I am on a junket to Moscow. It’s not the normal press junket, where Fox or Disney ships a cadre of TV and online scribes to London to interview Ridley Scott and Charlize Theron for “Prometheus,” or Scotland for “Brave.” This one is unusual.
While many countries mount screenings of their latest films in the U.S., at French fests such as Sarasota or COL-COA, the Russian film industry, which wants more distribution of their films in North America–like everyone else–have imported, at some expense, reps from about 20 companies to Moscow to show them 20 new films.
On Wednesday, a group of Angelenos flew non-stop overnight first class on Aeroflot to Moscow. We got to see how the VIP class lives–special lane to the LA ticket counter and the Aeroflot lounge with snacks, drinks and wifi, where I feverishly try to get the blog in shape before 11 hours offline.
Digital distribution expert Peter Broderick and producer Midge Sanford already downloaded some of the films; so did Fox’s Tony Safford and Roadside’s Howard Cohen and Eric D’Arbeloff, who emailed me stats on how few Russian films have been shown in America, and how little money they made. On the line to the tram to the plane, I meet Gwenael Deglise, a French woman who has worked for years programming at the American Cinematheque. She’s putting together a contemporary Russian program.
The jet flies North along the California coast in the western sun, over the grid of Sonoma farmland and water glittering on Lake Tahoe, then heads Northeast over Canada and Greenland to Moscow. The LA gang in first class sipping champagne and munching strange fish hors d’oeuvres includes a gaggle of studio and indie acquisitions execs and distributors. (Yes! There’s an outlet to charge my computer.) I start to memorize numbers and alphabet from a Russian cheat sheet: three is tree, wine is vino, cafe is kophe, hello is allo, computer is kompyeuter, basically, and telephone is telephon. I repeat the word for thank you: “Spahseebah.”
Safford emails me the Roubles/Dollar exchange rate–it’s about 33 roubles to the dollar. After supper, I pull the blinds to block the sun and watch one of the Russian hits in the U.S., “Russian Ark,” Alexandr Sokurov’s 2002 delirious one-take waltz through Russian history at St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, which we will visit on Monday. Then my seatmate, CBS Films’ Scott Shooman, and I tilt our seats back and sleep.
It’s Thursday afternoon in Moscow when we arrive on the longest day of the year. We are ushered to the VIP customs lounge (with wifi!), where they give us coffee and retrieve our bags. Of course my Cellhire sim card is the wrong size for my iPhone. We pile into a yellow bus and wend through heavy rush hour traffic into the bustling, congested city, past much construction and banks, buildings emblazoned with luxury brands, a Kentucky Fried Chicken, Starbucks, the Boshoi Ballet, the Duma, and a monument to Mayakofsky until we reach the ritzy Hotel Baltschug, right across the bridge from Red Square.
We meet up with the East Coast contingent in the lobby at eight to shuttle to dinner at historic Cafe Pushkin on Tverskey Boulevard. The restaurant has been painstakingly restored to new-antique glory. We start with vodka and cabbage rolls; at dinner, waiters refill vodka and wine glasses until you say “nyet.” My tablemates order beef stroganoff; I have fresh sea bass.
Roskino CEO Catherine Mtsitouridze is running this entire show with help from her team and Russian Film Commission USA chief Eleanora Granata. Mtsitouridze is a powerful and youthful 40-year-old Georgian celebrity; the well-known Channel One morning talk show host has made allies in Hollywood, Cannes and in the Russian film industry; she’s a zealous and passionate cinephile and reformer. Her hope: this entire mission will pay off with at least one film sale. She figures few people in Hollywood have ever been to Moscow and have much to learn about her industry; she’s right. Saturday we will all participate in a film panel organized by Sydney Levine (SydneysBuzz) to learn more about this great divide.
Mtsitouridze brings around veteran producer Kira Saksaganskaya of Rock Films, who has produced many features over the past few years, many of them funded by the Ministry of Culture; the budgets tend to come in under $1 million, and are shown strictly in Russia. Rock Films got release offers for Alexei Uchitel’s Golden Globe-nominated “The Edge,” which Mtsitouridze championed with her PR partners Planeta Inform, but none were deemed acceptable, and were turned down. Rock Films also produced cancer drama “I’ll Be Around” from Roskino’s 2012 selection. We also meet Nikolay Khomeriki, who directed another film about someone facing a death diagnosis, “Heart’s Boomerang.” He won a short prize at Cannes and has had two films shown in Un Certain Regard.
When we emerge it is still light; it’s the white nights in Moscow. One group winds up in a high-end late night basement club; Sara Rose, Bob Aaronson, Bob and Jeanne Berney and I venture over the bridge to floodlit Red Square, where Lenin’s Tomb is covered by an ugly scaffolding. It’s past midnight, and not really dark.
On Friday morning we start the screenings at Digital October, inside an old chocolate factory along the Moscow River that has been renovated into an arts complex. We sit in darkened rooms at long tables with digital screens; folks start to peel out of my first movie, and slowly many of us wind up watching the same film, rookie Dmitri Mamulia’s fest circuit fave “Another Sky,” which is a grim tale of a depressed shepherd searching in an industrialized wasteland for his young son’s long-departed mother. Images of dead goats and dogs coexist with relentless, dehumanizing machinery.
So far, the hit of this mini-fest within the concurrent Moscow Film Festival are both by writer-director Avdotia Smirnova, the already-released “Two Days,” a sexy, talky romance between a bald city bureaucrat played by charismatic director Fedor Bondarchuk (Федор Бондарчук, son of “War and Peace” actor-director Sergei Bondarchuk) and a feisty country museum deputy director (Ksenia Rappoport), and buddy girl comedy “Kokoko.” Otherwise, this discerning crowd has found most of the other films to have merit in the filmmaking and acting departments but too parochial subject matter. That is the issue.