Having graduated from the Higher Courses of Screenwriters and Directors at Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography, Aleksandr Veledinskiy came to cinema when he was quite a mature person. Each of his innumerous works enjoys huge success among the audience and at professional forums both in Russia and beyond it. He is a co-author of the famous TV series Brigada (Law of the Lawless), he wrote screenplays for and directed the films Russkoye (Russian) and Zhivoy (Alive). Soon broad audience will see his new film, Geographer Drank His Globe Away based on Alexei Ivanov’s novelette. This is a sincere and truthful story about the routine of our time’s hero, told with a bitter smile. So far the film is tirelessly conquering the festivals. It has won the Grand Prix of the Kinotavr Festival and took two highest prizes at the Fourth International Film Festival in Odesa – the grand prix, which is especially precious due to the fact that the winner is selected by the audience’s vote, and the top prize of professional jury.
Mr. Veledinskiy, you rarely shoot. Is it because you fail to find the material that would be interesting for you? What did attract you in Geographer…? Did not you fear that you would have conflicts with the producer, Valery Todorovsky?
“When we make an agreement, when you start to work, the fear vanishes. I feel the enthusiasm and I understand that this is my thing. I start to shoot a film, when I can ‘put on’ me the character, which does not have anything in common with me, neither in terms of appearance, nor in his inner self, nothing concrete. Although for the five years, when I did not shoot, I was living almost like my character Sluzhkin (laughing).”
Well, Sluzhkin could hardly dare to change his life at the age of 34, like you did by entering the VGIK and changing the profession of engineer for director and script writer.
“Back in my childhood years I tried to shoot a remake of my favorite film Kavkazskaya plennitsa (Kidnapping, Caucasian Style) with my friends. Can you imagine Caucasus nature in Gorky? It’s ridiculous. Later I described this episode at my entry exams to the VGIK. I lacked the bravery to try for a long while and my first trial was at the age of 31. I passed two rounds and failed. I was extremely irresolute. I wrote down everything, but I could not speak. I was getting mature for several years more, and then I got angry with myself and entered easily. I was lucky to have Alexandr Proshkin and Valery Priyomykhov as my teachers.”
For me the hero of Geographer… is an absolute parallel with the hero of Flights in Dream and Reality by Roman Balaian, played by Oleg Yankovsky. You use direct quotations in your film. Did you do this on purpose?
“With the swing?”
“The episode with the swing was present in the novel. I have come up with the answer and I will say the following thing. Sluzhkin saw this film. Sluzhkin saw Flights in Dreams and Reality. He identified himself with Oleg Yankovsky’s hero. There is no doubt about this. But he differs from the character of The Flights, where there is no despair, but there is hope. Because when he buries himself in a heap of straw, he understands his purposelessness and worthlessness. And he suffers because of this. And thanks to suffering he may rise like phoenix from ashes. The character performed by Yankovsky may come back to life. Our hero does suffer, but he does not revel in his suffering, does not lose heart. He does not feel despair. He feels sadness, he understands pretty well what is going on, but he is in inner emigration: he does not take part in the meanness, either individual, or general.”
Yes, but when Yankovsky’s character emerged, there were “kitchens,” Aesop’s language, nobody believed that something could change abruptly, but there was very powerful inner spiritual life, which served the basis for everyone. Is it present today?
“Yes, it is. In my opinion, it is reviving. And today is proof of that. Kitchens have been substituted by LiveJournal network and blogs. It turned out that people may go to prison for them. I have recently been fortunate to talk to Rustam Khamdamov. He said: any ‘anti,’ be it anti-Semitism or antifascism, or anything of this kind, always lowers the artistic merit. Therefore I sought not to emphasize much the social part. However, such elements are present in the film: who is Budkin compared to the novel? If you remember, he is a cooperator. In the film he is an assistant to a deputy, who pretends to joke that he is a corrupted politician. All these signs are evident. Sluzhkin does not want to take part in all this; therefore he chooses the minimum evil for himself. However, these schoolchildren begin to need him. There is a good phrase in Ivanov’s novel: to teach without teaching.”
How could you create such a lively dialogue, almost without changing the original?
“We’ve simply brought the action from the 1990s into our days. In the 1990s I wrote Brigada – I was a coauthor of the screenplay. I have already come through this. I don’t want either to live in the 1990s anymore, or to go back there via my work with the scripts.”
Idiotically as it may sound, hope was present in the 1990s?
“Of course it was. Now we are being deprived of this hope. I have a feeling that they are extremely afraid. The society is quite disturbed and its state has broken through outside. They started to create laws to somehow restrain it. But people are gradually starting to think, understand, and get angry with the fact that they cannot live like the bunch. You know, in Russia you cannot go anywhere without politics. We will still be dreaming of a more fair life, although we know pretty well that there is no justice whatsoever.”
The peculiarity of Russia is in dreaming about a just tsar in all times.
“You are right. And everything must be real. There should be changeability. When it comes, everyone will be responsible for himself. If it comes. So far we don’t have any.”
I want to return to cinematography. Today it is, mildly speaking, being controlled – by the state order. How do you see yourself in this context (I mean your films, your future in cinema)? What do you want to tell about?
“It is hard to guess right now. I really hope I won’t be making films just for money, although I need the money, I love it.”
“I think I will find an opportunity to do what I want and remain at the same time honest for myself.”
You are a person, who (one can feel this from your pictures) have a serious intellectual background. What can you say about contemporary literature and its screening? Is there anything that touches you and that could hypothetically be screened?
“Apart from my love to literature, I have personal relations: I am friends with writers. With Sergey Shargunov, Dmitry Bykov, I am very close friends with Zakhar Prilepin. We even went together to Kyiv, created a plot, and he is writing a huge novel, which will probably have some cinema future. But I have original ideas of my own, not about screening. Original is simply a term. In my opinion, they are quite bright and interesting and I am working on this right now.”
All of your films pay great attention to landscape, which becomes a full-fledged hero, not only visually. What are you guided by?
“This is a Russian tradition, a Russian literary tradition. The same is with Valentin Rasputin. He describes the state of soul of the character by describing the nature. And Chekhov, too. All classic literature pieces. I have developed myself from Gogol (laughing). And I will never be able to get away from this. Never.”
Have you noticed that the vocabulary of the worst years is coming back to our life and to the mass media?
“Yes, absolutely. Do you know when it started? When I noticed it for the first time? When shop assistants stopped smiling.”
Have they stopped smiling again?
“The shop assistants have stopped smiling. You may use this phrase as a title for your article (laughing). It seems to me the main problem of your country and ours is, again, the dream about a tsar. A kind tsar. At least once a person of culture must come to power.”
One person will hardly be able to change anything.
“Of course, not alone, but this person must surely come from culture, have education, understanding, consciousness of a real intellectual. Not a lawyer or economist, but a person from culture.”
Do you think it is possible? History does not have a precedent of this?
“But I dream about this. A person of culture is Sokurov, for example.”
Unfortunately, he does not want to get involved in this.
“Clearly. But I mean the CULTURE. Not a director, the culture, the worldview.”
Motives of the Thaw?
“I feel no nostalgic for the Soviet Union. But at the same time I won’t go down with criticism on anyone. In the film Russkoye, when we started to shoot, I said: we are not going to shoot Nazi terror, forget about this. We well shoot an honest film about that time. That’s all. I’ll repeat myself, any ‘anti thing’ is always anti-artistic.”
What about emperor’s habits?
“No doubt, they are present. Of course, I do have emperor’s habits, because I was brought up this way, I grew up this way.”
Do you consider Ukraine your suburbs, too?
“No (laughing). My father defended Odesa and Sevastopol. He served in the army. Maybe I feel offended that we are not a single country anymore. My emperor’s ambition boils down to simple pity that we got divided and fight all the time.”
Practically all of your films have taken part in festivals. You know what it is like. You’ve won prizes and success. Are these things important in creative life? Secondly, how does it help to bring the film to broad audience?
“No doubt, it helped with Zhivoy. For that time, 2006, the film was screened in cinemas quite well. That was the last Russian film that paid off in screenings and even earned something. Of course, festivals were helpful in this. In this sense they are important for further life of the film and life of the directors who either start getting the offers, or stop to receive any. I was not shooting films for five years, but my phone was ringing all the time. I received many offers, but I refused. Not always have I succeeded in ‘pushing through’ my own offers, the topics were too acute.”