The Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev has been providing international audiences with a steady diet of sadness and melancholy since his first film "The Return" (2003), and so I was not exactly expecting a cheery conversation with him when I managed to interview him during his residency at the fourth edition of the Qumra Festival. When I met him at the Museum of Islamic Arts in Doha, however, his smile and easy manner immediately put me at ease. He was accompanied by his translator and associate Alla Verlotsky, who greeted me with a few words of Turkish.
It was soon established that she was a keen Turkish drama watcher, and he quite knowledgeable with the Turkish cinema scene. And so we settled down to a very unceremonious chat about storytelling traditions, influences and Zvyagintsev's magical touch in casting. He is very forthcoming about his own experiences as a director, and the direct and straightforward way he addresses me as an interviewer, coupled with the five months of Russian I learned a decade ago, trick me into thinking that I will understand him if I listen closely enough.Zvyagintsev trained as an actor, starting in his native Novosibirsk and continuing at the Russian Academy of Theatre Arts in Moscow.
When asked about the mentor-disciple relationship he is very keen to point out that his training in film consisted of watching classic films at the Cinema Museum in Moscow, and that, in a way, his mentors are these wonderful films themselves. Zvyagintsev emphasizes that everyone has and should stick to their own vision of filmmaking: "There is no question that artists are influenced by artists before them, when we are young and write love poems we write like poets before us. When we see the first film we are impressed by, it gives us inspiration. However, the journey is a solitary journey and the filmmaker has all the components in his apparatus to become a filmmaker, that is why you need to lose your icons, to test your own apparatus is the best thing you can do."
He says that he himself never thought of approaching "masters" to comment on his own work, and that often, when young filmmakers ask for advice, he points to the film museum, which he calls "the best film school a director can have." He seems to have become the sort of "master" he had in acting school, emphasizing the uniqueness of every artist. He recounts how a teacher told him he had chosen a form of art that has existed for centuries, in which everything has already been done- what has not yet been tried is you!
When Turks and Russians speak cinema, the ghost of Tarkovsky and his influence on Turkish cinema always haunts the conversation. Accordingly, I try to get Zvyagintsev to emphasize a specific, Russian cinematic language, but he prefers to provide a more internationalist outlook: "There is one vast landscape called world cinema and that landscape is created by godlike figures like Kurosawa, Cassavetes, Jarmusch, to Antonioni, they come from different cultures but apply to universal values. This landscape of cinema doesn't require a passport or a visa. You enter it automatically, no matter what culture you come from. When you target very local, social issues, but you dig deep into them, you dig into a global issue. If you dare to go big with your small subject, it will become global."
I insist that the Turkish audiences react differently to Hollywood films and Russians films, that they connect to Russian films in more visceral ways. I forget to tell him that there is a Turkish film by a young director, titled "Why Can't I Be Tarkovsky?" If not Tarkovsky, the influence is there through Chekhov's stories, Dostoyevsky's novels. The Turks just can't get enough of the ways in which Russians express melancholy in art. "I wish all those Turkish admirers of Russian cinema would get citizenship in Russia, even for a short period, to inject some enthusiasm into Russians who don't like contemporary Russian cinema. People in general gravitate to Hollywood. Do Turkish audiences show interest in Turkish films?" I assure him that Hollywood is very popular in Turkey, but that Turkish cinema also manages to find large audiences.
As with the influence of masters, Zvyagintsev is skeptical about the influence of old stories, but then, as he admits himself, he has conflicting answers to the questions of "tradition" and "influence." He says he feels a connection to 19th century Russian literature, a form of narrative, he says, that has later found expression in the genre of cinema. I suggest to him that one of the reasons his films are popular in Turkey is because he taps into old story lines about human nature, and employs archetypes that are recognizable: both "The Return" and "Leviathan" have biblical references.
"It's a Russian tradition. It would be impossible to relate to Dostoyevksy or Tolstoy without knowledge of Biblical stories, to this typical Russian spiritual experience and journey. And it doesn't matter if you go to church or don't go to church, it's an approach to the subject and life. I wonder if those are readable to Muslims as well." I suggest that "The Return" is an Abrahamic story, about a father and two sons, but in which it is the father and not the son that has to be sacrificed, and yes, it is readable to Muslims. "Once, I took a cab in Moscow and the driver was Muslim. He tried to convert me to Islam. He started telling me stories, and then I realized what he was talking about was the story of Abraham, Jacob and all the biblical stories."
The intense father-son and mother-son relationships portrayed in Zvyagintsev's films require very strong performances and he seems to have found the most talented child actors in Russia. I tell him he broke our hearts with "that scene" in "Loveless" and ask him about his casting process. He says they go through a lengthy rehearsal process and tells me that for the role of Alyosha they considered about 250 kids. Only six or seven made it on to the shortlist and they tried out the actors with that particular scene.
The second runner up for the role ended up playing Alyosha's best friend. He reveals that the "silent cry" scene was shot separately from the sounds of parents fighting in the background, that Matvey Novikov had not read the script and he had no idea about the quarrel between the parents concerning his character. The cue Zvyagintsev gave Novikov was: "Imagine you're badly craving something, a toy, a bicycle, and then imagine that you're not gonna get it." They did the scene in eight takes. I tell Zvyagintsev that that's quite an innocent way of making a child actor cry, considering some other, almost criminal methods we hear other directors use. He tells me about some of the more unorthodox methods of getting reactions from children in Soviet cinema, related to him by the casting director for "The Return": "One Soviet film director gave an orphan girl who was cast in his movie a bottle of Soviet perfume, for the little girl it was like a gift from heaven. The director took it from her and broke it on the set and rolled the camera. The girl went to pieces, and when they finished the director said, "Don't worry I have another one for you." So Zvyagintsev knew exactly how he didn't want to work.
After our interview, Zvyagintsev went into a question and answer session following a screening of "The Return" as part of the Qumra Master Classes, and there were questions in English, Russian and Arabic. One of the Russian ones was the unavoidable "What is the message of your film?" His answer, rendered into beautiful English by Verlotsky was, "The way it blossoms inside us is what this film is about." The fact that a film blossoms inside us at all is an artistic achievement, and it is an achievement Zvyaginstev manages time and again with each new installment of his oeuvre.