and difficult human relations, haunted viewers for months. A decade later, I still remember remember that film – not its protagonists or individual scenes, but its atmosphere of mystery and the density of emotions which shrouded Kasperski’s documentary. As a director, he has a unique talent to unravel worlds that are at the same time strange and familiar.
In his latest documentary, Wojciech Kasperski returns to Russia. Icon is about a psychiatric hospital located somewhere in distant Siberia. And once again he shows that he is a master of laconic storytelling and that he is able to touch on the most intimate truths about people, and yet maintain a distance and not cross ethical boundaries. Icon, which was awarded at the 56th Kraków Film Festival, is an outstanding film, rooted in uncertainty and curiosity, posing questions, but not hinting at easy answers.
Preparations for this documentary took several years. Initially, Kasperski wanted to shoot a film about a physician working with terminally ill patients. Together with his crew, he travelled four thousand kilometres across Russia, documenting. He visited, among others, oncological hospitals and clinics dealing with the trauma of war.
In 2014, he talked to Katarzyna Skorupska from the Polish Filmmakers Association about searching for the right place:
Far away, we see a massive building at the end of a village. From afar, it looks like a school or a barracks. When we drive up closer, we realise that these are practically ruins. A collapsed roof, some windows are boarded up, others covered by grating. […] An exciting photo object, but that’s not it. When we get closer, we can see lights in windows and people outside. And then somebody says that this might be it. We walk to the nurses station where we are greeted by the head physician. He leads us to his room, which is in the intensive care unit.
Kasperski’s crew spent two months in the hospital. Dressed in protective coats, they spent time among the hospital patients, documenting their everyday rituals. The image surfacing from their observations is alarming. The hospital, which has five doctors for 1,500 patients, and so many patients that they collide with one another almost constantly, hosts people who have been marginalised by society. We come across people with serious mental problems, people with bipolar disorder, a serial killer, and many others who were sent to the institution only because nobody needs them.
It is a dumpster, where society discards those whom it doesn’t know what to do with.
– Kasperski says in the interview.
This is where problematic children are sent. This is where the paralysed go. When their families send them here, their problems disappear, and instead government pensions begin to come in. Those who come to the institution normally never leave its walls again. They spend several decades here, waiting for someone to take them to the normal world once again.
Acting as a guide of this Dantesque scenery is the head physician, who has been working in the Siberian hospital for over fifty years. We don’t see him much, but his out-of-frame voice leads us through the film’s reality. The elderly man in a flat cap strolls among the patients. He prescribes the same stupefying drug to almost all of them. There are too many patients to treat them properly. Whilst guiding the film’s authors through the many wards and rooms, the doctor asks philosophical questions. Is a man’s soul located in the heart or brain? How can we specify where the illness begins? What allows us to consider some things normal, and others a deviation that needs to be eliminated?
These questions return like a boomerang in Kasperski’s work. What is interesting is that they are not annoyingly banal or superficial. The director of The Seeds creates a meditative, subtle, and ambiguous film.
Łukasz Żal, Icon's cinematographer, observes the hospital’s patients with tenderness. He is close, but at the same time is seems that he keeps a safe distance, so as not to invade the protagonists’ intimacy. There is something extraordinary in the way Żal shot the film (previously, we could admire his craft in Joanna by Aneta Kopacz) – it contains a shyness, but also great openness, thanks to which the director extracts significant moments, brief looks filled with pain and truth from everyday observations.
Unlike most documentaries, Icon did not have a script or a carefully scheduled shoot. Kasperski’s film was based on documentation. Kasperski did not study the place and his protagonists, in order to return to them with the camera after a certain period. He filmed off the cuff. Thanks to this, he managed to retain a fresh gaze and watch the persons in the film without any intellectual filters or withdrawal. Icon, excellently filmed and complemented by a subtle soundtrack by Antoni Komasa-Łazarkiewicz, is an exceptional documentary – it is intimate, but not a bit voyeuristic, it describes emotions, but is not exploitative. The picture, which received the Best Polish Film Prize at the 56th Kraków Film Festival, is a testimony to Kasperski’s immense documentary talent, and yet another proof that in cinema, the greatest power comes from restraint and faith in the screen’s truth.
- Icon, dir. Wojciech Kasperski, cinematography: Łukasz Żal, music: Antoni Komasa-Łazarkiewicz.