The Other Side
Jeff Reichert on ¡Vivan las antípodas!

¡Vivan las antípodas! played February 21, 2016, at Museum of the Moving Image as part of See it Big! Documentary, a series co-programmed by Reverse Shot and Museum of the Moving Image.

“I wonder if I shall fall right through the earth! How funny it’ll seem to come out among the people that walk with the heads downwards! The Antipathies, I think . . . it didn’t sound at all the right word.” —Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

It’s a child’s fantasy: given a deep enough hole in the ground, one might just be able to find a shortcut to the other side of the world. Countless sandboxes, backyards, and beachscapes have been despoiled in fruitless pursuit of this endeavor; for the New Jersey children I grew up with, the end goal was always far-off and exotic China, though the youth of Beijing and Shanghai likely dig for different, similarly unfamiliar shores. It’s a silly, impossible fantasy—most youngsters are surely unaware that given how much of the Earth’s surface is covered by ocean, there’s little chance of hitting land at the end of their tunneling. Silly, but in it can we not locate some of the same impulses that drove Christopher Columbus and so many others to embark during the great Age of Exploration? There is always another side to things, waiting to be discovered.

What if we could see what is actually on the other side of the world from where we sit? What would that look like? Would people truly walk upside down from us? Russian documentary filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky’s expansive ¡Vivan las antípodas! approaches these questions with a mixture of the digging child’s ingenuousness and the dogged explorer’s rigor and sense of purpose. His focus is on terrestrial antipodes, those rare places where land exists at opposite ends of the Earth. He’s picked four pairs of them to build his film around: Entre Ríos, Argentina, and Shanghai, China; Patagonia, Chile, and Lake Baikal, Russia; the Big Island, Hawaii, and Kubu, Botswana; Miraflores, Spain, and Castle Point, New Zealand. Vivan floats through these disparate locales on the back of a camera that seems to be constantly in motion: tracking, panning, craning, and, most radically, spinning on axis, flipping the world topsy-turvy. It’s almost as if the angels from Wings of Desire went on vacation.

In Entre Ríos, the film’s first stop, Kossakovsky embeds himself with two toll collectors who man a remote, makeshift bridge spanning a woebegone tributary. They seem literally in the middle of nowhere, yet Kossakovsky’s editing suggests they see a steady, if not healthy business. Even so, more of their time is given over to observing the river, remarking upon the health of their aged guard dog and spouting bits of offhand poetry so on-message (“the world spins, but it’s always below us”) that they seem almost written. An interaction with a customer plays similarly: one of the collectors asks a driver, “How’s the world? Upside down again?” The reply: “Apparently so.”

There’s no film camera yet designed that can capture a pair of antipodes in one frame, but that doesn’t stop Kossakovsky from marshaling his resources to simulate this effect. Into the calmness of the Entre Ríos section he begins introducing via sharp cuts its antipode, bustling, busy Shanghai, with many of his images jokingly played upside down, picking up from the Carroll quote that’s at the head of his film and this article. Later, as we’ve become more acclimated to these sharp juxtapositions, he tries something even riskier: placing the skylines from Shanghai and Entre Ríos together atop one another in a frame, the horizons bisecting the image, effectively collapsing the Earth’s density entire into a wafer-thin line. Now we see both antipodes at once. The film proceeds this way through each of its pairings (particularly striking: the mixture of Lake Baikal and Patagonia, where it’s difficult to tell which is up and which is down), but always circles back to those toll collectors, almost like a wry refrain.

Throughout his career, Kossakovsky has shown a kind of intuitive genius for unexpected combinations. Consider an early scene in his 1992 breakthrough The Belovs in which brother and sister Anna and Mikhail work their family farm to the tune of an incongruously upbeat samba. (The tune’s backbeat makes more sense as the sequence erupts into Mikhail’s breakneck tractor ride.) As he traverses the globe in Vivan, Kossakovsky is unafraid to let us consider the strum of a shamisen over Argentina, or see how well Hawaiian slack-key guitar fits over an impromptu village dance in Botswana or to interrupt a mournful classical composition with similarly technically complicated speed metal in Shanghai. Kossakovsky does this not because he wishes to convince us of the connectedness of all things, or to reveal to the hardened, cynical viewer how all humanity, across cultures, is alike on some level or similar banality. He does it, seemingly, for perhaps the highest, most noble aim in all of art: to answer the eternal question “why not?”

Thus, a cut in on a pair of dusty tire tracks near Lake Baikal (or is it Patagonia?) with the camera rotated 90 degrees off axis feels like a revelation. We’ve seen remote roads before, even in this film, but not like this, the brown stripe of the track running left to right across the image, instead of top to bottom. At times, Vivan feels a compendium of disorienting visual gags. An image of a broken down jalopy with its roof on the ground throws the viewer for a second—are we right-side up, or is it?—until the head of a grazing cow, oriented “correctly,” pops in around the back of the car, calmly chewing grass. In Lake Baikal, Kossakovsky cuts into a small prairie home as a woman looks into her open cellar door and calls out, “How are you doing down there?” For a second you wonder if she might possibly be speaking to an antipodal neighbor, until her friend emerges with supplies.

It’s clear throughout ¡Vivan las antípodas! that we’re in the hands of a filmmaker having a jolly old time. Earlier black-and-white film-shot works of Kossakovsky’s like 1989’s Losev (about the ideas and death of his mentor, religious philosopher Alexey Fedorovich Losev), The Belovs, and 1998’s Pavel & Lyalya (about another dying influence, but ultimately more about the wife who cares for him) were certainly not joyless pieces, but these films, closely observed portraits all, featured a kind of suffocating intimacy, and their claustrophobic interior spaces at times suggested the ghoulish phantasmagorias of Alexei German. His two low-budget, digitally shot films from the early aughts lay a more obvious groundwork for the freewheeling vastness of Vivan. The sprightly feature Hush! (2002), filmed entirely out his apartment window on the eve of St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary, turns the activities of road crews and assorted passersby into a sardonic street comedy—Harold Lloyd meets Vertov. And his 2005 Svyato, in which his two-year-old son confronts his mirror image for the first time in a largely unbroken 30-minute take, suggests a documentarian confident enough in his instincts to think he can, with the requisite patience, find something of value to film almost anywhere. (He certainly does here: as the film progresses, we witness the boy experience almost the entire range of human before his unexpected reflection.)

Throughout his career, but especially in these later films, we find a documentarian for whom the filming process is an open-ended, curiosity-driven search, not a process of collection and collation. Here, having chosen the entire world for his canvas, he’s made most other documentaries seem small. One could imagine a film essayist like Patricio Guzmán puzzling over the same questions—the “what ifs” and “what might bes”—that encouraged Kossakovsky to travel the world in search of the right antipodes for ¡Vivan las antípodas!, but the Argentine will forever labor under the shadow of Pinochet, and doesn’t naturally lean towards the impish Carroll-esque that Kossakovsky channels so deftly. It’s that spirit, and his collection of visual rhymes, puns, and mirroring, that elevate Vivan beyond mere post–Planet Earth travelogue, or from being the filmic equivalent of a Putumayo World Music compilation.

Vivan is a joyous work, one whose beauty was meant for the big screen, but it’s also a leisurely one. His wordless, near subject-free approach (save for the toll collectors in Argentina, we spend time with two women near Lake Baikal and a farmer with many cats in Patagonia, but meet few other people at any length) can have a kind of flattening effect on the various antipodes under consideration. More ethnographically minded members of the documentary set might argue that this surface-y treatment produces a kind of unthinking essentialization and the attendant ethical cans of worms. To that I’d offer a rejoinder: a brilliant cut from the rippling gray skin of fresh lava coursing down a hillock in Hawaii, to the similarly colored skin of an elephant in the bush in Botswana. Kossakovsky isn’t trying to educate us like Robert Flaherty might in his own blinkered way. He’s not Robert Gardner, digging deep into his milieu in search of a visual understanding beyond utterable fact. Kossakovsky, in ¡Vivan las antípodas!, lands closer to Walter Ruttman; perhaps if Hush! was his modest attempt at a symphony of a great city, here he’s playing a melody of the world.