January 11, 2005
Few of Us, 1996
In an intriguing long take static shot of the oppressively barren Siberian frontier, a converted tank (turned off-road passenger utility vehicle) traverses a rugged terrain that seemingly bisects a rural, indigenous village, disappears in a spray of displaced mud as it sinks partially out of frame into a trench, then momentarily re-emerges to continue on its plodding journey, only to become imperceptible from the horizon once again as it descends into a series of depressions on the gravel road. Watching this sequence (and film) again within the added context of having also seen Twentynine Palms, I couldn't help but think that Bruno Dumont must somehow have been influenced by this unstructured and glacially paced, yet lucidly pure, challenging, and entrancingly reductive film by Lithuanian filmmaker Sharunas Bartas, a feature that he developed from his earlier diploma film, Tolofaria on the nomadic, indigenous tribe.
On the surface is the casting of perennial Bartas actress, Yekaterina Golubeva, whose handsome, angular features and enigmatic opacity articulate ennui, despair, and longing in their most elemental form through her abstract, disconnected gaze. Navigating through the barren, alien terrain of the Sayan mountains where Tolofar nomads still lead a primitive, threadbare existence (after she seemingly falls from the sky, having been deposited by a helicopter onto the top of a rock quarry), the adrift young woman takes up shelter at a way station, isolated by language and culture from the daily rituals of the Tolofarians, until an act of violence causes her to leave the village and continue her wandering - figuratively disappearing into the landscape in an exquisite long take that matches the earlier shot of the converted tank laboriously making its way through the trenches of the inhospitable pass. It is this sense of interminable journey through a vast, unknown landscape, coupled by a reinforcing image of (apparent) visual dissolution from that landscape, that seems to particularly coincide with Dumont's expressed intent to create a kind of road movie that "erases" the characters in order to convey tone and sensation solely by the abstract filming of landscape (as he explained in the Q&A for Twentynine Palms). Moreover, Bartas incorporates an unanticipated (and even more shocking) secondary act of unprovoked violence in the film's final sequences, a deflection of narrative trajectory that is similarly incorporated (though with mixed results) in Dumont's film. However, what inevitably makes the maddeningly paced Few of Us, nevertheless, a strangely transfixing and indelible experience is the ethnographic realism that pervades its stark, rigorous imagery - its ability to trace an austere and moribund cultural history through impassive, weather-worn faces, perpetual transience, and silent ritual - to capture the image of lost souls that lay beneath the vacant, anonymous gaze, trapped in a vast wasteland of human desolation.