“The smoke which emerges when incense is burned symbolizes a sacrificial prayer – ascending to God”, says Alexander Kuprin, director of elegiac, unsettling feature-length competitor Incense-Navigator. A “road movie featuring a monk and a movie director – a man of the church and a secular person” in two parts (tellingly titled ‘Peace’ and ‘War’), the documentary follows the filmmaker and his old friend, Orthodox monk Zacchaeus, on a quest for the best ingredients for liturgical incense.
“So you could say life itself dictated the script for this film”, he continues. “I often work this way. The filming process helps me understand what happens to me, and to the world around me – then I invite the viewer to participate in this study of life.”
The first leg of the journey takes the convivial odd couple on a car journey (set to a fitting soundtrack of eclectic music from the car radio) from Russia, across turbulent, confused borders to Greece, where the best incense secrets are closely guarded in an isolated monastery on Mount Athos. The culmination of this first part of the film is the sale of the resulting incense in America, which we the viewers also experience in quickly edited – almost exultant – flashes. The proceeds from these sales then fund the second part of the journey – to take the incense to somewhere it is really needed (but where the people can’t afford to buy it). This turns out to be the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine – a ravaged, almost post-apocalyptic, war zone.
The contrast between the peace and tranquility of Mount Athos and the menace of the Donbass war zone is striking, and this second part of the journey brought some very real perils for the filmmaker. “The poet and screenwriter Valery Bakirov oversaw all things concerning the crossing of borders and accommodation for our crew in the territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic,” the directors says. “While working in the war zone, we used only his personal connections. Many issues were resolved with the code of honor of the Russian brotherhood and Russian vodka. There were many difficult situations during the filming process, mostly caused by military action. The most difficult challenge in areas of combat operations is the feeling of extreme concentration, constant tension caused by danger. This psychological state did not pass even after my return to Moscow,” he recollects.
Editing the large amount of footage captured during the director and his monk sidekick’s odyssey (which is not without un-incense related detours) was a mammoth task, for which Kuprin brought in the services of two editors. “We made the first complete cut of the film with the first editor, Vladimir Dryagin. Editor Yuri Geddert then worked on the rhythm of the movie, and oversaw color correction. I myself initiated every change in the editing process,” Kuprin says.
The completion of the editing process did not mark the end of the filmmaker’s journey, however. He returned to Donbass to show the film to its subjects, in case any of them objected to appearing in it for security reasons. “A special expedition was organized to show the finished film to those people who live in the conflicting republics,” he recalls. “But nothing compromising was found in the video.”
In his next project, the filmmaker intends to tackle lighter subject matter. “I see my new documentary, Night Chapel, as an antithesis of the great Federico Fellini’s Orchestra Rehearsal. I adhere to a sincere and romantic view on life, so my new film will be dedicated to music, love and beauty.”