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Sundance ‘10 | Robin Hessman Goes Behind the Iron Curtain in “My Perestroika”

Sundance ‘10 | Robin Hessman Goes Behind the Iron Curtain in "My Perestroika"

Robin Hessman makes her Sundance debut with “My Perestroika,” a documentary that “adopts the idea of the ‘everyman story,’ suggesting that the unheralded lives of the last generation of Soviets to grow up behind the iron curtain hold the key to understanding the contradictions of modern Russia from the inside out.

“Crafted during five years of researching and shooting, and based on almost a decade of living in Russia in the 1990s, Hessman’s film poetically interweaves an extraordinary trove of home movies, Soviet propaganda films, and intimate access to five schoolmates whose linked, but very different, histories offer a moving portrait of newly middle-class Russians living lives they could never have imagined when they were growing up.” [Description courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival]

“My Perestroika”
U.S. Documentary Competition
Director: Robin Hessman
Producer: Robin Hessman, Rachel Wexler
Composer: Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin
Cinematographer: Robin Hessman
Editor: Alla Kovgan, Garret Savage
Sound Designer: Barbara Parks, Peter Levin
87 minutes

Robin Hessman on how she became a filmmaker and developed her Sundance project, “My Perestroika”…

I think filmmaking evolved naturally from my early interests in music and theatre and, in my teens, photography. The very first film I made was a 16mm short that I shot in the summer of 1991 in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) after I spent the semester abroad there during my freshman year of college. I left the USSR to go back to school a few weeks after the August coup and the film was taken away from me at the border. Then my junior year abroad was spent at VGIK, the All-Russian State Institute of Cinematography in Moscow, together with my best friend from high school, James Longley (director of “Iraq in Fragments”). We made a 27-minute film that year called Portrait of “Boy with Dog.” That year at VGIK was such an incredible experience, I decided to stay with my film school class and complete the 5-year directing program.

I began to think about this film 10 years ago. After I finished film school, I spent several more years living in Moscow producing the Russian “Sesame Street.” By the time I returned to live in the States in late 1999, I had spent most of the decade – all of my early adult years – living in Russia. Back in the US, the questions I was asked made me realize that despite the end of the Cold War so many years earlier, there was still a wall when it came to information and understanding about what life was like in the former USSR. Stereotypes and misconceptions prevailed. I decided to make a film about my generation of Russians – the generation that I joined, in a sense, when I went to live there for the first time at age 18. They had normal Soviet childhoods behind the Iron Curtain, never dreaming that anything would ever be different in their society. Just coming of age when Gorbachev appeared, they were figuring out their own identities as the very foundations of their society were being questioned for the first time. And then they graduated just as the USSR collapsed and they had to figure out a completely new life as young adults, with no models to follow. Although I didn’t grow up there and have no Russian family history, I shared their journey through the 1990s, adjusting to the evolving Post-Soviet Russia along with everyone else. It put me in a wonderful position to tell their story – as I am both insider and outsider. After working on other films for PBS as a co-producer, I began to develop this film full time in the fall of 2004.

I knew from the beginning that I wanted to film several people who had been childhood classmates and grown up together. In Russia, a class of about 20 people is together from first grade through the end of high school, so they really know each other well and have an entire shared history. On the other hand, I thought perhaps their lives would have taken incredibly different directions, or that they might remember contradicting stories from the past. It seemed a good framework in which to ground such an abstract idea of “a generation” that has gone through these enormous changes. I figured that once I found a person as the anchor of the film, I’d meet his or her classmates from there. I interviewed dozens of people during my first trip back to Moscow and I also spent time in archives and searching for 8mm home movies. (Home movies were an integral part of my vision for the film from the very beginning, as a privileged and personal view into everyday life of the past – with no agenda other than preserving memories.) I also began thinking about Russia’s “unpredictable past” so at one point realized that it would be fascinating to hear the perspective of history teachers in their 30s. They were taught one version of the past as children and today were teaching a completely different interpretation of those same events to their own students (who were all born after the collapse of the USSR, and are living in a completely different world.) I began speaking with dozens of history teachers and eventually was lucky enough to meet Borya and Lyuba, a married couple who both teach history in the same Moscow grade school. Through them I met Olga, Andrei and Ruslan. I expected the home movies I had would be of the era, but I never dreamed I’d be lucky enough to have home movies of them as children. (Cameras were relatively rare.) It was a wonderful gift to find out that Borya’s father had constantly filmed not only his son, but also the entire class.

One of the hardest things while developing the film was that in the very beginning I didn’t know who the subjects would be, which meant that so much about the film was still unknown. It wasn’t a situation where I was just going about my life and all of a sudden, met some amazing people and BAM! I just had to make a film about them. This film was born very slowly out of an idea – and the most important factor affecting what the film was going to be in the end was the choice of the people in the film. Who they would be, what their stories were, would shape everything else. I think for some funders and other people I spoke with during the first year of developing the film, this approach – the idea before the actual subjects – was too cerebral for them. They seemed skeptical that a film made in this manner could wind up with much heart.

Hessman on screening the film at Sundance…

I hope Sundance audiences will enjoy seeing a film about real people in Russia that is warm and personal and not a sweeping abstract look at a country and its politics from afar. I think it will be refreshing to have an intimate look at contemporary Moscow, as well as to hear perspectives on childhood and adolescence from the other side of the Iron Curtain. Hopefully, it will deepen their understanding of the country that was simply “the enemy” and nothing else, for so long.

On her inspirations…

Alan Berliner’s film “Nobody’s Business” is always an inspiration to me.

…and future plans…

I have a few ideas, and most of the projects I am drawn to have a strong international component. In the very near future I’ll be preparing “My Perestroika” for its broadcast premiere on POV in 2011 (the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union).

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Sundance U.S. Dramatic & Documentary Competitions as well as the NEXT section to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, iW asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]

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