Category Archives: documentary

Where you fall to if you’re not tied down

Underwater footage from The Wild Blue Yonder

Imagine someone pays for you to go to the Antarctic and make a documentary. Dramatic, beautiful vistas, as pure as the mathematics of air flow and crystallization, which your viewers won’t have seen for themselves. Extraordinary cold. Cliffs of ice. Danger. Explorers enduring unimaginable hardship in the name of science. Penguins. What a nightmare. Where could you possibly start? How could you avoid all the above clichés without ignoring everything that is recognizably Antarctic?

By force of character. That, at least, seems to be Werner Herzog‘s method, Continue reading Where you fall to if you’re not tied down

The Museum of Doubt

is the title story of a rather good collection by James Meek. It’s a phrase that runs around my head a lot these days. I’m married to a doubter: only a few decades ago, I guess, that would have evoked a scene between a wise old priest and a passionate young intellectual, in which one would confess to the other that he (probably he) had Doubts. About their religious, Christian, probably C or E faith, naturally. These days, no one in this country is expected to be doubt-free about all that. But certainty is still hot property in every other sector of human behaviour. To get on, whether a career or in your social interactions, you must be sure of yourself.

I’m not even a doubter. I just don’t know. It’s not good when two people like me get together. After an initial warm rush to intimacy, recognising that we understand each other’s troubles getting to grips with the world, there is inevitably little to say. We look into each other’s eyes, smile and nod encouragingly, and realise we have nothing more to offer each other.

But what I wanted to talk about was how that affects the work. The Work. (One of the few things I know I liked about art school was learning that I could refer to such a massive range of activity, not to mention inactivity, with that one earthy word. It can either be the finished thing, buffed-up and nicely lit in its gilt frame with a little biographical notice in a tastefully understated font beside it, or it can be an otherwise unremarkable moment that might, maybe, be leading there.) When I was watching Spiritual Voices I thought, “This could do with some editing.” I like long, slow, contemplative films; I don’t see why we should slavishly follow the less-is-more principle and cut away everything inessential; but I think Sokurov is a little self-indulgent here. So, given that this was an observational documentary shot without extra lighting (except when outdoors at night) and so has a lot of murky shots, and that I felt the director had been less than rigorous in his editing, I wondered whether some of the more nicely lit, interestingly textured scenes had been included just because they were the closest this film was ever going to get to eye candy (the Old Master moments in the oil-lamp-lit dinner at night up at the observation post in episode 5, for anyone who’s interested: it seems a bit repetitious of the same scene by daylight earlier in that episode).

Then again, in Sokurov’s shoes, what would I do? I like work that is intellectually and conceptually tight, but, doubting that anyone will find that interesting enough in my work (perhaps not even me), I like to serve up some sensual, emotional, visceral stimulation at the same time. Oooh, that shot looks a bit like a painting! Oooh, look at what he’s doing now! Even, ooooh, that shot could have been in a normal film! And perhaps those moments serve a useful purpose in stirring up the mechanistic unfolding of whatever scheme or structure I think I’m working with; like the catchlight in an eye lifts an otherwise dark-toned portrait, like the sharp fruit cuts through the cheesy coating of the tongue at the end of a meal, like anything that disturbs what you have come to expect brings you back to the present, to what is actually happening, revives you, opens you up. Sounds good. But have I just convinced myself of something because I that moment reminded me of a film I’d rather be making, or might be making instead, or that would make people take me more seriously, and I’ve stuck it in place with special pleading putty?

I just don’t know. I don’t really want to know. I just want it to work for others the way I think it works for me. So they’re not sure either.

BBC values

A disheartened BBC employee told me that there is now no chance of getting a ‘factual’ programme commissioned unless:

it has a presenter dominating the screen, as if the audience will be uneasy watching the world outside their home without an implausibly friendly stranger – someone richer, or posher, or younger, or more attractive than them who nevertheless wants nothing more than to chat them up for half an hour – to introduce it;

it is about people the audience will have heard about in the national media, as if the interest in our fellow humans that evolved with us has recently, inexplicably, run out;

it has a risqué or catastrophic or amusing twist that will “get the nation talking about it” – which means, I suppose, persuade other media businesses that they can also get the public to watch or read commentary about it. Also, beginners in the film and TV industry are always being told that any viable piece of work can be summed up in a single-sentence pitch that will divert the attention of a bored, stressed, unreflective executive.

All of which is justified by deeply unscientific audience research. Questioning any of this will get you a reputation.

Has it always been like this? Do people in power lie more than they used to? Is it just me and my friends who talk about feeling hopeless? Is that just what happens when people who like a bit of a challenge, an intellectual or emotional adventure, in their books and films and music turn 40? Am I an elitist? If I am, is there anything wrong with that?

Spiritual Voices

Episode 1

How did contemporaries describe the composer whose music we are about to hear?

“Small and fussy, with a slightly stupid look in his eyes. All in all, an unprepossessing figure. Plumpish, just over five feet tall, always on the move, with a large head, a fleshy nose, and pock-marked skin – not very attractive to look at. He had pale blue eyes and blond hair. His vague. distracted expression was due to short-sightedness. As a result of long journeys on inadequate fare he suffered from rickets. His deformed skull, bossed forehead, diminutive stature, and misshapen hands are all signs of the disease.” This is Mozart.

He had pale blue eyes and blond hair. His vague distracted expression was due to short-sightedness. As a result of long journeys on inadequate fare he suffered from rickets. His oversized head, diminutive stature, and misshapen hands are signs of the disease.

Mozart died in 1791. “On the night of 4th-5th December, the Royal Composer Mozart passed away. Famous from childhood for his outstanding musical talent, through a combination of natural genius, inherited ability and steady application he achieved the consummate mastery to which his works bear witness. Charming and universally loved, they cannot but remind us of the irreparable loss to music his death represents.” In the words of a Viennese newspaper, “On the 4th of this month, in the small hours, the Royal Composer to the Emperor, Wolfgang Mozart, famous throughout Europe, came to the end of his short, 35-year life. Even the greatest in the field were amazed by the rare talent of this great musician. But what has this highly talented man left behind him? Everlasting fame, a helpless widow, two small children and unpaid debts. One of his children, though still only little, already plays the clavichord so well that he amazes and impresses his listeners. It was said by many that Mozart was a Freemason and some documents suggest that his death may have been the work of the Freemasons.” From a Berlin newspaper: “Mozart has died. He was already ill when he returned from Prague and his health declined daily from that point on. He may have had dropsy. He died in Vienna at the end of last week. Because of the severe swelling of the corpse, it has been suggested that he may have been poisoned.”

Imagine the strength this extraordinary, unique being must have needed to take his place amongst people, to defend the place for which he was destined by God and Providence. What hard, cramped lives people live! How cruel and merciless people can be.

What a light touch!

We are now going to hear the music of Olivier Messaien, a modern French composer. Listen carefully. Listen carefully to the music and try to feel the sounds, feel how the voices in this work combine with one another. Messaien didn’t come to music by accident. His spirit and his talent prove his devotion to music. But he is a man of our time. Is there harmony in this music? Isn’t each note a separate sound? Doesn’t each note assert its own value? Sometimes, when I listen to Messaien, it seems to me that I am not listening to music but to the instrument tuning up all by itself. There is no composer, just a piano in an empty room, and the sound is not the result of warm fingers on cold keys, but is merely a sound generating itself.

In February, 1778, Mozart and his mother were in Paris, looking for work. Mozart’s mother wrote to her husband that she would sit all day long alone in their little room, as if under arrest, that the room was dark and uncomfortable, and that its windows faced onto the light-well. To crown Mozart’s sorrows, in July of that year his mother died. She was 57. In a letter to a friend, he wrote: “My dear friend, weep with me on this, the saddest day of my life. I am writing at two in the morning to tell you this: my darling Mama is no more. The Lord has claimed her. He was waiting for her. I accept this, and submit to the will of the Lord. He has given and he has taken away. But what grief, what anguish, what terrible strain I have experienced over the last two weeks! She died without knowing it – out like a candle. Three days before she died, she confessed and received Communion, she received the Blessed Sacrament. She was delirious all through the last three days, but today, at twenty-one minutes past five, it became clear that she was close to death. She was completely unaware of her surroundings. I pressed her hand and she started to talk, neither seeing nor hearing me, not conscious of anything. Exactly five hours went by in the same way until, at twenty-one minutes past eleven in the evening, she passed away.”

Mozart’s 19th Piano Concerto, Second Movement.

You are now going to hear part of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, Second Movement. Mozart and Beethoven are beings from the same civilisation. Both are extraordinarily, immensely gifted. They have many more similarities than differences.

The more remarkable and outstanding a person is, the more difficult and contradictory their relationship with life – this life on earth. These beings stand little chance of being reconciled to life. Little chance.

This is the Second Movement of Mozart’s 23rd Piano Concerto. Let us listen to it again, so as to remember it, to keep it in our souls. Let us gratefully remember the eternal Mozart, the martyr.

Always on the move, with his fleshy nose and pock-marked skin, he was not attractive to look at. He had pale blue eyes and blond hair. His vague, distracted expression was due to short-sightedness.

Episode 2

In Russia, the snow and cold seem endless. Not a sound… and not a soul.

Flicking through my journal, this is what I read: “At the beginning of June, with a light heart, yet also with sadness, I quickly collected my things and left Russia.”

In June, Tadjikistan is already very hot. Against all odds, I have arrived here.

A small military airfield. Now I know that in a few hours, I’ll be at the border.

Before us, a flight by helicopter – just a short flight. Once we have landed, we will have a long and possibly dangerous journey through the mountains.

God help us all.

On my left, there is a precipice, the River Panjsher and Afghanistan. I keep a sharp eye out on all sides: there is a risk of ambush. This is the only route to the frontier post. Helicopters will not fly over this region.

They’ve been waiting for us. They’re discussing whether we should move forward all in one group or separately?

No point taking risks – let’s keep together.

On the mountainside there are abandoned gardens and fields sown with crops. No-one is going to come back here. The wind is hot.

This young man is in command of one of the Russian frontier posts. How old is he? 22… 23? It’s very hot.

Give me the parcel.

Well, we’ve arrived. This is frontier post No. 11.

We’ve arrived.

Everything seems dreamlike – I put it down to exhaustion or excitement. I look around me. I am thirsty.

Episode 3

This is what I wrote in my diary: “It was very hot last night. I slept a dreamless sleep.”

Use your gun. Hold the wire up with the butt.

At that time, we often used to leave the little valley where the company was stationed and climb, keeping strictly to the paths, up and up.

I found the going tough. I often had to ask for a rest. We sat and rested in silence, looking down at the frontier post.

What sort of cigarettes are they? De Luxe?

I don’t know – with filters.

Go on, then.

Reach out.

Has someone taken a grenade?

Today is June 17th.

There were 4 out of 5.


Yes, 4 Starts.


Put one ahead of us, by the second hill.

Mazalov! Come here.

Are the alarms in place?

Not yet.

And the type 2s?

Yes, one.

On the path we’re going to take?

It’s off during the day.

We’ll add a tripwire later.

Put a PZM mine in front of that trench.


Right in front of the trench.

The situation is stable.

I’d like to go to the village.

I got home on the 31st.

Can you believe it, I got home on the evening of 31st December.

I’d love that, even at 11 p.m.

Just because they held me up for 4 hours.

These trenches cover the approaches to the frontier post. It is one of several, situated at different vantage points. Each post is surrounded by its own minefield and is responsible for its own defence. If these soldiers win an engagement, they save their own lives, and the lives of those below. If they lose, everyone dies. In this war, it seems, no prisoners are ever taken.

It’s OK for you. We’ve still got to go down.

Chapter 11: The Tale of the One-Eyed Devil



No. This water is from the base.

Can we wash?

We washed in the Panjsher. An officer came, the commander of the base…

He came up here.

He saw us bathing, he sent a soldier to say “Get out quick!”


Yes. This water needs boiling.

No problem.

Let’s put it here.

I reckon the war’s over.

They’ve left us alone today.

Don’t speak too soon.

They might still give us some bother.

Any news?

Not a peep. I’ve reported.

What about decorations? Makarych and Bukhan?


What for, the Order of the Easy Chair?

Yes, they’ll be put forward for a decoration. And why not that guy, our bloke? Why not put forward Saraikin?


I don’t know. They say there were two scouts in the mountains.

Were your men there too?

They were taken out, [laughing] along with the others. It must be a joke.

Well, there was that boy who came back in tears. A frontier-guard. Valerka was there. The group was just going down with ammunition.

After morning prayers, I waited for a quarter of an hour, discharged my gun [laughs], and that was it. I looked sadly up at the sky.

Vityok, the water-carrier.

They’re brought some wounded to Post 10. They said a Russian got killed.

If it was true, there would have been a hell of a row.

Well, get some boxes to take the stuff to the mountains.

Preparing for Liberation Day…

We’ll get some boxes.

I look at these soldiers and it seems to me they can’t have had much in the way of human happiness. They have left Russia, and everyone who looked to them for help. Perhaps some of them don’t have anyone waiting for them anywhere. Lord, save and protect us.

Put your trousers on.


Put your trousers on. Where are the others?

Still over there.

Hasn’t Gurin said anything?

Is he back?

It was Ponarin who left.

He hasn’t said anything. Either that or I didn’t hear him.

This is the 46th calling Plevna. Did you get through? Roger.

Where’s your gun?

Where’s your gun?

They took it.


My gun. But we have three.

I don’t care. Take your things and go down.


For your treatment.

I brought the ointment with me so as to put it on up here.


Put your things in the dug-out.

Which do you prefer? Meat or butter?


Give me some water.

Give me the mug.

Where is the tea? Have you hidden it?

Are you off your rocker?

My what?

Your rocker.


Yes, with sugar.

Thanks for dinner, Yura.

Have some tea.

Have you tried the radio? You must.

You must contact them.

They’re not answering.

Are you using their channel?

No, ours.

What did you say?

There’s too much cloud. Stormclouds. Anyway, it’s quiet today. What about tomorrow?

Maple 1 calling Maple 2. Maple 1 calling Maple 2. Maple 1 calling Maple 2. Their receiver’s not switched on.

You know that song, Your older sister got married…

It’s the next one on the tape.

We can listen till nightfall.


That’s when we have to give the tape back.

It’s not allowed on night-watch.

Look, lightning.

The clouds have been drifting across all day.

“You… You don’t even look at me/You won’t remember me/You don’t even look/In my direction. You don’t even look at me/You don’t even know I love you.”

We need a guitar.

I didn’t find any in Kulyab.

Why should they have them?

37,000 roubles isn’t much for a Zenith Reflex.

Do you think it’s expensive?

Yes, a bit.

The other guy’s got a Zenith, that’s why he wants one.

Did you leave the axe?

That axe over there?

I put it there?

Did you take it?

No, it was hot.

He says we’ve mucked up the tape.

Sanya, here’s a mission for you: you can repair the tape-recorder sockets.

I need another battery.

Why? This one is OK.

Look, it’s working again!

Today is a strange, uneasy day. Our surroundings blend into the dust. This wind is called the Afghani. It makes one feel lonely and troubled.

It looks a bit like rain. No. I don’t put any faith in those clouds.

No, it’s not going to rain. This is Asia. Everything is complicated.

Sanya! Send the men over for their dinner.

He can’t hear.


Eat, eat!


Switch on the radio!

Use the radio.

Use our channel.

Send your men over for their dinner!

He’s got it at last.

It’s going to rain.

Look at those clouds.

They are coming from two directions.

We’re going back to the frontier post, but I still can’t forget those flashes. Another note in my diary: “I feel safe. I am not afraid to follow these men along the path. They seem to treat me as one of themselves. But perhaps I’m wrong to think that they see me as one of them.”

The day is over. The base is less than a kilometre away.

There’s no more water here.

There should be some over there.

Go and wash them.

Is the spoon clean?

Do you want tea in it?

Tea at breakfast, tea at lunch and lots of tea at dinner.

Everybody happy?

Happy birthday!

How old are you?


Cigarettes, Lighter.

Wine, please.

People will think it really is wine.

It’s OK, we’re eating rice.

What are you eating?


Have you finished?

Vovchik, Vovchik!

Come and eat.

Is it stewed?

It’s pretty rough.

Call the other’s while it’s still hot.

The day is over. No fighting today. Thank God.

Left, right…

An alarm went off in the bushes. So they really were there.

Call them for dinner, or it’ll be cold.

I arrived at Guchkom in April. When I first came, the grass was still short. When I left, it was ready for haymaking.

“I’ll never forget that day/The day when I became a soldier”

Aim quicker! The second mortar, fire!

Hurry up!

Hurry up, the second mortar! Go on, go on!

Go on, aim!

You must aim quickly!

Well, I’ll be off now, back to my position.

Good night.


Episode 4

All day long, the sun has kept coming out, only to disappear again behind pale clouds. A sultry day, devoid of colour.

Go on, go on! Go on! Go on. Easy does it! Stop!

Shut the door!

Are the tracks broken?

They’ve got stones in them.

OK, got it.

OK. Chuck it over there. Don’t forget to scrape it.

Anyway, we’ll go for a bathe afterwards.

Where are we going to swim? In the Seine?

There’s a river.

How about on the other side of the Panjsher?

Oh yeah, and let’s walk to France!


That’s enough digging.

Once more.

Chuck it over there.

It’ll roll down.

Is that me?

Go and wash.

And can I get myself shaved double-quick, too?

The captain told me to just this morning.

The captain? He says that to everyone.

There weren’t any razors.

I haven’t shaved because I haven’t had the chance.

Misha! Got a cigarette?

I wish I was back on my kolkhoz.

You don’t need to dig there, do you?

Not so deep, anyway.

What, go and leave everyone in the lurch?

No way.

This is how we help the Tadjiks.

No, this is how we help ourselves.

Two days of spadework in one day!

I’ll call you if I need you.

Are you staying here?

We’re leaving.


Right now.

Don’t be shy.

Fair’s fair.

Well. Remember them to us.

And you were crying. [laughter]

The plane hasn’t taken off yet.

Thanks for everything. Don’t forget to shave.

Remember me to them, back in Russia.

Going home to Russia. Demobilised.

Safe journey!

Be seeing you.

Well, go on, then!

Keep in touch!

That’s it. For them, military service and this war are over. Let’s hope nothing happens to them on their way over the mountains.

Turn off the engine! Misha, stop it.

Take off the brake!

You’ll ruin the brakes!

Take off the hand brake!


They’ll never come back here again. That’s it. It’s over. Safe journey.

There’s a soldier’s mess for those who are staying. Goodness, it’s hot here.

Ready, Faizev?

Don’t forget your guns. We’ll blast them over to the east. Your position will be like this. How many mines are there already?

I don’t know the exact figure.

Take your section and go up there.

Can we have a rest?

Comrade Lieutenant, we’ve been sitting on guard all night long.

So have we.

And we were standing.

Where are they dragging us off to?

Comrade Lieutenant, what are your orders?

You cover the 20 metres from that bush to there.

To that hole?

No, make a barrage at the narrowest point. You, cover the corner near that tree. Take the fuses.

Go a bit further down, where the lieutenant is – I don’t know his name. Lay a tripwire going upwards.

Up there?

Use a PZM. Fazrahimov, come here!

I’m Faisiev.

I told you, you’re to go further ahead with Maltsev. Fazrahimov, er, Faizev, do you see the tree? Go up there, dig a hole and lay a mine. When I give the order, take off the safety device.

This is the cap. When it’s pierced, the TNT explodes.

As if they knew what was going to happen, they decided to lay more mines around the post.

Sanin! Ready?


Major Abramovich… He was ready to die rather than leave what he was carrying. Now there was a man of principle.

Want a smoke?


Fomenko, I know him. I’ve been to his place.

About time too!

30 minutes.

You can’t trust batteries these days.

They’ve been tested.

Yes, but they are all…

Not that one, give me a Number 7. Take one out of my back pocket.

Screw it right down, OK? Here. Don’t short-circuit it or you’ll wear the battery out in no time. You, what’s-your-name, Faizev! Take a PZM and go up as far as the precipice, OK?

We’ve got one infra-red.

Should we put a PZM over there?

You’ve got PZMs, move forward, not too far up the slope, not too near the river.

Where the bush is. So as to aim the blast at them. Lay it diagonally. Right, Bekov! Get your mine ready.

Ready, Faizev?

Don’t forget your guns.

Take off your headgear, except for your helmets. You must wear helmets in action. Put on your helmets! Stand to! Quick, now! Straighten your uniforms. Form ranks. In your ranks! Attention! Comrade Captain, the company is ready. The Deputy-Chief Lieutenant Kaverznev.

Good day, comrade border guards!

Good day, Comrade Captain!

At ease!

Stay in ranks.

No news for the moment. No movements of armed personnel detected within the protected area. The population are busy working. They may try to provoke us by attacking the post from the rear with small groups armed with mortars. We can’t rule out the possibility. Conclusion: reinforcement all round. In your ranks! Attention! This is the plan: Rakhimov, Gabirov, Nibadullaev: 1 – H – 18. Yeraliev: 20 – 10 – 19. Dmietriev!


18 – H – 9 – 9. Nasyrov, Khadulloev!


26 – 15. Ageyev!


20 -10 -19.

The rest of you, off duty. Are any of you unfit for action?

What are you doing? Just in case, just in case…

When the base was finally attacked, at first it wasn’t frightening.

Eagle 13 calling. Eagle 13 calling. Hearing you. Yes, I can see it too, that spot. It’s done. We’ve already covered it with our ordnance.

Liberty calling.

Liberty, revoke last order.

Volga 10, this is Kulyab 65. K9, Eagle 13 calling, hold on.

Maybe it’s coming from over there. That’s the square Liberty mentioned. Falcon 29 at post 46.

Move forward in single file and be very careful, including on the way back. Repeat.

Did he say where the firing was coming from? From the direction of the base, you can take… about a kilometre, see? They are positioned like that. It might be coming from thereabouts. Or from over there. Hard to say.

Follow the river!

OK, I’ll get to work then.

What kind of injuries? Minor or serious?


Switch channels and explain what’s happening. Straight at you or in another direction?. At which block, 1 or 2? Report, 1st! Get Vikin out of there immediately and try and see where the sniper is shooting from.

Rakhimov, all you lot in the trenches lie down, and put your helmets on, there are snipers out there!

Got it. Go on. You there! Yura, why have we lost contact? What’s up? Liberty, keep a sharp eye on the Curtain.

They’re still firing samovars. We’re OK for the moment. We’re firing back. We’re firing back at them with our own samovars.

Come here! Keep the dog out of here. They must retreat.

Fire closer to us, they’re already on the slope. Target the road. OK. The road, lads, the road!

Salyut! Salyut 1!

Nasyrov has made bread dough.

He’d better bake it, then.

Salyut 1, Eagle 13 calling. Fire at the road again, keep it coming, more thickly.

At the road, the road! Mortar!

Their commander reported activity in that sector. We must make a decision and carry out a manoeuvre. Let’s transfer the men from there and concentrate them here. The enemy’s altered his line of fire. He’s shifting it towards us. Just leave the service guns. No, not from the Curtain, from those positions.

Transfer them where?

Let’s think.

At the end here, in Position 1? Or closer to the mortars.

Closer to the mortars. At the Maples. There aren’t enough of us.

The Maples are in the open.

But there are places to shelter in.

They’ll be out in the open when they move.

There’s no-one left here to man the ordnance.

All right with you if I go out and take a look around?

If you like. They are all on the hills.



Look, there must be a lookout on the hill.

War is hideous, from the very first shot to the last. There is nothing but dust, the smell of burning, stones, hot shrapnel, blood, a hint of fear. No room for aesthetics.

Let’s get into position.

On foot, that way.

Call me when you arrive.

It’s us he’s aiming at. [giggles]

Where’s it coming from?

Watch out for shells!

Mind your belt.


Go on. You’ll have to clean it.

It’s stuck!

They’re waving a white flag.

We weren’t shooting at them.

Got it.

Have you been in the truck long?

Everything finished as suddenly as it began. The enemy retreated to the mountains to muster reinforcements.

We received 26 missiles. Exactly 26.

They have nothing better to do than count in the hills.

Oh yeah?

Yeah. They count the explosions.

You’re wrong, they get data from the other side.

We prevented them from counting.

No, they work directly with Afghanistan.


As soon as it’s repaired, we’ll know if the planes are going to strike again or not.

He was going to call.

Just going through the motions.

It was just a show to frighten them.

It’s over, it’s over.

You can put that down, if you like.

Not too many four-letter words?

It’s life, You should warn us.

It’s realistic.

It’s realistic, but…

Here they come, at full speed.

He dropped the first one before he got here and he’d already left before the second. They must have warned him.

It was him they were signalling to.

He works for them part-time.

I haven’t used up the munitions. I won’t be taking any more. I’ve got enough.

All day long, the sun has kept coming out, only to disappear behind pale clouds. A sultry day.

At Post 13, the quartermaster had been. The way they looked at him! Hey, he’s from the Moscow detachment.

Do you remember, yesterday? That girl in green who kept standing there.

Were they all dead, or what?

The brides…

Yes, she was there…

I worry about you.

No need. We can even make water from sand.

Today there was a birthday.

There was one yesterday, too. Mishin’s. Concentrated milk and candies. What a birthday! We sat here and ate potato stew.

OK, that’s enough.

You’ll be all right. It’s tough.

Episode 5

This is what I wrote in my diary: “A soldier is warming himself in the sun. He is lying on the slope not far from the gate of the frontier post.”

It is December, and this is December 31st. That winter, there were some sunny days. It hardly ever snowed, but there were some sunny days. Because of this, all the passes were open to traffic in all directions, and none of us could tell [sighs] what each day would bring. Meanwhile, we had to get through the day. Sooner or later the year would finish, and God willing, next year it would all be just memories – memories of our dear ones, be they living – or dead.

His trench overlooks the Panjsher and a foreign country. And he himself is far from home.

This letter will take three months to arrive.

What time is it now?

A quarter past four.

Thank you.

We often used to leave the little valley, where the company was stationed, and climb, keeping strictly to the paths, up and up…

Let’s go the short way, shall we?

Can you imagine what your mum is going today?

What would she be doing?

Celebrating New Year.

Without you.


We’ll be stopping for a cigarette soon.

The hand with the stone means you have to do the carrying.

Have you got a stone? If I get the stone, I’ll do the carrying. Otherwise, it’s you. OK?

Yes, go on.

If there’s a stone, I get to carry. If there’s not stone, you do. This one. You get to carry.

No, you do.


If you’d got the stone, you’d have had to carry.

But it’s the other way round.

So, today you do the carrying.

In the mountains, with each step we climbed, our lives were worth less and less, but we prized them more and more.

You can’t put anything in the drawer. It gets stolen.

One time, those big heavies down by the river were on duty for 10 hours non-stop. They were dropping with tiredness.

Let’s make some tea right now.

The minute he got hold of it, it burst into flames. The commander saw him, he was covered in dirt. He told us to wash him. Five of us had to scrub him with a rag in the WC. But we managed it!

Come and eat, guys.

Come and eat.

Everyone must be responsible for himself.

Your section is well-organised.

Why give them back?

When I leave, each man must do his chores.

Everyone must have his responsibilities.

I’m a tank commander, so I’m responsible for my crew.

I’ve found it!

Found what?

The shore!


Stop it. I told you it had fallen. Why didn’t you pick it up?

Move a bit.

My family still think I am in Altay.


Altay. [laughter]

My family don’t know.

Most of us said nothing to our families.

I wrote I was going to be travelling around in a car. And that I’d be back in 4 months or so.

They’ll be thinking, 4 months? But he was supposed to be demobbed before New Year’s Day? [laugh]

According to my last letter, we’re in Mongolia.

What, you?


I signed it. They made me sign the contract.

The cook has done a good job. The soup is excellent.

We’re all cooks here.

Have some more.

No thanks.

Curtain, Elk 30 calling.

Who is Elk? Curtain?

Curtain 30.

Situation normal here.

Have you got anything for me?

Yeah, a kilo of TNT.

A kilo of TNT.

A horned elk.

That’s Bedin.

He hasn’t been down here for a long time.

He earns too much. He needed a sack to put it in. He was paid for 2 months instead on one. Happy times!

Kesha, what’s the matter?

No one wants to talk.

I’m fed up.

Why are you drinking it?

Borya, look in the tub.

It must be half-full.

How much is there left in the tub?

There’s still some.

About half.

Borya, bring me my bag.

Your bag of medicines?


You want to take some?


What do you want?

To take some medicine

For what?

My spots.

Fill the bowl half full.

Elk 30 calling, you’re very faint.

Hearing you 2 out of 5.

I didn’t get it.

This morning, he was loud and clear. Now I can’t hear a thing.

Perhaps there’s no power.

So what? Their transmitter is crap.

The person in charge of this high mountain post is allowed to have a personal dug-out, with a stove. He is allowed to be alone, at least sometimes.

The night falls quickly. the wind is very cold. It gets a bit frightening, not because of the darkness all around, but because you can’t hear anything. The wind is howling in the ravines. It’ll be New Year very soon. As night falls, the clouds sink lower and lower, closer and closer to the base.

Happy New Year to all of you.

The same to you.

Take the cakes.

I’ve nothing to put them in.

Use your hands.

They’re a present for you.

Well, see you later.

Give them our best wishes.

Yes, New Year is very soon.

Don’t squash the cake.

A feast!

They bake cakes for themselves.

Wait, Sergei, I’ll help you.

They’re made a big cake.

But Sergei, you don’t drink champagne.

No, I don’t, but…

Give me time to dress.



Make a wish, it’s nearly midnight.

What shall I wish for?

Got it!

Where’s your ring?


Eternal life!


I’ll keep these horns.

Six, five, four, three, two, one…

Take cover!

Happy New Year!

Too far.

Happy New Year 1995!

Civvy Street!

Happy times for all our boys in Tadjikistan.

Except for Rustam.


Long live our Union…

Of Republics!


Two for tonight, guys.

Wait for two o’clock.

Two for tonight, and two at two o’clock.

The best would have been to open all four at once.


There’s no witch behind us.

Do you remember when they baptised us with a club? We were so happy.


How shall I do it?

How? You’re the one who’s cut it like that.

I’ve cut it already

Let’s cut it there.

How shall I cut it?

Cut it into small pieces.

We’ll get one jump ahead of the enemy.

You give it the works. We’ll do it properly.

We’ll help you. We’ll come and spew over them.

That village is five minutes’ work.

Three shells will do it.

Smashing! This cake is delicious.

Did you have a party like this last year too, Andrey?

There are our friends…

Are they celebrating too?

Shall we begin?

Is everyone in tune?

“Oh you, great frost/Do not freeze me/Do not freeze my horse”

We chose the wrong opera.

Give me a light.

“Do not freeze me/Do not freeze my horse/My horse/With his golden mane”

What about “The Steppe”?


“The Steppe”?

“The Steppe”. “Nothing but steppe all round…”

Come on, Igor. We’re all mortal.

Let’s have a drink.

To absent friends.

Come on, Safar, courage. You knew Andrey too. Take it. Take it, let’s drink.

There’s only milk. No sour cream.

Hello, Santa Claus!

I’ve brought your present. How is the watch?

OK. No unauthorised activity on the border.

Anyway, I’ve brought you a present.

Thank you, Santa.

What’s this?


Thank you very much.

In the cold night, in the darkness, to be sure, there’s not much pleasure in picking your way across minefields. We set off. They were waiting for us up there.

Happy New Year, lads!

The same to you!

We’ve been waiting for you for ages.

Did you go to sleep?

We’ve only just been relieved. Is everything all right?

Yes. Is everything quiet here?

So far, yes. We don’t know what’s in store.

What time is it now?

Ten past three.

Can we sit and rest here for a bit?

No problem! Come in, have a look… We’ve left you some champagne.


It’s symbolic.

There’s hot coffee.

Coffee, too!

If there’s any left. Do you want some?

Yes, a bit.


With pleasure.

Wait… where did we put it?

We’ll have a bit.

You can film our life here. A NATO soldier would have topped himself long ago. Only our lads can…

Just a drop.

I know, I remember.

A little drop.

Thank you for coming up here.

God bless you.

The cameraman is cold. Pass it round.

Have a drop, Sergei.

Alexei, would you like a drink?

Not now.

Not now? Then that’s it.

That’s all then.

If there were more… Damn it! I wonder what it’ll be like, 1995?

Is there any left?


No one wants to talk.

The day’s over.

Tomorrow is another day.

We’ll go through the day, same as usual.

Then it’ll be the weekend and you’ll come down.

Is it Wednesday or Thursday?


Only Tuesday?

I’ve lost all count of time.

Too much salt?

No, it’s all right.

I’ve put too much in it.

Is there any tea?

I don’t know.

Let’s make some.

There’s none left.

The bowls need washing… Any water?


To wash the bowls with.

It’s hot.

That’s good.

One last smoke? A very quick one. Come on!

No. If I’m not smoking, why should other people?

It’s dog eat dog in the army.

You have to show your teeth sometimes.

You don’t have to. I never do.

Sometimes you can’t help it

I haven’t got much longer to go.

Just a bit longer.

Nearly there.


Just a bit longer.

Not much.

I’d like to go home on Shrove Tuesday.

Or on Frontier Guard Day.

Whatever the date, it will be a holiday.

Will you be staying till New Year?

This is the Year of the Pig. They made a pig’s ear of it, right enough. Wait, wait…

A leap year.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5…

Curtain 7, Curtain 7, Maple 1 calling.

1, 2, 3, Curtain 7,

Curtain 7, Maple 1 calling.

Where are the strangers? Where are they? Hello, nose. Good boy.

We’ll be saying goodbye, then. We’re going down.

Shall we come with you?

No, thanks.

Happy New Year again. Sorry we disturbed you. Best wishes. We’ll come again tomorrow. Goodbye and good night

Goodbye. Be careful on the way down.

Be careful.

Somehow I managed to see the face of my watch. It would soon be dawn. The year was on its way. I had to sleep for at least a few hours and pack my things to go back to Russia, to St Petersburg.

“You won’t leave me, will you?”


“Hello. Do you remember me?”

“I haven’t forgotten you.”

“That’s good.”

“Where are you going?”

“Back home. I live alone now.”

“It isn’t possible.”

“Why? Everything is possible.”

“God won’t let such a terrible thing happen.”

“He does sometimes.”

“God will protect her.”

“And what if He doesn’t exist?”

“I’m dishonoured. I’m a terrible sinner.”

“No, you’re not. If you are a sinner, what am I? Your sin and your dishonour are made clean by the saintliness of your heart. Never let anyone say that it’s better to end one’s life.”

“Do you often pray?”

“What would I be without God?”

“And what does God do for you? Nothing… You are too poor and lowly for Him.”

Yes, it’s time to go back to Russia. In Russia it is still cold. Snow and silence. And not a soul.

Spiritual Voices

Directed by Alexander Sokurov, 1995

Camera: Alexander Burov, Alexei Fedorov

Sound: Sergei Moshkov

In 5 parts: 38 min, 33 min, 87 min, 79 min, 90 min