"Putin's Kiss," the first feature doc for Danish filmmaker Lise Birk Pedersen, attracted more than 300 people for its world premiere at IDFA. Judging by reactions, they were not disappointed.
In "Putin's Kiss," Pedersen examines Russia's new generation through the experience of Mosha, an intelligent and ambitious teen who gained notoriety at home for giving Russian president Valdimir Putin a kiss on the cheek. She, along with many in her generation, admire Putin and his charisma, embodying a strong paternal figure who is determined to recapture Russian greatness.
In order to fight Russia's perceived internal enemies, many in this new generation — including Mosha — have joined Nashi, a pro-government youth movement that are emphatic supporters of Putin and President Medvedev. Their enemies include liberal journalists like Oleg Kashin who have likened Nashi to the Hitler youth movement and have chastised Putin generally for subverting Russia's nascent democracy.
But at the heart of "Putin's Kiss" is the coming-of-age story of Mosha, from devoted disciple and leader in Nashi to something different as she experiences the darker side of the regime's tactics.
IDFA head Ally Derks told Indiewire the other day that there is a movement happening that she and her colleagues are calling the "Pop-Doc," films that are cinematic and tell a broader story in a personal way. You chose this route exposing Russia's Nashi youth movement through one of its young leaders, Mosha. Were you interested first in Mosha or Nashi?
I think that's typical with Danish filmmakers. Actually, my colleagues in Denmark might have focused even more on the individual story. I really tried to open this film to get the broader perspective of modern Russia and life in modern Russia. But this is very typical of people who went to the Danish Film School. I think it's too much sometimes, too personal. For me, it was important to get an idea about Russia to understand the context of why Mosha loved Putin so much and the political situation she was wrapped up in.
How did you meet Mosha?
I did a short doc in Russia, which was more of a love story about Russia. It was more in the perspective of the '90s — a poorer Russia about an orphanage. But when I was there to make this film in St. Petersburg, I saw this new Russia. I had never seen so many expensive cars in my life and there were so many modern, young women with a [modern attitude]. So I wanted to make a film about the new Russia.
I got art funding to explore this new Russia about four years [coinciding with] the election at the State Duma (national legislature). I interviewed a lot of young politicians and also met Mosha. She stood out. She was very seductive and intelligent, but she also introduced me to this small paranoid universe that Nashi lives in.
It was around the election so they had this extra paranoia where they stored generators, computers, food, etc. and they said that if a revolution were to happen during the election, that Nashi could still survive. I was [surprised by their reaction].
There are some interesting parallels with the tactics and aims of Nashi with other organized youth movements of the past; the Nazi youth come to mind. Watching the film, it just seems like it's a way on the part of Russia's leaders to harness the energy of rebellious youth to then harass, undermine and intimidate their opponents, while making these kids seem "special" and a part of a fraternal group.
It is like that, really. When you go to these rallies, there were these four or five Nashi songs. They have their own clothes line. This one guy who also organized book burnings, he would talk to Nashi members and say, "If it weren't for you, Russia would be nowhere." So you had this guy telling the young people that it's because of them that the country is still there.
What is very interesting was that Mosha was so devout and such a prime leader at such a young age in the Nashi movement, and yet in the course of the film, something happens that brings her out of the center of it all — and I don't want to give it away — but did you have a sense that despite her ideological devotion when you first met, that there was something about her that indicated this could happen? Because this is a dramatic element in the story.
Yes, it is very much important in the film. When I met her, I wondered if she would change or just be Putin's protégé. I don't know, when I met Mosha, I could see an inner-contradiction. She was so ambitious. There was an interesting time when she had chosen this guy as her right-hand man, but then something happened and she had him thrown him out of Nashi. So I could see she had a judge of character and therefore she had dramatic potential somehow.
If I'm in a room with some people — or if [any] documentary filmmaker is in a room with potential subjects — we can quite easily figure out who to make a film about and figure out who might have something at stake.
"Putins' Kiss" has great access, from Mosha, to the more radicalized elements of Nashi and then to the opposition as well as liberal journalists. How did that work?
I started out with Mosha of course, but at one point, she was not very available to me. Then I started to film this radical group [within Nashi] a lot. In fact, Quite a lot actually, and it doesn't quite come across in the film, actually. Both with Mosha [and a radical member, Anton] when I asked them to talk about their decisions, they'd cut me off.
And I knew if I started going to the opposition, [it would be trouble]. But I knew I could always go to the opposition because they would be available. They want to talk.
It was interesting watching some of these speeches by Nashi leaders like Vasily Yakemenko who threw around words like "freedom," "democracy," "values," etc. They're reminiscent of words thrown out in the U.S. by the hard right or the Christian right, and yet these groups actually seek to limit the freedoms of people. It was an interesting quality that seems to transcend nation.
Yeah, Oleg also talked about instances like that. "Values" are important to these groups. And Nashi always says they're anti-fascist. Yakemenko would do this speech about democracy, etc. and then say, "If you don't like what we're doing here, then you can just get out."
It was interesting because in the beginning, Oleg was open to Nashi and actually interviewed Vasily Yakemenko and once questioned him about similarities with the Hitler youth movement, and Vasily said that they had actually picked some of the best qualities of the Hitler youth movement, the Red Guard in China and the youth movement in the old Soviet Union.
Sounds like he's very calculating.
What do you think of the possibilities of this film being screened in Russia? Maybe the Moscow Film Festival?
I don't know, actually. There's a festival in December, but it might be too soon, actually. There are also some possibilities with satellite channels. There are some possibilities, but we'll have to see.
And with the elections coming up in Russia, do I dare ask what your opinion is of Putin?
I'm guessing you think he's contributing to the further "fragility" of democracy there — is that putting it nicely?
Yes, but it's also so far from my world. I'm from Denmark, where democracy has been hammered into my head since school. But with people like Mosha, they never had the education on what is a democracy. She'd go out and do a political action with Nashi for instance, and then she'd cover it up as a journalist. So she wouldn't see the conflict [in her roles] between political activist and journalist. She didn't realize you shouldn't do that. But when she met Oleg and these liberal journalists, she started to realize what she was doing.
OK, now turning a moment to Danish filmmaking. Ally Derks says Denmark produces a disproportionate amount of terrific cinema for its size, both in nonfiction and fiction. Do you agree, and why is that if so?
The documentary department at the Danish Film School is [key.] I think I was the fourth generation in that department. [Films like] "The Good Life," "Ballroom Dancer" [and more] came before me.
This department has a four-year program for nonfiction filmmaking. We work with composers and others with more of an artistic focus. There is very little journalism focus, however, which is both good and bad. It's much more cinematic.
Also, in Denmark there is a great system for supporting documentaries. Half the money is state funding. Of course, you have to have "the good idea" and go through a process, but you don't have some of [the same pressure] with the money that you have from other sources. So these forces altogether — financially and creatively as well as the Copenhagen Documentary Film Festival, which is a third leg — is creating this atmosphere for docs in Denmark.