“DAU is a process”

A Conversation with Director Ilya Khrzhanovskiy

Eugénie Zvonkine, Anatoli Vlassov
This discussion took place on 21 October 2021, during a seminar, “Filming Sensation”, organised by Dominique Chateau, professor emeritus at the University Paris 8, and José Moure, professor at the University Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne and director of the Institute ACTE (Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne, École des arts de la Sorbonne, Institut ACTE, École doctorale Arts Plastiques, Esthétique et Sciences de l’art) and Anatoli Vlassov, speaking dancer, choreographer, film maker and PhD student at the University Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne (École des arts de la Sorbonne, Institut ACTE). The discussion led by Anatoli Vlassov and Eugénie Zvonkine touched upon three stages of the project: the shooting period; the post-production period; and the exhibition of DAU in Paris in 2019. In this interview, the director shares his views about art, sound, philosophy, collaboration with actors and non-actors, and the history of the Soviet Union. He also goes into detail about the production and postproduction of the DAU project. The interview was conducted in English
Marina Abramović, Teodor Currentzis, Aleksei German, Merab Mamardashvili, Jekaterina Oertel, Zoya Popova, Denis Shibanov, DAU in Paris, filming DAU, senses, the Berlin Wall, performance, sex scenes, immersion, space, sound design and dramaturgy, Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center.

The interview was prepared for publication by Eugénie Zvonkine.

Anatoli Vlassov (AV): I suggest organising today’s discussion along three different lines. First, we will talk about the three-year period of shooting at the Institute; then about the editing time; and then the seven hundred hours of rushes. In the third part of this discussion, we will talk about the final event in Paris and eventually in other cities. So here is my first question to start the discussion. Can you tell us more about your working process? What interests me is the artistic and the human relationship between you as director and your actors as protagonists.

Ilya Khrzhanovskiy (IK): It is always about human relationships. Everywhere. Whether we are talking about performance art, or we are talking about cinema, which is in a way also performance art, and how the movies, at least in the past, were produced always by a group of people, getting together for a couple of months (sometimes – though rarely – more) and doing something together, in very, very close relations, spending most of the time in the company of each other.

You always feel vibes when you relate to a team. As to my relationship with actors – they were non-professional actors, actually not actors at all, but they became actors because they were filmed. I mostly tried to maintain a distance. Because if you lose distance, especially in this kind of project, you get too much involved and then you are in a relationship not with actors, but with people, and then you lose your vision.

I became friends with many actors after the project, but during the project I mostly communicated with them through my assistants. I had a couple of assistants and all actors were divided into different groups. For example, one group was the scientists and guest stars. Zoya Popova, who officially was the academic secretary of the Institute, and at the same time she was my assistant, she was responsible for this group. She hosted them, she controlled them, she reported to me what was going on. Another assistant was responsible for Institute auxiliary staff: all the people who clean, who prepare food etc., she oversaw them. Yet another assistant was responsible for the security people and for the main characters. This is how actors, participants were roughly divided. Sometimes, when we discussed some hardcore scenes, like we were going to film sex or violence, or a very complex psychological moment, and we knew that a complicated scene was coming, we would discuss how the characters should behave. In these cases, I talked directly to the participants. Also, at the beginning I had long talks with each one of them, I spent some time with everyone. It was a very close human relationship, but without friendship.

Eugénie Zvonkine (EZ): I remember reading some of the participants’ accounts, how they were immersed in the Institute and started to feel and relive family memories of their parents, of their grandparents. I thought it was very interesting: this idea that something of your ancestors’ biographical past could enter your head, almost on the level of sensation or emotions, just by being immersed in this environment. So, I was wondering, did you work in some way in this direction? For instance, Aleksei German, director of a previous generation, was really trying to achieve this. And I think with Nikulin, for instance, when he was playing in Dvadtsat’ dnei bez voiny / Twenty Days without War (Aleksei German, 1976, Soviet Union), he was trying to make him see his father in himself. Were you trying to do that?

IK: The space of the Institute did this work by itself. The first thing that happened, was when a person came to the Institute was that I would have a long conversation with them, sometimes in Moscow, sometimes somewhere else. Then in Kharkiv, where we built the Institute, each person had one or two hours of make-up and a change of clothes, and someone would introduce them to the historical context, someone would prepare the documents. This first day was super busy; it was really a journey somewhere. And after these two, three or four hours with new documents, completely dressed in clothes from the sixties, fifties, or forties, depending on the period on the set, the person would come to the checkpoint and there the security would be searching them for twenty minutes. Then they continued to go to the cash point and to get the cash, and this was the beginning. It was a long journey of approximately six hours. And in these six hours, something happened with this person. Also, the fact that the person was completely lost, no one would talk to them, no one had prepared them, it was as if you were immersed in the past, you had to assume this or that. Then something is starting to happen, especially with the Soviet people. Well, ex-Soviet people, formally ex-Soviet people, because I don’t believe that this Soviet thing could be ‘ex’ to the country, even though officially it is. There always is something Soviet in them, not only in those who grew up in the USSR, but even in their children. Then something starts to come to life at the genetic level. The first thing inside the Institute is a visiting tour. They are officially shown the Institute. During this tour they can already have a glimpse of everyday scenes: some people are going to work or sitting in the cafeteria. By and by the visitors get hungry. Then they come to the cafeteria, have to stand in line and pay with Soviet roubles. Automatically all these small elements immerse them in this life which is much bigger than they themselves. The way they are immersed depends on their personality. For example, some people start to remember the stories from the past and from their parents, but I think it was more about accepting the fact and the level of general moral violence typical of the USSR until 1970s.

AV: What you say about this awareness of what happened in Russia or in the USSR makes me think about what is happening now in Russia, with all the recently discovered videos of torture in prison.

IK: I like the word ‘discovering’. Nobody is discovering this. Everybody knows about it, and now it is just so nice to pretend you have discovered it and are going to talk about it. Everyone knows that the system has never changed. It is not a discovery, maybe only for Western audiences, but not for those who live in Russia.

AV: Does it take it to another level to film this phenomenon? Because we all knew about prison violence, and we saw many feature movies about these atrocities all over the world. But when we saw real images, something happened to all of us, didn’t it?

IK: Of course, something happens, the kind of mental terror happening in Russia now is pure violence. Still, it is not a dictatorship, it is hardcore authoritarianism. Real dictatorship is what they are doing with minds because they are destroying any possibility to have, not just formal information, but especially emotional information that can resonate with people’s souls. I guess pure violence that can be seen in the prison tortures in the mind of Russian people is something that just happened in this prison, in this place, it is an accident. We struggle to accept the fact that it happens, in the worst-case scenario, almost everywhere. I say in the worst-case scenario because I hope that maybe there are some prison managers who are trying to keep violence low. But it is a system and this is how the system works with people. It was the same system during the Stalin era. I believe a project like DAU shows its general mechanism and also that such a system does not exist because of just ‘a few bad people’. It concerns the whole society. All of us allow these things to happen. We are all participants in this evil. And this is a very complex thing to accept for anyone. But without this acceptance, you cannot move on, and because it has never truly been accepted in Russia, it has never been summed up in any kind of strong audiovisual form. Except Aleksei German’s two last movies Khrustalev, mashinu! / Khrustalyov, my Car! (1998, Russia) and Trudno byt’ bogom / Hard to Be a God (2013, Russia), but these movies have not been seen, not fully understood, because of the complex cinematic language and because there was something profound about the nature of this country, about its soil. Because this society is coming from the soil, and in this soil are buried bones and roots from the many generations who had created this kind of culture. This violence is part of the culture and we should accept it. Acknowledgement is the first point to start to fight it, to try and do something with this state of affairs.

AV: When I was ten years old my father took me to see the documentary Obyknovennyi fashizm / Ordinary Fascism (1965, USSR) by Mikhail Romm, where you can see all these factories of death, the industrialisation of death during the Second World War, and at the end of this movie he told me that it was really hardcore what people could do but it was important to know that you were human and you too could do such things. And this possibility of evil exists in all of us.

IK: I think that Ordinary Fascism is also an important film and everybody knows that when Romm made it, it was not just about fascism, it was about his own country as well. He just showed the mechanism of evil, and the mechanism was the same. One of the authors of the script, Maya Turovskaya, a great Russian film scholar, in the late eighties and nineties of the 20th century delivered an extremely important cultural analysis and research about similarities between Nazi and Soviet cinema and ideology. Recently, a law was adopted in Russia that criminalises any comparison between Stalin’s regime and Hitler’s regime. It has become a crime, legally, to compare those regimes.

EZ: I would like to go back to something that you said earlier. Actually, you said it in two ways. You said that it is the space that does something to people, and then we were talking about Russia, and you said that Russian soil contains the violence of previous generations. How did you work with Denis Shibanov, who was the architect of the Institute? The DAU Institute was the biggest set in European history, as we know. How did you conceive this space that was supposed to provoke some kind of behaviour or sensations on the part of the participants?

IK: Denis Shibanov is a great artist. His background is professional production design, he did small art-house movies before, and he has a lot of imagination. In six or seven months, he did thirty or forty versions of the Institute because he is a workaholic. All these versions were acceptable, but they did not work for me. Of course, during this process, I told him many times: “No, this does not work”, but I never said what this space should be.

EZ: Can you tell us why it did not work?

IK: Because it was not this Institute. I never said what I wanted, but I became more and more precise about what I did not want. Step by step. Because otherwise, you should do everything by yourself. I see it as a limitation, it does not matter how great your talent is, if you work alone, then everything is limited.

It goes without saying that after my first refusal Denis started to dislike me, and the dislike grew with each new refusal, but he did not resign. He would barely talk to me, he would just give me his sketches, fifty, sixty sketches and then at some point he brought one sketch and it was immediately obvious that this was it.

The task was to imagine that this Institute was built by different architects. Why? Because it is a foetus, it is started by a talented architect but then he is arrested, then the same happens with the next one, a very talented architect has some new adjustments but is also arrested, then the third one is and so on. That’s why the project had to be very eclectic – a panoramic view of all Soviet architecture. And it should feel kind of unfinished, a strange but very bold, massive, solid monument which celebrates the power of Soviet science and the Soviet system and at the same time is keeping something invisible inside, you would feel that something has happened behind these walls but you do not know what.

The idea was that this Institute was not built on the surface, that the whole Institute exists under the ground level. On its location, you can only see plain ground and some trees, but when you come closer, down in the centre, there is a big courtyard. It is closer to the centre of the Earth, to hell or something like that. The first precise task I gave Shibanov after many versions was the idea that the acting of the participants should be as real as possible, but everything around should feel surreal. This mix was planned to make the surreal become also very real because of the way people behaved in it.

In most films, we can often see that the acting is kind of non-realistic, I do not believe the actors, but the set is very real. Now, everybody can film in the streets and in the real flats and nobody is building sets anymore, except in the USA. But here the set is surreal, almost an abstract space. And there was also another level of creating this space: Maxym Demidenko-Rayzman, a sound engineer of this project, created 24 hours of sound for this set, the music as well. We had also a Soviet radio station there. The sound created a feeling that there was something happening in the next room. Sometimes, there would be a door, and behind it there was nothing except the sound but one would feel that the space was much bigger than what you saw. But you did not know what happened behind these doors.

EZ: It is a space that surprises even the people who live in it and work in it all the time. I was also struck by the fact that this space was perspective driven, but at the same time there was no horizon. Now I understand why – because of what you said about it being under the ground. But I think a strong aspect of this set is conveyed by its long corridors. I read in one of your interviews that these allowed actors to think, because they would walk for quite a long time from one spot to another and so they could think before acting or before deciding to do something. But at the same time these corridors are a recurrent image of Soviet cinema. They are very evocative of barracks, I think.

IK: If you remember, in Zerkalo / Mirror (1974) by Andrei Tarkovsky, there is a corridor. Yes, it was the idea of Denis, of course, to create the corridors and we built them a bit later than the main building of the Institute. Finally, in these corridors many things happen, they also allow participants to meet each other. Because corridors are in fact a space in-between, but it was not just a technical space. It was a space where people had very intimate conversations. You can never know who you can meet in the corridor.

EZ: It has a real dramaturgic aspect, I think.

IK: Denis by his nature is not very considerate of people but he is able to find very complex and strong images that can influence people who come to stay at the Institute, any kind of people. And if you live there, then you can become part of this reality.

EZ: I have received two questions from Irina Schulzki, a scholar from Belgium and Germany. I would start with the first one which is also about the Institute, we are quite obsessed with it today. She asks: “Was it necessary to destroy the Institute after the shooting? Was this insane waste necessary? Maybe there were some pragmatic reasons for that?”

IK: The arts such as cinema or theatre have no good reason to spend so much money – hundreds of thousands – instead of helping the famished people in Somalia, for instance, so it is a big question.

But in this case, yes, it was the logical end of the Institute. The Institute was destroyed, and the destruction of the Institute was part of the dramaturgy. It is a work that was born and then disappeared, you can see the whole story of this work, from the beginning until the end. And the end is the destruction. And the destruction helps us see that it is not a real Institute, it is a set. It was important to show that it was a set, that everything was fake. At the same time, both me and Shibanov understood that a solid concrete or marble building would also be fake, but in a different way. The fact that the set was destroyed by neo-Nazis is very important for me. When we were finishing the filming, the right-wing movement wasn’t yet important, it was still a marginal thing. But today the intelligentsia does have to deal with it. The French as a nation have started to understand more or less what nationalism is. It was important to show the end of the whole thing and the end is destruction and apocalypse.

EZ: Thank you very much. I see that Rachel Morley also has a question.

Rachel Morley: Thank you. I would like you to speak a bit about the relationship between yourself and the co-directors who are credited in the films. I am particularly interested in the films that you co-directed with Jekaterina Oertel, because it seems to me that many of those films are smaller, more intimate, DAU. Nora Mother, DAU. Three Days and so on. I am interested in how the vision for these films came about, to what extent it was shared, to what extent the co-director took the lead in deciding what to do with the footage.

IK: Yes. The co-directors of all these movies are my colleagues, my friends. Some of them joined the project at the stage of its editing and had not been on the set, some of them had been on the set before the Institute started to function. The only person who had spent all the time on the set with me was Jekaterina Oertel1, who was the head of the make-up department, a very big and important department. And during the shooting, Katia [Jekaterina], like quite a lot of great make-up artists, made a very profound use of psychology. Before filming I talked to her very often because she would be the last person to prepare actors to be on set. I would discuss with her how she should prepare them, what kind of make-up she should focus on, but also what kind of conversation, what kind of mood she should initiate. For the shooting of a 35mm film you need to have make-up, a radio, and a lot of technical things that should be adjusted to the real/surreal life. Also Katia, the principal make-up artist, is normally sitting near the playback, near the screen, because she needs to control how everyone looks. That way we talked a lot with her about the behaviour of the participants, the actors. And through this experience, I discovered that Katia had a profound knowledge of human nature. She has a very interesting point of view on people. When the shooting was over, I asked Katia what she wanted to do: did she want to pull out of DAU and make new movies, or something else? What was her dream? Her dream was to edit films, but she did not know how to do it. Then I started to edit the films while Katia went on to work as a make-up artist for the series The Borgias (Neil Jordan, 2011, Canada, Hungary, Ireland).. She was nominated and even won an Emmy Award for that. I started the editing and I made a rough cut of DAU. Three Days, DAU. Nora Mother and DAU. Nora Son, but I was very unhappy about the way it came out. I knew that I needed a kind of ‘female wisdom’ that she had, because gender is important. I am sorry to say it in our very progressive time. Adult ladies around fifty years old have completely different experience and understanding of feminine behaviour than me. There are some layers I can never understand, I can never work with that, and she can, and when she does, I can also start to understand it. Katia started editing and she did most of the female stories, in fact, all of them except one. The way she thinks and is telling the story was super helpful and she is my real co-author, in the same way as Denis Shibanov and others were.

AV: I would like to ask a question about the sex scenes. What particularly interests me, as a performer who articulates dance and speech, sensations, gestures, and words, is how you deal with this, how the actors behaved in such situations, and what they said.

IK: I think it depends on the personality. In DAU, some people speak, some do not speak, for example Maksim Martsinkevich, the main character from the last part from the sixties is the head of a neo-Nazi organisation, he never speaks during sex. Some people, like our intellectual friends, speak more than they have sex, you can see that in the films. Some people speak before and after sex, it depends on the character and on their age sometimes, their energy, the situation. It depends if it is a real sexual act or something around it. But I think the sexual part was not developed enough in the DAU project. I planned to make it more prominent, I planned to make both the sexual storyline and the spiritual storyline more prominent. But I failed, I ended up with a deeply psychological portrait of something and I never succeeded really in exploring these two high energies.

AV: What do you mean by ‘more prominent’?

IK: I believe in the future of sexual cinema, let’s put it like that. Not regular porn. And generally, I believe in sex in art. Because sex is the only thing which shows to everyone that other dimensions exist, at least for a second. It does not matter who you are, super talented, a genius, or an idiot. You may be stupid, rich, poor, it does not matter, everyone, even you, masturbates. When you are having an orgasm, something happens to you. In sex there is something, there is a kind of insight, if only for a couple of seconds. And if you are in love, then you face an even bigger emotion. You can just feel these other dimensions. That is why we are looking for love. And it was never, ever, really introduced into art. I believe that it will happen. It will find a form, and it is not a question about porn, of course. It is about an open conversation about that. Just to face it and to use this gate, this entrance, this proof of a spiritual world. That is why I want to go deeper in this direction, to find a language, a way to talk about this. I think I haven’t yet succeeded.

EZ: If I may just comment briefly on this, I would personally suggest that we could talk about strong and authentic physiological experiences of the participants. It is not only sex for me, but it is also alcohol, and ayahuasca at some point. It is about authorising yourself to be in front of the camera, at a moment when you do not completely control what is happening to you. And for us, the spectators, this can be a genuinely physiological experience, but also at some point it can make us go to this spiritual place.

IK: Yes. I am not sure that all of it is a strong experience. Do you drink a lot, Eugénie?

EZ: Not as much as the DAU participants, I think. I was quite respectfully admiring their endurance.

IK: I think that people drink a lot, especially they used to in the past, and it was not alcoholism but just a normal part of life. I am very glad that in France people keep drinking in a very beautiful way [...] Drinking is sometimes a shortcut. But also, it is a way to let go of stress and fear. It is a way to release the energy. If you have no sex, no alcohol, just stress, you die. At least in the USSR, that was the way people thought of it.

EZ: Rachel Morley had a follow-up question and then we will start the second part of our discussion, which is about editing and post-production.

Rachel Morley: Sure. It goes back to the question about sex and its importance in the project, because one thing that is striking about sex in the DAU films that makes it different from most other Russian films is that sex is not just between a man and a woman. There is homosexual – gay, lesbian – sex, and incest, and so on.

IK: There is almost no ‘so on’.

Rachel Morley: I also read that the end of the film DAU. Nora Son was staged as incest, but it is not actual incest because obviously they are not mother and son, but there was a relationship that developed between the actors in that film and, similarly, the protagonists in DAU. Sasha Valera were also intimately connected in real life. What about DAU. Katya Tanya? That film is slightly different and I wonder if you could say something about what you were trying to do with these different sex scenes? And why do you think this film was not one of the four that were banned from distribution in Russia?

IK: Russia is a magical country. There is no logic. It was also a huge surprise for me. Actually, DAU. Katya Tanya is a story not about lesbian sex but about loneliness. It is exactly what we said about alcohol a couple of minutes ago. The sex is a tool for protecting oneself from loneliness and violence, from this atmosphere, body and soul. Such sex has no gender, so it can just as well be lesbian sex.

EZ: Thank you very much, Ilya. I think we should go to our second part. Apparently, the editing and the post-production, already by 2019, took seven years and it is going on as DAU 1 is still in editing and, I think, some other films also are. So, it is a very long process, even longer than the experience of shooting at the Institute.

AV: Ilya, you leave the Institute with 700 hours of rushes, you look at it and you try to take a distance from this. How did you manage to achieve this kind of distance after having been immersed in the world of DAU?

IK: I am still waiting to feel this distance. I think I got some distance only now, I am starting to get it, but I think I will never have a real distance. I think the distance with DAU is a question of time, physical, linear time. The moment when the project can be seen as a whole and unique piece with all the footage, all the elements, the texts, the actors, all the stories, all the structure. Probably, when all of us die, from this point, you will have a distance. And maybe I also will have some distance, a real distance from another space. But not yet. I am kind of poisoned by this project, with all the time and creative work I spent on it.

EZ: I have already interviewed Alexey Sliusarchuk, one of your co-directors and editors on some of the films, and he said that one of the things that you discussed a lot about editing was that the first level on which you should operate when you edit a film is that of ‘spots of colour’. As if you wanted to break up with any narration and just look at it almost like a phenomenological event. So, I am very curious about this.

IK: It is also the way it was filmed. Some of the scenes that belonged to DAU 1, the ‘mother film’ [DAU. Dau] that has not yet been released, were filmed exactly like this, for instance. Yes, that was our way of telling the story. Through the colours and through the movement of these colours. On a big screen especially, because then you can have a kind of trip. If you know something about the theory of colours by Liubov’ Popova and other artists from the beginning of the 20th century, you can have one level of understanding. But if you know nothing of these theories, it will still impact your physiology and your brain cells.

EZ: Here I am coming to the fact that your production company is called Phenomen Films. That is why I was using this word ‘phenomenology’. Irina Schulzki asks on the chat: “Did any philosophy influence your concept? Perhaps Foucault, Deleuze, Agamben or someone else?” And I would also add maybe Merleau-Ponty or others who really worked on this idea of perception and the different levels of perception and sensation which is particularly interesting for us here.

IK: To be honest with you, I am a very poorly educated person. Of course, I have read Deleuze and some other great philosophers, but I think when I read, I never remember what I read. I remember for a short period of time but then it just stays somewhere inside me. And I don’t know how it influences the things I am doing. As to Alexey Sliusarchuk, he has a philosophical background, as well as Ilya Permyakov, who is another co-director of DAU. But I think it does not help them to edit. It helps them to reflect on things. My guide to philosophy was the Soviet Georgian philosopher Merab Mamardashvili who is sadly not very well known in the West.

EZ: Actually, there is a fantastic book on Mamardashvili by Alyssa DeBlasio who named him as an important influence for Soviet and post-Soviet film directors. The book is called The Filmmaker’s Philosopher. Thank you very much for mentioning him.

IK: He was such a huge influence, because he speaks a language that we, poorly educated cinema people, are able to understand. I believe that philosophy needs time to be immersed into it in order to fully understand it, but it also is important not to stay inside, because otherwise you try to follow the theory and then is it applicable when you do a real thing? What Mamardashvili did was to teach me how to reason, also maybe because I knew him from childhood – he was a friend of my parents. I remember him very well and I remember my conversations with him. The way he travelled was an example, not just through different philosophical concepts like Kant or ancient philosophers, but also the way he dived into Proust, and how he made it possible for other people to dive into In Search of Lost Time. When you were reading or listening to him – because another great thing about Mamardashvili was that he was a brilliant lecturer – you felt he spoke to us and about us. He was like Socrates, it was a dialogue with his pupils. In my opinion, his stroll through philosophy was creating a pure and clear connection with one’s actual life, with the reality around us. When you listened to him, you understood that philosophy was a very useful thing, you could take it and use it. The same is true of another friend, another philosopher, Aleksandr Piatigorskii who specialised mostly in Buddhism but also in many other things. Deleuze and Foucault were very fashionable, now probably less, but five, ten years ago everyone was reading Foucault and Deleuze. Do you know many movies or art products directly based on philosophy?

EZ: Directly I am not sure but it connects with some of the ideas of artworks. When Irina is asking you about Agamben, she is thinking about his theory of biopolitics in totalitarian states which, to my mind, also connects with the DAU space but it is certainly not a direct adaptation in any case.

AV: It seems to me that it’s important for your project the way you speak about it. For instance, your speech is a kind of editing. Did your discourse change during the period of making DAU? Your way of speaking about this to yourself? Has it evolved?

IK: First of all, I never speak to myself about this.

AV: Are you sure?

IK: Absolutely, at this point I am absolutely sure. I am not a very intelligent person and I am not an intellectual.

AV: Are you sure?

IK: Yes, I am. I am a very intuitive animal. My intuition is much cleverer than my brain. And I follow my intuition and sometimes, when the step is done, of course you can come back and invent an intellectual explanation. But I never use it, I think it is a dangerous temptation. I use it sometimes just for work or for interviews. But I actually do not like this at all, that is why I tried as long as possible not to have any connection with the press. And at some point, when the scandal about DAU was at its peak and when I started to work with the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, I knew that I had to come out and start speaking. But I did it without any pleasure. I do not wish to explain what I do. Because I don’t know what I am doing. I just know that I must do what I am doing, I know that only I can do this kind of thing and I have this kind of mission. And, more or less, I know the method, how to do it. But explaining it is another thing: we live in ‘vegan’ times and often I have to express myself, maybe not as a ‘vegan’, but at least as a ‘vegetarian’.

EZ: I also wanted to ask you about the sound. The way you worked on the sound-track of all the DAU films is very interesting. Since you worked with sound-designers, there are the real discussions that are recorded on the spot, during the shooting, and I think that you had to re-work them to make them re-usable, but you were also elaborating the entire soundscape, so here you can again discuss the sensational part of it. And I would almost say that there is a sound signature of the Institute. You hear sounds that do not have any diegetic explanation, but they do convey very strong sensations to the spectator. I’m thinking for instance of the final shots of DAU. Brave People when we see these two characters walking in the corridors and the sound is getting louder and louder.

IK: Yes, the sound was always a very important feature and a very important tool. We also worked with sound in the Institute Labs, it was run by one of the characters, Mister Safonov Oleksii. Actually, he is a great composer and a music theoretician. Inside DAU, he was the head of the Institute Sound Lab, and we worked with low and high frequencies and in the Institute, there were also locations of mostly high frequencies. You can’t hear these frequencies, they are just penetrating your brain and your body. It was also a question of what you can do with it, it is either a kind of some physiological boost or the feeling of another dimension. It was always about the fact that you need to have a place and possibility to feel another dimension. Something should remind you about the dimensions that are beyond the world where we exist right now. It also represented many years of work for Stephen Smith and Maksim Demidenko, two great sound designers.

EZ: Could you tell us if you indicated to Stephen Smith or Maksim Demidenko what kind of sensations you intended to provoke? How did you work with them to explain what you were looking for?

IK: As with everyone else, I just told them what I didn’t want, didn’t like. Then Maksim Demidenko collected thousands and thousands of hours, the sounds recorded in the Institute and also the sounds recorded from that epoch. Plus, we had a list of composers and we tried different approaches to combine it all. We wanted it to feel as if you were in a space where you could hear the sounds but there was some kind of radio distortion. For instance, you could sometimes hear four channels simultaneously. Also, in the past life was very loud. And in the Soviet period, I don’t know how it was in Europe, but in the Soviet Union everyone had a radio in his flat. And everyone kept it playing all the time. There were different radios in different flats. Plus, there was noise outside. Life outside was very loud.

Now we live in a time of electric cars and a silent reality. Cellphones have also completely changed the way we speak because now people speak in intimate tones.

If I see someone on the other side of the street, I just call him (on the phone) and say “Hi!”. What would I have done before? I would scream “Natasha!!!”, right? People screamed. And when telephones don’t work well, people also scream, they speak loudly. Then, there were cars, horses, asphalt, the traffic… everything. Everything was loud. There was a huge number of different sounds. So, the idea was to have this kind of mix, in this period you could not have a silent atmosphere. We wanted to have this kind of combination of different sounds. Road renovation, electricity renovation, house renovations. And it was important to have it there. Today, we have a completely different soundscape.

EZ: Let’s start the third part of our encounter. I visited the installation every day for two weeks, but I was just a spectator. Anatoli was lucky enough to be an active participant. So, maybe you want to start.

AV: Yes, it is true. I presented there a participatory performance called “Phonesia face to the newspeak regime” where I invited the audience to practise with their own bodies how they could resist the pressure of languages that they use. It was a really successful performance also because it matches the participatory and immersive aspect of the whole DAU event. Personally, I went there every day and every evening and actually it was really interesting that it was possible to do so – to go there whenever we could and want. I took part as a performance artist also because it was a great platform to meet people. You passed from the filming experience, to the editing experience, to the experience of showing it, and showing it in a very specific way, where you could really meet your public at some point. So, my question is: did you have any significant encounters during this event and what was the feedback from the public?

IK: First of all, the Paris event happened after the project had already been damaged because the Berlin event never happened. And the Paris event was actually compromised as well. There was no bridge between the theatres as we had imagined before. We got the theatres at the last moment and it was on different conditions than those promised to us by the Mayor of Paris, Madame Hidalgo. She was super friendly and then finally nothing happened the way she had told us it would. Also, it is one thing to have a conceptual idea and another thing to have it transformed into reality. Everything happened the way it had been conceptualised. But I knew that it could provoke a scandal. I was not afraid of it. The idea was that people would initially come without understanding what was going on and then they would have to queue because the entire story of the USSR is the queue. You wait in a queue, and you queue to get nothing. And then you get nervous and want to be served. And then you are not served because the only answer you can get from the staff is: “I don’t know.” Where is this movie or what will happen there? “I don’t know.” Of course, it created a huge amount of negative feedback from the public and from the press. The idea was that you are starting from nothing, that when you visit it for the first time it is vague, but if you come again and again this whole concept becomes more and more familiar. But anyway, when you come, you need to immerse yourself and you need to find your own way. And every person would see his own way and see his own product or project. There was the concert of Brian Eno attended by only sixty people that happened to be in the theatre when it took place. We didn’t announce it, even though he rarely gives concerts by himself now. All of that was planned. The idea was that you could not stop the world, you had to create rules for the world, to make it possible for the world to happen. And those who came, they also contributed to creating this world. The process of co-creation of this world was very beautiful, very intense, but very stressful for all of us. Another problem was the production stress and the stress with all the rules and administrative regulations of the theatres; besides, we had been invited by the artistic director of the theatre Ruth Mackenzie who was fired two years later. I heard that it was partly because of DAU, but more generally because of her propensity to support artists that are free and want to create something new, not just classical theatre. But the whole system in which Ruth operated, and where we operated, was a system that fought against us. And of course, this fight was part of the process. We created an illogical world that you were not informed about and not guided through. Just as in real life.

EZ: Could one say that the theatres in Paris were almost like the Institute, because they were at the same time familiar, because we came back every day, well, those who played along did come back. For them, it became familiar and at the same time it was uncomfortable and surprising because you never knew what was going to happen once you stepped inside; there was also this idea of conditioning the participants, who now became the spectators, by the queuing that you described, by having our bags searched, of course, and also by the music. I think very few people commented on that but it was a very powerful idea that every screening started with pieces by Brian Eno. We were in a completely dark room with very strong, powerful, and strange music which completely conditioned us for the screening, in a very specific way. So, was that the idea?

IK: The idea was: how can we take you out of your everyday life space? The fact that we took away people’s cell phones was unusual, now it has become common in many places. But the fact that you are immersed in a huge space, you have no cellphone, and there is no time schedule, no beginning and no end, you can spend a lot of time in there. And then you are coming to the cinema, and again it is an open experience because it is not a finished film, we showed them without titles, without credits, without names, and immediately it was something that would shake you, take you out from your regular habits in this space. It was a kind of tuning machine. Turning or tuning or both at the same time. The music pieces before the screenings were created for a very special sound system where you have many speakers that generate one voice or one instrument. It is not the same effect as a Dolby surround. I think it is powerful by itself, it was like an orchestra: in one space it works one way, in another space it works in a completely different way. But the music pieces by themselves are great works by these genius musicians.

EZ: It was a very strange and memorable experience to be in complete darkness while listening to the musical pieces.

IK: It was the same story with the translation because you didn’t have subtitles, that was uncomfortable. Everything was ‘wrong’. It was cold, you had these kinds of headphones, with the voice of French actors… You wonder why these famous actors are in here, you don’t understand why this is familiar… Everything was kind of strange, built in an illogical manner. The idea was that the piece was about familiar and unfamiliar things. Because everyone who lives in Paris knows the theatre very well but at the same time you are in a sort of a destroyed theatre, which was between two lives. The old theatre was gone, the new hasn’t arrived yet and between the two there was DAU, talking to you of lives that exist somewhere else, far from here.

EZ: Maybe you could say a few words about the Berlin project because it was very dear to you.

IK: The idea of the project was to have three chapters: Berlin, Paris, and London.

AV: No New York?

IK: New York was planned as well. It was prepared for three cities, the first was supposed to be Berlin and the idea was that we would rebuild part of the Berlin wall and close down nine blocks of houses. Two-and-a-half kilometres of the wall was supposed to be rebuilt. All the gates and entrances would be guarded by security. Security was supposed to be composed only of Israeli people who had come specially to work there for one month and to check the visitors. The idea was not to have a professional security team. We wanted to have an open call and then another person would cast these people because [almost] all Israelis have a military background having served in the army. The idea was that the Jewish people would be coming for one month back to Berlin to search and protect the Berlin public. Inside this place, we planned to have not just the kind of performances you saw in Paris. There was a very beautiful performance created by Marina Abramović together with Teodor Currentzis. Their plan was to wash people. Because we know that in the concentration camps the prisoners were invited to be washed. They just killed them with gas; instead of water, there was gas. The idea was that Marina and Teodor would wash people there, you undress and go to the laundry and then somebody is washing you completely with soap and you are coming out and then you get your dress, hot and clean, and then you are allowed to go. It was the exit of the performance. There was a beautiful performance by Romeo Castellucci, another one by Carsten Höller, and it was about gathering representatives of all religions who would pray together for 24 hours. Initially, the wall was to be painted by the paintings by Gerhard Richter, but he said no.

Then I wanted to give up the paintings because the main idea was to destroy the wall, not to build it, but to destroy it. To have a ritual of destroying the wall. Because this wall was destroyed in reality in the course of a historical process but was never destroyed in people’s minds. The best things need to have a ritual. The idea was to have this ritual, then another with a huge concert of Massive Attack followed by a huge destruction, and then everyone could take a piece of the wall. And then you must decide for yourself if it is a piece of mind, a piece of memory, or a piece of money, because it was a piece that you could sell, like any other commodity. The Berlin authorities – the Mayor, Mister Müller, the Minister of Culture, the President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier – all these big important people supported the project, all of them liked the idea. We managed not to divulge this project for a year and a half until somebody leaked it to the press.

We made a deal with most of the press that they would not publish anything, but then a relatively small newspaper published some information. The idea was to have this wall as a surprise, the wall would appear and then the press would learn about it. Then it was leaked, and it became a huge scandal. “Russians are coming again to build the Berlin wall.” “They should solve their own problems with Mister Putin. We already fought against the Wall.” It is interesting that people who were against it would say: “We had this wall in our lives, we don’t want to speak about this anymore, we are victims.” Because of the political scandal everyone stepped back, and it was cancelled.

That is the story of the Berlin event. The wall had been fabricated before the cancellation. Now it is stored, we have two kilometres of Berlin wall that was produced in the same factory as the original. We tried to do it twice, so it also gravely affected our financial possibilities, it drained the financial support of the angel-investors of the project.

When we came to Paris, it was clear that we could do Paris. But Paris turned out to be more expensive than we had anticipated. For these reasons, we did not do London and then Coronavirus came to visit the entire world. And we will see what will happen in the future. The future is now much more unknown than we pretended it to be before the pandemic. Before we pretended that we could know the future, now we don’t pretend anymore.

EZ: There are two questions in the chat. The first one is about Teodor Currentzis who plays the main character, Dau himself. Was it significant for you to have a hero different from everyone else, a non-Soviet? And do you think that he succeeded in immersing himself in your DAU universe?

IK: When I invited Teodor Currentzis to the project, he was relatively well-known, but not a star at all. I think his first performance in the West happened during DAU, otherwise he could not have spent months and months in this strange place being part of a co-staged performance. Yes, my idea was that he was different and even spoke with an accent. He is a foreigner in all possible senses of the word. Because all geniuses are foreigners, and it was important to show that foreigners were double foreigners. Yes, I think that he succeeded because he is different in all possible senses. And it was important that he did not belong to this Institute reality. Initially I tried to find a Jewish person, but I didn’t find the right one. Then I found a Greek person, because Greeks and Jews are the same in the way that they are people who culturally come from a pre-Christian epoch. They have completely different rules and understanding of the world, both moral and spiritual. Teodor knows Greek philosophy very well and his talk of life and reality contains a huge number of quotes from Ancient Greek philosophers.

At the same time, Teodor is a very spiritual person. Mysterious and spiritual. And it was important that somebody would be between this world and some other space and I think he succeeded in embodying that.

Rachel Morley: I have one practical question which is when we might expect to see more DAU films. Will you release them on the platform because it has been a while since any new film was released there? I was wondering if that will be soon? And I also have a bigger question that is maybe more difficult for you to answer. You probably know that there have been a lot of academic discussions of DAU since the films were released on the platform and one of the main questions that everybody was asked to consider was “What is DAU?” There are various responses to this and people conclude, probably sensibly, that DAU is whatever people want it to be. Everybody has their own version of what DAU is, based on their perceptions and experiences, whether in Paris or via the platform. I wonder whether your answer to this question is different now than at the start of the project. So, what would your answer be to the question: What is DAU?

IK: DAU is a substance, it is something with which you can establish a relationship. And you can react to that. But till now DAU is still in process. It is not finished. Some of the characters already died, some of the movies are already released. But the project is still unfinished. The project is still going on and everything around it. And when I started to run the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Centre, immediately two criminal cases were opened against me, that used DAU as a weapon against me. But all of that is part of the DAU story. And the story is still going on, still happening. DAU is a process and now it is in an almost invisible phase. But soon, in a couple of years, I think in 2023, you will be able to see the whole project. In 2022, one or two movies will be released, probably two, also it depends on the pandemic. In 2023 we will release the ‘mother movie’, DAU 1. Anyway, in 2023, we will release the big body, the whole body of the project, and then we will see the next phase of the reaction to it. I hope so.

EZ: Thank you so much, I think it’s a perfect conclusion for our talk, because other people in the chat were asking when we will see the other movies and now we have a timeline.

IK: Yes. Thank you very much for your questions and your interest and I hope to see you in real life.

Eugénie Zvonkine
Université Paris VIII

Anatoli Vlassov
Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne


1 See Rachel Morley’s interview with Jekaterina Oertel in this issue of Apparatus.


Ilya Khrzhanovskiy is a Russian film director. His first feature film was 4 (2004, Russia, Netherlands) based on a script by Vladimir Sorokin. From 2009 to 2011, he directed the shooting phase of the DAU project. The fourteen DAU films premiered in Paris in January and February 2019, two of them (DAU. Natascha and DAU. Degeneration) were then selected for the IFF Berlinale. Since fall of 2019, he has been the Artistic Director of The Foundation and Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center.

Eugénie Zvonkine (PhD) is an associate professor in the film studies department at the University of Paris 8. She writes on history and aesthetics in Soviet and post-Soviet cinema from the 1960s to the present day. She has published three monographs on Soviet and post-Soviet cinema, including Kira Mouratova: un cinéma de la dissonance (2012) and the commented translation of Muratova's unrealised script Regardez attentivement vos rêves (2019). She edited the collective volume Cinéma russe, (r)évolutions (2017) and co-edited with Birgit Beumers Ruptures and Continuities in Soviet/Russian Cinema: Styles, Characters and Genres Before and After the Collapse of the USSR (2019). She was also a regular contributor to Cahiers du cinéma from 2010 until 2020. In October 2021, she was named a Junior member of the French University Institute (IUF). She co-edited with Céline Gailleurd and Damien Marguet the volume Sergueï Loznitsa, un cinéma à l'épreuve du monde (2022).

Anatoli Vlassov is a speaking dancer, choreographer, filmmaker and PhD student at the University Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne. He has created films and choreographies with street cleaners, with people with autism, danced with a wireless endoscopic camera, published a Tenser Manifesto and developed a performative practice that he called Phonesia, an articulation of dance and speech. His last article, written with Dominique Chateau "Transmutation of gesture and sign. From Eisenstein to Kabuki and from Phonesia to Godard", was published in the proceedings of the colloquium "Thinking/Creating in disarray" in 2021 https://vimeo.com/vlassovanatoli.


DeBlasio, Alyssa. 2019. The Filmmaker’s Philosopher. Merab Mamardashvili and Russian Cinema. Edinburgh University Press.


German, Aleksei. 1976. Dvadtsat’ dnei bez voiny / Twenty days without war

German, Aleksei. 1998. Khrustalev, mashinu! / Khrustalyov, My Car!

German, Aleksei. 2013. Trudno byt’ bogom / Hard to Be a God

Romm, Mikhail. 1965. Obyknovennyi fashizm / Ordinary Fascism.

Tarkovsky, Andre. 1975. Zerkalo / The Mirror.

Khrzhanovskiy, Ilya and Ilya Permyakov. 2020. DAU. Degeneratsiia / DAU. Degeneration. Phenomen Films.

Khrzhanovskiy, Ilya and Jekaterina Oertel. 2020. DAU. Nora mama / DAU. Nora Mother. Phenomen Films.

Khrzhanovskiy, Ilya and Jekaterina Oertel. 2020. DAU. Nora syn / DAU. Nora Son. Phenomen Films.

Khrzhanovskiy, Ilya and Jekaterina Oertel. 2020. DAU. Katya Tanya. Phenomen Films.

Khrzhanovskiy, Ilya and Jekaterina Oertel. 2020. DAU. Tri dnia / DAU. Three Days. Phenomen Films.

Khrzhanovskiy, Ilya and Alexey Slusarchuk. 2020. DAU. Smelye liudi / DAU. Brave People. Phenomen Films.

Neil, Jordan. 2011. The Borgias. Myriad Pictures, Amblin Entertainment, ImageMovers, Octagon Entertainment, Take 5 Productions, CTV, Bell Media, Showtime Networks.

Khrzhanovskiy, Ilya. forthcoming. DAU. Dau.

Suggested Citation

Zvonkine, Eugénie and Anatoli Vlassov. 2022. “‘DAU is a process’: A Conversation with Director Ilya Khrzhanovskiy”. Soviet Playtime: Architectures of Power and Profligacy in DAU (ed. by Philip Cavendish, Natascha Drubek, and Irina Schulzki). Special issue of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 14. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2022.00014.299

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/