By David Finkelstein. Originally published in Film Panic Magazine, issue 7, December 2018
The films of Katya Yakubov delicately balance sound effects, images, music and words, with a surprisingly powerful impact. She avoids making large, overarching statements or using melodramatic effects, preferring instead an indirect and poetic relationship between spoken text, images and sounds. Several of her films are based on her own poetry, but the images and sounds in these films create a kind of contrapuntal music with the text, rather than illustrating it. The sparse textures and delicate, precise construction of these works give the viewer the mental space to allow the film’s separate elements to resonate together. The words allow the viewer to see metaphorical layers inside of the images, while the images in turn open up metaphoric layers in the text.
All of these strategies are greatly expanded in her recent film The Watering Room, a 35 minute narrative film inspired by Russian fairy tales, a surreal encounter between a bureaucratically-minded Surveyor and a strange older woman whom he is investigating. Just as there is a powerful suggestion, throughout the film, that the woman possesses hypnotic or magical powers, gradually gaining control over the Surveyor without his being aware of it, the film itself slowly but inevitably pulls the viewer into its strange world. Yakubov adapts a strategy in which the film contradicts itself in small ways, creating discrepancies that undercut the traditional sense of “reality” in narrative film, replacing it with a disturbing and powerful experience of the discontinuities and contradictions in our perceptions of events.
The Watering Room consistently turns the physical facts of the story into metaphors, poeticizing the prose of events, and allowing images to reveal hidden layers of reality in the relationship between the two protagonists. As always in Yakubov’s films, the soundtrack is very carefully built, and many of the sounds also have a metaphoric rather than literal relationship to the story. The music of her frequent collaborator Daniel Hess provides a crucial element in sustaining the tone of the film, providing a level of continuity that helps the viewer to navigate the many tricky discontinuities.
Yakubov’s work with actors Jacqueline Jones and Brian K. Landis is a key element in making the improbable elements of this fanciful tale feel grounded in the hidden passions that bind people together, or drive them apart. The production design and art direction, by Sophie Solomon Resplandy and Andrew McGlennon, and the costumes by Deborah Sedlacek, are also crucial elements in bringing this alternative universe to life. Yakubov understands well how to use collaboration in order to realize her singular vision, and the film shows her eagerly taking up the different elements of the art of filmmaking to give a wide scope to her vision. Having imagined the world of The Watering Room, she allows for the accidents and surprises of the collaborative process to give her the opportunity to make a film which realizes that world in a way which moves beyond her original sources, from fairy tale into myth, where transgression becomes a pathway to truth.
DF: Talk a bit about your background and how you started making films.
KATYA: I was watching every film I could get my hands on in high school, so the awareness that I would apply to film school was a given, almost casual, not really debated or thought about. I was lucky that my parents were supportive, though I think part of their comfort with the idea came from my uncle being a pretty well known cinematographer in Russia at the time. He worked in the industry there and I think always wanted to make his own experimental films.
In terms of making films, I was a late bloomer. Though watching films and reading film theory came naturally, even at film school, I didn’t feel like I was actively making work aside from the required assignments. Sophomore year, I took an experimental film history class and fell in love with the short, non-narrative, experimental film form. This class and being exposed to a handful of narrative auteur films greatly altered my perception about what a film could be and do.
I made a couple of experimental short docs right out of college, then went on a two year hiatus, traveled the States, lived in a few different cities. Eventually I found my way back to film, and have been making shorts ever since. I found that my narrow understanding of experimental film has evolved to encompass different genres and approaches, and in many ways I am finding my way back to narrative.
DF: Can you speak about how your collaboration with Daniel Hess works? Can you speak specifically about your process of working with him as composer for The Watering Room, and also as DP?
KATYA: So many of my films wouldn’t exist, or would be unrecognizable and greatly diminished, if it was not for Daniel’s input, either as a composer, a DP, a model, an organizer, a driver, a technical consultant, an emotional support, or some combination of all of these. Is there a term for such a Renaissance muse?
For The Watering Room, we had the luxury to access the set for weeks before we shot there. We figured out the blocking and created meticulous photo storyboards, notating all the angles, lenses, and lighting setups we wanted to use. I hear many directors disdain storyboarding as a rigid and uncreative process. As this was my first large narrative project and I didn’t have the developed instincts for shooting dialogue and action, so I could not afford to let so many things be figured out on set. The time we saved in pre-production was invaluable during the shoot, and I was able to concentrate more on actors than lenses. That is not to say that many things did not change on set, once actors, physical restrictions, and in-the-moment realizations step into the process, but there was more time for these improvisations and improvements with a set structure in place.
Living together, working together, watching countless films together, and generally experiencing art and life together, you develop a certain understanding for the other person’s taste and interest, and you bring that awareness forward in a collaboration. I trust Daniel more than anyone as to what’s working and what’s not because I know we have developed a common love of films, a common language and logic. Yet we are undeniably different, and it’s this difference that strengthens the solitary vision with surprise alterations that would otherwise not have been there. Daniel gravitates towards geometrical but off-kilter angles that are a little too close to the character. When he set up the camera at times, my first reaction would be to say that the shot is too strange. But through some adjustments we would arrive at a shot that was not only working, but adding a new energy to the scene.
Regardless of how open you are to the creative process, there is always a bit of rigidity in terms of what you are expecting your work to be, to look like, to say. It is this rigidity that you should find a way to undo, because the hidden power of art is to evoke ambiguity, strangeness, and surprise, rather than illustrate something clearly defined. The filmmaker, like the viewer, needs to be surprised and jolted by what’s being pieced together as it is happening. This unsettledness happens because the project is never really yours. The film that’s in my head is not the film that’s being made in the tangible world, with all these other forces at work together. I think through collaboration, these small but radical adjustments open the work up to much needed new elements and breath, despite the blind-spots of the filmmaker.
With the music, Daniel and I were initially very unsure of what to do, mostly because the tone of the film was itself tricky to place, shifting from whimsical to comical to disgusting to confusing and maybe, for a few moments, horrifying. At first we were trying to layer ambient, almost diegetic sounds as a kind of score, but this felt too one-to-one. The breakthrough came when Daniel created a very short orchestrated segment using more traditional instruments like strings and an accordian. Hearing this, it suddenly felt like the sound had married the film’s sly nature, attempting to say that things can be enjoyed on a very surface, melodic level, but that the instruments were also pointing to the things-are-not-as-they-seem substance secreting underneath.
From there, we used Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf as a model for how we would approach the score. Mainly, the use of different instruments as characters, and the repetition and variation of these themes as the dynamic between the characters breaks down. I played Daniel a famous Russian lullaby that the witch character hums to the Surveyor, and Daniel wrote several spin offs using this chord structure with different instruments. He used the accordion, various strings and a vibraphone as the main instruments in the first part of the film, with the horns functioning as a counterpoint. This grounded the film in its fairy tale origin and set a whimsical tone. Then, as the film moves towards its more psychological and troubling climax, Daniel brought in more synthesized sounds, mimicking a horror film, which is a genre that The Watering Room pulled a lot of its ideas from. This film is by nature a hybrid of genres, and the use of different instruments altering a familiar folk melody hopefully reflected that.
DF: Where did the idea for The Watering Room come from?
KATYA: It came from a real mess of different things, though its main origin was of course the figure of Baba Yaga, the famous witch of Russian fairy tales. I was researching fairy tales last summer, and I was drawn to this female figure who could be both an evil hindrance to the hero, as well as a benign helper on the hero’s quest, depending on which tale you read. Her ambiguity and the strange tone of the fairy tales themselves, often depicting hilarious absurdities as well as horrifying images of violence, became the starting point in my research that took me to different places, from the horror film genre, to Julia Kristeva’s writings on abjection. The synthesis of various points of research culminated in the script that became this film.
DF: You use “jump cut” edits, cuts which jarringly switch to a different moment in time, at intervals throughout the film. As the film continues, I felt there was an ongoing suggestion that the Witch is hypnotizing the Surveyor, casting spells over him, controlling his thoughts and emotions. Because I tended to identify more with the Surveyor, the jump cuts felt like an expression of his consciousness, which was being played with and interrupted by the Witch. I identified with his growing distrust of his own perceptions, as if she might periodically make him fall asleep, only to wake up again a moment later (something which actually happens at one point in the film.) This seems to me to be part of a larger strategy of disjunction throughout the film. In the dialog, the Witch often answers a question with a seemingly unrelated comment. There are unexplained changes in the appearance of both characters. Talk about your use of disjunction in the film.
KATYA: The jump cuts were sometimes used because the blocking and camera angles did not allow another option to shorten the action with a more-traditional cut to something else. In some ways, this was a mistake in the way we shot the film, and would probably be referred to as a ‘lack of coverage’. Essentially the jump cuts were not planned, but became a solution in the edit room, and more or less complemented some of the other, more-intended methods of creating a feeling of disjunction in the space.
If you pay close attention, not only his notebook, but some of the furniture and the fish tank jump to different places throughout the film. Though not obvious, I think it translates more subtly in the feeling of the space, and the hypnosis and disorientation that you mention is integral to Yaga’s character, as everything in her domain becomes a test of the hero. Also, I think it is the nature of any chamber piece to cause some of these feelings of disorientation of time and space, as you are disconnected from any real markers of time and the outside world, and that was the main reason I wrote the film as taking place almost entirely in one closed room.
In terms of the physical changes of the characters, the Surveyor’s was the more straightforward of the two. He is literally and psychologically being de-robed during his stay at her house. His hair gets more disheveled and finally turns from grey to black. First he is too hot, so he takes off his jacket, then the stain causes him to take off his shirt, and finally his altered state allows him to emerge from the bathroom solely in Yaga’s robe.
Jacqueline Jones, the actress that plays Yaga, has a truly amazing physicality; her face at times appears older and in other moments, glows with youth. I think this ungraspable ambiguity is the perfect manifestation of Yaga’s character. We accentuated this with varying degrees of special effects make-up. I wanted her to appear different with every shift in tone—from a confused, pitiful older lady, to a bitter mother-figure, to something of a seductress, to a horrifying, powerful shape-shifter. She is truly what is in the eye of the beholder. Also, Jackie was absolutely amazing to work with because, despite her age, she was able to do quite challenging physical exercises such as bending over backwards from a table, falling to the floor, and a myriad of other things. I was so lucky to have her as Yaga.
The idea of all these changes happening within a logical continuity of action is very much at the structural heart of this piece. I never wanted the viewer to lose his/her connection to a straightforward, linear trajectory happening in a single space, which nevertheless gets subverted by unusual shifts in tone and changes in the dynamic between the characters. I wanted it to be obvious that the characters were still talking about the same thing in the same space, but with each repetition, that same thing’s meaning was entirely different.
DF: The Surveyor’s surreal description of the department he works in has a Kafkaesque tone. What are some of the roots of the images of bureaucracy in the script, both literary, and in Russian culture?
KATYA: To take Kafka as an example, the film is similarly about a character trying to save himself using the logic of the very structure that is failing him. Just as K. in The Trial attempts to fight the Law with the law, the Surveyor in this film clutches to his notebook to get what he thinks he wants out of Yaga, yet it is the notebook that fails him, its questions changing each time he refers to it. If unquestioningly giving power to a system becomes the main character’s downfall, he cannot think for himself until the structure is undone. Yaga is of course part of this undoing. It is a destruction whose ultimate goal is liberation, though probably not so in the case of Kafka.
More broadly, the bureaucracy of course represents conformity, the non-reflective mind-state, and the horrors that slip in with a machine that banally keeps regenerating itself, unregulated. By hiding behind his post, the Surveyor remains unawake and unaware of his own troubling psyche. It is Yaga’s facetiousness that breaks his repetitive routine and exposes him to the deviations that occurred within his path.
Specific to Russian fairy tales, “knowledge” is often addressed with apprehension and disdain. The moral of many of Russian fairy tales was actually not to ask questions or try to learn more, because it would get you into trouble; you must stay in your place in good faith. In this film, the Surveyor actually embodies the fool who asks too many questions, and ultimately, gets himself into trouble. In this version, liberation is on the other side of trouble.
DF: There is a constant push and pull between repulsion and desire in the film. You do an incredibly effective job of making the Witch, her home, and the food repulsive, so when the Surveyor’s hunger and need overcomes his disgust, it underscores how powerful his needs are. Talk about this dynamic.
KATYA: The film was in part influenced by the ideas of philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin in his book Rabelais and His World. Bakhtin speaks of the restorative social power of “carnival”—a yearly celebration practiced in many parts of the world, and particularly during the Middle Ages. Viewed as a collective cleansing ritual, the festival allowed the people to enter a space of debauchery and madness, emphasizing the often grotesque human body and the transgression of boundaries between people. During this time, the material body and its ‘baser’ qualities—hunger, thirst, sexuality, defecation—were an important component, and functioned as both a destructive and restorative force, evoking the process of constant change and transformation. In much the same way, I wanted Yaga and her domain to embody the spirit of carnival—at first grotesque, base, and disgusting, but ultimately functioning to destroy boundaries between self and other, allowing the Surveyor to come face to face with the extreme limits of horrifying possibilities (implied incest, implied murder) in order to both awake and return to a new beginning.
DF: Some of the narratives within the film, like the story of the bird, are told and then retold. Every time they are retold, the story changes. It’s as if the trauma and abuse which are the emotional center of the film are so toxic to think about, that in order to speak about them, not only does the Surveyor have to disguise what happened, he has to come up with a whole series of different layers of disguises. Each time he retells the story, he slowly inches closer to acknowledging what really happened. Can you speak about your use of multiple, contradictory versions of events, throughout the film?
KATYA: I think a large interest for me with this film was the ability to construct a linear, narrative story, even as things were unrecognizably shifting underneath. Language and repetition became an important tool to achieve this without breaking a recognizable ‘form.’
I like Merleau-Ponty’s idea that the act of speaking is the completion of a thought that would otherwise not exist; that is, meaning requires expression as a natural end point. Consequently, the act of speaking creates not just a representation of the thing, but becomes the thing itself. In this sense, each of the Surveyor’s variations of the same story are a manifestation of one of multiple possibilities, rather than an inching closer to any ultimate, singular truth. Thus, the dialogue’s function was to bring into the open manifestations of the psyche’s undercurrents. By repeating the same story, the Surveyor is not necessarily inching closer to ‘the truth’ at the center of multiple layers, but rather, becoming aware of the possibility of an emotional truth of that moment—his own violence, perversion, and otherwise dormant aspects of his psyche. By prompting him to speak and retell, Yaga allows an opening to occur; by embracing the possibility of a momentary manifestation of evil in himself, the Surveyor becomes free from the boundary between self and other, good and bad. The boundary is no longer a threat.
DF: Some of the imagery in the film feels Jungian, in the sense that it connects a personal experience of trauma to the larger cultural framework of fairy tales and myths. Is Jung a reference point for you? Can you talk about the bridges in the film between personal psychology and fairy tales, and between the personal and the cultural, particularly in the image of the feral children?
KATYA: Jung did not believe in fixed, universal symbols, but rather a natural state of flux between personal imagery and the collective unconscious. His ideas do resonate with me, though I am not well-read in his works. For me it is always a mystery why a certain image is so striking; why does it electrify you, as if reaching out from some ancient, eternal place, having always existed there, yet appearing now as completely fresh, new, tangible. Discovering the image of the feral children felt this way. I think maybe a strange resonance and feeling of recognition happens when an image is both part of a collective, universal unconscious, as well as one that is strangely particular and deeply personal.
DF: I understand your current project is set in Peru, in an area often visited by Westerners for “psychedelic tourism,” that is, to take part in a traditional Ayahuasca ceremony for spiritual purposes. What’s your idea for this film? Does your film also deal with this local economy of psychedelic tourism? Also, if you don’t mind my asking, have either one of you taken part in one of these ceremonies, and if so, did the experience become part of your inspiration for the film?
KATYA: In the last few years, many docs and a couple of narrative films have been made about the tradition of ayahuasca, mostly because it is a trendy and tangible commodity for Westerners seeking spirituality. However, in most of these films, the attention is on the experience that is for sale—that is, on the drug ayahuasca itself, on the shaman administering the drug, and on the Westerner and his/her psychological journey. No one has yet focused on the actual Shipibo people and their everyday experience in the current climate. How does this attention by Western tourism affect or alter their culture? Is the influx of new capital an immediate positive force for the community, or are other things happening on the periphery?
Our film is a coming of age story of one young Shipibo woman, as well as her immediate family. We pose the question of what opportunity and simultaneous disruption occurs with a sudden global interest in their culture, and how this creates a confusion and limbo state for this family, forced to make difficult choices in moving forward and leaving behind certain aspects of their culture. We want to work in a hybrid doc-fiction genre, heavily collaborating with the Inuma family as both non-actors and writers of this story, since the story is largely based on the heartbreaking and hilarious events from their lives, with elements of fantasy and Shipibo myths included.
DF: Alongside making films you also write poetry and do photography, could you talk about how these different mediums relate to your filmmaking work?
KATYA: My engagement with poetry and photography, just as with film, is never truly consistent. I don’t consider myself a photographer or poet, but I use both mediums to work through creative blocks and sketch out ideas. There were periods in my life when the only creative thing I was doing was taking photographs, or writing short poems. Then of course there was eight months when all I did was work on The Watering Room. The three different mediums are in tangent, and a way for me to be flexible with the circumstances of my life, with how much time, space, and resources I have at my disposal. Though I always want to come back to film, poetry and photography are almost more direct and tangible modes of expression. And oh-so-less-expensive!
I am also aware that inspiration in one medium can lead to work in another. I love watching films, but sometimes going to a photography or painting exhibit fills my notebook with many ideas for films. Perhaps the very first origin of The Watering Room, though not thematically, came from an image in my head—children’s bodies lying scattered in an open field. It took a few years to find the appropriate place for this seemingly still image, but it eventually wound up in this film.
In a couple of occasions, a poem I wrote became the basis for a short film, such as in Continent and She Learns to Lunge. Another type of crossover happens when I use photographs, which may or may not have been taken for other purposes, to create short films such as julio and Portrait in Time. Actually, my first year at grad school I was really interested in projects that live in the interstice between stillness and motion, between photography and moving images. Maps to the In-Between was another film that came out of this train of thought. In the end, ideas come in different mediums and all just become a mode of expression.
DF: What contemporary films and filmmakers are you currently interested in?
KATYA: I have always loved the films of David Lynch and am only now understanding what makes them so electric—they are actually horror films, albeit defying the tropes and conventions of this more commercial genre. Lynch is able to materialize a ‘monster’ that is simultaneously empty, elusive, and unexplained, yet part of a seemingly-realistic universe. I am currently really into Žižek’s analysis of the Lacanian “Real” in films, and I think Lynch is a perfect example of this. Another filmmaker that comes to mind is Michael Haneke. Caché and The White Ribbon both manifest traumatic events as if out of thin air, yet never reveal the source or break from the logic of a realistic modern world. I think both filmmakers are inventing a very strange alternate horror genre.
DF: Which films and filmmakers have been an influence and inspiration to your work?
KATYA: I sometimes experience a moment of total strangeness when I see a film I’ve finished and realize that it is so different from the types of films I like and assume I somehow should have emulated. In the end, this is a good thing, as the work really becomes what it needs to be despite your best intellectual efforts. This is to say that I don’t know if the films that I get excited about watching end up becoming dominating influences in the films I am making. But they’re in there, somehow, of course!
The film that I was loosely thinking about when making The Watering Room was an older film of Carlos Reygadas called Silent Light. In fact, the final shot in my film is a direct tribute to the closing shot in Silent Light, during which the viewer more or less experiences the ‘real time’ descent into complete darkness of a natural landscape. More importantly, what I absolutely loved about his film was the unexpected tonal shift from realism to the supernatural very late in the narrative. The last scene in his film felt to me like the most radical leap a film had made in my knowledge of film history. What I took from that film was that you must ground the viewer in a certain logic, and then, when the moment is just right, subvert that logic to allow for an opening to take place. This is pure magic! Recently, I caught a restored print of Bergman’s overlooked film The Rite. I was absolutely floored. This film did what I wanted The Watering Room to achieve, only light years better, of course.
Find out more about Katya Yabukov’s work at www.paperfilm.org