Documenting Truth: The Reinvention of Voice-over and Success of Style in Marina Goldovskaya’s Solovki Power, by Darrell Tuffs
Solovki Power, Marina Goldovskaya’s 1988 documentary film, was one of the first to look into the extremely sensitive subject of the “Gulag”, a criminal government agency that controlled a huge collection of forced labour camps in the Soviet Union between 1923-1961. The camps were discovered to harbour within them, abysmal breaches of human rights, in the form of harsh and painful punishments, and overworking as a penalty system designed to kill. One of the most significant of these camps was located on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea.
The idea and concept of Solovki Power as a film of exposing truth, was made achievable and accessible by the new policy of “Glasnost”, which was first introduced by the Soviet Union president, Mikhail Gorbachev, during the 1980s. Glasnost arose from the need to expose abuses of power, and to discover truth in past and present events, no matter how shameful or critical. As discussed in The Zero Hour (1992), “Under glasnost, a switch as crucial as the change from lies to a search for truth has been made: from a documentary statement to a documentary question.” (Brashinsky, Horton, 1992, p. 130) This gave more freedom to citizens and artists alike to readdress and rethink the past.
The voice and viewpoint of Solovki Power became more greatly emphasised with the arrival of instant responses; at this time, more than ever, documentary films could communicate progressively with larger audiences quickly, and with greater ease. This was also a huge positive that came with film festivals, particularly the gained artistic and intellectual discussions that resulted from them.
This creative freedom is apparent when looking at the four modes of documentary, as outlined in Representing Reality (1991) by Bill Nichols. Nichols suggests that documentary comes in four forms; they are, Expository, Observational, Interactive, and Reflexive. The mode of Expository could be seen as largely dominating before the 1960s and the advent of “cinema verite.” It meant that filmmakers could easily manipulate their meaning and persuasion towards audiences through direct visuals and dominating “voice-of-God” commentary. As Nichols explains, “Voice-of-God commentary and poetic perspectives sought to disclose information about the historical world itself and to see that world afresh, even if these views came to seem romantic or didactic.” (Nichols, 1991, p. 32-33) Due to greater resources, mobile and instant equipment, and a cultural shift in the Soviet Union towards a Glasnost approach to politics, Solovki Power, and films like it, were able to change and reinvent the stylistic elements often associated with Expository documentary. They began to draw attention to these elements, more deeply involving audiences into the process of filmmaking, “(Reflexive) uses many of the same devices as other documentaries, but sets them on the edge so that the viewer’s attention is drawn to the device as well as to the effect.” (Nichols, 1991, p. 33) They also began to include and encourage audiences into an investigative nature, “Interactive documentarists wanted to engage with individuals more directly … Archival footage of past events became appended to these commentaries to avoid the hazards of re-enactment and the monolithic claims of voice-of-God commentary.” (Nichols, 1991, p. 33)
Even from its opening scenes, Solovki Power establishes a mood vastly different to many soviet documentary films of its time. The sudden strike of a matchstick ignites a small but significant flame that awakens the screen from darkness. The scene becomes visible, and we discover a group of people searching the floor of a room in the former Solovki camp. We observe them as they uncover old letters written by former prisoners. The group is uncovering the past, but more significantly, we see them doing it, the audience are invited to investigate and uncover with the filmmakers. The fact that we are shown this, and not just told it by an overly authoritative voice-over, means that the documentary engages from its opening, and doesn’t just inform. To emphasise this opening mood further, when a voice-over does arrive, it does so in the form of an actor reading aloud a letter found in the room. “Since I’ve been here everyone’s forgotten me”, it reads, after revealing a prison sentence of eight years. This is presented over monumentally sad, grieving music, and huge aerial establishing shots of the Solovetsky Islands. It is as though the spectator has discovered this letter personally, and is reading while looking over the islands, realising that many ghosts and tragic human stories still remain forgotten there. The complete visual effect is one of total sympathy and strong emotion, and would not have been as poignant within an unoriginal tone of strict “voice-of-God” expository aesthetic.
At first, the voice of the film’s narrator Sasha Proshkin may seem like a safe choice, he is authoritative, he is commanding, and (unfortunately the norm), he is a man. But, to analyse more closely shows that his performance is ultimately one of passion without anger, and emotion without tears. As Goldovskaya points out in her book, Woman with a Movie Camera: My Life as a Russian Filmmaker (2006), “(Proshkin) read (the text) spectacularly … dry, without tears, but on the verge of emotion; the pauses were precisely placed … After almost twenty years as a director, I had discovered how much narration could add to the film.” (Goldovskaya, 2006, p. 153) There are many points in which Proshkin explores and explains visual elements within the screen that do not feel propagandistic, but emotionally informative and enlightening. The voice doesn’t psychologically position itself as the master or manipulator of flow, rhythm or visual elements, but rather, explores and investigates them as they manifest from an unforeseeable journey. Not so much a “voice-of-God”, but rather, a “voice-of-investigation”. At one point, the documentary travels inside the camp to film its lonesome and ghostly interiors; “The prison first appeared here in Ivan the Terrible’s time. For four centuries, rebels and schematics were sent here,” says the voice-over. Twice, Proshkin says the word “here” instead of “Solovki”. This creates a style of personal interest and closeness to the place; we feel that Proshkin, the filmmakers, and the audience, are in Solovki itself, and not just discussing it from history books or old photographs. We feel the cold atmosphere of the place, and are subjectively engaged in its history. Towards the start of the film, an older film titled “Solovki” is shown in a cinema. The camera is positioned within the cinema, viewing the film, as though sitting in one of the seats. The voice-over announces, “Now we shall turn out the lights, and go back 60 years in time”. Again, the voice-over says words like “we”, resulting in an extremely strong sense of the filmmakers addressing the audience personally. Solovki Power employs to its advantage, an interactive type of voice-over, on a mostly expository structured type of film.
The powerful “voice-of-God” element of expository documentary film is then reinvented further by the fact that the participants and former prisoners interviewed in the film become the leading voice of the film; they, as a collective, become the “voices”-of-God. They begin to explore and explain stories and memories of their time at Solovki, visually aided by archival footage and old documents, such as old newspaper articles, and aged photographs. At one point, an interviewee explains her life before Solovki, “We then lived in a little commune of young people, in a small room on Solyanka St.” With this, we are shown establishing shots of busy streets full of vitality and movement, in the form of archive footage. It doesn’t feel like the voice-over or filmmakers are controlling or steering the film’s influence, but rather, having it guided for them by the people who were directly involved in the film’s material. This creates a tone that suggests the interviewees are almost given as much of a dominant voice as the filmmakers, meaning they appear to speak for themselves, and not through the voice of the filmmakers.
This is presented in a more philosophical way during one brilliantly constructed moment partway through the film. Within it, a former male prisoner of Solovki begins to sing while sitting by a riverbank. He sings a heart-broken song about three men who are stopped from reuniting with their loved-ones. His voice is timid, broken, and tragic, yet grips the film’s emotional control. The song acts as a voice-over for a montage of peaceful and idyllic scenery, including birds in the sky, waves flowing over rock, and some quite peculiar trees with red spots, which almost look rusted. This is a moment of pause and contemplation within the documentary. All elements of the film – including all voice-overs – are stopped in their tracks, not able to compete with such raw emotion. The man’s singing, at this point, is all the audience needs to understand the pain he feels. No statistics, no dates, no voice-over to explain. Here, the film does away with all of these, and replaces them with an honest, universally understood portrait of human emotion. As Goldovskaya explains in her book, “His voice alone, broken and abnormally high-pitched, revealed so much of his painful experiences.” (Goldovskaya, 2006, p. 150)
Solovki Power crafts these emotional responses further with many other stylistic decisions; one of these focuses on the already mentioned film, Solovki, which was made during 1927-28, and portrayed the prison camps unfairly as a place of rehabilitation. Goldovskaya then had some of the former prisoners of Solovki watch the film, and captured their responses. In this, the idea of re-evaluating the past is distorted. The former prisoners watch in disbelief, as their history is shown back to them, only, a fake and constructed history, one that does not reflect their personal experiences whatsoever. We begin to understand, through the interviewees, just how fabricated Solovki is. During one sequence, we watch as two former prisoners are shown a clip of Solovki for the first time. During the clip, groups of prisoners are orderly marched into a courtyard and shown to their rooms. “As soon as they arrived, prisoners were beaten, so they understood they weren’t on holiday”, angrily responds one man. Here, we are shown not only how culturally influential documentary films can be, but also, how they can unfairly represent significant past events and personal stories. Within these analytical observations of Solovki, Solovki Power becomes a reflective comment on documentary film itself, and its place within society; so, in turn, adopts strong traits of Nichol’s reflexive mode. He explains, “The reflexive mode is the most self-conscious … Realist access to the world; the ability to provide persuasive evidence; the possibility of indisputable proof … these notions come under suspicion.” (Nichols, 2010, p. 196-197) Using the short film Solovki, Solovki Power successfully conveys a message of truthful discovery and investigation into the past, while illustrating the alienation and vulnerability felt by the prisoners; they once had no voice of their own, so Solovki Power successfully became that voice.
Solovki Power also uses sound to a fascinating advantage. On some occasions, as in the opening sequence, grand mood pieces are combined with tragic visuals to create a tone of painful remembrance. But, there are also points within the film that ironically mix some quite playful and silly pieces of music with some quite serious aesthetic elements. During one stage of ridicule against a faked sequence in Solovki, the filmmakers, at first, mix one former prisoner’s rejections to the film against humorous music, as if to mock the film’s untruthful intentions. On another occasion, we hear jolly trumpet music, while a voice cries out, “Traitors must be shot! Let dogs die a dog’s death”. These ironic mixes of sound and imagery are powerful in conveying a message and tone of confliction within Soviet society of the time. The idea that, while crimes against human rights are taking place within the camps, the decent but in denial culture outside the camps continue to live in what they believe to be a free society; a happy and jolly tune pastes itself over what is clearly a horribly tragic situation.
Solovki Power successfully conveys a message and tone of progressive interaction between audiences, filmmakers, and subjects; creating a triangle of communication that holds the film together. Using the stylistic elements described, an emotional connection is established between subject and audience by way of the filmmakers. Meaning that, after viewing the film, we feel as though we have met the former prisoners, and partly experienced their pain in recollecting Solovki. They are treated not as pieces of evidence needed for the film to make its arguments, but as characters and important experiences worth saving for future generations. Solovki Power allows them to decide its narrative, and examines them as they do. Resulting not in a strict scientific investigation of fact, but in a loose and considerate one, supported by re-evaluation and emotion. In the end, the concluding words must belong to Goldovskaya. “Under the influence of this experience, my interests shifted towards documentary film as a record of the spirit and emotion of the passing times.” (Goldovskaya, 2006, p. 156)
Brashinsky, M. Horton, A. (1992) The Zero Hour: Glasnost and Soviet Cinema in Transition, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Goldovskaya, M. (2006) Woman with a Movie Camera: My Life as a Russian Filmmaker, Austin: University of Texas Press.
Nichols, B. (2010) Introduction to Documentary, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Nichols, B. (1991) Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.