William Kentridge's Oh To Believe In Another World.
William Kentridge's Oh To Believe In Another World.
Image: Supplied

In the 1990s it was in vogue for contemporary classical musicians, including the likes of Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet, to perform live as a soundtrack to screenings of classic films. In 1994, for example, Glass composed and performed an alternative symphonic soundtrack, synched to the original film, but replacing the original score, for Beauty and the Beast, a classic of French cinema by post-Surrealist director Jean Cocteau.  

A new film by SA’s most famous artist, the renowned William Kentridge, which was commissioned by the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra for a debut in Lucerne, Switzerland, earlier this year, takes a very different tack to these earlier music and film crossovers. The film, Oh To Believe in Another World, accompanies and augments a live orchestral performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1953 Symphony No. 10, written in the immediate aftermath of the death of Russian dictator Josef Stalin.

As a key part of the centennial celebrations of Wits University, of which Kentridge is an alumnus, the performance was staged on consecutive nights at Wits’s Linder Auditorium last week. Joseph Young from the US conducted the newly formed Mzansi National Philharmonic Orchestra. In addition to premiering Oh to Believe in Another World as a Wits centenary event, Kentridge has also donated an edition of prints for sale — printed by The Artist’s Press — the proceeds of which will go towards deserving Wits art students.

William Kentridge.
William Kentridge.
Image: Supplied

Kentridge, as might be expected from his previous extensive forays into film as a medium, did not want this film to form a backdrop to the symphony and its performance, but to be seen as a parallel artwork “telling the story of Shostakovich and his complicated relationship to the state in the Soviet Union, from its early days just after the 1917 revolution, all the way through to Stalin’s death in 1953. It provides the material for thinking visually about the trajectory that Shostakovich had to follow, from the early days of the Soviet Union to the writing of the symphony,” he says.

The film is organised around a central group of characters who were key actors, in various ways, in postrevolutionary Russia. The deaths of Lenin in the 1920s, the revolutionary poet Mayakovsky in the 1930s, the assassination of Trotsky in the 1940s and the death of Stalin in the 1950s, all act as markers, in various allegorical strands, about contemporary ideologies and sociopolitical realities — up to our present moment in a post-Soviet Eastern Europe once more at war.

Kentridge adds the important female characters of Mayakovsky’s lover, Lilya Brik, and Shostakovich’s student, Elmira Nasirova, who are, like many influential women of key social and cultural movements and ideas, somewhat elided by dominant histories.

The film is set inside what appears to be an abandoned Soviet museum, which is in fact made of cardboard on the table in the artist’s studio. Using a miniature camera, the viewer moves through the different halls of the museum, which include a community theatre hall, a public swimming pool, a quarry at the side of the main halls, and a corridor of vitrines holding stuffed historical figures.

Kentridge’s film aesthetic, in keeping with his interest in avant-garde and modernist ideas and aesthetics, draws on the history of film, incorporating his signature stop-motion animation techniques made famous by the Drawings for Projection series of films. However, this new work, combining collage, puppetry, live actors who are animated, and the illusionistic projecting at large scale of footage shot on a miniature film set adds immensely to the historical and aesthetic density of the piece.

Found footage and backdrops of newsprint and photographs from the revolutionary decades following the fall of Czarist Russia are at points disrupted by insertion of a gigantic arm adjusting part of the set design. It is an audacious and sly shot choice, a Gulliver’s Travels moment of allegory.

Kentridge has already created a large number of opera and musical stagings, including for Alban Berg’s Wozzeck and Dmitri Shostakovich’s first opera, The Nose. His return to Shostakovich here in Johannesburg — and in keeping with the Wits centenary celebrations —  is accompanied by a select exhibition of Kentridge’s work tied to the Wits Art Collection. Part of this fine survey exhibition is an edited version of the Shostakovich film, alongside some of the marvellous miniature film sets, in vitrines, that provide this enthralling work with its imaginative world.

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