Something visual: my first film review on this blog! Although Roxploration is first and foremost a book blog, I’ve decided I may occasionally review other media if their subjects fit particularly well with the ethos of my blog. The Ghost of Piramida certainly does that, combining polar travel, exploration, music, memoir and an ambience that is more than a little ghostly….
Director: Andreas Koefoed
Release date: 2013
Viewed by me: Digital download bought through Vimeo
Memorable quote: “It was like we all knew that something beautiful had come to an end”
Piramida is an Arctic ghost town, an abandoned Russian mining settlement on the island of Spitsbergen, just 1200 km from the North Pole. The town was constructed in the 1940s and hastily abandoned in 1998. The departing townsfolk were allowed to take with them only what could be easily transported by plane and this fact, combined with the freezing temperatures which arrest the process of decay, gives the place a haunting atmosphere of fresh desertion. The mining equipment is still standing, and the apartments and domestic buildings still contain tables, chairs, photographs and posters, the frozen breaths of the lives they once sheltered. Andreas Koefoed’s film presents an idiosyncratic exploration of this fascinating location, combining stunning views of its haunting present with photographs and footage of its thrumming glory days when the town was home to over a thousand people.
Glorious might not be the word that immediately springs to mind when describing a hard-working industrial community in a place that spends half the year in darkness, and where temperatures rarely creep far above freezing. Yet this is precisely how Koefoed’s narrator, Alexandr Ivanovic Naumkin, a former Piramida resident, remembers his time there. It was, he recalls with a grief as visibly undecayed as the town itself, “a young man’s paradise.” The film begins with the now aged Alexandr in his Moscow flat projecting the reels of the film he lovingly recorded during what he describes as Edenic interlude in his life, away from the troubled history of the Soviet mainland. Koefoed’s film intersperses such footage with views of the town today, often cutting to precisely the same landmarks and monuments: the central apartment blocks then, hosting the ebb and flow of warmly layered Russian families, and now, home only to nesting legions of opportunistic kittiwakes.
But The Ghost of Piramida is not simply an historical documentary; it’s also a music video. Koefoed’s modern day Arctic explorers are not historians or scientists but musicians. Mads Brauer, Casper Clausen and Rasmus Stolberg are the three members of Danish experimental band Efterklang and although the icy landscapes around them are breathtaking and the abandoned buildings haunting, their nine day voyage of discovery in and around Piramida is primarily an aural one. The camera follows Efterklang as they record over a thousand sound samples: drumming on rusty pipes, brushing the frosted glass in the bottle store, rhythmic running across rickety gangways and even massaging life into the world’s most northerly grand piano, its once polished woodwork now peeling as it stands alone in the town’s empty “Culture Palace.” The band would later use these recordings and the memories of their time there to inspire their album Piramida, released in autumn 2012 and a firm favourite of my record collection. You don’t need prior knowledge of the band or the album to find this film engaging, but it certainly adds another layer of satisfaction to be able to see precisely how many of the unique sounds on the record are made.
The Ghost of Piramida offers depth of emotion rather than depth of information. At times I would have liked to learn more about the objects and buildings Efterklang were encountering. Alexandr’s interpolated narrative provides welcome context to the town’s domestic arrangements but the functions and history of many of the more industrial remnants remain undisclosed (Alexandr was selected for relocation there not as a miner but an electrician). I can see how some viewers could find this sparsity of detail frustrating, but what the film lacks in hard cold facts it makes up for in atmosphere. Efterklang provide the soundtrack to both the modern and historical sections of the film, mixing vocal tracks lifted directly from the Piramida album with instrumental pieces composed specifically to accompany Alexandr’s recollections. The band’s melodic melancholia fits the film’s visuals perfectly, adding considerable emotional power to the narrator’s often quietly understated sentences (subtitled in English from the original Russian).
All this sounds incredibly bleak, and in many ways it is. Alexandr still seems ensconced in his grief, mourning “the dream that was never to come true.” But the film is not entirely devoid of humour. While making their recordings, the band, all childhood friends, engage with each other and with the strange landscape around them with a sense of playfulness that echoes Alexandr’s tales of community sports and children’s events during the town’s heyday, as if the spirits of Piramida past – not dead, merely dormant – are once more beginning to stir. And the three musicians do bring the location to life through their moving compositions. Efterklang are accompanied on their adventure by a taciturn Russian guardsman, entrusted to protect them from the very real threat of polar bear attack and it’s hard not to smile watching their expressions of increasing unease as he delights in regaling them with the gory details of past bear-related fatalities in the area. It’s also interesting to watch the relationship develop between the band and their protector. Initially, the practical Russian is visibly unimpressed by Efterklang’s musical mission but his icy exterior eventually begins to thaw.
Overall this is a fascinating documentary of unfulfilled past dreams and “Dreams Today” (an Efterklang song title) that powerfully combines music and memory. The “Ghost” of the title works on a number of levels. Alexandr is clearly possessed by his yearnings for the long life in Piramida that never came to pass, while the modern footage of the town still displays so clearly the detritus of the former inhabitants’ daily lives that it’s hard not to imagine their enduring presence. At one point Rasmus comments “now I get just a little… scared.” The band are jumpy in nervous anticipation of ursine attack but Koefoed’s film also creates the sense that the lost lives in this context are not only the victims of polar bears but also the dreams of busy habitation that came so abruptly to an end in 1998. Gone, but not forgotten, and once you have seen it, once you have heard it, The Ghost will haunt you too.
You can buy or rent The Ghost of Piramida through Vimeo.