Heroes on the Edge: An Interview with Alexei Uchitel

Alexei Uchitel is the leading Russian director whose features regularly receive awards at international and domestic festivals. He was born to the family of the acclaimed documentary filmmaker Efim Uchitel, who is known for his chronicles about Leningrad’s blockade during World War II. By following the footsteps of his father, he started his career as a documentary filmmaker and, among others, produced his documentary Rock (1987), which is still considered the most representative portrayal of the underground rock-n-roll culture in the late Soviet Union. Being versatile in genre and style, he equally excels in drama, teen comedy, biopic, action thriller, and period features. In all his films he poignantly explores mysterious aspects of human psychology with utmost realistic precision and dramatism.

After his directorial debut with historical melodrama Mania of Giselle (1995), he became truly famous with his biopic His Wife’s Diary (2000) narrating the last love affair of Ivan Bunin, the first Russian writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. In his next feature The Stroll (2003), screened in the 2018 Russian Film Week in New York this December, Uchitel’s camera follows two young men and a girl walking along St. Petersburg’s streets in real time and makes us witnesses of their burgeoning love triangle. His Dreaming of Space (2005) takes an intimate look at the late 1950s characterized by both romantic aspirations, initiated by Khrushchev’s Thaw, as well as human rights violations inherent in the Soviet regime. His action thriller The Edge, the 2010 Golden Globe Award Nominee, focuses on the love affair of a disgraced train engineer, exiled to a remote labor camp by Stalin, and a German young woman hiding in the Siberian woods throughout the entire WWII. In his Break Loose (2013) Uchitel adapts Zakhar Prilepin’s story about the rampant criminality of the late 1990s in newly capitalist Russia. His costume melodrama Matilda (2017) tells the story about the romantic relationship between ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya and Nicholas II. For local cinema goers, however, Uchitel’s latest feature will be mostly remembered for its controversy among hardcore Russian Christians, condemning and attempting to ban it for the “blasphemous” erotic scenes with Nicholas II, canonized to sainthood by the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000.

The festival will be screening your Stroll by celebrating its 15th anniversary. Why is this film so dear to you? And how much is it influenced by the French New Wave and Thaw cinema?

It’s dear to me because it was born somewhat spontaneously. Our scriptwriter Avdotya Smirnova approached me with an idea to make an hour-and-a-half movie in real time about two men and a girl walking along St Petersburg’s streets, in which the entire stroll would always be present within the frame.  The way we were shooting it was quite experimental: with amateur handheld camera, in the real setting, although with some extras among the passersby on the Nevsky Prospect, with extremely long takes, some of which were even around twenty minutes. So the influence is certainly there but it was not intentional or theoretically informed. It is rather the film’s dramatic composition that made it look that way. While working on it we were mostly concerned about its emotional impact and how it could win the viewer’s trust. I think we succeeded in that. I mean we managed to create a truly authentic impression that this stroll was not filmed on camera but rather observed by a random passerby, in which everything seems to be real. By the way, we had multiple situations in which real life got mixed up with the shooting process. For example, there was a scene at St. Isaac’s Cathedral in which our lead actress Irina Pegova faints. The scene turned out to be so real that some of the tourists standing nearby run to help her. So it took some time to convince them that we were just making a movie.

You work with multiple genres and each of your films is unlike the other. In what genre do you feel yourself most comfortable?

I would say the genre I am working in is always the same: it’s drama. But in terms of form, yes, I often employ elements of comedy or thriller. What I try to achieve in all of my films is that each time in its form it will become something new for me.  This concerns both my small budget features as well as more ambitious ones, like The Edge or Matilda. But what unifies them all is the type of hero who gets into a critical situation from which there is no conventional way out and in which it is necessary to come up with something absolutely new and ground-breaking, both mentally and physically. And it is precisely this liminal state of half-madness that I have always been interested in.

Your films are often set in Russia’s past. Is it because you are truly into period features or it is somehow difficult to make movies on contemporary life in Russia?

As I mentioned before, I am primarily interested in the hero caught up in a critical situation. And history is rich with such material. So it’s a matter of coincidence, I think. Take Ivan Bunin in my His Wife’s Diary, for example, or Nicholas II with Mathilde Kschessinska in Matilda. Or even The Stroll or Break Loose, which are set in modern life.  You know, the problem is that there are very few truly interesting scripts on contemporary life. Not just in Russia, but in world cinema as well, although in Russian cinema this deficit is more palpable. This is why I borrow stories from literature, like Makanin’s The Captive or Prilepin’s Break Loose. Unlike literature, our contemporary scriptwriters don’t really have much to offer. So far the problem lies in this only. As soon as I come across an interesting story set in contemporary reality, then, of course, I’ll work with it, given how many controversial events happen today. I don’t know, sometimes I think that Russian cinema is somewhat genetically unable to respond to actual events right away, that for some reason we need some time before get back to them.

Your Dreaming of Space is focused on two friends who are ideologically antithetical: one is a pro-Soviet dreamer, the other an anti-Soviet dissident. Yet visually they are almost indistinguishable. How does this film parallel the current state of post-Soviet memory in which the tragic and the heroic seem to be inseparable? Do you think the film is still relevant today?

You summed up the film’s message quite well. Dreaming of Space is especially dear to me.  I remember how I first read Aleksandr Mindadze’s script, who was working with Vadim Abdrashitov at the time, and how much I was struck by what you are referring to as well as its supreme literary quality and emotional power unlike anything else.  Luckily for me, the script was still available for adaptation, which made our collaboration possible. For me this story was a parable very typical of Mindadze and the film, I think, did a pretty good job in expressing it both visually and emotionally. Recently I happened to come across it being aired on TV, around 2 AM or so, and, believe it or not, I sat through the entire movie from beginning to end. Not because I am a fan of my own movies, I usually don’t rewatch them at all.  But this time I was stricken by how easily it won my attention. And I was not following how it was made technically. What I noticed, while watching it, is that even after years this film is still quite contemporary today and can stir our mind pretty powerfully. So I was surprised to see how this parallel of which you are talking about is still relevant today.

Your film The Edge seems to largely borrow motifs from Yuli Raizman’s Communist (1958) as well as the aesthetics of socialist romanticism in general. Why is that?

Yes, we discussed Raizman’s Communist during our film production but we didn’t borrow anything from it directly, I swear. It was not our task to imitate Raizman’s style at all. As with other films, the stimulus to this film was primarily a good script. If in the shooting process the film starts resembling style and ideas of another one, so be it. If there were some overlaps with Communist, they were not conscious or direct and they concern mostly the character of our hero, such as fanaticism and other behavioral patterns minus ideological content.  In both Communist and The Edge, the hero, being a warrior, gets into a situation in which he doesn’t know how to act. As with other films, here I was mainly interested in how the hero would find his way out and by what cost.

How would you comment on the State Duma deputy Natalia Poklonskaya’s attempt to ban your Matilda as well as the hype and hysteria that it provoked?

There is certainly much absurdity in all that, especially when a person wants to ban a film without having watched it. Maybe Ms. Poklonskaya had a chance to see it after all, but when she started the campaign against Matilda, it was still in film production. She claimed she received one hundred thousand letters of support to ban the film. But after the investigation assigned by the state’s special committee it turned out she got only three or five thousand of them. The rumors about the proportion of this campaign were very much exaggerated, although there were really strange protests, such as the small extremist groups of militant Orthodoxy, one of which is now being on trial for setting a car on fire in front of a movie theater.  All this hysteria was mostly generated by mass media, since Ms. Poklonskaya is a public persona often attracting people’s attention. I was even accused for having a secret deal with her to promote my film, which was a total rubbish, of course. All this did give some publicity to the film to a certain degree, but there was more harm done to it, because, thanks to this hype, most audiences were expecting to see some lurid pulp fiction in it. I wish my film was viewed with different eyes. Besides, as a result of this, the film was poorly marketed. Even though it was scheduled for the big screen, no trailer was run on television to advertise it, which was then followed by modest box office results. Nevertheless, I am somewhat proud we won this battle eventually. Had we lost it, other movies could’ve followed our suit. In fact, before Matilda few stage performances were already banned, some in Moscow, another in Novosibirsk, for example. I think there should be only one criterion in restricting the film’s distribution: if a film breaks the law, then yes, it should be banned, no doubt about it. But if such intention is coming from an emotionally unstable politician, this could lead only to countless and costly investigations.

What do you think about the decision of the Russian ministry of culture to ban Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin in Russia?

I don’t think this is right, even though I haven’t seen it. But from what I heard about it, I couldn’t find anything illegal there.

Many State Duma deputies voted to ban it…

You know, this reminds me of how my Matilda was critiqued by mostly those who didn’t really see it. The difference is that the Kremlin did arrange the screening of my film for the deputies before they take a decision, and they were truly surprised to see nothing there of what they heard about it. Had the Kremlin organize the screening of The Death of Stalin for those protesting deputies – and I am sure none of them had a chance to see it – nothing like that would have happen. You know, Russians often do this: they have this infamous tendency to condemn something without actually reading or seeing it.

Russian cinema is being largely supported by state funding yet there are very few movies which succeed both in terms of quality as well as box office earnings. Why do you think this is so?   

Yes, state funding makes up a very significant part of the film’s budget, although the rest we still have to obtain from other sources. So far we have to be thankful to the state since Russian cinema is still alive only thanks to the state’s large investments. As for the quality, it has always been a rarity noticeable in five or six features on the backdrop of amorphous film production. Unlike American cinema, Russian film industry is missing the cinema of average quality in a good sense of the term. I think it is the quality of professional average cinema that we have to improve here. For example, with the output of eighty movies a year it would be great to have at least forty of them which are solidly average in quality. I am sure that with sufficiently high average level we could have more talented movies. For the last two years, however, there’s been a significant improvement in the average level of Russian films well reflected in box office returns, which is certainly a good thing.

Any new project you are working on right now?

I am currently working on the project tentatively titled Forty-Seven and dedicated to Viktor Tsoi. Forty-Seven is the title of his last album later renamed as The Black Album. I started thinking to make this film long ago, right after Viktor got killed in a car crash in 1990. Although I knew him personally, this feature won’t be about him exactly. This will be a road movie in which the coffin with his body is being transported by his relatives and friends from Jurmala to Leningrad in a three-day journey. The main hero here will be the driver of that infamous bus with which Viktor’s car collided. And the same man was driving the bus with Tsoi’s body back to Leningrad. What I want to explore in this film is not so much Tsoi’s life or personality but the mysterious impact of his legacy on multiple generations in Russia.  I am also developing a project about Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich.

How did you like Kirill Serebrennikov’s Summer which came out this year and which is also on Viktor Tsoi?

I liked it very much, it’s a really good movie in terms of atmosphere, mood, and acting. But Serebrennikov’s is an absolutely different story about Tsoi. Mine will be more like a post-scriptum to Tsoi’s life rather than a biopic itself in which there won’t even be an actor playing him. It will be a story which starts off right after his death.

Sergey Toymentsev is Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics at Florida State University as well as Senior Researcher at Russian Institute for Advanced Studies, Moscow State Pedagogical University. He received his PhD in Comparative Literature from Rutgers University in 2014. He is currently working on his book manuscript entitled Deleuze and Russian Film, which offers a Deleuzean history of Soviet and Russian cinema from Eisenstein to Sokurov. His articles and reviews have appeared in Journal of Philosophy: A Cross-Disciplinary Inquiry, Comparative Literature Studies, Scope, Studies in Russian & Soviet Cinema, Film Criticism, KinoKultura and others.

Source: Film International