About Kira Stealthily/Furtively About Kira
О Кире украдкой
About Kira Stealthily
Color, 77 minutes
In Russian with English subtitles
Director: Irina Vasil'eva
Screenplay: Irina Vasil'eva
Camera: Irina Ural'skaia
Sound: Andrei Zhuchkov
Music: Oleg Karavaichuk, Valentin Silvestrov, Franz Shubert
Editing: Irina Vasil'eva
Producer: Aleksandr Radov
Studio: “Fishka Film”
Irina Borisovna Vasil'eva
Irina Borisovna Vasil'eva was born in Moscow. After graduating from the Scriptwriting Department at the Institute for Filmmaking (VGIK) she worked for television as the author, director, and anchor for the series “Perpendicular Cinema.” She has written and directed more than 30 documentary films and written the script for several feature films. Her films have received awards at Russian and international film festivals. She has been awarded the “Laurel Branch,” the national prize for documentary cinema, three times. She is the Artistic Director and General Producer of Fishka-Film Studio.
2021 Sergei Koltakov.A Gift in Vain, a Gift by Accident
2020 Twenty-Five Years of Solitude
2019 About Kira Stealthily
2019 Visible Invisible
2018 Escape the Soul
2017 Portrait of an Artist in the Mirror of His Wife
2017 Light from the Abyss
2017 A Victory over Victory
2016 The Success of a Hopeless Cause
2016 Dips. Love
2015 Thy Brother Cain
Curator: Eve Barden (University of Pittsburgh)
Introduced by: Irina Vasil'eva (Art Director, Studio “Fishka-fil'm)
Respondent: Robert Clift (University of Pittsburgh)
Discussion Host: Eve Barden (University of Pittsburgh)
Felix Michael Helbing — In the words of director Irina Vasil'eva, “Kira Muratova was her own country, perhaps even her own planet.” The filmic portrait of Muratova that Vasil'eva has put together certainly portrays the artist in this light: a true (space) oddity making her way through a sea of earthlings. About Kira Stealthily gathers together scraps of Muratova’s work and traces of her presence left in the recollections of others, all swirling around a deeply felt central absence: that of the documentary’s subject, Muratova herself. It is fitting that a story about Muratova’s life should be constructed in such an oblique way that serves to highlight her loss, a patchwork of glimpses, traces, and impressions cobbled together to produce a ghostly outline of the artist, unable to be straightforwardly or completely represented in death as in life. This documentary is a discordant mixture of eulogy, mythmaking, and, to borrow Evgenii Golubenko’s words, a “zoological” look into the enclosure in which Muratova led her daily life. As viewers, we get a multifaceted image of the artist as an extraterrestrial, creative genius, and human organism.
About Kira Stealthily weaves together interviews with Muratova’s frequent collaborators, friends, and colleagues, including artist Evgenii Golubenko, Muratova’s husband, who provided production design for a number of her films; celebrated actor and director Renata Litvinova, along with Vera Storozheva, Sergei Popov, Natal'ia Buzko, Natalia Riazantseva, and others. Into this tapestry of personal recollections, Vasil'eva intersplices selections from Muratova’s films that help to blur the lines between her art and her life, as well as Muratova’s own words from an interview Vasil'eva conducted with her in 1996 for a TV-series dedicated to auteur cinema titled “Perpendikuliarnoe kino”[Perpendicular Cinema] on RTR channel.
Drawing on these various sources, About Kira Stealthily asks a series of tough questions about the intersection of life and art. For an artist like Muratova, can it be said that a true division between these realms really existed? Some figures in the film, like Golubenko, would likely say no. He describes, at one point, what artmaking is for someone like Muratova (and, presumably, himself), saying that it is like a drug, the high being granted in the process of creating rather than resting with the resulting work. Once, he says, the drug that produced this high might have been film, but now, for example, in his own case, it comes from making women’s jewelry out of beef bones.
As much as Golubenko’s comments describe Muratova’s or his own artistic process, they also situate Muratova and her work within the broader landscape of fine art and auteur cinema as an oddity. What kind of art is it that defies commodification (if any), and what kind of artist does it take to produce such art? About Kira Stealthily posits Muratova and her oeuvre as one answer to these questions. The camera tours the Odessa apartment where Golubenko and Muratova made their lives, displaying how every available surface is cluttered with all types and forms of visual art including sculpture, collages, paintings, jewelry, and decorative objects, as if to underscore this point. Here is the repository of a lifetime of projects undertaken for the sake of themselves, evidence of a world in which the allure of fame and the rewards of commodification are utterly superfluous.
If an artist resists the commodification—or, perhaps more accurately in this case, finds it incomprehensible and bizarre—in art, thereby shunning that language in their work, then what does their art communicate, and how? At one point, Vasil'eva asks her interlocutors whether they believe Muratova was a “good” person or a cruel one, as she has sometimes been called. Their responses are all varying forms of shock, disbelief, and even scorn. It is one thing, Golubenko says in the apartment in Odessa, to be good to the people one loves—that comes easy. He goes on: what does it even mean to be “good,” in a general sense? Actor and director Renata Litvinova’s response to this question begins with laughter. Ultimately, she says, Kira Muratova was uncategorizable—not contained within the label of woman, or man, but something entirely apart. A personality like this will defy all attempts to pin it down and define it.
These interactions are important because they point to the heart of what Muratova’s films do: dismantle the everyday, taking the obvious questions and breaking them apart in order to produce something strange, discordant, and fragmented. This fragmentation works as a solution that dissolves hierarchies, revealing the implicit social framework that undergirds questions like, for example, “was she a good person?”
Irina Vasil'eva expertly paints a portrait of a person who did not want to be painted, shattering the enigmatic shell around Muratova and piecing together a mosaic from the fragments. That the resultant image is patchwork and discordant is only appropriate, as it accurately conveys not only the character of the physical enclosure inhabited by the director but that of Muratova’s inner life, her existence as an artist and organism.
About Kira Stealthily, a foreword by Irina Vasilieva
Translated by Eve Barden — Kira Muratova was born in Romania, studied directing in Moscow, lived and worked in Odessa, Ukraine. Her name is put on a par with such directors as Luis Buñuel or David Lynch. But it is obvious that nothing as daring and original as her tragicomedies have ever been made or will ever exist in the history of cinema. They melt together absurdity and piercing sadness, grotesque and authentic realism, sublime poetry and low-brow prose, hooliganism, and sharp wit. She is unique, never repetitive, yet always recognizable. An adept of conscious eclecticism she conjoins star actors with extravagant non-professionals picked up as if just from the street.
She has 20 films in her filmography, including 4 short films. She has written scripts for 11 of them. Kira Muratova has received 12 nominations for various awards, of which she has won four.
In 1989 she won the Grand Prix at the Berlin Film Festival for her ground-breaking film Asthenic Syndrome. In 2012 the Rome Film Festival premiered her film Eternal Return, also revolutionary and completely unappreciated. At the time, Muratova said it was her last film.
My documentary About Kira Stealthily can be conditionally classified as a portrait. Conditionally, because it is quite difficult to portray someone who hides her face in a principled and consistent manner. Muratova has always avoided journalists, especially during the last five years of her seclusion. In her last letter to my mother, Kira wrote that she was on the autistic spectrum by nature and now due to her advanced age and illness she had finally run out of strength to pretend to be the kind of filmmaker, that bosses people around; she could no longer bear the humiliation associated with the profession, seeking money for films, so she stopped. On June 6, 2018, she died at the age of 83.
Her husband, co-writer and artist Evgenii Golubenko has the same strategy of silence: these are ingenious films by Muratova, they contain everything she wanted to say to people. So, I had the task to depict the dark side of the moon; additionally, there was another "celestial body" between me and "the moon" in protective stance (her husband) saying “watch her films, but her private life, her human essence is untouchable”.
I'm not a paparazzi, you cannot break into a person's soul with an axe. But the professional excitement pushed me to find a delicate point when taboos crack. I had a certain right to try, a hope rather: my mother and Kira Muratova were connected by a long-term mutual friendship and love. When Kira came to Moscow, she never stayed in a hotel, only at my mother's apartment. There she hid from the press. It was there that my good mother sometimes persuaded her to make some kind of human contact. For example, with the American film critic Jane Tauber, it was to my mother actually that she owed a thank you for an extensive interview on Kira Muratova's cinematography used in her publication. And Kira and Evgenii treated me and my husband kindly, as well. Fifteen years ago, I recorded a terrific interview with Kira, which has now become an essential part of this film.
I wouldn't have dared this sadomasochistic feat if not for the lines from Evgenii’s letter to us after Kira's death three years ago:
"Ever since Kira fully realized that she no longer has any strength left to work, she got very bored and did not see a point in living any longer. I saw how she suffered; she did not want to live as an infirm dependent. She asked me to put her out of her misery and demanded euthanasia. I will not write about myself. It is not natural for me. With Kira gone, a lot of problems arose - I must learn to survive and earn money on my own, without working in movies. Thank you for remembering me”.
In 2019, the Kultura Channel, in connection with Kira Muratova's approaching 90th birthday, gave me the offer to make this film. I cautiously asked Evgenii. He replied:
"This is an intractable problem for me, how can I talk about it? How can relatives speak objectively at all. She asked me not to meddle in her life, I am her only executor. And talking about movies should be done by professional critics. While I love you all, I have no idea how to solve this problem. Until now, I just refused to talk about it ... ".
There was no hard refusal, so I started looking for a formal way of how Yevgeniy could participate in the shoot that would be non-intrusive, acceptable, and possibly complementary to him. Since direct conversation was impossible, I asked permission to shoot inside their fantastic apartment, which Evgenii devised for Kira. The home can tell a lot about its owner. And that highly saturated artistic melange, which Yevgeniy created, is both a setting for a jewel that was Kira’s genius and a vivid projection of her inner world. Besides, would an artist, who until now has been in the shadow of his brilliant wife, avoid the temptation to present his original talent to mankind, no longer a function, but an independent person? There was also a possibility to shoot a walk with him through the Odessa film studio where both Kira and Evgenii spent so many years of dedicated work. His answer was:
"I don't have any phobias against filming in our home. But we will not converse. The studio disgusts me. I can hardly bear being there. All those memories of her working with other people make me feel sick”.
Between these lines, I managed to read something of an agreement. When I notified Evgenii of my arrival date, he made one last naive attempt to get rid of me:
"I got a lot of fleas."
"So, we will be two more," I said, referring to myself and my favorite camerawoman Irina Uralskaya.
Therefore, the basis for my sadomasochistic adventure was one hope that Evgenii would not shut the door in front of us. Without a camera, their home was always open to guests. "It's not like we're strangers." And with a camera, a big question mark presented itself. The absolute minimum I could count on was producing a portrait of Kira, a reflection of her interior. I could not even dream for more. I had no plan: just to get in there, and hope for the best. I already had several traditional interviews recorded previously in Moscow, with those, I could at least craft a traditional doc if needed.
When we entered their amazing apartment, another unexpected obstacle presented itself: Evgenii turned out to be a hardcore Ukrainian nationalist. "Don't forget, our countries are at war." I was surprised. Yes, of course, Ukraine had broken away from the Soviet empire, freed itself from Russia, and there was blood and disputed territory between us. But Odessa is a special city that has always been conscious of being Russian speaking, albeit on Ukrainian territory. Politics is politics, but "we are not strangers”. And Kira Muratova is a separate country, if not a planet. The alien does not care what country she lives in.
But the tone was set. He was grumbling and angry, but he did not dare to throw us out as enemy spies. He simply removed himself from the situation, lay down in an armchair on the balcony, while we meekly crawled around the apartment with the camera, like fleas.
A few words, and suddenly, the film revealed itself. It happens sometimes this way, and it's simply divine. Smoothly, without a declaration of war, without a truce. Evgenii was getting angrier and angrier, probably at himself for talking to us after all. Not me, some other invisible director, had set the mise-en-scene in a most fortunate way. I would have been afraid to make a wrong move. Somehow, we ended up sitting next to each other in dialogue, and Evgenii didn't immediately notice that the camerawoman had quietly turned the camera towards him and had affixed the mic onto furniture guerrilla-style. He noticed, flashed an eye, but pretended not to see the "hidden camera. Yet, he didn't say "stop." And then he waved his hand, "the hell with you, do it, though I still don't understand why". And finally, he was so charming, clever, deep, talented, and EQUAL to his great wife; the result came out, as they call it, not because of, but despite. And this is always more interesting.
The film was shown on television and at festivals and was even nominated for the 2019 Nika National Film Award as the best doc. We reconciled when I wrote to Evgenii about the benefits of our dubious collaboration ... At times like water of life, at times like water of death. The film resounded so far and wide because it was made from an unfamiliar angle, Kira’s world was seen through the prism of Evgenii. And he turned out to be so... He did not see himself the way I did.
"I only wonder zoologically what I look like through other people's eyes. I've become like my father. I used to not take pictures, and I rarely look in the mirror. I was glad to see Elena Mikhailovna (my mother in the frame). I still don't understand why you made this movie, but I guess you know better”.