Pilgrims and refugees

Michael reflects on a brief but beautiful film based on a poem by Joseph Brodsky, with music by Moby, which resonates with the current humanitarian crisis of refugees the world over. – Artblog Editor

Pilgrims (2016) is a five-minute film by John Doan, a young Ukrainian-Vietnamese actor and director, featuring a relatively obscure poem of the same name by the late Russian-born Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky, which was written in 1958, before the poet was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1972. It is a film of mood, a lamentation, with a single character–the Poet, played by Doan–and no dialogue other than his drony recitation of Brodsky’s poem.

"Pilgrims" film poster.
“Pilgrims” film poster.

The film begins during a snowfall in an anonymous, bucolic lake setting with a close-up of snowflakes gathering on Doan’s coat and scarf. The camera then pans for a long interval to Doan staring impassively at the camera (as in the poster image above), with the lake in the background. The soundtrack includes a hypnotic, liturgical chorus by the American musician/composer Moby. Eventually the film captures various shots of the lake and the surrounding trees and vegetation in the hazy snow and the wind, with Doan facing away from the camera looking toward the lake. The short piece ends with another close-up of snow landing on Doan’s coat and scarf.

The film is shot almost entirely in captivating gray tones, and the videography is splendid. The narrative–that is, the poem–is challenging to comprehend. Here is Doan’s excellent translation from the Russian.



“For then my thoughts–from far where I abide–
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee…”
William Shakespeare

Past altars and stages,
past temples and taverns,
past classy graveyards,
past street market’s jabber,
past peace, and past woe,
past Mecca and Rome,
burned by the sun’s blue glow,
the earth the pilgrims roam.
They’re heavily injured and hunchbacked,
they’re hungry and almost naked,
their eyes are full of sunset,
their hearts are full of daybreak.
The deserts are singing behind them,
sheet-lightning breaks out abruptly,
up above the stars are igniting,
and birds are screaming gruffly:
that the world will remain the same,
yes, indeed, the same,
dazzling with snowy game,
with fondness its unlikely name,
the world will remain underhanded,
the world will remain forever,
perhaps it can be comprehended,
it has no limits, however.
Which means it will make no sense
to believe in yourself or Lord.
…And the things that remain are, hence,
the illusion and the road.
All sunsets remain in-service,
all daybreaks are still in splendor.
The soldier will muck earth’s surface.
The poet will be its defender.

Still from "Pilgrims."
Still from “Pilgrims.”

It may be helpful to understanding Brodsky’s “Pilgrims” to place it in a historical and biographical context. The post-Stalin Soviet Union was an unfriendly place for poets and artists, for intellectuals and progressives, for secular pilgrims, for seekers like Joseph Brodsky. Indeed, within a few years of writing the poem, Brodsky was charged with social parasitism, he was placed in a mental hospital and sentenced to hard labor, and later expelled from the country. He became a refugee, eventually settling in Vienna and later in the United States.

The poem and the film highlighted for me the connection between pilgrims and refugees. Both are seekers. And what they seek–sanctuary–may be reflected in the natural environment and hopefully is defended by the poets, by the humane, among us. I’m reminded of a line from a novel in progress by my friend Tom Teti: “Always the woods, he thought, always there. Civilization could try its best, but the forest would always be waiting outside the complicated endeavors of humans.”

The film captures the mood of sorrow and pain, and the quest for freedom, that has always marked the plight of the refugee, and which surely marks the tragic plight of the 65 million people who recently have been forced to leave their homes around the world. It is well worth five minutes of your emotional time.


You can view the film through the link above or through its Facebook page.