Spiritual Voices


Russia / 1995 / Russian

Directed by Aleksandr Sokurov

Still from 'Spiritual Voices'What does it mean to bear witness?

Sainthoods and resurrections require it.

Here the air is thin, the flies are singing

These stones smile, spit, pace – surefooted walking in creaking leather – light cigarettes with flares,

Occasionally dreaming of yeast

Journeys become loops, trailed by trails of rifle-burst

Soldiers are in combat even in sleep


The eyes flicker, wander, open

Prised apart by a sun as wide as the universe

The whirlwind casts sand into our eyes and then dies over the river

Our crystalline nights draw us close, a frigid embrace

We live beneath the dust – tattered tents, somnolent ambles through minefields

One lengthy communion

Vigil is our duty, to keenly watch the valleys, and to survive…

To survive on tins and tea, patter, bartered tobacco

Our limbo is burial mounds and trenches

Comforts – a few hours with a borrowed cassette – pass by

Souls, possessed by bodies so fleetingly, are destined for the rhythmic motors of our bleary future

Still from 'Spiritual Voices'The dust caresses the stones, young and faceless, but millennia old, and with ancestors –

Forgotten stones banished to the mountainside, echoing against a ravine

The rock maze and the dugouts are baptized, sterilized by searing dust

With memories of home solid as streams of pebbles, diaphanous like shortwave speech

To imagine the prayers, to amass the words that weigh the balances of human years

Is to trek the loops, traverse the gravel, and descend the canyons of instinct

The past is blacked out. Last year it was winnowing baskets, today makeshift Christmas beneath crackling stars

Down comes sleep

The holy pot has boiled over

The tongues of all bells have flown.


And who is the helmsman of soldiers’ sleep?

The sound of the body becomes the eye’s own music, solar plexus ringing off of clavicle

They live meagerly and communally, the dangling end of a seemingly infinite chain of command

Above roads coursing with civil war, abutting the graveyard of empires

Dust is the aether, the essential material that forms everything

Lightning beats the gray heavens, the muezzin‘s voice dances with tin pop tape

Still from 'Spiritual Voices'Horns from the deep Russian wood run in a loop, filling the expansive and deliberate distance

Some sit on their haunches in the Asiatic way, while others (higher up, Russian) place a wooden crate beneath themselves

Just as war leaves no room for aesthetics, likewise doctrine cannot accommodate hope

Nothing makes sense – not least faith

Deep horns from the Russian wood plod behind nighttime Central Asian mountain-clouds that move slowly, slower until they stand still

The faces are ruddy beneath the monochrome glaze, ex preteritus


Thick clouds give way to thin – but we still do not see beyond them.

I climb steadily over the bodies, surmount the longbarrows of watchtowers

They are forced to live out transience but stuck in a static, uncertain state

Bonded to this dearth of color, infinities carved of sandstone palette

It is they who have mastered chaos, while my nation-song is a forgotten lullaby

Still from 'Spiritual Voices'Make your burial mound, your protective trench

And entrust your memory to me

And the duty of witnessing your faces, the stone edifices of the canon

And how you build your absent senses

Diary: “a soldier is warming himself in the sun. He is lying on the slope not far from the gate of the frontier post.”

I envision Mozart, Messiaen, Takemitsu (march, implode, puncture)

Mozart, Messiaen, Takemitsu –

What does it mean to bear witness?

Sunlight catches the dust upon the lens, forms a hallway, forms a prism

Yea, who is that singing, back behind memory, wavering like a campfire?


Spiritual Voices is a film that Aleksandr Sokurov shot while embedded with Russian soldiers at the Tajikistan/Afghanistan border. This has been my response to his response to what he saw there.

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