The chill voice of Russia
Many of my formative years as a film-maker were spent in Russia during the crazy and turbulent years of Perestroika and Glasnost. Despite Communism collapsing all around us, making movies in Russia in the late eighties and early nineties was a thrilling experience. Then, studio bosses were all powerful and controlled every aspect of production. However, the Union of Directors, a plush but crumbling club-house near the Moscow river, was filled with unemployed members. No money for production; only Soviet film stock and an expected shooting ration of one to one and a nation in thrall to everything Western. I struck a deal to do a co-production on a major TV series where I had access to everything the Moscow studios had to offer for the price of a portable photo-copier, a fax machine and basic computer. I subsequently financed a low-budget Russian film for the price of a second-hand Mercedes driven from East Berlin to Moscow.
Later, having moved my operations to St. Petersburg, home of my business partner, I entered into a protracted and ultimately failed negotiation to ‘acquire’ the Documentary Studio there, home to ancient and decrepit equipment and a demoralised and idle workforce. Wild times indeed.
My love-affair with Soviet cinema was cemented at film school when, literally frame by frame, we dissected Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 propaganda masterpiece Battleship Potemkin. Back in the late sixties and early seventies as British cinemas fell into decline one or two flee-pits survived in some small towns, included mine, Reigate. It was there I first saw Andrei Tarkovsky, starting with his 1966 classic, Andrei Rublev, showing to an empty theatre. At film school I spent seven hours watching – and dozing – through Sergey Bondarchuk’s epic War and Peace and of course, plenty of Tarkovsky.
In 1979, however, the USSR State Cinema Committee published an homage to its directors, Soviet Cinema and I am the proud owner of a copy which serves as a reminder to me of just how great Russian film makers could be. Yet, during my years in Russia it seemed as if there was no hope for Russian talent. It seemed to have lost its voice. There was one exception, the Oscar nominated Close to Eden, made on a shoe-string in 1991 by Nikita Mikhalkov. If you haven’t seen this film I strongly recommend you find a copy. But now Russia has Andrey Zvyagintsev, who came to Moscow as an aspiring actor at this time. His latest work, which makes Ingmar Bergman look light like entertainment, Loveless, is stunning; a real tour-de-force, and I think the most important and brilliant exploration of contemporary Russia. However, it also holds up a mirror to all of us, especially those who imagine that we are somehow different to our fellow humans in the east. Reflecting on the travails of his country, Zvyagintsev has now given us a string of genuine masterpieces.
If Loveless doesn’t win Best Foreign Language Film at the BAFTA’s this year I shall scream! His break as a director came when, in 2003 he made a low-budget film enabling him to break away from the western-inspired trash of Russian TV drama. The Return has become a cult classic and when I saw it I felt that finally I was seeing the true voice of Russia. This was followed by a better funded film, The Banishment in 2007 and then in 2011 Elena which picked up a large number of gongs. Russia was in love with Zvyagintsev.
That all changed in 2014 with the release of Leviathan. It caused outrage in certain quarters in Russia, with its damning critique of Russian values and systemic political corruption. I had fervently hoped this film would win both a BAFTA and an Oscar. Despite being nominated for both it didn’t.
With just five feature films under his belt, the 54-year-old Zvyagintsev I hope, has a long career ahead of him. I cannot wait for his next film.