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"Sergei Dorenko did a poll on his radio station: 48 percent of the audience voted for the option that 'I haven’t seen Leviathan but I consider it’s anti- Russian'"
22 FEB 2015 On the eve of the Oscars tonight, the controversial Russian director whose film Leviathan is nominated for best foreign film gave a long, revealing interview to Izvestia in which he rejects his critics’ claim that he is anti-Russian and asks Russians to see the film before jumping to conclusions.
It’s put to Andrei Zvyagintsev that three of his four films so far have American links, so is he a US spy? He replies that as he turned them into Russian films it shows he’s more a Russian spy than an American one.
But he admits that winning the Oscar might allow him more freedom to shoot the large-scale films he really wants to make. He points out the hysteria against him as shown by a radio host’s poll of listeners that found that 48 percent of them agreed that though they had not seen the film they believed it was anti-Russian.
He argues that his compatriots have a ‘sacred duty’ not to be consumers of their time but ‘co-authors’, protagonists in their own lives, deciding how they think about what they see.
I’ve included a few of the reader comments at the end, to show the sort of reactions that Leviathan (reviewed here on theartsdesk.com) generates back home.
Here’s a translation of most of it.
Zvyagintsev: ‘Leviathan is shock therapy, yes’
The verdict on Leviathan has been handed down by officials and priests, by liberals and conservatives, by thousands of law-abiding visitors to cinemas, and by millions of pirates. Now it’s time for the word from the American Oscars. Shortly before the ceremony, Izvestia’s correspondent spoke with Andrei Zvyagintsev about the film that, like the monster of the bible, 'made the abyss boil like a cauldron'.
IZVESTIA: Have you seen Ida, the chief competition to Leviathan for the Oscar?
ZVYAGINTSEV: I’ve seen it.
So let’s imagine that it’s 23 February and the statuette was given to Ida. A journalist comes to you for a comment. What do you say?
I’d say that I’m very happy for Pavel Pawlikowski and I congratulate him. And that wouldn’t be devious, because that kind of luck comes once in a lifetime. The Oscar is very important: it opens so many roads to a director.
Are producers beginning to phone?
Actually producers are calling right now, but so far not with what I need. The Oscar allows you to find big money for a big idea.
You mean, to make absolutely your own movie?
Each of my four films is 100 percent my own movie.
So you’re saying that an Oscar wouldn’t change anything for you.
It’s changing anyway. I will be able to make a movie for $20million, $30million, I could accomplish something big-scale. Still, it’s only a hope so far, I don’t know how it would actually pan out. But in the whole awards thing what’s important to me is this aspect, not the statuettes and red carpet, as minister Medinsky claims. The red carpet isn’t somewhere I feel much at home.
At the press conference before the premiere of Leviathan you yet again needled the minister [Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky].
Yes, to be honest, later I was a bit sorry about that.
Your assertions attracted worldwide attention. Many people now see it that you’re at odds with each other, David and Goliath, symbols of good and evil - I do not know who’s who, that’s for each person to decide.
At the press conference, I was definitely wrong.
So what do you think your next confrontation?
I don’t know, he started it [smiles]. I proposed we should take a time-out from mutual provocations.
Did you personally tell him?
No, in the press. But it seems that this phrase was edited out of the interview, so the minister isn’t aware of that. But still, I genuinely don’t understand why he dictates to everybody his own personal taste. Just because he is the minister? He’s the servant of the people, and in that context the “I” should be suspended in favour of the people. The minister should serve the people, not the other way round. Just because he’s got that job. Now there are some evil tongues wagging that Leviathan was made with “our money”. But it’s my money, and the money of many of our country’s citizens who are glad at the appearance of these movies.
Olga Sedakova said about Leviathan: “Spite is a more telling response to the film than the supercilious responses of the experts.” Do you agree with that?
It’s a very important statement. Yes indeed, a cry of anger, a protest against one’s self-portrait, that’s like a cry of pain, and for that reason it’s more honest. It doesn’t reflect away, as opposed to the detached view of an observer who takes in the film only via the most superficial level of epidermis. “Spite” shows the movie got through to the heart; the experts only get it in the head.
You’ve said the film had exactly the reaction that you bargained for. So you mean, this outcry was part of your design?
I knew something like this would happen, that it would polarize the public. I knew precisely that there was one place in the film - I won’t say which - that would have the effect of a butt on the head. Leviathan is shock therapy, yes.
I'm not talking about those who parrot the tune of “I didn’t read it but I’ll still judge it.” Sergei Dorenko did a poll on his radio station: 48 percent of the audience voted for the option "I haven’t seen Leviathan but I consider it’s anti-Russian”. I hope that among those 48 percent there’ll be some who will be honest with themselves and change their opinion. Having gone to see the movie, of course.
But to return to your question, of course I couldn’t have predicted such a large-scale row about it. It’s like there’s been some kind of chemical reaction, something exploded in our society.
Do you remember the premiere of Leviathan in Moscow? There was a red carpet for it, and a giant poster depicting the skeleton of a sea creature. All along the carpet there were our brightest secular lions and lionesses in fine clothes, with sparkling eyes, while behind them there was this monster, the symbol of your tragic film. Don’t you find any conflict in this contrast?
That’s a complicated question, it can’t only be confined to that particular contrast. Yes, one can perceive what happened as something like a feast during a famine. But a human being lives, he rejoices in each new day, and in certain circumstances he must respond to the moment. All eyes are on him, he smiles, he’s wearing evening dress. But then he sits down in the hall and watches the film. If we always sought to find a resonance with the image on the poster life would just not be possible. I’d go so far as to draw a parallel with Pushkin’s The Feast: “There is an ecstasy in the fight, And on the brink of the darkest abyss, And in the furious ocean.”
Life is full of overlapping things. You don’t have to speculate about contrasts. You can watch and try to work out what the contrast signifies. And in the end, if we’re being honest, you might conclude that it doesn’t mean a thing.
In each of your movies you leave a false trail like a detective intrigue that is never revealed, the box in The Return. You said about the box that its contents were totaly unimportant to you. In Leviathan there’s a similar intrigue about the cause of Lilya’s death. Doesn’t that interest you either?
I’m interested. Only I have two alternative ones.
And you can’t choose one?
It’s not that I can’t choose. They are both true. But I am establishing an ambivalence in which the watcher chooses for himself, whether it was suicide or murder. In the overall scheme of the film it doesn’t change anything, but each can choose according to his faith and as he sees fit and - Not just can not choose. They both are true. I am creating an ambivalent state, when the viewer chooses suicide or murder it. In the ranks of the film does not change nothing, but each person’s interpretation will vary according to his beliefs and life experience.
What if the viewer can’t choose?
I choose that it’s suicide, but then there was that blow with a blunt object.
Fine, she could have fallen and hit her head on a rock, yeah?
But the shape of the wound fits a hammer found in Nikolai’s workshop.
Look, when it’s necessary, things get found in the glove compartment of any old intellectual who never smelt gunpowder, things like weapons and drugs. Once they reckon it’s a suicide, the investigators could say, “Clear as daylight. We’ve got it all sewn up. Where’s the hammer? There it is.” Tell me who in all the proceedings will actually look into just what blunt instrument it was that struck that head? Don’t you know how our law enforcement agencies work? Don’t make me laugh.
Seems to me that you yourself tend towards the suicide theory.
I was once sat at a table with two people about your age, who argued until they were hoarse, one that Lilya killed herself, and the other that she was murdered, and both made the case for each.
And you got a buzz from it.
Yes, I do feel a joy when people build their personal theory and then stand by it. It means, the framework and conditions we set were good enough to convince them. For someone the mirroris enough, when Lilya is crying in front of it, and there’s Roma’s scream, “Get out!”, and you see the state of her eyes at the moment - like a scared lynx. A spectator takes these things on board, gradually accumulates their version, and then they’re absolutely sure, it’s obvious, that Lilya killed herself.
So the viewer actually becomes something like a co-author?
It's not only his right, it’s his sacred duty to be not a consumer but a co-author collaborating his own reality… There’s nothing ill-considered in Leviathan. I’m currently having an argument with Dmitry Bykov, who says that we’re hacks, we didn’t fully work out the links in the film. Oh, this and that might not be perfect, but there are absolutely no bits that weren’t full worked out. I’ll answer for every single word, every interjection. Everything was studied and absolutely thought through, top to bottom.
Did you read Bykov’s articles then?
Articles? Rodnyansky summarised one for me, as for some reason I didn’t decide to read it, I was afraid I couldn’t restrain myself and I’d call Bykov. I’d start explaining to him that a cinema text is separate from a literary text, that films are created by these in order to be looked at, not only listened to. And that there isn’t some kind of legal code of dramaturgical laws that you can’t ever break. That’s simply ridiculous that we didn’t think it through? Within the bounds of those two and a half hours everything’s been planned down to the smallest detail. There are no mistakes in it. Agree with me, that when something misunderstood it’s very easy to decide that the guys just didn’t work on it enough.
Why is it important to you to respond to critics? Maybe it's better, as Oscar Wilde said, that every time people agree with me I feel something was wrong.
No, it is important to me that people understand me. Not that they agreed but that they understood. Agreement or disagreement - that’s the next stage. […]
‘Are you an American spy?’
With regard to how we express ourselves in life, did Nikita Mikhalkov not ask you to sign the joint letter in support of mat [bad language] in films?
No, but in every interview I’ve done I’ve made it clear that I sign up to that letter, even without doing so physically. If need be, I’ll sign the paper. But there are already the names on it of every important figure in the movie elite, so no extra signatures are needed. If I or someone in my circle started up a similar letter, possibly it wouldn’t have the same effect.
The Return was supposed to be partly filmed in New York. The Banishment was based on William Saroyan’s book, whose plot takes place in America. Elena became Helen. You based Leviathan on a tragedy that took place in Colorado. Why are you always attracted to the US? Are you, when it comes down to it, an American spy?
Listen, here’s the truth. The scenario of The Return was born without my having anything to do with it. In it 40-year-old brothers have to meet in the apartment of one of them in Manhattan, while all the subsequent history is done as a flashback. I reckoned it couldn’t be done: to do here and now was much stronger that the weaker arc of memories of things that happened in the past. Which is why I decided to abandon the New York scenes.
The Banishment is actually an American story that unfolds in the vineyards of California. In it you get locomotives, kettles, the first civil airline aeroplanes. And I had to avoid concrete, to remove all the signs of time and place. Work on Elena was initiated by an English producer, the film was conceived as English-speaking, which is why the action needed to happen either in the US or in the UK, or some other English- speaking country. But it was clear to me that this was a universal story that could happen anywhere. So then why not make it in my own land? Leviathan became Russian for similar reasons. So if I’m a spy, then I’m a Russian one.
What will be your fifth movie?
I have three scenarios lying on my desk by Rodnyansky. I’m looking forward to him finding the money and deciding which of them to do. To be more precise, they were on the desk at the same time as Elena, but then after Elena not one Rodnyansky script got taken on. Leviathan turned up as the alternative.
And are you still happy with all three?
If one understands the essence of tragedy as the death of beauty, we can say that you have filmed four tragedies.
And how many times in a lifetime can someone create tragedy?
Sophocles wrote only tragedies throughout his life. Aristophanes was the comedian. Obviously the spirit of tragedy is something close to me, but it doesn’t mean that I myself am a tragic figure. To film a tragedy is a great pleasure. On our locations you always hear laughter. Tragedy gives us strength to live.
So will you always be making films about tragedy?
I don’t know. But in any case, comedies don’t interest me much. I very rarely come across something that’s genuinely funny.
Vladimir Medinsky recently suggested that you should shoot an optimistic film.
I'm afraid he'll have to do his movie with someone else. I have, as it happens, an idea for an “optimistic” script that I promised him a while back to show. But I’m afraid my optimism isn’t the sort of thing the minister wants. The principal thing is that even in tragedy there’s an essential optimism concealed inside, a spirit that affirms life. “The heart of the wise can be found in a house of mourning, the heart of fools in a house of mirth.”
COMMENTS BELOW THE ARTICLE
The film isn’t about anything. It is politically calculated lies. The so-called oddities of national love of hutning, fishing, politics, have all been done in much more talented and authentic ways, and thing you can look at with pleasure again and again. This crap under the name leviathan will be totally forgotten in a month, just like all the creations of the author called Zvyagintsev. There is no truth whatever in his film.
JR, yesterday, 10:02
The picture has been made to a very high professional level, 5-plus on a five-point scale. You have to see the film on the big screen, it is designed for people who thin, and who recognize the depth of the accumulating problems, the depth of the chasm between government and people. Especially one should mention the exceptional acting work of Roman Madyanov, who shows us such a juicy bastard in the form of the mayer of some northern town. And of course we can’t pass over the character role of Aleksei Serebriakov, practically playing himself, a man searching for his own predestination in life, fed up by all the bureaucratic whirl of you for me and I for you. You can see Leviathan as a film of tragedy, of meditation, or warning.
RM, February 20, 21:46
The film is vulgar and stupid. However, it’s a shoe-in for the Oscar. This is calculated for American mindset. And it’s got no interest for us.
AK, February 20, 12:07
Perhaps the inhabitants of the Garden Ring long ago forgot the realities of life in the rest of Russia. Hence the criticism. Or else they know very well what they’re doing in the country and are beginning to protect themselves.
VG, February 20, 09:33
Leviathan film director is asked if he’s a US spy
Film director Andrei Zvyagintsev (photo A Company/ Anna Matveeva)