Sharp Angles

Most Soviet television documentaries portrayed people in an official way, creating only role models. That's why it was so hard to work on them. A film is interesting only when there's conflict, edginess, something unusual, and those were the very things that were hard to get past our bosses. The editors feared conflict the way devils fear church incense.

Even though the subjects of my films were positive characters, I still tried to show other aspects, such as their ability to take action and readiness to stand up against, if not the regime and system, then at least the circumstances. I was always looking for such people to become characters in my films. At the same time, I was trying to find scriptwriters and journalists of the same kind to help me create controversial stories. I wasn't interested in working with conformists like Tatiana Tess or Yevgeny Revenko, journalists who were loved by the bosses. They always glorified the heroes of the communal farms and recounted their great triumphs.

I wanted to say something significant, without pretentious words and emotions. I wanted to tell about worthy heroes who lived for their work, who fought for it, and whose fight could be shown on-screen.

Damir Belov, an honest and talented journalist who knew how to write proposals that would not scare the higher-ups, suggested that I film The Eighth Director. Our subject was Viktor Litvinenko, the director of the Tutaev Automobile Plant. He was a young, energetic, and straight-thinking man who had a critical view of the country's situation and wasn't afraid to get into conflict with his bosses. He was trying to do his job—to modernize the factory after it had been neglected for so many years. He was a ''new Russian''—a person with entrepreneurial energy, with no reference to nouveau riche vulgarity. He had a vivid chiseled face and a life history filled with unusual incidents—he was all sharp angles.

This was a new experience for me: making a film that was polemical and critical of our stagnating Soviet life. I moved to Tutaev, formerly known as Romanovo-Borisoglebsk, an ancient Russian town some three hundred kilometers northeast of Moscow and about forty kilometers from Yaroslavl, where the factory was located. Every day I took my camera, went to the plant, sat in Litvinenko's office, followed him around on the factory floor, and filmed his daily life as a manager. He spoke harshly about the state of his industry and about what was happening in the region; his relations with the Regional Party Committee, who represented the real power in this area, were very tense. We made the film without self-censorship. We had decided to make a candid film without considering the wishes of our bosses. I remember the profound horror I felt during the filming, always anxious about how things would work out. Damir Belov then smoothed the edges with a soft, moderately compromising text, but left it sufficiently pointed.

Back then, in 1981, preparations were under way for the next Party congress, and slightly critical commentaries were encouraged by the chief executives of the Communist Party. There were glimmers of a turn toward a struggle with shortcomings (inadequacies), especially in the work of the ministries.

We invited Yevgeny Veltistov to be our consultant for The Eighth Director. Veltistov at that time was in charge of the television section of the Party's Central Committee, and we needed his support. He was also known as a writer, a creative person who was easy to work with. Since he was behind us, we felt we could keep some of the sharper points in the film.

When the film was ready for postproduction, Veltistov decided to screen it in the Kremlin during the coming Party conference. He felt that at that political moment the picture suited the needs of the Central Committee. When Khessin, the director of Ekran, learned of Veltistov's intentions, he panicked. He clearly didn't want to show the high Party executives a controversial film that openly criticized the Party organization of Yaroslavl and the Ministry of the Automobile Industry. He organized a studio discussion in which the participants tore the picture apart, not from an ideological point of view but from an artistic one. It was ugly. Khessin set the tone, and the artistic board—the leading directors of the studio—followed, one after another criticizing the picture's alleged flaws. The film needed more work, said my own colleagues, my fellow thinkers and friends who worked with me in the Ekran zoo. I don't want to name names here.

The relationships inside Ekran were always complex. Everyone was talented, but who is without envy? As I already mentioned, I'm certain that there was a male complex at work as well. The male directors believed that issue films were a men's field and that men had a monopoly on them—and not all men at that, just a few special ones. All that phony criticism upset me, and it complicated the release of the film. This was the first time I had furious verbal exchanges with my colleagues. It took a long time for me to get over it—the hurt, the injustice, the insults I had to listen to.

They didn't pass the film and instead asked me to make some changes. The changes were trifles that took only a few hours of editing. But Khessin achieved his goal: the film wasn't shown at the Party conference. Later it was broadcast on prime time. As expected, The Eighth Director caused an uproar.

The most hostile reaction came from the Party leaders in Yaroslavl. In those years, the Yaroslavl correspondent of Pravda, the national Party newspaper, was Galina Bystrova, and she hated Litvinenko. But Pravda's film critic, Andrei Plakhov, praised the film. Bystrova attacked the press who had applauded Litvinenko and my film. She suspected a Zionist conspiracy. Goldovskaya had made a film about him, she said, and even Plakhov took the bait, giving the film a good review and thus supporting Litvinenko, who was a suspicious person from who knows where. She hinted broadly that he was a foreign agent serving Zionists, even though Litvinenko was a pure-blooded Ukrainian and served only his work and, through his work, the country. It was a full-fledged public denunciation.

Immediately after the article appeared, Polyakov, the automobile industry minister, visited Ekran. His assistant had called, informing us that the minister had missed the broadcast and wanted to see the film. Our chief editor, Valentina Murazova, set up a screening for Sunday and asked me to join her. Pol-yakov arrived in a Chaika limousine, accompanied by a retinue of other cars. He entered with great self-importance, intended to impress upon us his stature as a government official. Our staff loaded the projector and ran the film. Polyakov kept making sarcastic comments, reacting to almost every statement Litvinenko made, clearly showing his displeasure.

Murazova held her own. I want to give her credit here, because it was not always easy to work with her. She was moody, saying yes today and no tomorrow. She didn't like me very much; at least, I used to think that. I always had trouble understanding whether she wanted me to make a film or not, whether she'd let me do it or not. After all, I wasn't a staff director. I was considered a cinematographer at Ekran. But she was a professional, and a principled one. If she let you work and she had approved the film, she backed it all the way.

''Why didn't you come to me?'' Polyakov asked. ''I would have suggested the right director of an automobile plant to film.''

''You know,'' Murazova replied, ''we make documentary films here, not commercials.''

The film never aired again. Litvinenko was fired. He fell ill and was hospitalized for a long time. The Party authorities continued to badger him, but a few years later he was back once again, as the director of a plant in the defense industry. Unfortunately, I've lost track of him and don't know what he's doing now.

The Eighth Director sparked my taste for strong issue films, the knowledge that I was doing something needed, and the intoxicating spirit of fighting the good fight. I wanted to work on films that could make a splash in the swamp, even if it brought pain and problems for me personally.

I am used to thinking of myself as a serious filmmaker, and I hope that I have earned the right to do so. I've always treated the profession seriously and respectfully. It is for others to judge how good a director I am, but everything I did, I did with sincerity, without selling out. Being envied by men hurt, but it taught me to keep up appearances. Being attacked (of course, not by everyone and, of course, not all the time) just made me stronger. I tried to find a kernel of truth even in unjust criticism, so that I could grow creatively and professionally. At the time of the criticism, naturally it hurt a lot.

Those years were filled with absurdity and stupidity, fear, bureaucracy, and censorship. And yet through the distance of time, I can definitely state that the good outweighed the bad. And many of the things we considered obstacles no longer exist—those artistic boards, for one thing.

Yes, we used to call our Ekran collective ''the zoo of the like-minded.'' Yes, like any collective where the tone is set by creative people, we had envy, jealousy, and hostility—as in any group. But life in this creative milieu offered ideas and experiences. The opportunity to see the works of colleagues, to discuss them, to be in the process of developing projects (we watched one another's works in all the stages—first draft, rough cut, and final result) taught us the profession and how to get the maximum from the material. We watched films in every genre; we had about twenty directors, and each of them had his or her own style and point of view. Even painful criticism, sometimes fair and sometimes not very, was beneficial. It helped me acquire professional qualities as well as the necessary defense mechanisms to deal with criticism.

When I worked in Soviet television, I was part of a professional circle of colleagues, and some of them became lifelong friends. These were people with the same blood group, so to speak, who shared the passion for our profession. We trusted each other's taste and gave each other priceless support.

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