Maria (Peasant Elegy)

1978–1988, 41 min., colour


scenario: A. Sokurov
camera: A. Burov
sound: M. Podtakuy
editor: L. Semyonova

“Maria” is a film requiem for a Russian peasant woman, Maria Semionovna Voinova. Maria Semionovna had grown flax all her life. When she died her knowledge of working in the fields and the methods of agriculture died with her. They remain lost forever since she hadn't been able to pass this information on to her family: her son had tragically died and her daughter refused to work in the field. In all likelihood, she would leave the farming village.

The film is in two chapters. The first chapter consists of an impression of Maria Semionovna, scenes of the colours of summer time: hay–making, bathing in a river, work in the flax fields and a holiday in the Crimea (something that happens very rarely in the life of a peasant — especially during summer). These are the impressions of someone who is a city–dweller — the maker of this film. The purpose of the film is to communicate this impression to the audience, to plunge the spectators into the pastoral atmosphere. But the second half shows a bitter fate. Nine years have gone by and these years have brought changes: people have gone, people hare arrived.

The second chapter is in black and white and deals with how Maria Semionovna's life ended. The mood is one of a sad and elegiac narration. The film–maker intended to communicate a whole panorama of the fate of a particular person in a particular set of circumstances.

Alexander Sokurov (from author's notes)

Documentaries about rural life weren't unusual when Alexander Sokurov, then a young employee of Gorki City Television, went to the countryside to shoot material about “a front–line kolkhoz worker.” The ideological demands under which Sokurov was working meant that the depiction of life in a kolkhoz at that time should only be rosy propaganda. But in reality, and for decade after decade, the peasants' standard of life had been eroded to the point of nothing (as had peasants' property).

Rather than present the expected propaganda cliches, Sokurov created an artistic portrait. The reality that Sokurov presented illustrates a tension; although at first glance everything seems to be successful and correct, the pastoral scenes turn out to hide a tragedy, both for the individual and for the public.

The life of this simple peasant woman had been one of heroic effort — just to keep on living, just to exist. The effort was too much for a single lifetime. Several generations had not met this necessity to resist decay, to withstand decline and to fight against a wider sense of generalisation. Behind this portrait of a modest, dedicated and diligent Russian peasant woman, the whole panorama of this history comes to light.

The first part of the documentary, made before Sokurov entered the VGIK film school in Moscow, turned out to be his graduation work once the Soviet authorities suppressed his intended graduation work, the feature film “A Lonely Voice of a Man.” It was deemed “unfit.” Sokurov had been the cinematographer for the first section of “Maria.” It wasn't until the expedition nine years later that the second section was shot. By then Sokurov was a Leningrad–based film–maker. He returned with his crew to the same village in the Gorki suburbs where Maria had lived, and had died prematurely. It was there that Sokurov was able to complete the portrait of this tragedy — a tragedy that had been anticipated in the first pastoral section of the film.

Alexandra Tuchiskaya
Translated into English by Maria Kazanskaya with assistance from Benjamin Halligan.

Prizes and awards:

The film was awarded several prizes:
The first prize at the All–Union Festival of Non–Fiction Films in Sverdlovsk in 1988;
The first prize of the Areopagus of Critics;
The first prize of the Cinema Critics of Sverdlovsk;
“For an excellent artistic reflection of a female character,” the prize and diploma of the sponsors (the Factory of Non–Ferrous Metal Processing).