Soothsayer: A Russian Epic about family and m
BY Karl Daum — October 18, 2021

For award-winning filmmakers and Sundance alumni Fish Griwkowsky and Trevor Anderson, their new project, Soothsayer, is less about film than it is about storytelling itself. The scope of their vision is immense—so crazy and intricate that it seems to defy explanation.

I’ve already left two people more or less bewildered on the subway trying to piece it all together: “It’s this film, well it’s not really a film, film is too limiting. It’s this art project, and it’s about three Russians, one of them isn’t real, well he’s real, but he’s also mythological. One of them lives in a chicken shack…”

And if at this your vision is telescoping outwards, then we’re on the right track—it’s what Anderson feels this story can do, if told correctly: create a look of childlike fascination on the faces of the audience.

This is the impasse at which our filmmakers find themselves—for the sheer force and breadth of this tale would be lost the minute it were pigeon-holed into a single medium. And so they are leaving it all open. Everything will be permissible in this artistic project—all that is solid will melt into air.

When Griwkowsky and Anderson piece their vision together, it will be the kind of sprawling Russian epic only your crazy grandpa can tell in a preservationist fervor as eternal winter batters at the window frame outside. When this story gets told, it will change the way we tell stories from here on out. Soothsayer is as complicated as life itself, because as I will attempt to explain, Soothsayer is life itself.

 

Is It a Film? Is It an Art Project?

1976.12 Gramma's copyThe House in which Kossenko lived. 

I spoke with filmmakers Fish Griwkowsky and Trevor Anderson this week about Soothsayer, which is entering its final week on Kickstarter. Anderson—a filmmaker who has made ten short films over the last ten years through his company, Dirt City Films—has teamed up with his lifelong friend and creative partner, Griwkowsky—to tell this story.

Griwkowsky, a multidisciplinary artist and journalist, has long been meaning to tell the story of the Russian painter who raised his father in the absence of his grandfather. This man was Kossenko—a painter who left behind much of his life’s work after his death. The pile of canvases and artifacts now rest with Griwkowsky.

“I had already been fairly obsessed with finding some way to make a man’s life work that’s completely forgotten available to the public,” Griwkowsky says.

Thus was born Soothsayer, the story of three Russian men—Kossenko, Zoz, and Oleg—in which Kossenko is the nexus.

“He’s kind of the meat in the sandwich,” says Griwkowsky.

1960 Kossenko in church copy

Mitrofan Kossenko and his cat in their studio residence in the Orthodox church attic, North Edmonton.

But as a narrative fulcrum, Kossenko is one hell of an enigma.

A painter and a traveler, his history and his identity seem, if not hidden, then obscured by his stoic nature and stern depictions of Russian icons and religious symbols.

Kossenko emigrated from Russia in the mid-twentieth century, moving to Edmonton, Canada, where he lived up into the 1960s. After his studio in a local church burned down, he took up residence with a local divorcée, Sofia Griwkowsky—Griwkowsky’s grandmother.

This is where Zoz—Griwkowsky’s grandfather—enters into the story. Zoz also emigrated from Russia, or more so escaped—this was in the early days of Communism. Having left his family behind in Russia, Zoz arrived in Edmonton with a new wife, Sofia—who he had married in England—before he eventually abandoned her too and moved out into the chicken shack in the backyard, a drunk.

Zoz is already there when Kossenko arrives, “this lifelong bachelor,” Anderson says, “who’s way better with the kids, and who’s way better in the house.”

During the days Zoz lived in the chicken shack, Kossenko briefly raised Griwkowsky’s father by default and painted the boy.

1978.01.23 Now I am seven copy

Fish Griwkowsky at the age of seven with his grandfather, Zoz.

The story of Soothsayer will be how these two men come together, with a third as well—a figure shrouded in myth who exists in living memory as well as the paintings of Kossenko.

Both Anderson and Griwkowsky struggle to pin their project down to a single means of storytelling. When asked what they’re trying to accomplish, their imaginations run wild.

“Is it a single-channel cinematic movie?” Anderson asks rhetorically. “Is it a digital platform, multi-episode, I-don’t-know-the-noun-for-it? The over-arching project is modular, and it could be something digital and episodic and associative and non-linear, and it could potentially also be put together as one or more single-channel movie movies. And it could wind up as a gallery installation, and it could be any or all the above. We don’t know yet, and we think that that’s what’s most interesting.”

“I would be very happy, and I think Fish would be too, if it was a gallery show,” Anderson continues. “Potentially we’d like to see if it can function as one or more movies—whether that’s a series of shorts that maybe gets distributed to festivals, or maybe there is some kind of single-channel cinema that gets put together.”

But he balks at this. “In a strange way, I feel like single-channel cinema can eat what’s interesting about the rest of it. You make a movie, people go: ‘That’s the real thing!’ And then the rest of it is seen as ephemera. And I think that would do a disservice to the multiplatform nature of this project.”

Right now, the Soothsayer is in the pipeline. In December of 2015, Kickstarter reached out to Anderson and Griwkowsky as Sundance alumni to make a trailer, with this invitation:

“Throughout 2016 Kickstarter is leading a monthly initiative devoted to the power of the trailer, to champion short, creative work in film & video. We are reaching out to the filmmakers we know and love and are asking them, ‘if you could make a movie trailer for one crazy idea, what would it be?'”

For Anderson and Griwkowsky, the Kickstarter invitation wasn’t just a chance to tease a crazy idea out over the course of a two-minute trailer. It was a calling to finally dive into the film they always wanted to make—a film that once they started making it, they would not be able to stop.

The whole “film” part is of course where this gets sticky. At its simplest, what the audience might get is a multimedia story of three Russian men. At its most complicated, the audience will be reliving these Russians’ lives while simultaneously living their own. The result is like a tree off of which their own narratives and truths shoot in all directions, intertwining and branching off again and again as a web of human experience.

Whether it ends up being a gallery, a show, a movie, an installation, or a web app, it will be “any of the things it insists upon,” asserts Anderson. “A big part of it is listening to the story and trying to find out how it wants to be told. Or they. I mean, it’s not just one story. There are multiple stories.”

To“film” Soothsayer, then, is as much a creative exercise as it is an effort to bring all of the pieces together and to let them speak for themselves.

“The project is coming from a much more visual art–inspired process,” says Anderson, “where you can walk over to it, look at all of the little pieces spread out over the table, and begin to shape this clay. Can it do this? What if it did that? Can stories bend this way?”

In essence, to let the contents of a story speak for themselves is to give life to its characters in the truest forms. It is a rebirth of sorts, in which all that they left behind on Earth is laid bare before the audience and imbued with its own authority.

 

Signs and Symbols, History and Myth

oleg-meets-wizard-1899 copy

Oleg upon his horse and the Soothsayer.

The relics of these men’s lives come together under a broader metaphor revealed in the life of a third Russian: Oleg of Novgorod.

A historical yet mythological figure whose legend permeates Zoz’s and Kossenko’s lives, Oleg was a tenth-century Varangian prince who is credited with laying the foundations for the powerful state of Kievan Rus. Oleg’s relationship to Soothsayer and the film’s artistic goals is perhaps best captured by the A.S. Pushkin poem, “The Ballad of Oleg the Wise.”

In the poem, Oleg is roving the forests of Russia with his army, out to conquer the world, when a pagan, medicine man–like figure materializes from the woods and delivers a prophecy to the would-be conqueror:

Thy horse, that dreads no furious fray,
Hath borne thee well in many lands;
And like a rock amid the spray
Among the whistling shafts he stands,
Or bears thee through the brunt of spears,
Obedient to thy lightest breath:
Nor frost, nor fight, with thee he fears:
Yet, even he shall be thy death.

Upon learning that his own horse will bring about his death, Oleg banishes the mare so that he might conquer the world.

He does so, thanks to his heartbreaking decision to abandon a friend. Years later, after he has achieved his glory, he asks his advisors where his horse ended up. They point to a hill, laughing, where the bones of his trusted steed lay bleached in the sun.

Oleg visits this grave, saddened with the knowledge that he’s accomplished such amazing feats without his best friend by his side. And while recounting the tales of all of his travels and battles, he kicks at the horse’s skull. Suddenly, a red serpent leaps from the eye socket and pierces Oleg’s armor. He dies there, his final words: “Well, I’ve lived a good life.”


How Oleg came to factor into Soothsayer is the stuff of strange spiritual guidance and treasure hunting in the attic. One day, as if subconsciously, Griwkoswky doodled a lightning bolt shooting out of a skull. The connection just about made itself there. You see, Griwkowsky had grown up with Kossenko’s paintings all around him—in church and in his grandmother’s home. He even had some of his own that he negotiated from the church, which when combined with the artifacts of Kossenko’s life left in storage—brushes, paints, photo albums and lists of his life’s work—started to piece together a story that was beginning to tell itself.

“They were sort of these fairy tale–like paintings of this man and a horse and all of these Russian knights, and I wanted to know what they were.” Griwkowsky says. “He [Kossenko] had a long list of every painting he had ever made, and I translated from Russian what I figured was five of them in a set that turned out to be called ‘Oleg, Soothsayer.’

“And so I went back to earlier in that day to where I had drawn this horse skull with a bolt of lightning, and that was the moment where I decided I had to make this movie.

“It’s a weird story. I mean it was just such a weird set of coincidences that led to all of that—it’s like I was being directed, in a certain sense, to do this,” Griwkowsky says.

Kossenko’s paintings are these iconographic, heavily symbolic compositions. They’re rich in terms of their layers. You can tell that there’s a story in each if you can decode the meaning masked by what is both shown and left out simultaneously—in the sign and in the intent.

1958.09.22 Moscow burns detail copy

One of Kossenko’s paintings, Moscow Burns, 1958.

Griwkowsky recalls the effect Kossenko’s paintings had on his psyche as a child when he used to get dragged to church—a succumbing to the esoteric and the ritualistic, like the unease and awe one feels when walking among the murals at the Denver International Airport.

“It was all in Russian, and I didn’t speak any Russian, and there were all these women singing in high-pitched voices about things I couldn’t understand. But these paintings on the wall—I mean, they were fucking terrifying. These four prophets—Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel—the stern, slightly bored looks on their faces really drew me in. And this big angel with a scale—it’s unbalanced and you’re like, ‘Uh oh, what happened that I can’t get this thing balanced?’”

Kossenko’s paintings were ultimately removed from the church for either being too stern or “First Testament-y,” Griwkowsky speculates.

Seeing into these bizarre canvases is as much a postmodern exercise as Soothsayer is, a way of piecing together “the missing text,” Anderson insists—a way of uncovering the truth behind the mask of intensity.

It’s that very intensity that got the paintings removed, after all. And it’s that very intensity that informs both Zoz and Oleg abandoning their loved ones. It is the intensity of a life of suffering and struggle, of the pain and aimlessness and fear one feels when reconciling their own mortality.

Oleg’s experiences with doom and loss weave their way into the story in ways that make it seem like all three of these men existed at once, that they might have known each other. The relationships between the three demand answers to such questions as: What does it mean to resign oneself to fate? What is tension between loyalty and abandonment?

These answers, Anderson says, can be found in the “missing text at the center of the story.

“And then there’s all of this mystery around the paintings. And the way you assemble the text becomes the exercise and becomes where the meaning is created.”

Considering the relationship between the prophet and their story, Anderson continues, “this process of looking, like the Soothsayer looking into Oleg’s eyes—this whole process for us—is about looking at the paintings. We’re shooting photographs and film and video, and we’re asking the audience to look. We’re directing their gaze cautiously.”

“Which is just of course about our perspective. I mean, it has no agenda,” Griwkowsky adds.

“More and more, actually, I really love the noun ‘prophecy’ for what this thing is,” says Anderson.

 

Storytelling in the Age of Impermanence

1954.01 studio copy

Paintings in Kossenko’s studio.

Anderson and Griwkowsky often refer to the days ahead as the “digipocalypse.” They talk about how the ways we tell stories are becoming more and more transitory, disappearing in the digital ether—a futuristic, if not frightening, return to the same uncertainty of oral tradition. It’s this fear of losing the story to time that informs the scope of their project.

In our interview, Griwkowsky invokes Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, whose author concludes that Mount Rushmore would be one of the longest-lasting artifacts of human society in the event of mass extinction.

“It’s a preservation exercise,” says Anderson. “Fish [Griwkowsky] is very much coming at this as a curator and a journalist.”

In the face of doom and gloom, that almost paranoid motivation can be seen in the artistic decision to shoot on celluloid film—the story of Zoz on 16mm black-and-white, the story of Kossenko on 16mm color, and the story of Oleg on 35mm color.

“It’s very important to us to have this tactile, physical celluloid. The other pieces of it are going to be shot on various forms of video,” says Anderson.

“After the digipocalypse, just how much of this survives?” he asks. “Kossenko’s paintings survive. And if we are sure to shoot our film, then the three stories survive. And the other pieces are gone when all of the ones and zeroes are gone.”

It is this effort to create their own Mount Rushmore that causes another problem for the filmmakers in their attempt to relate this tale.

There is this belief undergirding the whole project that what is concrete and what is tangible are just as valuable to narration as the documentarian’s eye. While a film might explain to the audience the meaning behind these three Russians’ lives, the former—paintings, photographs, physical structures—speak for themselves, untainted by authorial intent.

The fear is that the audience might not hear what the paintings and artifacts are saying. This ultimately, is why Anderson and Griwkowsky still seem wedded to film as a feature of the project, as a means to tell their audience where to look, and just how closely.

“I understand that not everybody would necessarily care about these paintings,” says Griwkowsky. “But I think that if they see them, and hear the story for them, that they will start to care about them a little bit.

This tension extends beyond their service to the ultimate project, however. Despite film’s ability to relate a story as the filmmaker sees it, Anderson and Griwkowsky feel that not only can documentary be biased, but that it can also actively detract from the storytelling power of the physical object.

“The medium is the message of course,” says Anderson. “So when you present a single-channel movie, there’s this social cred that comes along with it where there’s this prioritization of movie-as-form, where suddenly everything else looks like a DVD extra.”


Another aspect of preservation finds its way into Soothsayer via the death of the newspaper industry. As the Internet changes just about every aspect of the way we live, Anderson and Griwkowsky find themselves feeling lost in the abyss uncovered by the analogue rug that’s been swept out from beneath us all. A sense of mutual struggle and uncertainty is just one of the many inspirations for this project, ultimately remedied by what, Griwkowsky contends, it means to be Russian.

Both Griwkowsky and his father are newspaper men. On Tuesday, January 19, 2016, Postmedia cut ninety jobs across Canada. Griwkowsky was lucky to hold on to his job. His father, however, was not.

And while this affords Griwkowsky’s father the time to help explore the lives of Zoz and Kossenko, it also speaks to the uncertainties of our times. The very structures we once relied on to tell stories and to relay information are disappearing all around us.

What gets us through the upending tumult of progress is a certain stoic nihilism that Griwkowsky adopts. It’s what he feels it means to be Russian. “It’s always about the changing of the guard over there [Russia] with all of these different kingdoms. What they have in common is that someone is always trying to tear them down. The power is always changing over there.

“So what it means to be Russian, ultimately, is to kind of go, ‘Everything is shit, but it’s fine; things are bad, but what did you expect.’”

It’s the same sense of resignation to the fates that Oleg displays on the hill with the remains of his beloved mare. Here is a historical figure who literally changed the guard in the history of empire, and when his time comes, and when he is faced with the grim understanding that he had accomplished all that he did without his horse, all he finds himself able to say is, “Well, I lived a good life.”

Now, the guard changes every day as the scale of our technology shrinks and the disruption and comforts it affords us explodes outward. The desire to meld something solid from the liquefied layers of these three stories speaks to the latent fear of losing them to dilution in the globalized melting pot. On a basic level, our filmmakers’ desire to scrapbook the history of Griwkowsky’s family is one we all share. On a global and artistic level, it becomes the actions of two individuals to pull something concrete and definitive from the depths of the rising tide.

To Griwkowsky and Anderson, however, there is hope in undertaking these massive art projects, if only to discover or reaffirm our collective humanity.

“It’s funny, though,” Griwkowsky reflects. “I was talking to my friend in retail, and he’s basically done. Brick-and-mortar retail is going away because of the Internet. The newspaper is going away because of the Internet. The music industry has suffered greatly because of the Internet. And I did say to him exactly that—you’re not alone, we’ll all figure this out. We will all figure this out.”