It’s unfortunate that Artur Aristakisyan’s 1993 documentary, Palms (Ladoni), has been a film cited more than seen; it’s an intensely poetic, provocative–even inspiring–account of the poor and destitute in Chisinau (formerly Kishinev), the capital of Moldova. Despite winning a slew of awards, it all but disappeared from sight, in no small part due to its filmmaker’s disdain for the critical establishment as well as his penchant for living a bohemian life. Thankfully, the exemplary UK label, Second Run, has just released the film on DVD, and it’s a major addition to the canon of films focused on the plight of the outcast.
In one sense, there’s nothing unusual about the poor, who live in the shadows of most cities of the world, rarely acknowledged by the media. But the closer films get to penetrating and exploring poverty, the more viewers experience a mixture of guilt, fascination, admiration, fear and even repulsion; and filmmakers connect with these emotions through a diverse assortment of techniques.
Here in Los Angeles, we’ve just wrapped up a retrospective of Pedro Costa, the Portuguese filmmaker garnering international praise for his trilogy of quotidian, painterly films set in a Lisbon slum; Costa’s films are uninflected but doting–compelling in their rigor. By way of contrast, Luis Buñuel’s documentary of the hurdanos people, Land Without Bread (1933), shocks viewers by juxtaposing devastating images with flippant narration. Dark Days (2000) highlights the personal relationship director Marc Singer forged with a community of homeless people living in the subways of New York City. (One could also include–as Aristakisyan does–the physically malformed and disabled, bringing to mind classics as diverse as Tod Browning’s melodramatic Freaks and Forough Farrokhzad’s meditative The House is Black.)
All of these films brilliantly succeed at a difficult task: revealing their subjects honestly–in all their emotional complexity–without exploiting them. Aristakisyan accomplishes this as well, by way of a new route: finding in his outsiders human and spiritual ideals he feels are impossible to attain within the mainstream of modern society. Palms is a celebration of those who have escaped The System and live freely–no minor accomplishment for a film comprised of human vulnerability and rampant destitution.
The film was Aristakisyan’s graduation film for the Moscow All-Union State Institute, and it was shot in handheld, black-and-white 16mm and enlarged to 35mm in an a way that makes it seem like a scratched, overly-contrasted artifact from ages past; a film about the purity of abjection that physically resembles its subject. The only soundtrack is Aristakisyan’s ruminating narration and brief snatches of Giuseppe Verdi’s soaring music. The footage was collected over the course of several years shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union and Moldova’s independence, and it could be said to be a baring of the country’s repressed soul through the tenuous lives of its vagabonds.
Palms is divided up into ten chapters, each exploring the lives of one or more people through their personal stories, as recounted by Aristakisyan. According to the filmmaker, his narration was improvised in delivery but the stories were real, albeit simplified to resemble parables. What makes them particularly potent is not only the vivid documentary footage that corresponds to them, but the fact that the narrator is speaking for the benefit of his unborn son, whose future life is uncertain; the child’s mother is not the narrator’s wife. His words thus adopt the tone of confession and entreaty. “Like any father,” he says, “I only wish you happiness, I don’t want you to be in poverty, among the destitute, against your will. However . . . people who are poor in spirit can renounce even the spirit. You can’t imagine how free are those poor in spirit . . . these people leave nothing to the system but their ashes.”
Thus, Aristakisyan’s monologue becomes a kind of intimate, fatherly dialogue meant to summarize earthly existence and identify a path to spiritual salvation, and its provocative nature arises from the fact that he advocates the necessity of poverty through the lives seen onscreen: a woman abandoned on her wedding day lies on the ground “collecting chances,” hoping they’ll explode into the second coming of Christ; a man who recycles clothes has his legs amputated, and he’s carried around by his adopted assistant; naked children playing in a muddy pond tell of kissing their ailing mother over a thousand times in the hopes of healing her; a son suffers after years spent in prison for smuggling herbs to his imprisoned father; a man shares ways of communicating with doves to the women he has sheltered. Each of the stories highlight acts of compassion, sacrifice, faith, devotion, and loyalty–as well as deep emotional and physical losses.
In an interview included on the DVD, Aristakisyan admits, “There is a lot that is ecstatic, hysterical, and insane in [the narration],” which expresses a soulful Russian mysticism, and includes calls for extremes of spiritual purity that recall the biblical Beatitudes, apocalyptic imagery, and monastic renunciations. Aristakisyan even pleads with his son to go mad–not from hopelessness–but rather as an escape from the “rationality” of a sociopolitical structure that defines every waking moment of most people’s lives: where an individual must live, work, make money, use money and relate to others. “I know very soon they will convince you that you are a consumer,” he tells his son. “You consume electricity, buy clothes and use hot water. You’ll be told that society provides everything.”
Yet the wisdom of the film never comes across as preachy, nor does it express simple anarchism; it remains viable and compelling. In his thoughtful liner notes for the DVD, Graeme Hobbs accurately describes the narrator as one who “follows logic into the abyss,” and the film’s consistency of viewpoint and the power with which it renders its text and images often leaves an indelible impression. Images remain etched in the memory: someone endlessly pushing another in a wheelchair among shantytown ruins; a hand tenderly stroking a man’s eyebrow. The narrator is one who in desperation offers the most concise and unadorned wisdom he can, and the most precious and rare examples to illustrate it.