Sometimes the most ordinary events become extremely important and determine the development of the rest of your life. For me, such an event was meeting Raissa Nemchinskaya, the circus gymnast, in 1970. I met her at her son's house. He was my good friend, Max Nemchinsky, a theater director. Raissa was lively, witty, and charming and spent the evening enchanting us with tales of her circus life. She was the center of attention, and it was obvious that she was used to it and expected it. She looked around thirty-five or thirty-eight, but simple math showed that she was older than that— Max was almost thirty.
That evening stayed in my mind. When I ran into Max some time later, I hinted that I would like to be invited again. He told me that his mother was performing abroad and wouldn't be back for two months. ''Does she still perform?''
''Of course. And she's in Moscow for only a few days at a time, moving from one city to another.''
I learned that Raissa was fifty-nine, an unheard-of age for a circus aerialist. She was unique in circus history. Despite advice from friends and colleagues, she didn't want to hear about retirement. The circus was her only passion, the meaning of her life. Moreover, it was her home, the only place she felt comfortable. Later, when I was making my film about her and spending hours in her trailer, I came to feel the power and depth of her feelings for the circus arena. She needed the daily performances, the audiences, everything that made up the atmosphere of her profession. Her old friend, Tanti the clown, said, ''She can't live without the circus.''
Raissa's artistic life had been a hard one, filled with tragedy. While learning from the famous Corelli aerialists, she had an accident that kept her bedridden for several years. No one believed that she would ever walk again. Her inhuman stubbornness got her on her feet; two years later, she was back in the ring. She was at her peak in the 1930S-1940S. She performed the most complex numbers with her partner and husband, Izyaslav Nemchinsky. Then she suffered another accident. But she never lost her certainty that she would return to the circus sooner or later. Every day, through horrible pain, she trained at home on a homemade trapeze, until she got back into shape and returned to the show.
Work was sacred to her, and everything about it had to be perfect. She would not tolerate the slightest indifference toward her work from anyone: circus hands, performers, or director. The sweet-smiling woman turned into a fury, attacking the hapless victim with all the heat of her temperament. But I can't remember a single time that she did not get what she wanted—not for herself but for her act. Colleagues varied in their opinion of her—there was no pious uniformity. But that was about her personality—her professional mastery and discipline elicited only awe and respect.
This amazing woman, Raissa Nemchinskaya, became the heroine of my directorial debut in 1970. Kornei Chukovsky, in his book on the painter Ilya Repin, comments on how an artist subconsciously falls in love with his subject. This is the main characteristic of the relationship between portraitist and model—the sincere, unfeigned, and irrational infatuation with your subject. The first ''protagonist'' I fell in love with was Raissa Nemchinskaya.
At the time, she was performing in the big tent in Gorky Park. We often sat in her trailer. There were always three of us: she and I and my camera, which had become an integral part of me. One day Nemchinskaya was in a strangely meditative mood, following her success in the matinee; the young audience had applauded long and loud and called her out for several bows. After that intoxicating moment of success, she suddenly fell into depression.
My ''hunting instinct'' was paying off when I filmed this change of mood from success to despair. This was the very moment a documentarian is always looking for.
And we continued our conversation, which had begun long before that. It wasn't so much a conversation as a confession—a confession pushed by my provoking questions.
That confession went on for six weeks, the duration of my filming. Raissa told me about her first performance with the Corelli circus, also under a tent in the same spot in Gorky Park, almost forty years earlier. She recalled the details of that day, her anxiety and fear of the audience and her vow never to go out into the ring again. And suddenly, without any connection to the present, she burst out with something that must have been festering a long time: ''The circus is my whole life; the meaning of my life. Once I leave, I will never come back. My heart would break if I saw people working and I wasn't one of them.''
She never did leave the circus. She worked right up to the last day, actually the last minute, the last second of her life, to her last breath. She had finished her act under the top, and while she was taking her bows, she fell facedown. Her heart had given up. That was August 3,1975, at the Dnepropetrovsk Circus—brand-new, shiny and festive, where she loved to perform. She was sixty-four.
''My heart would break if I knew that people were working and I wasn't one of them.'' Those words, spoken in a moment of frankness, precisely expressed the essence of my heroine's character and the main theme of my film about her. Nemchinskaya was the perfect interpreter of the human qualities I had considered most lofty, pure, and valuable ever since I saw Flaherty's Man of Aran — obsession and infinite fidelity toward one's work.
More than thirty years have passed since then. In that time I've filmed many people from various walks of life and of different ages and personalities. But all of them were obsessive like Nemchinskaya. Clearly, these are people who interest me the most.
Five or six times I tried to get RaissaNemchinskaya, the Circus Actress approved for broadcast by the studio executives responsible for ideological and artistic concepts. They found several aspects bothersome: the sad atmosphere, reminiscent of Fellini's La Strada, the middle-aged heroine, surrounded by miserable, lonely women who lived in circus vans and applied heavy makeup to hide their weary eyes. And they didn't even perform in the spectacular ring of the country's main circus in Moscow, but somewhere in a small tent. But what most irritated the studio bosses was the heroine herself. She did not belong in the context of television reality then. They insisted on making changes that I felt would destroy the picture itself.
This was my first time as a director. I hadn't learned the tricks of getting a film past the artistic board and the bosses' offices, but my sixth sense told me that if I went on making corrections, the movie would be ruined, and this film would be gone and there wouldn't be a next one. I decided to leave the studio, even though I knew it would be very hard to find another job.
So I turned in my resignation, and it came as a big surprise. All my filmmaker colleagues had liked the film a lot when I first showed it. They found it unusual and applauded it. They told me that I had made a marvelous film. And now I was resigning.
Three hours later I was told that Boris Khessin, the director of Ekran, wanted to see me. I arrived at his office all upset.
"Marina, now why were you so hasty? You always have to say, 'One, two, three . . . ten . . . fifteen,' and only then make a decision. Did you count to three?''
''There, you see! But I've counted to three, and I'm prepared to apologize.'' ''One, two, three,'' I said. ''I'm sorry, Boris Mikhailovich.'' ''Fine,'' he said. ''Soviet television does not need films like this. They may possibly show it once or twice. If that is what you want, go ahead and finish the postproduction.''
His intuition had been correct. The film was aired only once. Since then it has been placed in the television archives and presented to students and professionals as an achievement of Russian documentary film.
My next picture was Yuri Zavadsky (1971), about our legendary actor and theater director. Zavadsky started out in 1915 with the famous Vakhtangov Studio and later worked in the Moscow Art Theater with Konstantin Stanislavsky. In 1924 he created his own theater and went on to become a renowned director, one of the icons of the Soviet theater.
I don't consider this film one of my best works, but the television bosses loved it. Ideologically, it was ideal. Zavadsky had never been in conflict with the authorities and had always been a conformist. Sergei Lapin, the minister of the State Committee for Television and Radio, loved and idolized him. Lapin was a well-educated man—I'm not sure that many of the executives of television today would have heard of Zavadsky.
Zavadsky was seventy-five when I made the picture. He came to see it on his birthday, July 12. Stella Zhdanova, Ekran's editor in chief, came in to the screening room in the middle. She wanted to meet the celebrity. But he was so moved by the film that he paid no attention to her. The old man sat there watching himself and wept. He later told me, ''It felt as if I were at my own funeral.''
Zavadsky invited me to his birthday party. His apartment was filled with roses, white and red. I had come with an enormous bouquet. ''Yuri Alexan-drovich, you have so many flowers, it's incredible!'' ''This is nothing. Let's go to the bathroom.''
He opened the door, and I saw that the tub was filled with roses, floating in the water; this is when I learned the trick of making roses last.
The guests were interesting. Among them were Vera Maretskaya and Rosti-slav Plyatt, stars of Soviet theater. They were masters of telling jokes, and everybody in the room laughed nonstop, Zavadsky included.
My picture glorified Zavadsky—and he deserved it. He was a good actor, a decent and dignified artistic theater director, and a good person. He never hurt anyone. However, I think the movie was a bit boring. Zavadsky was not at his best when we did the filming. He had jaundice, and he seemed depressed because the play he was directing then, Petersburg Dreams (based on a Dosto-evsky novel), was monotonous. There was no conflict in my film. Everyone I interviewed was complimentary about the master. I realized it even when I was shooting, but there was nothing I could do about it.
The person who was most pleased by the film was my mother. As a theater specialist, she had idolized Zavadsky since she was young, when he was an incredibly handsome and talented actor. Later she became very good friends with him. I was also glad to have made the film—it was only my second work as a director, and I learned a lot during the filming and editing. And, of course, I appreciated the priceless material I was preserving for history.
The greatest actors of the Russian theater of the twentieth century, Tsetsilia Mansurova, Vera Maretskaya, Rostislav Plyatt, and Serafima Birman—were all in my film and contributed by telling the story of their time. I also filmed the poet Pavel Antokolsky, a friend of Zavadsky from their youth. Antokolsky recalled Marina Tsvetayeva's lines, which she had dedicated to Zavadsky: ''You are as unforgettable as you are forgetful.'' I suspect that Marina had had flings with both men. I think the very fact that these people were captured on film made the effort worthwhile. Zavadsky passed away soon afterward, and so did many of the others I had filmed. The last time I saw Zavadsky was at his birthday party.
Every new film teaches me something. This one awakened my interest in preserving history through people who had left their mark on Russian culture. Today this film is more valuable than when it was made. To this day, it's shown at least once a year on television in Russia.
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