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Robin Hessman Goes Behind the Iron Curtain in “My Perestroika”

Robin Hessman Goes Behind the Iron Curtain in "My Perestroika"

This interview with “My Perestroika” director Robin Hessman was originally published during indieWIRE’s coverage of last year’s New Directors/New Films. “My Perestroika” opens in limited release this Wednesday, March 23.

“My Perestroika” follows five ordinary Russians living in extraordinary times — from their sheltered Soviet childhood, to the collapse of the Soviet Union during their teenage years, to the constantly shifting political landscape of post-Soviet Russia. Together, these childhood classmates paint a complex picture of the dreams and disillusionment of those raised behind the Iron Curtain. [Synopsis courtesy of Red Square Productions]

“My Perestroika”
Director: Robin Hessman
Producers: Robin Hessman and Rachel Wexler
Music: Lev Zhurbin
Cinematography: Robin Hessman
Editors: Alla Kovgan and Garret Savage
87 minutes

A film obsession…

I was very active in theater and music throughout my childhood and in my teens I became very serious about photography – aspiring to be Henri-Cartier Bresson when I grew up. But I was also obsessed with cinema in high school. My two best friends and I would brew strong pots of Earl Gray tea and watch 6 or 7 films in a row- all night long (we were a little geeky of course). That’s how I first saw “The 400 Blows,” “The Godfather,” “8 ½,” “La Strada,” a lot of early Woody Allen like “Take the Money and Run” or “Love and Death.” My freshman year of college I went abroad to Leningrad (that was the year they voted to re-name it St. Petersburg). I vividly remember landing on the snowy tarmac in January, and being greeted by men in giant fur hats who handed us our sheets of ration coupons since there was little food in the city.

Being there, and experiencing the beautiful and surreal life of the collapsing USSR, I decided I wanted to make films. I got a summer job at the Leningrad Film Studios (Lenfilm) working on an American horror movie about ballerinas in a dance school who get murdered in a smorgasbord of interesting ways. (It starred Robert Englund, the actor who played Freddy Krueger in the “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies). We filmed in the palace where Rasputin was killed so that’s where I’d go every day to work. At the same time, I also was making my own first film on equipment borrowed from the studio. Then one day I came to work and was told to go home since there had been a military coup. That was the coup of August 1991 – which also figures in my film “My Perestroika.”

From “Sesame Street” to “My Perestroika”…

I began to think about this film ten years ago. After I graduated from the All-Russian Institute of Cinematography in Moscow, where I completed their five year directing program, I spent several more years living in Moscow producing the Russian “Sesame Street,” “Ulitsa Sezam.” By the time I returned to live in the States again 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 that somehow I would 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 just as the very foundations of their society were being questioned for the first time. And then, they graduated just as the USSR collapsed- having to figure out a new life, where there were no models to follow. Although I didn’t grow up there, and have no Russian family history, I shared their journey throughout the 1990s, adjusting to the evolving Post-Soviet Russia. It put me in a wonderful position to tell their story – as I am both insider and outsider. After four years of working on other PBS films as a co-producer (“Tupperware!” which was on American Experience and the biography of Julia Child for American Masters) I began to develop this film full time in the fall of 2004 when I became a Filmmaker in Residence at WGBH in Boston.

My approach from the beginning was to saturate the film with images from the 1970s and 1980s and try and re-create the world of childhood of the protagonists. I started looking for home movies of those years from the beginning. Popular bloggers helped me spread the word, and a friend of mine with a magazine also published some ads of my search. Some films came on trains from Siberia, passed hand to hand through many intermediaries. But I was extremely lucky to have not only home movies of the period, but also of the actual people in the film themselves – thanks to Borya Meyerson’s father who was obsessive about documenting the life of his son on 8mm film.

It was important to me that all the footage of the 1970s and 1980s be actual footage from Russia that surrounded the subjects of the film or would have been something they would have watched. (This went for the music as well.) I made it a rule to avoid footage OF the USSR from stock footage houses from other places. There are two short shots during the section on the August 1991 coup that are an exception to the rule, but I got that footage in Moscow and only years later when trying to identify who owned the rights to it, found out that a few seconds belonged to NBC and a few to ITN.

One of the biggest challenges for me was actually shooting the film. I started out convinced that I would work with a cinematographer and I had no desire to shoot the film myself. However it soon became apparent that it would be impossible. First of all, it wasn’t easy to find someone who could do it. In Russia usually shooting styles vary between two extremes, either elaborative feature films with lighting and cranes, or journalism where the main point is coverage, with little attention to composition or sensitivity to the subjects you are filming. I couldn’t afford to bring someone from the US to live for months at a time in Moscow as well (The film was shot over three years during various trips to Moscow that lasted from two to seven months).

So the very first day of shooting was with someone I hired…and it was a disaster. It didn’t work for a lot of reasons (including spatially since the Meyerson’s kitchen was so small – I had to sit on the floor under the table and yell things up at them), but mainly since all of a sudden the atmosphere was totally different. Whereas the Meyersons had been completely at ease before with me – even when I was shooting for research – once the cameraman started (whom they dubbed “the Ox”), they stiffened up and became shy – Mark too. All of a sudden it was clear there was a stranger in their apartment. So I really had no choice but to grit my teeth and take the camera in hand. I had shot on 35mm before in film school in Moscow, and a little bit on 16mm in the US as an undergrad, but I had never shot on video before and it was a bit daunting. I had to juggle the technical requirements of shooting on a new kind of camera and doing sound at the same time, all the while engaging with the subjects, and trying to make things look halfway decent.

In the end, however, it was the best thing that could have happened. First of all, logistically it would have been impossible to work with a cinematographer, as it was never clear in advance when I would be able to film. As a rule, most Russians are not likely to make a plan more than a day in advance ever, and sometimes it was completely spur of the moment: I would get a phone call and 15 minutes later be trudging off to the metro with gear slung over me every which way. I would never have been able to book time with a cinematographer that way. But more important than the freedom working alone provided me, was the extremely intimate setting it allowed, where it was often just me, the camera, and the person I was filming. A predicament that filled me with despair when I was beginning, in the end proved itself a real gift.

Big influences…

Alan Berliner’s film “Nobody’s Business” is always inspirational to me. Other films I thought about were the films of Peter Forgascs, who uses home movies in his films so the personal aspects of life are in the foreground, while “history” takes a backseat. I always watch Fred Wiseman’s films whenever possible, too.

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