Interview With Alexey Filippov: How Russian Cinema Is Becoming More Profound

PERSONA
by Anastasia Odintsova
27.08.2020
August 27th is the Russian Cinema Day. This holiday was first celebrated in 1919. Since then, a lot has changed in our movie industry. The main thing is that in 1991, with the collapse of the USSR, Russian cinema became independent. A film reviewer Alexey Filippov compares modern Russian cinematography with Soviet and Western film production, talks about its trends and breaks stereotypes that our cinema is bad.
— What do you think are the fundamental differences between Russian and Soviet cinema?
— This is a very extensive question. Obviously, Soviet cinema included Russian one. It means that the fundamental difference is in scale. That was manifested not only in the quantity and quality of products. It broadcast to a large territory. Of course, Soviet cinema had units. There was Ukrainian, Belarusian cinema, etc. There were various studios responsible for local cinematography. When the USSR ceased to exist, it turned out that those cinematographies were connected much less than we imagined. Certainly, the countries of the former USSR have a lot of common experience. But they still have very different voices and realities. Maybe not radically different, but in many ways.

The big problem of the Russian cinema is the search for its own sound. Moreover, this is a search within a large country that is still trying to pretend itself a monolithic platform where we can make a general movie. But the further we move away from the Soviet era, the more we understand that this is actually impossible. Of course, there are some films that are sponsored by the Ministry of Culture and that lay claim to blockbuster status. That is, films which everyone can understand. But the global trend is to aim for more local groups. This trend is usually given inhuman names. For example, now many people say that a feministic tendency is appearing in the Russian cinema. After last year's Kinotavr it was said that Russia had begun to pay more attention to women and their problems. There's nothing surprising about that. Nevertheless, this discovery occurs late due to the habit of geographical, semantic and linguistic centralization. We accustomed ourselves to the vision that there was a monolithic USSR which allegedly produced exceptional masterpieces. Although, if we watch films released in the USSR, we will see that the movies which were burned into our brain are not the best. There were many hidden masterpieces - films that lay on the shelves or ones that were merely destroyed or forgotten. After all, Russian cinema, which is now trying to compete with Hollywood, and Soviet cinema are two completely different industries.

In order to fight Hollywood, you need the same developed industry where there will be many producers and directors. There must be a large number of workshops where each employee has their own value. And the main thing is that all this needs money. Obviously, the capital turnover of Hollywood is not comparable to the Russian one, no matter how much money our state, producers and private investors allocate. Therefore, this is a meaningless comparison. The game "catch up and overtake Hollywood" still continued in the 2000-s. Now it is slowing down.

Many trends in the Russian cinema are connected with the search for a national identity. Mass cinema, for example, T-34 (2018), Legend No. 17 (2012), is trying to find a new "Soviet" language based on Soviet DNA which would unite a new generation and people remembering the USSR. But these films don't seem to be like a completely universal answer. The most interesting things happen bypassing this central line which can also be called the "Party line". Few films are trying to get into this line, because many producers don't focus on the Ministry of Culture giving them money but the mass viewer. And this is not only a Russian problem. Roughly speaking, we don't know very well who goes to the cinema. There are some statistical calculations based on which we can draw conclusions about the tastes of the audience. But it happens that suddenly the film Kiss Them All! (2013) grosses furious money and becomes a box office hit. And there are both trash and elements of comedy, some cinematic finds, life and pain in this film. In general, it has many things that don't fit into the production formula. Besides, there is a festival movie and debut movie projects that are shot by people who are ready to find money and advance themselves. If you want to remain yourself and make a big-budget movie, then you need to earn a big name. For example, if Zvyagintsev had shot a historical film, then he would have had enough influence to insist on his own. Anyway, it would be very difficult. If you are a debutant, then you will be called to shoot comedies. As a result, you shoot a certain number of films that are treated snobbishly and dismissively like it was with Eduard Oganesyan. Then you shoot Chiki (2020) and everyone talks about how fresh and interesting it is, how you can see the same thing in different ways, how actors can work in the ensemble and feel unity.

Soviet cinema gives a feeling of the central voice. When people talk about the Soviet cinema, they recall familiar and universal situations. Therefore, the main disease that Russian cinema needs to fight with is faith in universality. Fortunately, now it is becoming rare, and more private stories appear. It distinguishes Russian cinema and periodically makes it more profitable than Soviet one. It is more profitable not in quality but in the search for its own intonation. Now we believe that there will be more feminist films in Russia. Previously, we had lots of movies about teenagers who fought with their parents. By the way, this struggle with the parental voice hinted that there would be a struggle with the "central theme" in our cinema. The relationship of teenagers and their parents seems to reflect the relationship of Russian and Soviet cinema. That is, no matter how good the parents are, the child still exists in the new world on their own. Russian cinema is such a young man who is experiencing the moment of his formation. It is interesting to see what this will lead to, though it is difficult to talk about any forecasts after the industry has stopped for six months. There is a feeling that now we have stopped and summed up. And what happens next will depend on how the industry recovers from the pandemic, what conclusions will be drawn by cinemas, producers, directors, etc.
— You said that now the feminist topic is increasingly being touched upon in the Russian cinema. What other topics and problems are now covered in our cinema? Which of them respond to world trends, and which answer to the request of Russian viewers?
– It seems to me that any problem which is covered in the cinema can be global. The only difference is that the global theme which arose on certain grounds has its own accents. For example, a few years ago the series Salam Maskva (2016) which touched upon the topics of xenophobia and racism was released. Surprisingly, there are very few such projects. On the other hand, it is not surprising at all because Russians have an idea that the problem of racial intolerance is not about them, that this is the favourite topic of Americans. But we face this problem much more often than we think. Since this has become more discussed in public space, there is a hope that this will be filmed more frequently. There is something to think about and what to shoot and it will be much more interesting than, for example, another comedy about rich parents and their children.

If we talk about national features, then, for example, there is a phenomenon of Yakut cinema which is being ascribed to the Russian cinema. But it is a separate cinematography with its own history, biography, cultural codes in which the Soviet past is mixed with Yakut life and folklore. And the influence of Japanese cinema is very strong there.

By the way, I think it is very interesting that many films touch upon the themes of history and our past jokingly or seriously, show attempts to interact with the past. For example, we can say that the film Serf (2019) is a reflection of our serf root. There are many questions about how this is shown. Some people believe that this is a kind of banter and a story about the benefits of flogging for the Russian viewer. It seems to me that the film would be more ambiguous if there were no final scene which showed that flogging helped to cure even Roma Acorn.

In general, the topic of history and how we should perceive historical experience - as exceptionally traumatic or as nostalgic - is a great field for reflection. The time for a global understanding of this topic has not come yet. There are some private cases, but mostly history is used in cinema as a background, often heroic. For example, the film Sputnik (2020) which has become one of the online hits of this year shows the 1980s in the Soviet culture very carefully. Of course, there are certain cultural cliches how to show the era of the 80s. But at the same time, it is interesting to see how time influences the person, how the experience of the past affects descendants, how descendants perceive that time. This topic is touched upon here tangentially, but it is still relevant throughout the world.

Each country has a time period which people want to reflect about. In this sense, Russia doesn't differ from other countries at all. Somewhere it is just more noticeable, somewhere - not that much. After all, we can correlate the so-called "new quiet ones" (that was the name of the group of such Russian directors as Popogrebsky, Serebrennikov, Khlebnikov who were shooting in the early 2000s because they were not as fiercely charged as, for example, the English new wave called angry young people) and the films that were called trash in the 2000s. But that was the cinema that tried to comprehend everyday reality in its not always pleasant language. And it means not only swearing but also the way that actors play. They speak non-cinematographically, stammer, behave illogically and too emotionally as if in horror films. Such cinema provokes thoughts about how this life differs from the happy cover of the film Heat (2006) or another glossy blockbuster where the sun is always shining, production placements are everywhere, luxurious foreign music plays and people pretend to live not in Russia but in Los Angeles. And this flirtation with the remnants of the post-Soviet American dream, which had a rather large force in the 1990s when foreign culture flooded our market, is also an obvious reflection of the time.

It seems to me that there have been a lot of events and attempts to reflect something in haste during these 30 years that have passed since the collapse of the USSR. We'll take a long time to sort it out. But, maybe, some directors believe that this doesn't need to be sorted out. Because the problems arise as soon as the audit begins. Someone makes the movie The Bull (2019) and someone makes the series World! Friendship! Chewing gum! (2020) Everyone sees something in different ways. The main irony is that there is no era in the Soviet past of Russia which can reconcile directors and viewers. This brings us back to what we started from - the absence of the central vector and disparate views on everything are potentially productive for cinema and society. Because attempts to impose some central line lead to misunderstanding. Therefore, now the main direction which Russian cinema is moving in is the awareness of itself as a non-universal thing. And when people say that something is bad in the Russian cinema (sometimes it has unsuccessful years) we need to understand that not any Russian matrix or Russian idea but many disparate views with their own aesthetics and themes can rally people and make cinema better. We need local projects like those which gradually appear in Hollywood. Here we are close to the world vector but with a certain delay. And there is always fear that a backflow will start and there won't be such free series as Chiki, reflecting on what we haven't thought about before.
— Recently we were talking about the cinema with my colleagues and I was faced with skepticism about the Russian cinema. How do you assess the success of modern Russian cinema? Can you challenge the stereotype that it is not particularly appreciated in the world?
– You can just make up a table of participation of Russian films in different festivals. You can take at least the Big Three: Cannes, Venice, Berlin. Every year at least one of these festivals presents at least one Russian film. So, in terms of recognition, we're called to a party. Sokurov and Zvyagintsev are called. The graduates of MSNC (Moscow School of New Cinema) participate in film festivals, mostly in Berlin, because this festival is more focused on Europe's connection with the Soviet communist experience. On the other hand, when we talk about the success of the Russian cinema on the world stage, we don't need to consider this the Olympics. There is no need to think that we are invited there as the bisons of cinema. In general, I am not sure that countries are coming to film festivals just because they're absolutely fine. Relatively speaking, there is no American or Romanian film team. Although usually Romanian films that are brought to festivals are excellent. Maybe, they are more excellent for Russian viewers because they have a lot of recognizable Soviet context and issues close to us.

Maybe, it's our inner pride in that fact that long ago, around the 1920s, there were Sergei Eisenstein or Dziga Vertov, people who "invented" the cinema as it is. Then our films were rarely brought to festivals because there was a corresponding political situation; some films were not allowed or film crews were not permitted to leave the country.

We can say that now there is a trend for the Russian cinema. It is as interesting as the African cinema or the cinema of former Yugoslav countries. It is treated as something a little outlandish and exotic. And there is certainly someone who says that damned Zvyagintsev works for export. You can always suspect someone of something and there are always many different motives that are difficult to take into account. You can't ignore the policy of the festival and its internal logic. For example, Balabanov or Khlebnikov are much less invited to festivals than they could be. And there are many such directors who could go to festivals but didn't do that for some reason. This is a huge behind-the-scenes story that is difficult to analyze.

I think that the reward is not that thing which should hurt skeptics. These skeptics can say that festival cinema is for critics, for those who love slow films (with long frames and minimal editing), for pseudo aesthetes. In fact, the only way to convince the Russians that our cinema is not what they think of it is to show them this cinema. It doesn't mean that we need to do more film sessions. It can be a dialogue of critics and viewers who are interested in the Russian cinema and talk about it. Normal Russian cinema won't receive its pure karma if it isn't told about. For example, I constantly stumble upon posts in the media where people say that they have discovered many cool Russian films. Half of them are usually from Kinotavr but there are also many more local and Soviet stories.

I mostly believe in the force of each separate movie but not in any awards, a box office, cash records, advertising, etc. Even if all critics write that some film is brilliant, I mostly believe that the movie itself can change the viewers' opinion. Relatively speaking, many critics spoke positively about Alexei German's film Hard to Be a God (2013) but probably most Russians haven't seen it yet. We are always squeezed into the fact that we have a certain focus center - films that go to the box office or which are shot by famous directors such as Nikita Mikhalkov, Andrei Konchalovsky, etc. And there are local films that are shot by less famous directors or debutants, but which also need to be talked about. For example, there is a film A Russian Youth (2018) which was presented at the Berlin Festival. Critics have written a lot about this film, but people have still heard little about it, although there's something in it to watch. This is a very cinematographic and poetic film shot by a Sokurov's disciple. Here you can find the signs of the Soviet cinema that will be close to viewers who love the visual code of the Soviet cinema. But, again, you need to talk and write a lot about it. This is the only way to change people's opinion about our cinema. Though, in general, it seems to me that now people begin to hate Russian cinema less. Perhaps my surroundings are just more optimistic.
— Most likely, it really depends on the surroundings. Because, as I've already said, there are many people around me who don't like Russian cinema. I think it's 50/50. There will always be this thing when one half of the people love something and the other half don't.
– Here also works the principle that native things annoy you more.
— Because you're trying to look for flaws, aren't you?
– And this, too. You're always a little harder on loved ones. The general information field is still perceived as something very close. On the other hand, it's like history. Everyone has their own opinion about what happened at that time, how you can show it, how you really need to speak. All people speak differently. There is a realistic manner of conversation but even this doesn't allow you to convey everything accurately. Everyone has a different manner of speech. For example, a very drunk person comes up to you at the station and begins to speak as if someone has written this text for him. His speech pours without stumbling, and you think, "If only I could speak in such a way." Sometimes the opposite happens. There are strange expressions that are typical for an individual person or a community. Therefore, when we watch some Russian film we begin to try it on our lives in order to find out whether it is true or not. You perceive it as something that requires verification. Some films may not pass such an exam. For example, we don't always understand how convincing intonation in American films is, how literary-centric or inappropriately aphoristic the texts that actors pronounce are, what controversy is going on around the historical moment that is touched upon in the film. Since we have echoes of this in our heads, the attitude to each next film is more complex. It depends on how many films we have seen. For example, Kantemir Balagov is compared with Antonioni (Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni) because Antonioni also loved the semantic colors in the frame. And they are compared not in favor of the first one. But, of course, if you compare a young director with the maitre you can find the failure of the first one. Such a hierarchy of comparisons is not always appropriate because their films are different in terms of time and topics, even if they seem to be resembling. There can be completely different accents in these films. Of course, this helps us to build a picture of the world in our head and separate good films from bad ones. But, in fact, it is absolutely unproductive to compare, for example, Zvyagintsev or Serebrennikov with Abdrashitov. They are not trying to make a film by Abdrashitov. Based on his techniques, his language expressions and his attitude to reality, they build their own new approach to speaking.

We don't always understand where profanation is or where a person tries to squeeze as much as possible into the frame and keep it vague, and where they are actually experimenting. The most understandable thing is when we check the film for realism. For example, like BadComedian (Russian YouTube blogger and film reviewer) who examines the film in terms of its historical inconsistency or goofs. Although the goofs may be not actually the goofs, but the details motivated by the internal logic of the film which can be not realistic but masquerade, mythological, etc. Of course, BadComedian doesn't analyze conceptual films. Nevertheless, some of them can be perceived in such a way. Therefore, since we have a lot of languages, both literal dialects and figurative languages, this sends us into a tailspin. Human psychology is trying to squeeze everything to some point and clear a space. It's difficult, especially when it touches the place where you live.
— I've understood from your words that it's difficult and not always appropriate to compare cinema of different countries. However, what do you think we should learn from the West? From Hollywood, for example.
– I suspect a lot of useful industrial experience could be adopted.That is, in the sphere of working relations, protection of the filmmakers' rights, etc. But I'm afraid it's not my field of activity that's why I can't say exactly what we have and what we don't.

If we talk about the artistic part, then it would be nice for us to "adopt" the Sundance Festival. This is a platform where young directors can start. The first few films are always very difficult. The debut is especially difficult if you are looking for money by yourself. The second film is complicated because you are having a creative crisis. And if you're not picked up by a big producer, you need money again.

Independent films often have no exits. If you were shown at Kinotavr, it doesn't mean that your film will be released. And if you made a short film, God forbid, then it is not very clear where to show it. There are some platforms like Pilgrim or YouTube where you can present it and even earn something. But, frankly, if you receive 500 rubles a month for your short film, then you will never even come close to making a second independent film. Although sometimes there are short films that cause a lot of boom among the audience, critics and representatives of the industry. But it happens rarely.

If we need new names, then we should create a platform for these new names' appearance. And it is desirable that people who select films are as different in their views as possible. Because it is easy to reduce any platform to tunnel vision and make a festival where there are 10 films in the spirit of Tarantino. Unfortunately, many modern Russian directors, having once watched Pulp Fiction (1994), dream of shooting Pulp Fiction. It seems to me that even Tarantino himself doesn't dream of shooting anything similar. And lots of American directors understand that this era has passed and many other wonderful films have been made over 26 years. But every year there are one or two films that try to get into this track. After all, Tarantino is a cinephile and learned to shoot by himself. We aren't worse, are we? Now there are many video lessons on the Internet where you can find out how to write a script, shoot, set light, and then try to do something by yourself. But, again, if there were more extensive support, it could yield results. I think that in terms of artistic quality we have nothing to adopt from the West except the ability not to get into the track and to look for new things and authors who can offer these things.
— Many Russian actors leave to work in America at the peak of their career and try to achieve the same success there as in their homeland. But their attempts to become famous there often end in failure. Why do you think it happens?
– It seems to me that there are many factors. Firstly, there is a great competition. Secondly, you need to start your career again to break into Hollywood. You rarely come there as a star. Besides, you need to speak English, not Russian, so, some features of the play may appear. Despite the fact that the school of Lee Strasberg (an American director, actor and founder of the acting school where Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and many other great Hollywood actors studied) is somehow based on Stanislavsky's school, American and Russian films differ in the manner of the play. It doesn't mean that something is better or worse. They're just different. Or watch, for example, an American and Austrian versions of Michael Haneke's Funny Games (2007). Despite the fact that this film is almost frame-by-frame reshot, there is a fundamental difference between how restrained and realistic Austrian actors are and how Tim Roth-level actors stand out against their background. Tim Roth knows the technique brilliantly. Nevertheless, in this situation he plays differently than he could play, as if there are rules which Haneke tried to flirt with and which he strived to analyze.

Also, a success or a failure depend on what roles can be offered to actors. Obviously, Russian actors won't be called for the main role in the action movie. If suddenly Hollywood tries to pretend to be Babylon and make cinema more diverse, among other things, they will have to solve the problem with the participation of African American and Asian American actors which is more problematic for them than attracting European actors. British actors most often go to Hollywood to play villains just because they have good pronunciation, posture, etc. Russian actors mostly play the same roles. For example, Danila Kozlovsky starred in some monstrous vampire film about the school (Vampire Academy (2014). I don't remember whether he continued his career in the US. Anyway, it's not easy. You exchange big fees and loud success in Russia for smaller fees, roles and attention in America where you again need to break through. You can achieve nothing and lose 5-10 years of your life when you could play in Russia.
— The pandemic seems to have put an end to another chapter in the history of the world cinema. But what happens next? What do you think may change in our cinema in the near future?
– Honestly, I don't like predictions. I'm in the mood for fantasizing what happens next only once every six months. Most likely, you will never predict. You can say that the industry is going to sink now because it's already lost a lot of money, that it's going to be tightened up. This is not tightening up in the political sense. Although, in the political sense, too. For example, once it was decided to ban swearing. (This refers to the law of July 1, 2014, prohibiting the use of profanity in television and radio broadcasts, film distribution and public performance of art works). Now the swearing is either bleeped out or comically excluded, or the actors begin to speak in a very correct language. By the way, this is very painful for displaying reality. On the other hand, the predicted period of poverty may force producers to look for new ways and new directors, to use those ideas that were previously considered not cool enough. I want to believe that after the pandemic people will reflect more. Producers and directors will think more about what they want to shoot - another universal story or a more personal, individual one.

Of course, cinemas will not come back to the numbers that were before the pandemic. There are frightening stories that these numbers will never be filled again, because the war between streaming services and cinemas makes you watch more on the Internet. Surprisingly, the film industry has ignored this for many years. That is, streaming was noted as an important thing behind which the future is, but cinemas remained the main ones. When the cinemas closed, everyone was thinking about what to do for a long time. Not every company ventured to release their films online, doubting that they could make money on it.

My main forecast or, to put it more correctly, my main hope is that there will be more reflection on what we are spending our efforts on. This will also affect the viewers who will have to decide what they want to watch in conditions of excess information - Union of Salvation (2019), because it is trumpeted about from everywhere, or a film that impresses them more. The same thing concerns producers and directors. There should be more meaningful work. There is no need to make 10 identical films. They won't become more attractive to the viewers. It's a utopia. I expect that at least 10% of my hopes will come true and we will have more of such series as Chiki and such films as Sputnik.
— Finally, what films can you advise for understanding the national features of the Russian cinema better?
– I think it is useful to watch Alexey Fedorchenko's film Angels of Revolution (2014), because it perfectly shows Soviet mythology, its clash with the mythology of the northern peoples and, in general, the large role of mythology, of those images and wild guesses that are commonly called insignificant compared to realism. This film unusually shows quite real historical events. Almost everything that is shown there could really exist. For example, a monument to Judah which existence is confirmed by documents. Of course, we can find fault with the reliability of these documents. But the fact is that every strange thing that is shown there is taken from some source describing the USSR of those times when the vanguard was in honor and combined with the Party line.

It is also useful to see the tetralogy Moloch (1999) - Taurus (2000) - The Sun (2005) - Faust (2011) by Alexander Sokurov, especially the first two films, because they show Lenin and Hitler, the most important core of our historical pain.

It is very interesting to watch Kantemir Balagov's films, no matter how poppy it sounds. For example, Closeness (2017) tells about Nalchik in the 1990s. On the one hand, this film shows the end of the USSR and the beginning of new Russia, a time when a lot of different processes took place. On the other hand, it is a reminder for a generation that has grown at that time and remembers it tangentially. It is very difficult to select an intonation here. I think Balagov did it well. Beanpole (2019) is interesting in terms of showing how the language is connected with our life and with the historical moment, how difficult it is to pick the words and build a new reality, and how the language takes part in this. There are very strange, a little literary, a little massive dialogues in this film. They show how a renewed life is being born on a burned earth. And it is related to the speech, the humans and their biological state.

It is quite curious to watch Nigina Sayfullaeva's films Name Me (2014) and Fidelity (2019). These are rather frank films, although this is not the most important thing about them. There are a lot of claims about how a woman is objectified and shown as a cliche in Fidelity. However, it has something to reflect about. Maybe, you can understand something interesting about Russian society during the controversy with this film. It was perceived as a revelation in a good sense at Kinotavr. If you don't perceive it in the same way as it was at Kinotavr, then, maybe, this film will give you an answer why it was perceived this way. After all, each film can be watched not only in the way we can understand it but also in terms of how it was accepted by others.

It is also interesting to see the series School (2010) and the film Everybody Dies but Me (2008) by Valeriya Gai Germanika. This is a rather stern demonstration of school life. Everybody Dies but Me is a mythical film about the transition to adulthood which is shown as some kind of tribal ritual here. Both the film and the series can be useful for perceiving modern reality. Although they no longer look so relevant, since they came out in late 2000s - early 2010s.

The film Acid (2018), which was considered the anthem of the generation, also seems to me not so relevant. But it is useful to watch it, too. Here are these few films I would advise.
— This is already a lot. I think we've appreciated the Russian cinema in a positive way to spite all the skeptics.
– Actually, I love the Russian cinema. It is undeservedly underestimated. You just need to dig in and find a movie that will be a key to your heart.
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