Tarkovsky’s River is a journey on a real river, to a real place. But it’s also a journey through light and time, mediated by the ability or inability to capture images, or to make sense of the images that have been captured. It is a meditation on history, and on Tarkovsky’s sense of history seen through his films. It is a meditation on memory and what it means to remember, where memories come from and what they become.


History is always in the present. It exists in the present while it depicts the past, through a collection of memories, real memories conveyed directly yet filtered through human experience; recorded memories, edited and redacted; and particular fragmented memories echoed in speech or sounds, or found in physical traces of buildings, artefacts, marks on the landscape.

Tarkovsky offers us versions of history in his films, he shows us the Second World War and medieval Russia. He knows very well what these times mean. He has been taught in school, read books, listened to conversations. He even recalls the War, albeit from the perspective of childhood. His Andrey Rublev is as much about exploring the memory of religion in an atheist world; Ivan’s Childhood and Mirror explore memories of war, made after the official story of heroism has been written and imprinted.

Tarkovsky’s River was shot at a particular period in history, the post Soviet period of the late 90s and early 2000s. It bears within it the traces of that era, and my own relationship to that specific time. The sense of stasis, of things falling down and being left there, the relative unimportance of the rural world to the new order, are all present in the film and photographs. My own wonder at, and unfamiliarity with, the traces of the Soviet past, and the consciousness of the hardship that this beautiful land imposes, are all here.


This essay is visual, primarily. It is about images captured by mechanical devices. This first time I visited the region I was introduced to the paintings of Levitan, who spent a lot of time here and who painted powerful realist paintings of Yureyvets and Ples (upriver). In Yureyvets I met Aleksandr Ushakov, painter, who fled St Petersburg and a medical career to paint in the Volga landscape. Levitan’s and Ushakov’s paintings made a strong impression on me. But I am not a painter; the camera is my medium. Here I learned the truth of what Tarkovsky asserts: how the cinema picture has to be naturalistic, apprehensible by the sense. This is its limitation. We can only really film what is there. But this opens up realms. What is there, in fact? Does my camera eye see what your camera eye sees? At one point I was in Yureyvets making a television documentary about Aleksandr Ushakov. I had a talented DP and an excellent camera, and we shot a great deal in and around Yureyvets. I also continued to shoot, using my old MiniDv camera which I always have. Afterwards, when I took the footage away and looked at it, I found I could not and would not use the material shot by my DP in my own essay film Tarkovsky’s River. It’s not that his work wasn’t good; it was. He captured everything I had wanted him to capture. He did exactly as I asked, with a great camera, patience and his wealth of experience. Yet it was not my camera-eye vision of the place. It was not my experience of being there. It looked different. Better, maybe! But not mine.

And the photos and the video are different. The photos are are about seeing, the video is about being there. The photos are about composing, creating images for posterity. Presenting a formal record of this place, this time. The video is about trying to consume all that my eye can see and my ear can hear. The video is hungry, moving, not worried about composition. Yet the video often fails to render pure sensation. It fails to fully capture the peculiar wonder of the twilit landscape. It failed completely to show the astonishing moonlit road, when the orb was as bright as an electric floodlight, turning the river and the whole world, silver. The video failed, yet I can remember that night; though barely can I even describe it. It was pure sensation.

The video is not cinematic, the photographs are. Combining them, as I eventually decided to do in the final film, was a radical and hard decision. It came about after I had exhibited the photographs (they are 35mm slides and originally shown as such, and as digital slides) The video and the stills represent two different, but linked experiences. What links them, beside their overt subject matter, is the different ways they explore memory.


Tarkovsky once said that the poetry of a memory is destroyed by confronting its origins. This was the formative question for this project. How does cinema convey the experience of someone else’s memory? How do we enter into that memory? How does it fuse with one’s own and become part of one’s experience?

I have a memory, a strong one. It is a memory of driving down a causeway, with water stretching flat and wide on either side. The water is brilliant metallic blue, as is the sky. The road is almost empty and the whole picture is drenched in strong white light, almost blinding. I am in the car, but not driving it. I can’t have been there – no such light exists in Canada or northern Europe, where I have spent most of my life. So, did I see it in a film? Every time I see a similar kind of place in a film, I wonder, “is this the film my memory comes from?” Or have I really been there, to some place structurally and situationally similar, but perhaps without the strong white light. And has this real memory been fused with that of a shot from a film, desert perhaps, some kind of trick of exposure? I simply don’t know. All I know is that this image is strong in my mind and performs the function of memory. I WAS THERE. And yet, if I was really to find it, and to go there now, what would it feel like? Following Tarkovsky’s warning, would it be anticlimactic?

This idea that memory can be transferred, through film and perhaps also photographic images, is intriguing and a bit disturbing. Because it calls into question our use of memory in the first place. And our sanctification of it. If memory can be transferred, shared and mutated, then this means that institutionalised memory, notions of “roots” of belonging, of tribe and tradition, are essentially false – they are constructions that maintain social orders. And that is what I have come to believe.

Travelling through the Volga region, I was often transported physically into moments that triggered memories. I have no personal or inherited connection to that part of the world whatsoever. So, were these moments triggered by Tarkovsky’s films? Or do they come from somewhere else, somewhere I don’t understand at all? That was how I came to write the poem The Dream:

 Last night I had a strange dream…

of an autumn morning full of promise

air as crisp as an apple

and the crunch of twigs beneath my feet

as I climbed the hill to look down

upon a house, a river and a world

that I recalled from memory *

 But of course I didn’t recall it from memory at all. I began to compose it as I actually walked up that hill in Yureyvets for the first time, on an autumn morning. I began to compose it because I was astonished at the sense of memory I was receiving by this act, of being in a place I had never seen, accompanied by people I didn’t know, far away from everything dear and familiar to me. I was aware that I was in the middle of Russia, in the centre of nowhere, standing next to a lightning-blasted tree looking down on “a house, a river and a world” that I knew and did not know, understood and did not understand, loved and cared nothing for … .

Tarkovsky’s River is a film and a series of photographs – now a book – that is about memory itself as a journey, an endless journey between past and present, where origin and destination constantly fuse together and break apart, as swiftly and silently as water.


*excerpt. All content on this page and blog copyright Gillian McIver and not to be used without permission.