10 June 2014

Chris Marker: 'Letter to Siberia'

Posted by Gareth Evans

As well as being among the most imaginative visual artists in cinema, Chris Marker was one of the medium’s finest writers. Our event on 18 June will explore all facets of Marker’s written achievement, which moved effortlessly from page to screen. The greatest exponent of the ‘essay film’, his witty, insightful, richly exploratory and moving texts ‘score’ the exemplary montages of his key works. This is experienced to wondrous effect in Letter from Siberia, extracted here. The useful Time Out review explains:

The format is the ‘travel essay’…we’re treated to sweeping panoramas of the steppes and isolated villages of Siberia, put in their historical context by a continuous voiceover narration courtesy of an unidentified, possibly fictional, member of the team. Urbanization, reckless deforestation and the demise of the woolly mammoth all fall under his critical gaze.

But lest this descend into preachiness, Marker punctuates the film with comic animated interludes, a few Russian songs, and sharp satirical jibes at everything from American television to Soviet politics. In the film’s most famous scene, a clip of labourers working beside a near-deserted high street is played three times, the narration changing each time to cast it as a piece of pro-Soviet social realism, anti-Soviet propaganda and objective ethnographic profiling respectively – in the process foregrounding the ethics of documentary filmmaking. Critical without being didactic, ironic without ever stooping to sarcasm, this is one of Marker’s sharpest and most entertaining films; at its best, it attains a poetic resonance that the director would strike again and again in his travelogues of the ‘80s.

The Chris Marker Collection is out now on DVD from Soda Pictures.