Directed by Ivan Doan
Starring Ivan Doan
Short Film Review by Kirsty Asher
Pilgrims is a brief but fascinating short based on the poem of the same name by Russian-American poet Joseph Brodsky. It’s a one-man production, narrated by, directing and starring Ivan Doan, and he effectively cultivates a series of ponderous, enigmatic images, as befits a style of non-narrative film such as this. Its monochrome colour grade and simple, static shots of a lake, in the driving snow interspersed with mid-close-ups of Doan himself standing staring at the camera are also favourably comparable of arthouse. There is a bare-boned beauty to many of these shots, and I liked that the cinematography crafted an anonymity of location that hint at a Soviet wasteland without explicitly calling upon nationalist or stereotypical imagery. The driving snow, so symbolic of the harsh Russian winters, is a constant feature, relentlessly coating Doan as he stands in his contemplative state, blurring the air in the shots of the lake.
For all these shots may evoke, they do not come across as wholly relevant to the poem, or indeed its meaning. The descriptive language of the poem and the nature of its subject matter are exemplary of movement; dynamism: pilgrims travelling great distances in order to complete a spiritual journey in their movement. Not only this but there are strong themes of futility in the face of the world’s relentless progression in time and space, as well as subtle acknowledgements of political upheaval and humanity’s frequent self-destruction (he was born in Soviet Russia, survived starvation and siege, and was twice committed to a mental institution for his controversial poetry).
There is certainly a sense of existential sadness to be found in the sequential images Doan has edited together which can be associated with those latter themes, especially in the close-ups of the lake shore with the eternal waves gently rolling along in consistency and uniformity, as well as the aforementioned relentless driving snow. However, the static nature of the shots and the relatively limited number of locations fail to capture the imagery of pilgrimage; of journey; of change. Nor in a way do they fully confront the poetic subtext. In a way it often feels as though Doan’s intention doesn’t quite connect with the true meaning of the poem and the imagery it wants to evoke. I’ve no doubt that Doan understands and appreciates Brodsky’s literary work, but it is often a tellingly difficult task to bring poetry alive through the filmic medium, and for me I felt that he didn’t quite achieve this goal cinematically.
There is no doubt however that this short has been delicately crafted and well edited, and Doan’s style of narration is strong, clear and effective. I also greatly appreciate that this film has brought to a beautiful poem to a wider audience through a new medium, something that is important and necessary for the expansion of art. Despite the shaky connection between image and spoken word, this is a lingering and intriguing entry by Doan.