Toward a Poetics of Authenticity. The Hope Factory and the New Wave of Russian Women Filmmakers

Toward a Poetics of Authenticity. The Hope Factory and the New Wave of Russian Women Filmmakers

A Conversation with Natalia Meshchaninova

Author
Oksana Chefranova
Abstract
Natalia Meshchaninova is a prominent representative of the new wave of women filmmakers emerging in Russia since 2010. Exploring the micropolitics of gender and location, this new generation of women directors reclaims authenticity as an essential quality of their representations. The conversation with Meshchaninova revolves around the director’s feature debut Kombinat “Nadezhda” / The Hope Factory (2014), cinematic authorship, her ongoing interest in forms that fall between documentary and fiction, the omitted time of documentary, the notion of authenticity, as well as the manifestation of authenticity in speech, camerawork, directing actors and the choice and cinematic treatment of location. This interview, taking place at Yale University in March 2016 during Meshchaninova and scriptwriter Lubov Mulmenko’s visit, was originally conducted in Russian.
Keywords
Natal’ia Meshchaninova; Marina Razbezhkina; Liubov’ Mul’menko; Russia; women filmmakers; The Hope Factory; authenticity, documentary.

Director Natalia Meshchaninova. 2013. Photo by Denis Klebleev. Image courtesy of Natalia Meshchaninova.
Watching a Take. 2013. Photo by Denis Klebleev. Image courtesy of N. Meshchaninova.

In her 2015 article on gender and the cultural politics of Russian cinema, film critic Anzhelika Artiukh describes a phenomenon she calls “the explosion” of films made by women filmmakers who have been emerging in Russia since 2010 (Artiukh, 2015: 103). Russia indeed has been witnessing an unprecedented and growing number of women filmmakers — during the 25th Kinotavr Open Russian Film Festival in 2014, eight of the fourteen directors who premiered their work in the main competition were women (Condee, 2014). It would not be premature to claim that the recent wave of Russian cinema has become largely defined by a new multi-vocal generation of women filmmakers. Meshchaninova participated in this breakthrough Kinotavr with her narrative feature debut The Hope Factory / Kombinat Nadezhda (Natalia Meshchaninova, 2014, Russia) alongside Oksana Bychkova (Another Year / Eshche odin god, 2014, Russia), Nigina Saifullaeva (Name Me / Kak menia zovut, 2014, Russia), Anna Melikian (Star / Zvezda, 2014, Russia), Angelina Nikonova (Welkom Home, 2014, Russia, USA), Svetlana Proskurina (Goodbye Mom / Do svidaniya mama, 2014, Russia), and Tamara Dondurei (the documentary 21 Days/ 21 den’, 2014, Russia), among others. Immediately hailed at its debut (The Hope Factory received the Best Debut prize from the Russian Guild of Film Critics), the film, nevertheless, remains unreleased in Russia due to a law banning foul language in the media that took effect in 2014 — however, it has entered the world cinema through international festivals, premiering at the Rotterdam Film Festival. This group of female filmmakers belongs to the heterogeneous space of what is known as global art house, the non-hierarchical and discrete environment of contemporary world cinema in which the idea of the auteur is still valid yet no longer operates as the sole guiding trope (Gault and Karl Schoonover; 2010). The present-day global art house concerns itself with the profusion and diversity of authors from all around the world who reflect contemporary reality and easily cross the borders separating documentary and fiction.

Aligning with this paradigm throughout their interviews, the members of the all-female cohort from the 25th Kinotavr, including Meshchaninova, are keen to position themselves as cinematic auteurs who possess individual vision and exercise control over all aspects of their creative work. Their films often exhibit codes of global art house cinema: compelling central female characters, stirring camera work, long-take aesthetics, striking locations, and inconclusive endings. With cinephile references, the filmmakers reflexively define their films’ place within the lineage of auteur cinema. For Meshchaninova, this web of references intertwines the emotionally powerful realist cinema of the Dardenne brothers and Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Love (2012) which equivocates about the borders of fiction and documentary cinema, along with the observational look at the working-class milieu of British filmmaker Andrea Arnold. Providing a much-needed female voice to the cinematic landscape in Russia, Meshchaninova’s unique talent and her ideas of auteurism combine the realism of the Dardenne brothers with an aesthetic akin to the Dogme 95 movement. In her practice, the director freely moves between several concepts of auteurism, blending prohibitions and rules about cinematic language — defining what is allowed and what is not — and developing, in her search for authenticity, a uniquely raw and immediate cinematic style. Refusing classical distribution, The Hope Factory circulates, instead, via the new media flow — the rising number of Internet streaming sites, Web-based media, film blogs, and online publications that have facilitated the film’s international exposure and have foregrounded Meshchaninova as one of the most prominent and interesting representatives of the new wave of Russian women filmmakers.

David Bordwell’s definition of the art cinema mode as one privileging realism and authenticity (Bordwell; 1979) reverberates with the present-day global art house’s insistence on providing an entry to real stories in real places of the world. Like women filmmakers in other countries who made their feature film debuts in the past decade, the new generation of Russian directors, exploring the micropolitics of gender, sexuality, and location, reclaim authenticity as an essential quality of their representations. The significance of the idea of authenticity for the current context of Russian culture stretches far beyond cinema’s anxiety over its own search for a documentary rendering of reality and embraces aesthetical, philosophical, and political meanings. There is a pronounced preoccupation with authenticity and a hunt for ‘real’ experiences that marks a return to a kind of immediacy lost during the post-Soviet era. The desire to work in the documentary mode saturates art forms from documentary prose to theatrical productions at Moscow’s Teatr.doc, and all the way to filmmakers’ and artists’ manifestos such as Marina Razbezhkina’s compendium of prohibitions for her school of documentary filmmaking and Aleksandr Rastorguev’s “Natural Cinema Manifesto” (Rastorguev, 2008). It is expressed by artists ranging from already established directors such as Angelina Nikonova, stating that her controversial film Twilight Portrait (2011) partakes in the politics of the present, to newcomers such as Ella Manzheeva, whose first feature The Gulls (Chaiki, 2015) insists on the depiction of the authentic Kalmykia. Reclaiming cinematic authenticity for characters, situations, and locations, these new Russian women filmmakers restore the sense of context through a precision in atmosphere and details, while the level of emotional honesty and overall texture of their cinema stands out against the somewhat abstract construction and artificiality of other established Russian art house auteurs such as Andrei Zviagintsev and Aleksei A. German. As it was for several other Russian women filmmakers who entered cinema via Razbezhkina’s school, for Meshchaninova, a relationship with authenticity is shaped by non-fiction aesthetics. Her previous works include the documentary Herbarium (2007) about an old-age beauty contest in a retirement home, Good Intentions (2008) capturing life in a remote mountain village, and the controversial 69-episode TV series School (Shkola, 2010, co-directed with Valeriia Gai Germanika) portraying the lives of teenagers in an ordinary Moscow school through participatory camerawork. In her beyond extraordinary coming-of-age tale The Hope Factory, where a careful anticipation of the inner rupture of the subject supersedes an intrusive directorial interpretation, Meshchaninova locates authenticity in speech and the pervasiveness of foul language, which she defends as realistic. According to film critic Maria Kuvshinova, if the 2000s were years of silence, of muteness, of the impossibility of speech and the ultimate destruction of communication, it now seems to be the time for Russian cinema to acquire language once again (Kuvshinova, 2014).

The Hope Factory's compelling imagery is rooted in a treatment of location that becomes, in the global art house, a complex site of the production of meaning. The film relies on the powerful affective impact and expressivity of an individual place; its geographical and historical conditions; the specificity of its landscape features; and the interactions between natural and man-made industrial inclusions — everything that creates the prevailing character or atmosphere of a place, its genius loci. Meshchaninova’s choice and cinematic treatment of location renders the profilmic site as a unique place with a life of its own, marked by a strong regional identity. The world’s most northerly city of significant size, Norilsk is one of the most polluted and isolated cities in northern Siberia. Built on the bones of Gulag prisoners in the 1940s and 50s, it still functions as a major pillar of Russia’s metallurgical industry. Being a center of the Gulag labor camps, Norilsk has evaded photographic and cinematic representation, and The Hope Factory, to a certain extent, reinstates the visibility of the city via the medium of film. Norilsk emerges as a character in its own right and, with its inescapable industrial chimneys and treeless wastelands, as an omnipresent and oppressive companion to youngsters struggling to deal with their place in the world. This interview with the director, which took place during Meshchaninova and scriptwriter Lubov Mulmenko’s visit to Yale University in March 2016, revolves around The Hope Factory and its exploration of the relationship between documentary and fiction filmmaking as one of the current trends within world cinema.

The Lake Dolgoe and the Plants. 2013. Photo by Denis Klebleev. Image courtesy of Natalia Meshchaninova.

OC: Where does your interest in cinema come from?

NM: Since my childhood I have always felt that I live in the space of cinema, as if within a film or on screen. Fascinated by playing out different stories in my imagination, creating characters and situations, I was constantly filming a movie in my mind, without ever thinking that this would become my profession. It was a very primitive, childish film, of course, emerging out of situations I imagined and enacted verbally, rather than from any visual images. This became my parallel reality, in which I could be several characters at once, creating dialogues and speaking with myself in different voices. Then I began writing, consumed by the drive to write the words living in my head, to put them on paper, in diary form or as short stories. Gradually I came to understand that I needed to be involved in theater or cinema, in a medium interested in stories and in people, since I always had a researcher’s interest in situations and relationships. Cinema was absent from the cultural space of my native town Krasnodar, substituted completely by the local TV. I became a TV director only to quickly realize that TV and cinema are two radically different media. TV does not have any relation to art; it is just a process of translating information through very primitive technical work, in which you mechanically alternate a close-up with a long take ⎯ and with good editing you are a great director. But I wanted to make films, so I found Marina Razbezhkina’s school for documentary filmmaking in Moscow.

The Plant. 2013. Photo by Maria Fomina. Image courtesy of N. Meshchaninova.

OC: Are there any filmmakers out there doing something new and interesting now, something that echoes your own interests?

NM: I wholeheartedly admire Ulrich Seidl and very closely follow all his films. I can say that all his films reverberate with my own understanding of cinema. I like Mike Leigh and Andrea Arnold. I was stunned by the Dardennes’ earlier films such as The Son (Le Fils, 2002). It seemed almost beyond the possible: how can the directors possess such a freedom in filming without involving any artificial devices? This film is like a single breath, completely natural, as if there is no camera at all, but you yourself are co-present with the filmed reality. Now their films have grown more sophisticated formally, and this immediacy has evaporated. The Son conveys a feeling that the authors have no idea what is going to happen, and reality unfolds by itself. This is crucial for me; I wanted to make The Hope Factory in a similar way — with an element of chance, making it impossible to predict or know what happens next. For me, this is a key quality of documentary. Dardennes’ Rosetta (1999) also approximates this type of storytelling. For me, it is absolutely insignificant what a film is about. The cinematic language of the director is what speaks to me: the intonation, the form. Especially the form. The director is a person who talks to you, an interlocutor, and if his language is fallacious, if I cannot accept the form, I will never care about the story. I can watch any story told in a language that is compelling. For me, cinema is a process and method of communication, first of all with the director. Cinema speaks a lot about its author, even on a very personal level — in a superior film, the director’s personality appears imprinted onto the work of art. Of course, I speak only about auteur cinema here.

OC: You make auteur cinema, and are aware of yourself as the author. What does it mean to be the author in cinema? Where do you locate the authorship in your cinema?

Cameraman Ivan Mamonov. 2013. Photo by Denis Klebleev. Image courtesy of N. Meshchaninova.

NM: First of all, it should be a story that I create myself, from the beginning to the end. It may be co-authored, but this is a story born in my head, having emerged from my sensibility, from something I have seen before and now crave to film. This impulse generates first a written text, then a film. The authorship for me begins from the moment I know exactly what kind of a film it should be, and what kind of a story the film tells. During the shooting process, I am compelled to control how the story is told, and there should not be any additional person. I am quite tough with cameramen, taking them by the shoulder and guiding them around the shooting location, telling them how to film a scene. I do not allow anyone to come close to the editing process; no person can impose any level of control or tell me what is right or wrong. I need to be sure that this will be my film, my vision. I shall not be talked into shooting a scene in a particular way if I do not feel that this is true to my understanding, by a cameraman, for instance, who may introduce all sorts of technological paraphernalia, helicopters, and so on. Authorship for me is constituted by my personal responsibility for every aspect of my film. To every question critics ask, I will have an answer explaining what I meant and why it is filmed in this particular way and not in another.

Choosing Location, the Lake Dolgoe. 2012. Photo by Natalia Meshchaninova. Image courtesy of N. Meshchaninova.

OC: Film critics highly praise the documentary aspects of The Hope Factory. There is an unequivocal trend in current cinema, in Russia and throughout the world — a desire for authenticity, for documentary quality, for closeness to reality. You frequently use the word authenticity (dostovernost’) in your interviews. You began with documentary, so it may come naturally for you. What is authenticity for you? Why do you think it is so pervasive in cinema now?

NM: I would attribute this to the general transformation of cinema technology, which changes how the director can be present in a documentary and get much closer to a character. Distance has been reduced tremendously, giving way to an unprecedented proximity. The documentary filmmaker has received access to things like never before, to places that were previously hidden and invisible. With digital technology and super-sensitive cameras, you can film non-stop and observe a life that was earlier impenetrable for the camera. You can now access surprising manifestations of human character, impossible with the past technological tools of filmmaking. All of a sudden, directors, including fiction filmmakers, have begun writing stories not merely generated by their imagination, like I did in my childhood, but stories inspired by this newly gained access to very delicate, subtle, and detailed knowledge of other people’s lives. You can even see this phenomenon on the internet: through social networks like Facebook, you can immediately approach so many different stories. Each of us lives in a particular environment, and it is captivating how you may drive through some area, suddenly stop the car, and observe a life that you are never going to see again and have never imagined existed. What is crucial for me is to observe, not to imagine and invent, a world. There exists cinema that evolves from an idea, and this is a completely different type of cinema. I may like to watch [this type of cinema], but the world in my imagination does not seem so interesting in comparison with the life surrounding me. I think I possess an ability to feel something happening around me, something occurring to people, and to translate it, to mediate these feelings, stemming directly from reality, through the screen to spectators. I think of myself rather as a mediator, a channel, and in the moment when an impulse passes through me to the screen, I cannot lie. I do not think that I necessarily need to perform a thorough analysis of reality in my brain, and give it back in the form of morality. I want to transmit the immediacy and purity of reality onto the screen, not distort it with my critical view.

OC: You put it very clearly, your vision of the director being a channel, a mediator between a reality, that may be invisible, and the screen — the director as a kind of a transmitter that makes a reality visible, that allows the viewer to sense it.

NM: I am interested in the forms falling between documentary and fiction, in the overlap of these genres, and in how I can interpret reality through these forms. Yet following this current obsession of cinema to chase, to capture reality, to bring it into art, you need to accept that there is no objective reality as such. Consequently, there is no objective cinema. We all more or less interpret the world by just seeing it differently. The eye always gazes in some explicit direction and it cannot convey the entire objective picture of reality. But I nonetheless try to see my characters in an unmediated way. Before I begin writing a script, I like to observe reality, to enter the environments where my heroes live, completely immersing myself into their world, language, and relationships, in order to understand how they actually live and feel. My intention is to capture, to record life without a critical analysis or judgment, to try, despite my subjectivity, to translate everything I learn into images. For The Hope Factory, my task was far removed from coloring the characters and situations in black or white. As I aimed to show them as they are, I expressed my feelings about this reality without ravaging it by my mind. In my next films, this intention may transform into another form, perhaps, but I want, by all means, to preserve the feeling of the reality, undesecrated by my vision. Currently in Russia, taboos on showing reality persistently multiply; TV and media distort the vision of the world, and people are losing the ability to see with a clear gaze, as if everything were enveloped by plastic, by layers of cellophane. I feel, more and more now, the necessity to generate this unmediated transmission of reality.

OC: A series of laws, like the one about obscene language — do they stand between you as a filmmaker and reality? Do you feel that you need to invent something to circumvent this? If there is any limit to authenticity, then where is it? Initially you planned to film a second version of The Hope Factory, without obscene language. What happened to that idea?

NM: My producers asked me to shoot a second take for each episode, making actors express themselves with different words. It was very complicated since I basically needed to shoot two films, and it was an additional pressure on actors who had to act each scene for a second time. When I began editing, I never thought specifically about obscene language as having the purpose of surprising the viewer. I chose the filmed material that was the best and the most authentic, without any consideration of what words it contained. Some takes without obscene language happened to be better, true in terms of acting and rhythm, and they ended up in the final cut. For the actors, it was a task to speak as they might speak in real life, so the language belongs not merely to the characters, but to the actors as well. The actors did not need to learn specifically how to use that obscene language; they just had any limitations on speech removed. People of this age group often communicate with such language, no matter whether they are in Norilsk or in Moscow. When the producers requested a re-edit, nothing worked out: the takes without the foul language were worse and, as a result, it was a totally different film, sterilized in a way, a film that conveys a different meaning. Even if you cover obscene words with a beeping sound, your imagination will be provoked to produce something really shocking, way beyond what is actually used, and the outcome can be much more rude and vulgar, with my heroes immediately transformed into some trashy people. I completely rejected this idea of a second version of the film. There is only one version of The Hope Factory, and if the producers re-edit the film, I will remove my name from the credits. The re-edited film would be similar to a wax figurine of a living person. The Hope Factory was literally buried in Russia and distribution was rejected, even to film festivals. Kinotavr was the only one to screen the film. But I am far from yielding, because I am not censoring myself. Even if The Hope Factory was not distributed, the film exists, it is available via internet distribution platforms, and it is much better that the film lives in such a way than for it to be disfigured by censorship. I had an invitation to make a four-episode TV series from The Hope Factory, for the channel “Russia.” Of course, I declined.

OC: Regarding the obscene language in The Hope Factory: my impression was that this language the youngsters use does not itself carry meaning, but rather covers the absence of meaning, the empty place where emotions should be. The language functions as a veil that the characters suspend between themselves and the world. The language does not serve to communicate anything, but to express this absence of meaning, emerging as a substitute for silence, filling out an empty place. There is a moment in the film, though, when obscene language is used quite differently ⎯ the episode with the female doctor, when she screams at Sveta during their conflict over money. The doctor’s use of this language seems fiercely expressive, because this is her way to communicate rage. Yet for the youngsters, these words are not expressive, but rather empty. Did you think about gradation and spectrum, different layers of this language through its use?

NM: I would agree. The obscene words possess an exceptionally strong emotional charge. In my new script, I use this lexicon in a different way from The Hope Factory for the expression of particular emotions. The characters are doctors, and such linguistic expressivity appears to be a vital part of their individual lives, but only in the moments when no other words can be employed to communicate strong emotions like rage or despair. I think there exist various levels of obscene language. For example, in a remote village, among peasants, the obscene words and vulgarisms can belong to the realm of folklore, to some primordial sphere, to a tradition that connects us with older times, and it may sound extremely convoluted. I see mat as a part of language ⎯ and, I can even say, as a part of culture ⎯ that can be used in a variety of ways.

OC: What did you take from documentary filmmaking to The Hope Factory in terms of directing, and what did not work completely because it is a fictional film?

Fountains on the Lake Dolgoe. 2012. Photo by Natalia Meshchaninova. Image courtesy of N. Meshchaninova.

NM: The epistemological relation of the viewer to documentary filmmaking is that the shown reality, its authenticity, is unquestionable. No matter what it shows, we assume that this is how it is. Documentary presents us with the absolute unconditional reality; we trust everything, any absurdity, seen on screen. If you take a situation from a documentary and play it out in a fiction film, with actors who would act in the same way, with the text unchanged, you will immediately recognize this as fiction. Even more, everything can work in reverse, yielding a remarkable and surprising effect. Imagine an ordinary person, a man, a non-professional actor. When he is alone on the screen, he would look completely authentic, but as soon as he is surrounded by actors who act, the reverse effect emerges — the real person appears artificial, but the actors look real. This is a quite strange phenomenon. You can mix actors and non-professionals, but you need to be a virtuoso, because it is impossible to take reality and just transpose it onto the screen, into the fabric of fiction. This would kill reality, and cinema, and trust in images. Even using the method of verbatim and collected observations, you interpret the dialogue, rework it, and then actors re-interpret it once more. I always allow actors to improvise within the frame of a text, but only because I do not want to see another person between an actor and a text — the author of the text, for instance. When the middleman, an intermediary, is removed, I am forced to think about an actor as a native speaker, a carrier of text, and only then the does the actor begin to merge with the character. But not every slice of life can be transmuted into a fiction film; no matter how bright and attractive certain moments of life may be, you cannot take them and directly translate them into your film — these are moments that will make your film less realistic. In my documentary Herbarium, my heroines are old ladies who all live in an overdramatic manner, a bit like in a Greek tragedy. There is a scene in which two women, having an argument, start an especially theatrical fight ⎯ but this is not acting, this is just how they are. If the scene were to be recreated as a fiction scene, without the documentary epistemological assumptions working there, the viewer would never recognize the scene as an authentic piece of reality. If you were to take actresses and simply ask them to replicate this quarrel, it would look fictitious and artificial, as if the director tried to provoke, to show something incongruous. In the same way, you cannot instruct a hero in a documentary; it is not true to the epistemology of what documentary is. You cannot over-direct; you just need to be sensitive to reality, to wait—painfully sometimes—for a long time for the resolution erupting within the story you are observing. There is no way to easily mix these two types of cinema, documentary and fiction. As a director you need to study both in order to become more and more sophisticated in fusing them.

Smoke Moves Towards Norilsk. 2013. Photo by Denis Klebleev. Image courtesy of N. Meshchaninova.

OC: Razbezhkina has a series of prohibitions, practiced in her school, that seem for me to be in correspondence with the obstructions imposed by the Dogma Manifesto in 1995. Despite their obvious differences, these sets of obstructions appear as two parallel realms. The purpose of Dogma 95 was to give up any control, to provide a breath of fresh air, to regain the lost innocence via an approach homologous to cinéma vérité. One of Razbezhkina’s prohibitions is a prohibition of direct speech to the camera.

NM: I will explain the essence of this prohibition. There are huge differences in ways of receiving information. There is a direct way, like how we are sitting and talking. You are interviewing me and receiving information, and it is unlikely that I will now stand up, walk to the window, start crying, and tell you about my personal life, because I understand what you expect from me, and I exist according to these expectations. In documentary filmmaking, if the director employs the method of observation, she does not want to receive information by verbal means exclusively, but wants to observe a person under life circumstances, during a traumatic period of that person’s life. For example, the director never should come to the character and ask, “Feeling any pain?” since the person immediately understands what is expected and will reply, “Yes, I feel pain.” As a filmmaker tries to figure out the person in front of the camera, that person, in the same way, tries to figure out the filmmaker and her expectations. When a person is approached with the camera, she usually gets lost and, trying to estimate what the director aspires to, starts telling her biography, shows photographs, and talks about her children. Only when she finally grows tired of telling stories and guessing about your expectations will she forget about the camera and start living her life, opening up instead of showing you what she expects you to find interesting. Only then can you record any useful material for your film. If only then a hero turns to and speaks to the camera, this will not be the result of a journalistic way of getting information, but an expression of her longing to say something to you. And this will not be a lie. If students hope to obtain information by such an easy journalistic method, asking people to speak directly to the camera, they will never become filmmakers. In this way, you can make only a TV report, but not a documentary film. People and reality never immediately open up and unwrap themselves for you.

OC: Razbezhkina talks about how a person communicates with rhythm, movements, gestures—with everything but words, because words can lie. Do you think that words, language, may be an unreliable medium for approaching reality, that speech may not be the place of authenticity, at least not its primary place?

NM: Yes, words are far from being a main means of expression. But in order to understand where and how speech can be authentic, a filmmaker needs to look beyond and behind speech, to probe much further into the depth of reality. In documentary, a filmmaker does not have to support her world by what and how the heroes speak, but should move on to the next level. In her school, Razbezhkina teaches a paradoxical way of examining reality — to look closely, but also simultaneously to look in a broad, comprehensive manner. Her students even joke that they change optics, from the long-focus camera to the wide-angle lens. She teaches how to observe nuances and not to be afraid to see the world as chaos, as an amorphous expanse.

OC: In The Hope Factory, what is the relationship between the script and the film? Was the text improvised completely?

NM: No, Lubov wrote dialogue for all the scenes. This was different from Ulrich Seidl’s method, for instance, when he tells his actors, “Now, they will talk about sex,” what the actors say is completely up to them. We had quite a normal script. But yes, the actors were allowed to improvise within the emotional frame of a scene, within its inner logic. They were allowed to adapt the written text to their speech peculiarities, so the text would not sound inauthentic. It is not a method of the actors memorizing the text and only then personalizing it, as in old-school acting. In order to make it sound realistic, I forced the actors to start “living” a scene before it actually began unfolding for the camera, and to dilute the script’s text with a parallel one, with chance words you can never plan in advance. It was much more complicated for the older generation of actors, who were used to respecting a written text and approximating it as closely as possible, than it was for the younger actors, who freely incorporated their own jokes, their own everyday speech. It was far from a direct repetition and replication of the pre-existing text, though the textual essence was maintained. Since I wanted to take a documentary approach, it was very important to preserve the authenticity of speech, not imposing any alien structure onto the language.

OC: The Hope Factory has amazing camera work, with cameramen wandering among the actors just like other characters. How was this done? Did you guide them in space, telling them where to go precisely at any moment? Was any improvisation on the cameramen’s part allowed? How did you orchestrate in space the relationship between the actors and the camera, which feels like a relatively small digital handheld camera?

The Lake Dolgoe. 2013. Photo by Denis Klebleev. Image courtesy of N. Meschaninova.

NM: The camera was actually quite big. Like Razbezhkina, I developed a set of prohibitions. The first one was for the actors, who are usually taught in film school to work for the camera, to take the camera into account. The prohibition I imposed on the actors was to ignore the camera as much as possible. If the camera, for instance, obstructs their way, then they should just rush ahead, and it is the task of the cameraman to jump out of their way. The actors’ motion in space was always completely unpredictable; they never walked according to points marked in space. I did, of course, some sketches for scenes, especially for one or two people in the frame. Yet if there was a large crowd, I wanted them to be essentially disorganized, removing the slightest hint that the actors were put there and arranged by someone. In the film’s first scene of the picnic on the lake, we placed a table and a grill in the shooting location, but afterwards the actors’ presence and movement are completely random and unstaged. As soon as I see that some mechanical and predetermined pattern emerges, I try to change everything. With such a way of shooting, it can be very difficult during the editing stage because some shots will inevitably resist smooth assembly. Furthermore, the cameramen had several prohibitions, the central one being that they could not guess or anticipate an event. In my world, like in a documentary, a person, an event comes first ⎯ and only then, a reaction of the camera. The camera doesn’t dominate the situation, but has to seek its place. Often the camera isn’t at the right spot, and it can’t see clearly; it has to move all the time, as though what you film resists and escapes the camera.

Pier on the Lake Dolgoe. 2013. Photo by Pavel Eiler. Image courtesy of N. Meshchaninova.

OC: Do you mean that the world exists before the camera comes to film it?

NM: Yes. My camera reacts similarly to that of a cameraman filming during a war. When an explosion happens, the cameraman turns around and films; he cannot just stand in place, waiting and building a picturesque shot of a place where a bomb falls. In no way can he know this in advance. The cameraman’s task is to be present in space and to react to emerging circumstances. There is no coordination between actors and the cameraman, but a relation of chaos and disorientation, working toward unpredictable camerawork and immediacy of reaction. This was quite challenging for me. How can I make a cameraman feel like a person within a particular take, especially a cameraman who has never shot a documentary? How can you make a cameraman intuit whether he can go closer at a specific moment or by no means change the distance? There was a funny moment during the shooting of the party scene, in which the heroine, Sveta, runs into the tundra and weeps. I told Dasha to run until she would be out of breath and had worked out all her energy, to run wherever she wants, run and cry, and only then begin talking, improvising the text. In this episode, the actress speaks her words, not the ones from the script. She exists in-between being an actor and a real person. The cameraman’s task was to just run after her and to catch her on camera when she begins talking. The whole crew stayed and waited for Dasha and the cameraman while they were running for about ten minutes. They returned and she was crying, and the cameraman was extremely angry, asking me to do something with Dasha who was constantly turning away from him, away from the camera. The cameraman was angry because he was absolutely powerless to catch her face in the image. When I watched the playback, I saw how Ivan desperately tried to shoot her face, while she, sobbing, kept turning away. This was an amazing shot! Every normal person being in such an emotional state, living through a hysterical moment, tries to escape the camera; no one remains still and beautifully cries for the camera. It is nearly impossible to witness closely such an emotional outbreak.

OC: It is visible in the film, in this episode, how the camera, circling in space, tries to go around the actress to catch a glimpse of her face. The cameraman developed a slight distance, and carefully, not scaring her away, tried to circle her with the camera. But here, I think, a paradox emerges: at this very moment the viewer becomes conscious of the camera, exactly because the camera tries to catch her and goes to great trouble to do so. We become aware of the presence of the camera and the fact that this is cinema, that there exists a distance between the viewer and the world on the screen. Human vision is selective, and cinema aims to show reality selectively. At this moment, cinema perhaps tries too hard, allowing the camera to rise between us and the world on screen. The film presents itself as a slice of life, but the persistent movement of the hand-held camera brings a hint of artificiality. It shows life, but this life is mediated. Similar things were said about Dogma films, which attempted to erase any presence of the filmmaker but, as a result, left the viewer complaining about feeling nauseous and dizzy from the camerawork. The undisciplined and shaky camera, unequivocally pointing toward the Dogma aesthetics, becomes at times attention-grabbing, impacting the film’s slice-of-life feeling. Did you think about this paradox of the hand-held camera? It aims at the resurrection of the human point of view in cinema, to work as a filmmaker’s prosthesis, yet it steps forward and stands in-between.

The Abandoned Cableway. Choosing Location. 2012. Photo by Natalia Meshchaninova. Image courtesy of N. Meschaninova.

NM: By no means was my intention to erase the camera, to dissolve the camera in the air. I urged the cameraman to behave as if he were a person who belongs to this world, one of them, a member of the youngsters’ group who is holding the camera. The handheld camera was chosen specifically for its ability to follow characters all the time, and the characters did not always know where they would go in the next moment. There were a lot of improvisations and everyone was highly mobile. The cameraman had the task to follow the characters anywhere in any circumstances.

OC: The camera-as-a-character is reminiscent of the ideas of Jean-Luc Godard, who used to say that if there are two people in a room, the camera will be the third person, and if you shoot in an empty room, it is no longer empty because someone is there — the camera.

NM: This is why we shot the love scene from the corridor, from a slight distance. Intuitively, it was clear that the camera couldn’t come closer, because the camera represents the third person. I learned this effect from documentary filmmaking where you are always aware that there is a person who is shooting the movie and this person is always present. But a hero develops such a strong level of trust in the filmmaker that the hero allows the camera to examine and observe from very close up. I value this quality of documentary very much. A documentary filmmaker does not examine ants in an anthill, but develops a strong, intimate bond, which can emerge only from the strongest trust in the person with the camera. We attempted to achieve such a feeling in the film, envisioning the camera as a local guy, or as a girlfriend who is not surprised by anything. Initially, the cameramen were so dazzled by the location, by Norilsk, the tundra, and the industrial landscape, that they wanted to capture the place’s captivating visuality and translate it into textures of images. The place just waited for someone to film the gorgeous images of these landscapes ⎯ but that would be a touristic gaze, the gaze of the outsider. I told the cameraman that he should feel like a local, never surprised, never fascinated or astonished by the landscapes and the city views. These ideas molded the gaze of the camera, its optics and movement, its distance and closeness. I made these two positions very clear and determined from the beginning of shooting: the camera is never surprised by anything and the camera never foreshadows or gets ahead of the events.

OC: You filmed The Hope Factory using long-take aesthetics; we feel the flow of time that cannot be cut. Why is the long take crucial?

NM: I subjected myself to some rules as well. With regard to editing, I understand each cut as carrying its own omitted time. Each cut means that time elapsed; a cut is an interval containing a passage of time inside. It is quite similar to the documentary approach when you film an uninterrupted scroll of life, a ribbon of time. Imagine a straight line that represents the continuity of time you filmed, like a hundred hours. Then you cut it into pieces, eliminating some time from this continuity, linking the remaining pieces together to create a story. But each cut contains time, like a fold of an accordion, and this time cannot be removed nor can it disappear; it remains inside these temporal folds. The sense of the continuous time persists, with just some fragments, some time spans during which something substantial happens, omitted yet always invisibly present. My intention was to sustain this phenomenon of documentary in the narrative fiction film. Cuts should never interfere with our feeling of the continuity of time, so there should never be jumps from one shot to another within a single episode. It is impossible to interrupt a phrase with a cut, because the cut immediately introduces a pocket of hidden time, undermining the temporal continuity of the phrase. This cut takes away the documentary feel. To highlight the documentary effect in The Hope Factory, I had to evoke a sense that each cut does not merely signal a gap, a break in temporality, but contains time. Each cut constitutes a temporal fold. This is why it was crucial to shoot, for instance, the final drowning scene in a single continuous long take. Initially we tried to film it in several shots, but it only produced the terrible effect of implausibility. We had been thinking for several days about a way to shoot it continuously, without a cut, without the feeling of forgery. With this single, uninterrupted take of the heroine drowning, substituting the actress with a swimmer in the course of the shot at the moment when the camera briefly turns away from the lake, we were able to preserve the effect of the event unfolding just before your eyes, the sense of fluidity and the discreteness of life. In the same way, I tried to erase the beginning and the end of each scene, since marked beginnings and endings can distort and interrupt this temporal flow. A scene should never end when the scene ends; it can unfold after it concludes or before it begins. A scene should be unfinalized, as in real life ⎯ not acted until the very end and interrupted.

OC: Why did you choose Norilsk? Were there other places, other cities to consider? Did it appear before the story, or after?

NM: No, there were never other alternatives. Norilsk appeared long before the story. Razbezhkina had a project called The Worker, for which I was looking for a factory that would be interesting to film, and I found Norilsk. I wanted to make a documentary in Norilsk about workers at one of the plants, but it became impossible — the authorities completely prohibited shooting that particular factory. Being such a powerful, compelling place, Norilsk has never left me. We needed a location that would be a livable place, loved by some characters who are writing songs about the city and want to continue living there. At the same time, we wanted to convey the paradoxical feeling of the complete impossibility of staying there. It may be quite surprising, but we tried to avoid shooting the most terrible places, the most dreadful landscapes and cityscapes. The texture of Norilsk is so powerful that it forces itself, jumps on the camera aggressively. We wanted to avoid indulging in the horror of the city, quite consciously pointing the camera toward places that may even seem beautiful, like the main street with the classical Stalinist empire architecture. These buildings are brightly colored in blue, red, and yellow, yet the film subdues the palette. The images look quite dark because there is almost no sunlight this time of the year, but the images convey the least disturbing picture of Norilsk.

OC: The camera often avoids framing the characters inside the city, instead showing them moving on its edges and margins, conveying the feeling of their “outsideness,” or the feeling that the city pushes them away. They are in a liminal space, between the city and the lake, as if in a world that unfolds in parallel to the city. Visually these are very strong images. In one shot, Sveta is on a bus, overlooking the uniform faceless architecture through the window, and the lateral tracking renders a passage of empty time. In the film’s opening episode, a group of teenagers, followed by the tottery camera, walk on a huge rusty pipe, whose straight line, entrapping them, emerges as a powerful metaphor for the story—for the world—in which one needs to commit an extreme act to escape that straight line. The film’s conflict is rendered geometrically, as a conflict between the straight line and the circles repeatedly performed by the moving camera.

NM: We tried to show Norilsk’s influence on characters through the composition of the shot, through placing people in relation to buildings, architectural elements, and landscape. Norilsk emanates such a strong aura of claustrophobia, igniting a sense of the impossibility of leaving. We tried to translate visually the paradox between the magnitude and gravity the city exerts and the feeling that it leaves no place for you, that the city extrudes you. Until the end of the shooting we were unsure about the film’s finale. We even were imagining a second version, in which, after the airport sequence, there would be the very last episode: time passes and we see Sveta’s wedding in Norilsk to the boy who chased her throughout the film. She has returned to Norilsk, or maybe never left, and punished herself with this marriage. In the process of shooting, it became obvious that Sveta is leaving the city for good. Trying to avoid any ethical statement, we also tried with that ending to break this claustrophobic atmosphere.

Shooting in Norilsk. 2013. Photo by Pavel Eiler. Image courtesy of N. Meshchaninova.

OC: The tundra, chosen for a picnic by the youngsters, appears as the ultimate space of freedom, but even away from the disfigured industrial landscape, nature seems ruined, as if holding imprints of history and emerging simultaneously as a site and a sign of erasure. The city ruins that permeate the film partake, perhaps, in the early twenty-first century ruinophilia, a strange fascination with modern ruins beautifully described in the writings of Svetlana Boym (Boym, 2011).

NM: These are particular kinds of ruins that we tried to capture with the camera. Buildings in Norilsk, almost all of them, appear in the process of decomposition: built on ice, on the permafrost, they are situated on concrete piles but are, nevertheless, decaying. You cannot escape the immense and overwhelming atmosphere engendered by everything in the environment getting old and crumbling. The ruins of buildings emit such a grim aura of lifelessness, while also an almost physical sense of time passing, and we aspired to catch it on camera. The ruins reverberate with the sense of time that cinema can build like no other art.

Streets in Norilsk. 2012. Photo by Natalia Meshchaninova. Image courtesy of N. Meshchaninova.

Acknowledgements

I am grateful to Natalia Meshchaninova for generously sharing her views on filmmaking. I would also like to thank Lubov Mulmenko and Nancy Condee for inspiring conversations on contemporary Russian cinema. Natalia Meshchaninova and Lubov Mulmenko’s visit to Yale University was made possible by the support from the Yale European Studies Council, with a Russian Studies grant from the Carnegie Foundation, and the MacMillan Center. In addition, I want to thank Anastasia Kostina for co-organizing the filmmakers’ visit to Yale University.

Bio

Oksana Chefranova

University of Yale

oc232@nyu.edu

Oksana Chefranova is a Lecturer in Film & Media Studies at Yale University and the Director of Film Programming at Yale’s Whitney Humanities Center. She received Ph.D. in 2014 from the Department of Cinema Studies, NYU, where she taught film history and aesthetics. She is currently working on the book that explores aesthetic, historical, and cultural intersections among cinema, amusement garden, and theatrical stage in Russian artistic modernity circa 1900. Her research interests and other projects embrace history and theory of camera movement, archaeology of the screen, international silent cinema, experimental film and art practice, contemporary world cinema, and women filmmakers.

Bibliography

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Boym, Svetlana. 2011. "Ruinophilia: Appreciation of Ruins." Atlas of Transformation. http://monumenttotransformation.org/atlas-of-transformation/html/r/ruinophilia/ruinophilia-appreciation-of-ruins-svetlana-boym.html.

Condee, Nancy. 2014. “History in a Time of Premeditated Amnesia: The 25th Kinotavr Open Russian Film Festival.” KinoKultura 46.

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Lipovetsky, Mark and Beumers, Birgit. 2008. “Reality Performance: Documentary Trends in Post-Soviet Russian Theatre.” Contemporary Theatre Review 18 (3): 293-306.

Rastorguev, Alexander. 2008. “Natural’noe kino. Manifest.” Seance 35/36. http://seance.ru/n/35-36/portret-rastorguev/naturalnoe-kino/ Translation by Anna Nieman can be found here: http://giuvivrussianfilm.blogspot.com/2013/03/alexander-rastorguevs-natural-cinema.html.

Suggested Citation

Chefranova, Oksana. 2017. Interview. “Towards Poetics of Authenticity: The Hope Factory and the New Wave of Russian Women Filmmakers. A Conversation with Natalia Meschaninova.” Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 4. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2017.0004.71

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/

Copyright: The text of this article has been published under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ This license does not apply to the media referenced in the article, which are subject to the individual rights owner’s terms.





Apparatus. ISSN 2365-7758