‘Leviathan’ Director Andrey Zvyagintsev on Why Russia Backed His Provocative Oscar Nominee

'Leviathan' Director Andrey Zvyagintsev on Why Russia Backed His Provocative Oscar Nominee
'Leviathan' Director Andrey Zvyagintsev on Why Russia Backed His Provocative Oscar Nominee

Well, Russia came through. When I recently interviewed “Leviathan” writer-director Andrey Zvyagintsev, he was clearly worried that Vladimir Putin buddy Nikita Mikhalkov’s Oscar selection committee would not choose festival favorite “Leviathan,” which won best screenplay at Cannes and was acquired by Sony Pictures Classics. But Russia came through, even though this film is a dramatic and disturbing expose of corruption at the deepest levels of Russian culture–and the devastation it wreaks on its citizens.

Golden Globe-winning “Leviathan” has now been Academy Award-nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. When Mikhalkov’s brother Andrey Konchalovskiy’s new film was pushed back to October (after the eligibility deadline), the Oscar nomination was cleared. 

“Leviathan” is now in select theaters. Here’s our provocative conversation: 

Anne Thompson: Were you putting yourself at risk inside the film industry, being so critical of Russian corruption?
Andrey Zvyagintsev: The upper echelons of power in Russia have declared the necessity of fighting corruption. Our film is precisely aligned with that goal. In that specific sense our film aligns with what they’re seeking. It’s a separate matter that this is nothing but a declaration, an empty sound. That said they have to align with what they have declared in public. That said, they act however they see fit.
Vladimir Putin is closely involved with the Russian film industry, is friends with Nikita Mikalkov. And there’s a committee that picks the Oscar, with different affiliations?
You have to say my previous film “Elena” succumbed to this issue when the film was not nominated from Russia for the Oscar. All right, fine, may the Lord be with us! Should the picture [“Leviathan”] fail to be nominated for the Oscar this will be added proof that we are moving backwards. What that will mean is that we are moving back to Soviet times, to the times of rule by fiat. The filmmaker makes the film such that the film exists. Whether or not this gets nominated for a prize is not important. The world sees the film and understands what the film is about…

You understand that in a situation when his film is ignored, his compatriots ignore his film, or those people are built into the system, of course that is a source of concern.

This raises larger issues of how each country may or may not be picking the right films to represent them at the Oscars. Perhaps the Academy should not be be relying on the countries to pick their films for them. Maybe it should be a festival award model that would wind up selecting for each country the film with the most awards and international acclaim, as opposed to the head of the Russian film industry putting his own film into consideration ahead of yours.
I agree with you, in certain cases in certain countries the authors of films are hostages of the situation they are in. Maybe it makes sense to tell the Academy that they should revise their rules. Here’s the problem. The Academy cannot be branched out that far. How many countries nominate their films? [This year, a record 83.] You have to have experts. It’s a challenging situation. 
In 2011 there was a crisis with the Oscar committee in Russia, a serious one. “Elena” came out and Sakurov’s “Faust,” and Nikita Mikhalkov’s “Burnt by the Sun 3.” All were pretenders to the nomination. There is a joke in Russia: ‘If your film came out the same year as Nikita’s film came out, abandon hope.’
When Nikita’s was nominated, there was riot in the press. Nikita himself was aware of the furor that was inspired by his decision and to try to get ahead of public opinion, he proposed to expand the list of committee members to 25. It’s now larger and the people on the committee are those who have won major awards at film festivals.
They are filmmakers, with political affiliations?
You don’t know who’s connected to whom. They are more or less directly dependent on the people at the top. 
Yes. It’s a corruption with an interesting face. Imagine a situation where I work for a firm which belongs to a larger holding group which belongs to a certain person in turn. I don’t need to be told how to vote. I automatically assume my vote has to align with whatever the wishes are of the larger thing that ultimately I belong to.
Your future career at stake!
It’s disgusting!

I’m fascinated by the relationship between Putin and the film industry. I remember a scandal about him lecturing filmmakers that they should be making positive propaganda for Russia and not doing downbeat depressing movies.
Yes, that happened. Putin understands as well as Lenin did, he talked about cinema as the most important art form, to feed the propaganda machine. 

Has “Leviathan” been released in Russia?
In September.
So you’re good!  Are you tempted to leave and make your films elsewhere with the acclaim you have achieved?
I know Russia. I am 50 years old, I love my country and I love my people. I know that my people have a substance which cannot be found in any other people. It’s a matter of my relationship to my country and culture. 
Do you still get to make the films you want to make?
If there will be obstacles to what I do in Russia, for example the release of “Leviathan,” or my next project, if everything turns what I want to do into Soviet-style gibberish, then of course I will be faced with that choice. But that hasn’t happened yet.
What is your next film?

I have four screenplays, they are ready, they are lying on my producer’s desk and he is thinking which one he is going to take on. 

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