One day I was in Leningrad, filming for the literary-drama department. We were at some factory, and a man came in. My editor saw him and got very agitated. ''Oh, that's my chief!'' he said.
Since the man wasn't my chief, I was a lot less worried. He watched us work and then came over and introduced himself. That's how I met Enver Bagirov, a meeting that had a profound influence on my life.
He called soon afterward. ''I have an idea,'' he said. ''Would you like to work with me on a picture?''
Working with a smart person is always a gift—and a rare one during my early years in television.
''Of course I would. What's the picture?'' I asked.
''I think it would be interesting to do a movie about Smirnov.''
The writer Sergei Smirnov was one of the most famous television personalities of the time. Not only was he a talented writer, but his stories on-screen about World War II revealed its horrible truth to millions of viewers. He spoke about heroic things in a very unheroic manner. He talked about ordinary human lives, the unrecognized heroes of the war, many of whom became known thanks to him and belatedly received their just rewards.
The marvelous film Katyusha, directed by Viktor Lisakovich, my vgik classmate, had put Smirnov on the map. The idea of doing a film about him was intriguing.
I met with Bagirov. He suggested an approach that our television had not yet mastered: ''Let's build the whole picture on interviews. Smirnov will not speak; others will talk about him. During the next anniversary celebration of the defense of the fortress in Brest, we'll go and talk to veterans and record their accounts.''
As an example, he showed me an Italian movie about Fellini. It was an attempt to create a portrait of the great director through interviews of people who knew him well. The movie had not yet been shown in the Soviet Union, but Bagirov had seen a copy and wanted to do something like it.
I don't remember the details of our work back in 1966. But I remember my constant state of euphoria. Everything we filmed was living, immediate reality. We selected people by carefully looking for exceptional character, facial expression, and manner of speech. We wanted not only to give the viewers information but also to introduce them to unusual people who could relate the extraordinary personality of the writer. We knew where we were heading, but we did not know what each person would say, nor did we want to. We preferred spontaneity and sincerity. In addition to the defenders of Brest, we interviewed others who knew Smirnov—writers, close friends, his wife. The mosaic of interviews created the portrait of Smirnov.
We worked enthusiastically, completed the full-length film quickly, and watched its broadcast. Unfortunately, no copy remains. It simply vanished like so many other TV programs. I was pleased with this work, not so much with the finished film but more with having participated in the creation of a then-new genre of documentary film portrait.
The meeting with Bagirov turned out to be more significant then merely a working relation. He was put in charge of the Department of Television Journalism at Moscow State University. He decided to bring in new teachers, to add some fresh ideas. He knew of course that I was a graduate of vgik and interested in the theory and history of documentary film. Consequently, he offered me a position in his department, which I accepted. At that time I already had had some experience from teaching at the vgik extension program.
I must confess that my teaching experience at vgik had been neither pleasant nor successful. I didn't really fit in with the staff. They treated me as a child, and, after all, I was only twenty-two! Most of them were my former teachers, who had been very kind to me when I was a student but later had trouble considering me an equal. They kept telling me how to behave, what to do and what not to do, what to say to the students and what not to say. What they said wasn't in the form of advice but more as directives. Then there was the exhausting system of administrative paperwork, endless and unnecessary—that was a drag. I had pictured teaching differently.
My experience at Moscow State University was much more rewarding. When I started, most of my students were older than I. Many were working part-time in television, and some knew me from there.
I tried to explain to my students the essence and importance of my profession. I showed them film clips, brought in my colleagues from Mosfilm and Ekran to lecture, told them amusing stories from my work. I wrote lecture outlines and created several courses. I really got into teaching and convinced Bagirov—which wasn't very hard, because he was always open to new ideas— that students of journalism should know not only how to write but also how to make films. They had to understand what could be done with a camera and lights, how to film people, and how to put a story together.
''We need to buy four or five of the cheapest, simplest cameras.''
It was 1968. There were no video cameras then, of course. We bought a few Krasnogorsk amateur cameras and Soviet-made reversal film, first black-and-white and then color. The cameras were primitive, without synchronous sound, and we didn't have lights. The selection of suitable topics was therefore limited. But that did not keep the students from discovering their talent. They always came in with something new. Every class brought me joy.
I remember when Tanya Alexandrova (with whom I would make a film about Anastasia Tsvetayeva some fifteen years later) created a story about a friend's pet monkey. It was filmed so well! Fresh, radiant, human, tender. That monkey jumped around the apartment in such an amusing way. Zhenya Khmelev did a film about Mikhail Bulgakov. Sasha Politkovsky, who was interested in karate, made a beautiful movie, Landscape under Snow. I think it was one of the best works he has ever done. Kolya Tarasov went to Borovsk and brought back a nice and gentle fifteen-minute film about the town and its inhabitants.
Some students chose to make thesis films, acting not only as writers but also as directors and cinematographers. This sort of undertaking was always met with resistance by the department, even though the instructors were experienced and well-meaning. They simply believed that filmmaking should be taught at the vgik and not at Moscow State University. To them, a journalist's job was writing. But many students wanted to expand their knowledge and learn how to work as filming journalists. Their desire to create films as part of their thesis was very strong. Every year at least four students out of maybe eighteen made a film for their graduation. It was difficult for me to prove that filmmaking was just as important as preparing a theoretical paper on ''The Role of Interviews in Television Journalism'' or ''Television Reporting: Theory and Practice.'' Bagirov, however, supported me and permitted me to teach several courses that interested me.
Even though teaching was never my main and only occupation, I did not consider it secondary. I gave it all the energy and attention I could, and I spent a lot of time with students. But I could teach only part-time, no more than two or three times a week, either in the evening or early in the morning. The rest of the time I worked at the studio. And that's how I spent my whole life, combining filmmaking with teaching. They were like connected vessels. Making films fed my teaching, and the work with students was a stimulus to my filmmaking.
When I started at Moscow State, I had no idea that I would stay there almost thirty years. I left in 1995, when I was offered a professorship at the School of Theater, Film, and Television at ucLA—the University of California in Los Angeles.
When I started out, documentary film could hardly be called "documentary." Almost all of it was staged. It was practically impossible to work differently with the existing equipment. But in the mid-1960s, things started to change.
Pavel Kogan and Petr Mostovoy made Look at the Face, in which a hidden camera was placed in a cardboard structure to watch the real emotions of people as they were looking at the Litta Madonna in the Hermitage. Borya Galanter, whose Shagovik was primarily staged, did some direct observations with his camera. The film Katyusha, by Lisakovich, made us realize how impressive an ordinary human face can be when everything is real—not staged, not set up, not rehearsed.
But in spite of a few successful attempts, documentary film, limited by the awkwardness of 35 mm technology, did not overcome the use of staging. It was the introduction of the 16 mm equipment in television that provided the opportunity to change all that.
For filming The Weavers, the first feature-length film I made for Ekran, I used a new 16 mm French Eclair synchronous camera, one of the first to arrive at the studio. The camera weighed only about twelve kilograms or so (about twenty-five pounds), which allowed us to work without a tripod when so required. It had a 12—120 mm zoom lens, so we could shoot close-ups from a long distance, thus not distracting people during their conversations. This method was already popular in America, where they called it ''direct cinema''; in Russia we referred to it as ''observational style.''
The screenplay, with the working title Calico Town, was by a young writer, Venya Gorokhov. It described the fast turnover of labor in small textile towns in central Russia. In these places the whole workforce often moves from place to place without settling down. Girls come from villages and then try to leave the smaller towns for bigger cities. The topic was purely social—about labor —but it gave us the opportunity to reveal life as it was lived in the Russian heartland.
I spent six months in the factory dormitory, sharing a room with two workers, the central characters of our film. The food was bad. The cafeteria served only boiled potatoes, garlic, and potato salad—nothing more. On the entire floor, we only had one toilet and one shower. There was no place to go to in town. Moscow was an eight-hour bus ride away. My little son and my husband were in Moscow, and of course I wanted to be with them, but that was impossible; I had to stay on location the whole time. And I was sick a lot during that period. Yet those six months were joyous and creative for me. I was following my characters in their everyday life, capturing events and happenings in their relationships. I felt euphoric when watching real life, being in the thick of things; therein lies the pleasure of shooting a documentary with the observational method.
I am very grateful to Nikita Khubov, who had asked me to work on the film. We had studied together in the cinematography department at vgik. Later he made his directorial debut in Belorussia with Frank Discussion, a story about young people. The film was considered too revealing in those days, and he went through a lot of hassles before he got it done. He returned to Moscow just when Ekran was being formed. For his first film there, he chose a screenplay by Gorokhov. Khubov asked me to participate because the movie needed a female cinematographer who could live in the dorms and be with the characters all the time. We also got Zhanna Gistseva, a female sound technician, and Alla Zaitseva, one of my students from the journalism school, as location scout. We sent her to Furmanov, a town in Ivanovskaya Oblast, three hundred kilometers from Moscow, where a small textile factory was operating. Her cover story for making inquiries without revealing that we were going to film in that place was that she had to gather material for writing her thesis. In fact, she later used her story about the making of this film in her thesis. She went there two months ahead of us, met the girls in the dorms and the factory directors, and identified everyone who could be of interest for our film. By the time we arrived, we had all the information we needed.
Alla found twelve girls, from whom we selected the seven most striking ones, each very different from the others. We had to find out where they came from, what their families were like, what had brought them to Furmanov, what dreams and aspirations they had, what they thought of their co-workers, how they looked at their life now, and what they were expecting of the future.
I filmed a fabulous sequence with a girl named Luba while she cooked lo-bio, a Georgian bean dish, in the dorm and talked about her trip to Georgia, where she had a boyfriend.
He had told her, ''Stay with me here! Marry me! I will love you forever— we will have children. I'll teach you to cook real Georgian dishes.''
''No, no!'' she had replied. ''I have to go home, I can't live away from my place.''
But he kept repeating, ''Stay here! Look at our delicious fruits. You just go out in the garden and pick an orange or a peach. It's all yours.''
Of course, these were fantasies. She had never been to Georgia, and she didn't have a boyfriend. Unexpected questions confused her, but she continued making up her stories. She didn't want to give up her illusions.
Another girl had a boyfriend in the army. She had waited for his return, and when he came back, she realized that she didn't love him anymore.
Each girl had her own story, and all of the stories were very sad. The dorm had stupid supervisors, and the factory had indifferent bosses and Komsomol leaders who made sure that no one got out of line.
The most colorful girl was Zoya Frolova, known throughout Furmanov as a talented and extraordinary person who stood out from her surroundings. She had grown up in an uneducated family, she had had no opportunities to continue her education after high school, and she certainly didn't fit into her limited provincial world. She expressed her fiery personality by getting involved in big scandals; she was the leader of the local hooligans and spread panic in this quiet town. Then she married Sasha, a bus driver. They had a whirlwind romance, and she got pregnant. Sasha's family was old-fashioned, and so was he. If there was a baby on the way, they had to get married. He forced Zoya, who hadn't wanted to get married.
Zoya kept leaving Sasha, and again and again she went back to him. She didn't want to live in a family where the in-laws hated her and life was dull and dreary, with the same routine day in and day out—eating, drinking, taking care of the baby.
We filmed Zoya and Sasha together at the registry office. Then we filmed Sasha alone, when he told us that he had married Zoya only because of the baby. Then we had an interview with Zoya, who said that she had married Sasha for the same reason—the baby. We also interviewed the chief clerk of the registry. She had been smiling when she put the ring on Zoya's finger, congratulating the couple and wishing them a wonderful future. Fifteen minutes later, she spoke angrily into the camera: ''A fine bride! She's got a belly, in her eighth month. Everyone knows what she is. The poor boy! From such a good family, an honest Soviet worker. How did he ever get trapped like that? It's not going to last long.''
Nikita edited all these scenes into a single, rather horrifying episode. Every little detail that came under the camera's gaze gave evidence of the gray, repulsive life of the town. We didn't emphasize the grayness; it was evident by itself. We showed the traditions of the town and the face of Soviet provincial life.
In those years, we were not allowed to show any negative side of life in the ussr. That scene alone would have shelved any film. But I was also bothered by an ethical issue: all those girls who told us about their problems usually had no idea that they were being filmed. And they talked about very intimate things. I must say that the euphoria of filming ''life unawares,'' to use Vertov's term, was so powerful and the joy at being able to pick up the camera and record the very birth of a feeling, thought, or action was so great that I tried to stifle my frequent doubts and the embarrassment of invading people's privacy.
Once, Alla informed us that Zoya had come to her very depressed and anxious and said that something terrible had happened that she wanted to share. Alla thought that this could be of interest for our film. She pretended to be busy so that we would have time to prepare. After some hard discussions we decided to film the conversation between the two girls with a hidden camera.
Through new acquaintances in Furmanov, we had found an apartment with a window between the kitchen and the living room. The owner allowed us to use her place for filming. We put the camera in the kitchen and disguised it as much as possible. At first I had planned to film through the glass window, but then I changed my mind. I needed a clear opening to get a sharp image. And had someone looked very carefully through the window, the reflection of the lens could have been detected. We disguised the microphone in an ashtray, draped the windows, and put bright bulbs in the room lamps to get a decent exposure. The next morning, Alla and Zoya showed up. (Alla had told her the apartment belonged to relatives.) They munched on sandwiches and cheap wine, while I was in the kitchen filming, wearing earphones. We got about forty minutes of an astonishing conversation. Zoya opened up completely and explained why she couldn't stand being with Sasha.
''I can't stand this boring life anymore.'' She was looking for great passion and exciting adventures. Neither Sasha nor the town could offer that. It was too bleak. She had decided to leave him. She was rebelling against the boredom of her life.
When Zoya had told Sasha that she would be leaving him, he had replied, ''You can get out, but I won't give you the child.''
Zoya told all this to Alla, weeping into her wine. I filmed from the kitchen.
It seemed like the usual collection of marital woes. But Zoya was really desperate. She had already bought acetic acid to poison herself. (Looking back at this extraordinary shoot, I see at least one positive aspect: Alla managed to talk Zoya out of committing suicide.)
As they were talking, Zoya glanced at the window and yelled. ''Oh, what's that? Is that a camera?''
My hair practically turned white. If Zoya realized we were filming her, she could easily have asked her friends to harass us. But Alla stayed calm. ''You mean that? That's my grandfather's camera. He enjoys photography. Don't pay attention.''
I remember returning from this adventure. I was very worried. Nikita was waiting for us in the hotel, pacing nervously.
When we watched the material, we realized that we had. To make public that kind of spiritual nakedness was ethically unacceptable.
When I had first read Gorokhov's screenplay, I had said, ''This is going to be very depressing.''
Nikita had replied, ''You have to get used to the idea that the film might be banned or you might be fired. Always consider first what you may be getting into. Give it a lot of thought beforehand.''
Nikita knew from the start that this was a risky project. He was five years older than me and had much more experience, having faced problems with the film authorities in Belorussia. I was young and lighthearted and, thank God, blissfully unaware of what could happen. Now I'm grateful that I had this experience early in my career.
This was still the time of the Thaw, and we were inexperienced fools. We really had to wise up quickly.
Our Weavers was destined to remain on the shelf, precisely because we showed too much of real life and presented too many true stories. Our bosses wanted us to show high ideals on the screen, the glorification of the Komsomol, and instead our heroes wanted to get married and complained that they had no friends, nothing to eat, and nothing to do. Life in that town appeared boring, hard, and lonely.
We began shooting the picture in June 1968 and finished in December. By then, Soviet tanks had invaded Prague. The atmosphere in the country and, of course, in television changed. A new ideological clampdown began. This back-and-forth, the freeze and the thaw, came in waves during the Soviet period. The leadership would ease up on the reins and then pull back again.
Nikita had planned to finish editing by June 1969. Ekran didn't let him. The bosses at Ekran were scared, and they put the film on the shelf. A few months later, they destroyed it. Fortunately, Nikita and I had made a copy, so thirty minutes of fascinating material has been saved. But Nikita Khubov was fired.
Our aim had not been to humiliate our protagonists. On the contrary! We tried to show that each of our heroines, despite her surroundings, had something radiant inside, that despite the filth and nastiness a person could and should live with dignity. I feel a special tenderness for Weavers, for it was a great milestone in my professional life. It taught me love for real life. I still think that this was the most interesting material I have ever filmed. I think that if Ekran had allowed us to complete the picture, it would have been outstanding. I felt very bitter then and still feel bitter about this film. But in any negative experience one can find something positive. For me it confirmed that nothing interests me more than filming ordinary people. They usually live their normal lives and pay no attention to the camera. They are sincere and down-to-earth. And as a cinematographer, I can live with them the way I am accustomed to live, making the kind of films that satisfy my heart and soul.
I learned one more very important thing from working on Weavers. Formally, I was the cameraperson. But in fact the observational style changed the very nature of documentary work and the interrelationships among professions as they had developed over many years. As the cameraperson, I was now responsible for more than creating the visual image. Often I had to make independent decisions, without the director, following the development of the live action. I had to resolve problems that were usually within the competence of the screenwriter and the editor. They started to become mine.
Working on Weavers, I sensed that I could be more than a cameraperson. Honestly, that thought scared me at first. I hadn't formally studied directing or editing. Second, I realized how much more serious the level of responsibility was. The best evidence of that was that the director of Weavers was fired, while the cinematographer had been chewed out but kept on. Third, even though I had enjoyed the sweetness of the observational style, I saw that it was much harder working that way than in the usual staged filmmaking. Screenplays became pointless, because it was impossible to carry out what the screenplays called for. Life unfolds unpredictably, following its own spontaneous logic, and if you follow it, you have to depart from the scenario. It is as enchanting as it is risky, because the finale cannot be predicted.
I was not prepared for that kind of turn in my life then. All I wanted was to continue doing what I was doing. Filming life as it is. Remaining a cameraperson.
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