Film: Doing the hippy hippy take

Film-maker Artur Aristakisyan won a Russian `Oscar' for his three- hour pseudo-documentary, `Hands'. He is seen as Tarkovsky's heir but feels a deeper kinship with the American beatnik.
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"RUSSIA IS a suicide nation," says Artur Aristakisyan. "I don't understand it; no one understands it."

The 32-year-old hippy from Kishinev, the capital of Moldovia, has a steady and slightly unnerving gaze. He wears a flowery poetic shirt, jeans with bell-bottom flares, and beaded Samburu bracelets. His long chestnut hair is lank and centre-parted, half Donovan, half Orthodox Russian priest of Andrei Rublev vintage. He is Russia's most fascinating and brilliant new film director for years.

His graduation film is a three-hour metaphysical "documentary". Considering that it is a film about disintegration, its timing seems apt. Hands (which won a Russian "Oscar") depicts the human shadows of Russia, the beggars and ghostly mad people of the provincial streets. Palsied figures materialise from a Russia that most people thought had been extinguished by the Soviet jackboot - the old Russia of Gogol's haunted lives and Dostoevsky's idiots and holy fools and gap-toothed sinners.

Aristakisyan is something of a holy fool himself. That is not to denigrate him. He cultivates a certain naivety, a childish seriousness in matters of the imagination. Details are sketchy, but since his teenage years he has been a drifter, a child of the weirder reaches of a rich Russian subculture, an unmellow hippy who ended up in a mental hospital to avoid military service.

Hands is narrated by him. He takes the form of an unseen father addressing his unborn child who is likely to be aborted. The ensuing vision-quest frames uncompromising portraits of real people: a family of three blind beggars in a creepily private world; a dumb youth who looks like a Belsen inmate living in a burrow in the ground; a cheek-sucking crone who keeps a human head in a box; a legless old trooper who whizzes about in a broken- backed tin bath once used to wash him as a child. Like Werner Herzog's underrated, vaguely traumatised documentaries about the blind and unworldly, this film makes the most forgotten people seem full of significance and light.

There is a curious variety of primitive Christianity about his work, though he denies any religious affiliation. "I don't like," he assures me through an interpreter, "the dogmas described in old books. These dogmas were originally expressions of first-hand experiences by the holy fathers. Instead of reading about it, you should live the idea of their lives."

It seems Aristakisyan is a natural heretic; however, his greatest ire is reserved for Hollywood-bedazzled Russian directors and the assorted avatars of Western pop culture, which, like many Russians, he confuses with the genie of consumerism. He believes that what he calls "pop culture" is as alluring as a siren and as corrosive as Coca-Cola. Like most genuine hippies, he is profoundly ascetic. "Hippies are like Jesus Christ," he says. "It's very easy to corrupt them and tempt them." I ask him what tempts him. "Olives without stones," he whispers. "Huge shops full of music."

By all accounts, his basic physical survival has been pretty precarious: he lives in a hippy commune he founded in Moscow, and has virtually no money and no interest in getting it. His creation of Hands is already the stuff of legend: he sold his books and clothes to find the money to make it, intermittently, over eight years. When all else failed, the beggars of Kishinev gave him money to help make the film in which they appear. You certainly will not find him on the helipad at Nice, his hair trailing as the rotor blades whirr, or complaining about the BFI over a Soho cafe macchiata.

"I'm just concerned with survival," he explains, and I then ask whether he means bodily survival or artistic survival. Of course, with Aristakisyan, they are indivisible. "There's nothing more important than art for me," he says with an earnest blankness not seen this side of Fifties Rive Gauche Paris. "For me to survive, for art to survive for me, it's the same thing."

Aristakisyan wants to be an Artist. And he is absolutely damning about other film-makers. "There are so many bad films being made in Russia," he complains, "they're made by very bad machines and they mean nothing".

He will not be drawn into naming names, but then again he also will not mention his great influences, either in film or in literature. He likes to travel light, and names are just so much baggage. Only later do I discover that his masters are Pasolini, a US documentary maker called Lionel Rogozin, "Mexican-period Bunuel" and, of course, cerebral genius Robert Bresson.

The skeins of hippy thought woven into his outlook make him tend towards a more subcultural view of art, a kind of muscular anarcho-folk. Appropriate, perhaps, to a country that has been described as fostering anarcho-capitalism. His upbringing was in a backwater; it was bereft of access to certain writers and artists. Instead he feels his way instinctively. When he intriguingly describes Tarkovsky - whose heir he is reckoned to be - as "an elite Russian beatnik who succeeded in the Soviet Union in a way no one could now," I quiz him about Allen Ginsberg. "I have not read the American beatniks," he says. "But I feel them, and love them. Their books did not change the world - but they helped them find their brothers."

He is keen on finding his brothers around the world; while in England, he was making enquiries as to where he could go to meet other hippies. "They should have made hippy reservations in America," he says whimsically, "like the ones they had for the Native Americans. America would then have had a chance for self-healing." He adds, convinced of their magical gifts, "Hippies exist in a fairy tale."

His own fairy tale could end soon if he does not find $100,000 to finish his first feature film, two-thirds complete. Russia teeters on the brink of chaos and film-making has a low priority. He dreads having to go to "gangsters and criminals" for the cash. Once there was something called "The Thaw" in Russian film-making. Now we have "The Melt".

"I'm on my own," he says without a trace of self pity. "All I have is cinema."

`Hands' screens at the Renoir from Friday 4 September, at 5.45pm and 8.25pm. The director will attend the 8.25pm performance