Simple Melodrama v. the Symbolic: Pavel Chukrai Talks About
Oscar Nominee, "The Thief"
by Michael Lee
Set mostly in the early 1950s, “Vor” (“The Thief“), Russian director
Pavel Chukrai’s eighth feature, tells the story of the troubled
relationship between Katya, a beautiful Russian war widow and Tolyan, a
charming strong-willed ex-soldier and now thief who can’t stay in one
place very long. Sanya, Katya’s 6-year-old son, is the surprise
protagonist, learning how to grow up caught between them.
After playing to enthusiastic audiences all over Russia, and screening
in competition at last year’s Venice Festival, “The Thief” was nominated
for best European film at the European Film Awards and Golden Globes,
and nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of 1997.
“The Thief” opens today in the U.S., but was also screened twice last
week to full houses at the Karlovy Vary IFF. The day after the festival
ended, I met Pavel Chukrai at the Hotel Intercontinental in Prague,
where most festival guests on their way home are housed, and where
last year, on the same day, I was nearly trampled by Madeleine
Albright’s secret service detail.
Chukrai, his moustache neatly groomed, arrived dressed in a black
sportcoat over a silk black shirt. He spoke to me in Russian which his
wife and interpreter Maria Zvereva helped me translate. We were briefly
interrupted by Rod Steiger, who paused at our table for greetings on his
way out for a look at several Prague galleries.
indieWIRE: The version of “The Thief” screened at Karlovy Vary and also now in
the States is not the original version. The ending is different. The
original ending involved a final scene in the present day in which
Sanya, now in his 50s, thinks he sees Tolyan again, and deals with the
emotions created by this meeting. Why was this scene cut?
Pavel Chukrai: At the urging of my French producer. I always work on
two levels. Each story is a simple melodrama, with characters and
emotions everyone can feel. On the second level, the symbolic level, it
sometimes is clear only to people who have the historical cultural
context needed to read it. Even if you can’t reach the symbolic meaning,
the story will still be interesting. It was important to me that in
Russia, people were able to see the long version, which completes the
symbolic story. It worked very well for Russian audiences, and in East
Europe also. But my producer was worried that for Western audiences, it
would not register, that the ending was too big of a jump.
iW: Usually when a producer wants to change an ending, it’s to make it
happier, more pleasing. But this shorter version actually feels more
melancholy, with less sense of will, redemption, hope. In place of a
possible discovery, it now ends with a killing.
Chukrai: It’s not just the action, but also the time, the setting. The
original ending is set in the present, against the backdrop of Chechnya,
Kazakhstan, and so on. We remember, when we see Sanya in the present
day, that he belongs to the generation which is ruling now. The
decisionmakers in the army, the government, they’re all in their 50s,
they all were formed in Stalin’s era. All the mistakes happening today
have their roots in Stalinism. All the problems of today. Our people in
the 50’s were a bit childish. They loved Stalin and wanted him the way a
little child would want a strong father, who disciplined and protected.
The relations between the thief and the boy are like that. We overcame
Stalinism for the most part, but we can’t just erase it completely,
because the things you are raised with in childhood are engraved so
deeply. When you were three or five, your father taught you to beat an
enemy and you still keep it. It explains a lot of difficulties we still
face, why democracy is not going down so easily. Sanya tries to kill
Tolyan, but he can’t pull Tolyan out of his mind by the roots, he can’t
throw his past away. In the original ending, there is a doubt whether
the boy even really did kill the thief. That doubt brings the boy a sort
of relief which is very important. But the metaphor works in the shorter
version as well. At the end of the shorter version, Sanya says “I don’t
want to remember him, I don’t want to be like him,” but still we see he
has this tattoo of the leopard on his shoulder, just like Tolyan’s
iW: Could you have made such a film before?
Chukrai: Even if by some miracle of chance I had been able to make it
ten or fifteen years ago, it would never have been distributed. Also, I
would have more greatly politicized it. At the time, I thought the main
problems were around us, pushing at us from outside. But now I realize
there are so many problems that come from within, and they’re just as
important. The most frightening thing was never that Stalin was pushing,
punishing. It was the sort of love people gave him, that he planted
himself inside people.
iW: By bringing the story into the present, the longer version more
directly reflects on the changes in modern Russia. Do the changes shown
in the film relate at all to changes in the process of making films in
Russia? This process must have changed quite a bit in the last few
Chukrai: It’s changed completely. For example MOSFILM, where I worked
when I was 16,
in the previous years it was like a monolith, it was everything, the
director of the studio decided which script to choose, what cameras to
use, the entire production was in one pair of hands. Now the same
MOSFILM has become mostly a base with technical facilities, and
different independent or dependent producers come and ask for these
facilities, for technical help, for editing rooms. It has separated into
many smaller studios. Also, there’s been a shift from total government
funding to the majority of funding being from private money. Only 15-17%
of movies are made with state money now, and even in those, state money
forms only a small part of the budget, maybe 25%. It used to be, of
course, all of the budget for all Russian movies.
This independent money makes the film industry a lot less conservative,
but it also brings a lot of problems, because the old system is
destroyed, and the new one is still being built, and nobody really
understands yet how it works. For instance: in socialist times, there
was a very strong state distribution system. People wanted to go to
cinemas, the cinemas were well-controlled and affordable, so films went
everywhere, theaters were full, and even the worst films made a profit.
The greatest problem now isn’t really to find money for production, but
not to lose it all in the end because of bad distribution. Even the best
movies now in Russia have trouble getting back the money put into them.
iW: Have these market pressures affected the subject and construction of
movies? Have new money sources brought with them new forms of
Chukrai: Personally, I haven’t felt anything like that. Even with this
short version, they asked me to do it, they explained why, they never
pressed me. But a lot of my colleagues feel it as a very painful thing,
that the censorship of the market is not better than the censorship of
previous years. Different, but not better. The thing is, most of the
movies that have been made in the last few years “without censorship,”
they have a lot of blood, sex, and violence, and that’s it. They’re just
copying B movies from other countries, and they’re made on the worst
level, so what’s the use of all this freedom? They have proved to be a
mistake in every way. They don’t make a profit. And that’s the only
reason they’re made, so what’s the point? If people want to see that
kind of film, they’d rather see the real thing, the American films,
instead of these cheap local copies. Good directors won’t do scripts
like that. On every technical and professional level, they’re worst than
the worst films under the old system.
iW: Does this mean a crisis, then, for Russian filmmaking?
Chukrai: Luckily, television and media companies have realized that
people are overstuffed with foreign films, that they want to see more
coming out of their own national cinema. On TV, old Russian movies are
getting higher ratings than American movies. So big private channels
have started to invest in feature production. This is good. It’s part of
our national pride to have our own strong film industry. We’re still a
far cry from our former output – in the 80s, the former USSR was
producing about 300 films a year, while last year we made only 30-40,
and this year barely 70. So it’s still way down, but improving.
iW: A lot of the private money is said to come from Mafia sources. An
article last week in indieWIRE dealt with this.
Chukrai: Before, we really didn’t have any such thing as a professional
independent producer, since the state was producing all the movies.
Then, four or five years ago, in the vacuum of state sponsorship, a lot
of people came down like monkeys from the trees, calling themselves,
pretending to be, producers. They could hardly read, and didn’t
understand anything about the
cinema, but they brought money and started to dictate things to the
filmmakers. Working with those people was a pain. The film industry was
one of the main places to launder dirty money, black money. In the last
couple years, though, as we’ve started to have people who we can call
producers in reality, those others have begun to find better laundries.
iW: But the article specifically mentioned “Brat” (“Brother”), the
Balabenko film which had a run in the States recently and was produced
just last year. It dealt with the Mafia in detail, and rumors are that
it was also paid for by the Mafia.
Chukrai: I don’t really know the situation of “Brat.” I only know the
director, who is very interesting, very talented. He has just put out
another excellent film [“Of Freaks and Men,” in KV this year as part of
the VARIETY critics’ choice section]. I know that they shot “Brat” at a
studio, that part of the financing came from the state. Where the
producer got the rest of the money, I really have no idea. I’ve been
lucky to have money from foreign co-producers and from a big bank which
I know where their money comes from.
iW: How did you finance “The Thief”?
Chukrai: We were very lucky. The finances were organized very easily. I
entered the script into competition in January and by the end of April
we were already shooting. The smaller part came first, from France, a
sponsor within the French government which supports East European
movies. After that the main financial package came from a big
entertainment and media holding called Most which has a TV station and a
number of magazines. And then the third partner, the Russian Ministry of
Cinema, added a bit. The main portion of the funding, with Most, through
a bank, was a type which is quite new for Russia. But then there was a
lot of magic involved with this story, this script. Even the snows held
back until the day we finished the last scene.
iW: Has the success of “The Thief” in festivals and worldwide
distribution made it easier for you for future projects?
Chukrai: “The Thief” is one of the two or three most successful movies
in modern Russia, even making a profit there, so yes, it’s easier for me
to find money not only in Russia, but if I need it, in Europe as well.
As for the States, I don’t know. It’s much more difficult for European
directors to work with Hollywood. Hopefully I won’t need money from the
States, because the success of the movie in Russia and other countries
will be enough. It’s hard to be completely certain, of course, as the
situation in Russia is changing every five seconds. If you need a lot of
money tomorrow, would it be there? Anyway, that’s my nature. I’m
cautious about talking about the future. I’m an old fashioned European.
I have to finish the script, be convinced it’s perfect, before I’m even
sure I really want to shoot it.
iW: “The Thief” opened in the States this week.
Chukrai: Of course, I’m happy about that. It’s always great for a
director to have his film seen. VOR is also being shown now in
Australia, Latin America, Africa. The States, of course, is at the top
of the list, but there’s not much chance for an East European movie to
be widely released there. I do have a great relationship with my
American distributor, [Stratosphere], a new company. Our distributor is
very intellectual. Conversations with him have been great. We both love
[Michael Lee is a filmmaker and writer based in Prague.]