Looking beyond Soviet patrimony

DOHA: The films of Andrey Zvyagintsev offer a vibrant document of Russia’s post-Soviet condition. His films are so close to that condition, in fact, that it’s difficult to imagine him making a film outside Russia. “I can’t imagine myself making films outside Russia either,” he mused through translator Alla Verlotsky. “All my movies are in Russian language, set, cast, produced and made in Russia.

“In any other territory I’d just be a tourist and would likely make films from that perspective.”

That doesn’t mean he refuses to make cinema overseas.

Zvyagintsev says he’s inspired by the success Ang Lee has enjoyed working outside China.

“I’ve been approached to make films outside Russia,” he replied, almost smiling. “So far I haven’t accepted because I haven’t come across the right material. To go outside Russia and make a film, the project and material must be so convincing that I am without doubts.”

Zvyagintsev has been one of six prominent international filmmakers contributing to this year’s edition of Qumra, the Doha Film Institute’s film incubator for first- and second-time filmmakers.

As one of six “masters,” the Oscar-nominated director has participated in post-screening Q&As with the audience, conducted a public master class (moderated by NYU film scholar and veteran festival programmer Richard Pena) and offered advice to a number of film projects DFI’s developing.

During his interview with The Daily Star Tuesday, Zvyagintsev reflected upon where he places his work within the Russian film tradition – thus the extraordinary inheritance of Soviet cinema.

Late in Zvyagintsev’s master class, staged Monday, an audience member asked about his 2003 debut feature “The Return,” which follows a week in the life of two teenage brothers whose father (who’d been absent for 12 years) abruptly returns.

To what extent, a young man asked, was this film inspired by the work of iconic Soviet-era auteur Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986), specifically his 1979 film “Stalker.”

Zvyagintsev ruminated upon how filmmakers don’t find inspiration in cinema alone. Neither is influence restricted by national borders. If they want to find and develop a voice of their own, young artists must move beyond imitation to internalize their influences.

This rumination was prefaced by a confession. “Frankly,” he said, “I last watched ‘Stalker’ in 1982 ... so it could not inspire ‘The Return.’”

It was followed by something like an expression of bemusement.

“Ten years ago I decided I’d never refer to Tarkovsky,” he smiled slightly, “but I’m not succeeding.”

As he said during his master class, his youthful rise to the Russian cinema elite was conditioned by the Soviet collapse.

“1991 was a crucial year for the former Soviet Union,” he said through his translator. “The country unraveled and simply disappeared.

“There were no boundaries, no structures, nothing. It was like the ‘Wild East.’ It was very disorienting.

“At the same time, it was very encouraging, because you got the idea that, as a newcomer, you could do anything and everything because there were no new rules that yet applied. As a new graduate of the theater acting school, I had the nerve to say, ‘I can direct TV commercials.’ And that’s what I did in 1993.

“There were two sides to the coin. On one hand you could be very opportunistic, like me. ... There were plenty of people like me, newcomers, just taking chances.

“On the other hand, some who were in the film profession for many, many years were cast out because they couldn’t adjust to new market conditions. We lost a lot of very important filmmakers at the time.

“One friend of mine, who’d been prominent [before 1991], started doing interior design for restaurants. He never returned to the industry.

“With such freedom, with so few boundaries, there was a big space for newcomers like me who wanted to create and experiment. In 2000 [Russian broadcaster] REN-TV commissioned me to direct a segment of a TV series ‘Chyornaya Komnata’ [Black Room]. The producer said, ‘Let’s try the first one. If it works, we’ll continue.’

“After three episodes Dmitriy Lesnevskiy, one of the series producers, said to me, ‘Why don’t we stop this and embark on a full-length film project?’ I said, ‘You mean 35 mm and Dolby sound?’ ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘exactly that.’ He was one of those inspiring Russian producers who was able to risk supporting young talent. Lesnevskiy went on to produce ‘The Return.’”

Zvyagintsev’s films occasionally include sequences that read like confrontations between Soviet and post-Soviet Russians.

His Oscar-nominated “Loveless” follows the scalding relationship of a young couple on the verge of divorce when they learn that their 12-year-old son Aleksey has run away. At one point the parents (Boris and Zhenya) and a volunteer with an organization dedicated to finding runaways leave Moscow to see if Aleksey is with his grandmother, Zhenya’s mother.

In a film festooned with corrosive exchanges that leave you thoroughly disliking Boris and Zhenya, this sequence is a master class in embittered, empathy-free miscommunication between two generations. You won’t like Zhenya and Boris afterward, but you are left with a sense of how such creatures are formed.

“I consider this scene to be the most terrifying in the film,” Zvyagintsev remarked during his master class. You must be “looking from outside our culture [to] see it as comic. Otherwise it’s really tough.

“The mother character is a child of Russian socialism. The sense of lovelessness that she carries [is representative of her generation]. I know many of her generation in Russia today who are like her. Naturally Zhenya, her daughter, carries all the same baggage as her mother, including the absence of love.”

Zvyagintsev does regret one aspect of this powerful sequence.

“While launching ‘Loveless’ in Russia ... I felt that it probably shifts responsibility from the parents to their inheritance of such behavior and attitudes and morality. This isn’t what I advocate. I strongly believe that we are responsible for our own actions, for love, for absence of love – not the people whose behavior patterns we inherit.” He told Pena that he didn’t intend this sequence to be read as a conflict between Soviet and post-1991 Russians.

Speaking for himself – he doesn’t reflect the opinions the opinions of his contemporaries and colleagues – Zvyagintsev feels no need to distance himself from the inheritance of Soviet cinema. He simply doesn’t want to be seen exclusively in those terms.

“I have no urge to distance myself ... because in contemporary Russia people are more interested in non-Soviet cinema,” he told The Daily Star. “The genuine interest belongs to world cinema – the work of Bergman, Kurosawa, Bresson, Antonioni – more than local heritage. Georgian cinema has many commonalities with Italian cinema, for instance, which is curious to me.

“I don’t reflect in any way Freudian notions of dependence on the father. I have many fathers from all over the world,” he paused.

“Of course Tarkovsky and his Russian contemporaries belong to that fraternity.

“As Nabokov said,” the director smiled, “‘Art is priceless because it’s senseless.’”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 15, 2018, on page 16.




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