Mārtiņš Slišāns
  Films: Granddad's Honey, 4 min.: 48 sec., 2002

The Letter, 4 min., 2002

Insomnia, 7 min., 2004

  For a long time, I was unable to find the right words for this brief introduction. In relation to Vladimir Leschiov, everything seems so subtle and intangible that every word we might use to describe it appears overly crude and ambivalent. Our conversation, on a grey Saturday afternoon, but one already stirred by the approach of spring, was just as easy and natural. Pure, laconic, simple and... refined. Such is the style of Vladimir Leschiov. Ordinary facts merge with generalisations about art and life as freely and simply as... in Vladimir's own works.

He has only three films to his name, but the triumph of his film "Insomnia" (2004) this year at one of the world's most prominent festivals of short films, at Clermont-Ferrand in France, competing with masters of world animation and Oscar-winning filmmakers, speaks for itself. In our own Bimini festival of animated film, the international jury has this year appreciated the artist's talent: "Insomnia" was recognised as the best film in the 5-10 minute category. And yes, his first film, "Granddad's Honey" (2002), was shown at more than 40 film festivals, winning 4 out of the 18 international awards that Latvian filmmakers received in 2003.


Mārtiņš Slišāns: Nowadays it's often said that art stands apart from ethical and moral categories. Do you as an author have a sense of responsibility for your work?

Vladimir Leschiov: What I like about art as such is that it's almost impossible to lie. If a person's lying, if they're not putting their heart into it, with a true consciousness of what they're doing and why, then this will appear in the result. If, for example, a painter has created a work only in order to sell it, then this will be apparent. Or if it's been done purely as an experiment - this, too, will be apparent. An artist is a person who needs problems. If there's no inner protest, nothing he or she wishes to tell, then there's no place for him or her in art.

The fact that I can make films with public money, rather than my own, places on me a heavy burden of responsibility. I know that with this money something could be done for people: at least half a penny could be added to some people's pension, or some aid could be given to children. For this reason, it's a great responsibility: how you're going to use this money. Accordingly, when I'm making a film, I take the attitude that it has to be my best film. And that's it. No more and no less.

M.S.: What about competition and support from your colleagues in animation? Are there filmmakers you particularly admire?

V.L.: In the field of animation, there are no competitors: we're all colleagues and friends. It's like a commune where all are brothers and sisters. And there are a large number of people whom I like, whom I admire. For example, I very much like the work of Christopher Hinton from Canada. A fine artist working in a very interesting technique. I like Dudok de Wit from Holland. I've had the good fortune to discuss with him the project on which I'm now working. I'm proud of having such friends as Piotr Dumala from Poland - a very well known animator, one of the world masters in the field. Just like Caroline Leaf from Canada. Who else? I have a very good, warm relationship with Yuri Norstein from Moscow (the creator of "Hedgehog in the Fog" and "Tale of Tales" - author's note). We became acquainted when I was studying in Sweden. He came to lecture there.

Piotr Dumala was my tutor. He taught in Harvard and in Sweden. When I arrived in Sweden, I was very glad that people were coming to Eksjo to lecture and hold workshops. Thus, I met the Canadian Caroline Leaf and Yuri Norstein, with whom I spent a truly wonderful time. We had many discussions, and Yuri Norstein helped me with the production process of my first film "Granddad's Honey". He helped me create snow. Yuri's own films have wonderful snow. I asked how it's made, and he revealed his secret. He showed me on paper, and I simply made use of it.

M.S.: Your debut film "Granddad's Honey" was a great success. How did it develop?

V.L.: It was like this. I came to Sweden and saw that all the possibilities were open to me: I had the technology and the means to make a film. I had only one problem: I didn't know what it would be about. Maybe it would be my first and last film. You don't know what'll happen after you return. I wanted to make a profound film with the philosophy of life, and at the same time something simple. Then I suddenly remembered my grandfather in the country. I remembered that he had bees. This helped him in life somehow, since he was already a very old man and had suffered a great deal of hardship. For him, bees were the only light in his life. His only solace.

It was a more complicated matter with the story itself. I filmed one minute, sent it to the laboratory and received the result a week later. Looking at it, I saw that nothing worked. One minute means about three weeks of work, 24 hours a day (laughs). I had virtually not slept. There was a time when I thought I'd never finish the film. Then, Piotr Dumala talked to me and said: "You simply have to finish the film. Because it'll be a good film. Believe me, you'll have a good film. You simply have to see it through."

At that time, I also received a letter from home, from my relatives, who wrote that my grandfather had died. And then I simply had a duty to make the film.

M.S.: The film has a great many philosophical associations. Are there any authors who've influenced you?

V.L.: I've been very much influenced by the work of Yuri Norstein. I wanted to make something just as beautiful, just as profound.

There were also a great many experiments. In one scene, I had butterflies. I had to make the butterfly flutter not in one particular layer, but through them all. I didn't paint the butterfly, but instead I cut it out of paper and moved it through the layers. To start with, it fluttered in the middle layer, then I moved it to the foreground, and so on. To make it fly in space. That was an interesting piece of work.

M.S.: "Granddad's Honey" was created in a special technique: in oil paints on glass in several layers. But is it true that the idea is most important to you, the technique being secondary?

V.L.: Always. First of all, I watched many good authors' films, by the people already mentioned - Piotr Dumala, Caroline Leaf and Yuri Norstein - and decided that my work had to be on 35 mm film. The other students, mainly Swedes, were working on computer, scanning, etc. At that time, there was a free camera available, and I arranged with the lecturers and the school director that I'd use it to make my film. They agreed, asking me only to show what I was making, because it would be expensive and the school would have to pay for it. I showed them the sketches and told them the story. They had no questions. They just said: use it and make the film.

Then I had to buy the colours and lots of other expensive equipment. The school paid for everything: they bought the best English colours and brushes, and ordered the glass.

Working on "Granddad's Honey", I had a choice - precisely which technique I'd use. I thought about the atmosphere of the film. There's Granddad, the countryside and a great deal of honey. Something from the past, from childhood. So, there has to be warmth and intimacy. Of course, pencil or Indian ink are not so suitable. But with oils - the very structure of the paint is something approaching that of honey. They too are warm, they have an aroma, a special consistency, they're transparent.

And about the animation table. The camera is positioned above the table. A second table is built above the main table, with several layers of glass. This had to be ordered: it was made in a factory that produces Honda motorcycle engines. The school paid quite a large sum of money for this table, but the Swedes told me afterwards that money was not important, since it constituted an investment for the future.

The table had five layers of glass. But it was necessary to get in between the layers in order to draw or paint extra elements. So, I used three layers. On the lowermost layer, I painted the sky or a general background. On the second layer, I created the middle ground. Here I painted Granddad himself. The third layer, closest to the camera, was the foreground, where I painted flowers and objects. The focus was on the middle layer.

When it came to "Insomnia", I first tried coloured pencils. They seemed a bit too sharp. Then I tried pastels, and this turned out to be exactly what was needed.

M.S.: "Insomnia" is the complete opposite of "Granddad's Honey". A vibrating, pulsating line, a kind of vibrating story. Where did the idea, the concept derive from, how did it develop?

V.L.: In the first place, the title itself seems to indicate something slightly absurd. The state of insomnia is itself absurd. It's more a kind of metaphor, a kind of inner anxiety, whose causes nobody can explain. Thus, there's a parallel between insomnia and a relationship between a woman and a man. And it's somewhat ironic.

M.S.: Perhaps there was some impulse? Why "Insomnia"? Why at this particular time?

V.L.: Yes, there was. I was restless and couldn't get to sleep at night. It was a hard time. After it was over, when the time arrived for coming up with the name for a new project, it seemed to me that this came very close to expressing my own feelings back then, when I'd wanted to go somewhere at night, when I'd been restless. I'd wanted so badly to sleep, but couldn't. I'd simply felt the need to do something, even something completely meaningless. That's how the title came about.

M.S.: Simple, ascetic lines. In pencil. How did your second film, "The Letter", develop?

V.L.: When I was over there (at the college), I felt somewhat lonely. After all, I had a family - a wife and child. I'd left them for quite a long time. I simply wanted to make something romantically philosophical, with very positive emotions.

When I was working on "Granddad's Honey", in order to stop myself thinking about the possible failure of the film, I decided that in my free time, while I was waiting to get the material back from the laboratory, I simply had to create something in order to avoid thinking about trivial things, so at the same time I started working on a second film. This is how "The Letter" came about.

M.S.: What do you feel when watching your own films?

V.L.: "Granddad's Honey" was filmed in 2002. It's only this year that I can watch the film and analyse it. All this time, I couldn't watch it. It seemed to me terrible, completely inane.

There are people who like their work and can watch it. I don't. With painting it was the case that when I'd painted a good picture, I could gaze at it for a long time. From time to time, I made some changes, and I didn't want to sell it or give it away, but keep it instead. With film, it's different. I don't know why.

M.S.: What about art history? Are there artists whose work relates to your feelings?

V.L.: I very much like Breugel and Bosch (pause). I like Dutch Old Masters. I like the French. Van Gogh. I like Gauguin (pause), Matisse (pause), Renoir (pause). And contemporary masters. Sometimes, when you're simply walking past a gallery, you see an interesting painting. Looking at it, you discover elements for a new film.

I like the work of Aija Zariņa. I like beautiful painting in general. Just as in music I can listen to rock, jazz and classical - the main thing is for there to be quality, for it to be interesting.

I really love cinema. One of my favourite directors is Otar Iosseliani, and I like Georgian film in general. I'm moved by Jos Stelling. I very much admire the work of Tarkovsky. He's one of the directors from whom I've borrowed much of what I do, the attitude towards life as such. To seek beauty in every moment. I like Peter Greenaway, and Lynch.

M.S.: What exactly about Lynch?

V.L.: His films have more than just a storyline. You have to think and follow it. This is wonderful, since it's not just like the food you eat, which makes you feel good and that's all there is to it. Rather, it's food for the mind. You follow it not only as a viewer, but also as a director. New ideas arise in your mind, which you then ponder. It's like a game involving the events on the screen and the people sitting in the auditorium.

This is what I want to achieve in my own films. So that they don't serve simply as an illustration of life or as a straightforward story. Instead, they have to contain something. Not some kind of quirk, but... I don't want everything to be clear from beginning to end. There must be some kind of question, subtext or something else that I know about, but others don't, and about which I'm not going to tell anyone. So, I was delighted when a girl from America wrote to say she'd watched "Insomnia", once, twice, three times. She wrote that she'd seen something new every time and asked whether I was trying to achieve this or that. I answered - maybe, maybe... It's a matter of sudden clarity - all of a sudden I know what the film's about, but two days later - no, I don't.

I was playing around with the images, trying to create various associations. So that for seven minutes people would experience this sleeplessness, this restlessness. All the rest - the technique, the vibrating line, the streaking - they all serve to heighten this restless condition. It's all in motion, nothing is static. There's a standing house, but that, too, is moving. By watching, you enter this process.

Me too. For example, later, when I was watching it, I realised that at this particular moment I should have added some particular touch, and it would all have been completely different. It would have been - (an indescribable gesture) - just that one little touch. Or else you suddenly have the feeling that you've created a real treasure, which you've never even considered. But it happened subconsciously.

M.S.: Why did you choose animation rather than film with live actors?

V.L.: Being an artist, I find it hard to imagine how three people, or four, or a hundred can paint together. It might be a good experiment, but I'd probably not produce anything good that way. It's an individual kind of work. I don't feel comfortable when I work together with others.

For example, I worked on "Insomnia'" with about twenty people. Nevertheless, there's always the feeling that something's not been done right: some people have been doing shoddy work, while others have been working conscientiously, but have been paid less than they should have. When I'm working alone, I'm responsible only for myself. That simplifies the work to some degree. If I make a mistake, I can blame only myself. And it's quieter, more peaceful (laughs).      

But, to put it simply, it's like this: in animation you can show quite a lot in a short time and make things you can't make using other technologies. Cinema is limiting to some degree. Animation might also be described as avant-garde, since it's always engaged in experimentation. There are no limitations. People are always searching and searching... For example, an animation made of sand looks quite astounding. Much more amazing than a new approach in computer animation, where almost anything is possible. But when people make such things with their own hands, that's a different level altogether.

M.S.: Many people say that the computer image is lifeless compared with the film image. What is your feeling?

V.L.: To be honest, it really is the case. That's something of a problem. Sukuts, the organiser of Arsenāls Film Festival, has said that film is an art that makes your flesh tingle. It has a kind of bioenergy. It's all connected with energy. Computer animation, on the other hand, is synthetic. It doesn't have so much life. Unfortunately, film animation is becoming a thing of the past.

M.S.: How do you view this development?

V.L.: It's hard to say. I've seen poor computer-made films and good ones, too. I think it all depends on the person making it. If they're talented, if they have good ideas, if they know their business, then, of course, something will come of it. If they don't know how to do it and imagine that the programme will do it all for them, then the result will be a flop.

I myself am working on my fourth film now, which I'll be drawing by hand, but I'm not sure about the future. Some time ago, I imagined I'd never work by computer, but now I'm starting to consider the idea. It is, after all, somewhat cheaper, and that's important, considering the financial situation of Latvian cinema.

M.S.: What role do film festivals play in your work?

V.L.: In the first place, a festival is an opportunity to show the film to people, to reach the viewer. It's very important to me to find out what people think about the film. How they feel it, how they react, and so I myself go to festivals and watch the audience's reaction. I look into their eyes. I do a lot of talking. I like criticism. If there's something people don't like, then that's my problem, something I'll try to put right in the next film. Festivals are very important, particularly for authors' films and their directors.

Animation seemingly isn't like live-actor film in the round of top class festivals - with the possible exception of Cannes and Berlin. Instead, every genre has its own circle. Children's animation has its own festivals. For me, any festival is important - Annecy in France (the animation world's equivalent of the Cannes Film Festival - author's note), and, equally, some new festival in Taiwan. That's not important. The main thing is for there to be an audience. Also in France, when I was taking part in the festival at Clermont-Ferrand, I saw that the films were intended mainly for the ordinary audience. They come to watch and fill auditoria of one-and-a-half thousand seats. The cinema's are full, they're sold out. But, for example, Eduard Nazarov (the director of "Winnie the Pooh" and "There Once was a Dog" - author's note), one of the classic animators from Russia, told me about one quite well known festival in Los Angeles, regarded as one of the world's most important animation festivals. Over there, in the centre of Hollywood, the jury sit and watch the films in an empty auditorium. And that's it. And then you come to understand... (smiles) the difference between winning a prize at a festival seen by four jury members, and simply taking part in a festival where it's watched by an audience of three or four thousand.

M.S.: What'll your next film be about?

V.L.: The next film will be about people who sit out on the ice. It won't be as if they're just sitting all the time: there'll be a kind of philosophy and humour, perhaps even some dangerous situations.

I myself live near a lake. Every winter, I watch the fishermen walking on the ice, and for quite a long time I studied them, not being able to comprehend why they do it. I discovered that these people don't go fishing in the summer - they wait for the winter. It's a kind of philosophy of life. There are many jokes and stories about it.

This theme seems interesting to me. It's a new idea, original in the world. Ice fishermen are often seen in our region, while elsewhere this is not such a common phenomenon. It's even something like a genre of folklore. It allows me to show both humorous and sad things. Altogether, it also reflects how I look at life at this particular time.

The work could be up to 8-9 minutes long. The technique will be similar to that used for "Granddad's Honey", but without the layers. It'll be painted on celluloid in the classical manner. But, even in a classical technique that everyone knows, it's possible to find a new approach, to show something new. I'll use gouache or acrylic, whichever work best.

M.S.: What about success? What's your attitude to success? What does achievement mean in your work?

V.L.: The greatest achievement is to have the possibility of developing - of making films. Of course, it's also an achievement when you know that the world you've created is being watched all around the globe. Even if you yourself can't travel to the four corners of the earth, then at least your film will travel. What's important is the film's contact with people - in Australia, Asia, Africa or wherever. It simply gives you pleasure. If they're watching it, then it means you haven't been making it just for your own sake. That's an achievement, if they find it interesting.
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