The Ordeal

It was so hard to get every picture accepted by the studio executives—even the most harmless films. I had so much trouble with the simple one about the glassblower. Arkady Raikin also barely squeaked by, even though the comedian was celebrated and universally respected. But the film lacked aggressive social optimism. And how Mamedov mocked Deniska-Denis, an unassuming film about a three-year-old boy. He didn't like my pictures because they could not be used politically.

My films were often praised in the press. Many publications had journalists of a somewhat liberal bent who always wanted to support fresh, human movies. My films differed from the ones the authorities admired. And therefore the authorities never considered me one of their own. I don't mean that they persecuted me or hated me. I'm a peaceful person by nature, and I didn't muscle in where I wasn't needed. And my direct superiors, I repeat, were professional, decent people who understood what I was trying to do and that they couldn't expect anything different from me. If they could, they let me make my films and didn't expect to profit from them. Incidentally, what didn't thrill the bosses back then is a plus now: the films haven't aged, and they can be shown without embarrassment today.

After Mamedov's criticism of Deniska-Denis, I tried, as usual, to propose some new projects, but I was refused every time. The bosses suggested I select one of the topics that were part of the studio's annual work plan preapproved by the minister. These stories were usually about the heroes of socialist labor and prominent personalities.

''I made a film about a glassblower,'' I said. ''You didn't like it.'' ''Right. Because your point of view was wrong.'' ''Well, that just means I'll do something wrong this time too.'' I always wanted to make films only about things I understood and felt. And if my heart wasn't in it, no point in doing it. No compromises there.

I got tired of beating my head against the wall, unable to find a topic I really wanted to do. I began thinking about going away, to work in some other city. And then opportunity arose.

At a seminar for documentarians at the Cinematographers' House in Repino, a resort twenty-five miles outside Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), I met Gadilbek Shalakhmetov, a young journalist from Kazakhstan who had just graduated from a screen-writing program. I made a suggestion: ''Let's create something together.''

Gadilbek was just starting out and seemed pleased. ''What do you want to film?'' he asked.

''I want something with tension, a life-and-death struggle. Passions that are strong, real ones, not made up. Heroics without fanfare and padding. It would be great to film a person who went through a life crisis but did not break, who retained the life force and continues working.''

That was, in fact, the main theme of most of my previous films—obsession. My heroes were people in love with their work, their professions. A film requires conflict, and it was part of my favorite theme—life on the edge of the possible. Obsession gave life a meaning. That was the only way to live—putting your all into your work and trying not to notice what was going on around you.

''I know of a man,'' Gadilbek said. ''He's a famous Kazakh oilman who had an accident a few years ago. His name is Rakhmet Utesinov.''

He told me the man's story. It was just what I was searching for. A few years before that, I had wanted to do something like a documentary version of Nine Days of a Tear, a film by the great Mikhail Romm. Made in 1962, during the Thaw, it had made a tremendous impact on our society. It was a thoughtful film about a physicist who suffered a fatal dose of radiation during testing but continued to work, hoping to complete his experiment before dying. The film was extremely sad and yet filled with heroic optimism. It was ''my'' theme. At that time I had almost found an appropriate subject for a documentary: a theoretical physicist who continued working even though he knew his death was near. But the editor with whom I worked cooled my enthusiasm.

''It's too grim. Don't do a film about death. Give me something more optimistic.''

The television screen showed no conflicts: we were not supposed to tell the viewer about the real dramas going on in life or about anything upsetting. The social optimism demanded by the executives did not permit anyone to die on screen or even grieve for the dead. It was as if no one ever died in the Soviet Union. The Leningrad Party boss Tolstikov was well known for his reply to foreigners who asked about the death rate in the ussr: ''We've already solved that problem.''

And yet the idea of a hero with such a dramatic life would not leave me.

''All right then,'' I said to myself. ''So no one dies of leukemia here. But we do have car accidents and other catastrophes. They can happen to anyone.''

Utesinov, the subject proposed by Gadilbek, had been head of the oil industry on the Mangyshlak Peninsula. While driving across the Karagiye Depression in Kazakhstan, he had an accident, the car flipped over, and his spine was broken. Confined to a wheelchair, he continued to work—he was writing a book and still proposing new ideas to improve oil drilling and fighting with the conservatives. In other words, he was still in the action. My intuition told me this man could be my next hero.

I decided to fly out to see him in Novy Uzen, also in Kazakhstan, about ninety miles from Shevchenko (now Aktau), so that I could meet him and his family and see the locations. Gadilbek came out there too. I liked what I saw: the desert, camels, sand, rocks, cactus, the Karagiye Depression, 433 feet below sea level, wind, and a city in the middle of the desert. It was exotic! I had never filmed anything like it. And I liked Rakhmet Utesinov and his wife, Sakish. And the man who replaced Utesinov as head of the oil industry seemed good too. He was a boring clerk, without any scope or vision, a former Komsomol worker who ended up in that job by accident. His name was Yuri Korcha-gin, and it was funny because he was the very opposite of the character Pavel Korchagin, a mythological revolutionary hero from the popular Soviet propaganda novel How the Steel Was Tempered.

I was fired up by the prospect of making this film as an independent and the possibility of getting away from Ekran, where there was no hope of decent work. Just then I was in another low in the cycle of ups and downs that characterized my relations with the authorities. And it was not only about the authorities. It was a gender issue as well.

Being very sensitive to the atmosphere at my work, I always felt that as a female filmmaker I wouldn't get strong support from my male colleagues. It's not that they were hostile toward me, no. They just believed that it is not a profession fit for females. In addition, they were skeptical because I was one of the few professionals who worked on films not only as a writer-director but as a camerawoman as well.

I can't say that this upset me very much or that I fought it desperately, but every now and then some remark would be very painful. But I continued my way the best I could. I wanted to show them: you wouldn't let me make my film at Ekran, so I'll do it with another studio.

So, in 1977, I went to a television studio in Kazakhstan to make The Ordeal. For Kazakhstan's documentary film world, I was a big shot—from Moscow, from Ekran, with a good reputation, with six films to my credit, all well received by the studio's artistic council and the press. And I was the only woman in the country who was both director and cinematographer. This was very unusual, and thus I was known and respected in professional circles. So I was greeted with open arms in Kazakhstan. They gave me everything I needed. I had never had such pleasant and generous conditions, where I didn't have to fight for every trifle.

I worked with delight. I liked my hero, the exotic beauty of Mangyshlak, and the industrial landscapes of the oil rigs.

The film was quite good. Gadilbek and I received the prestigious Lenin Komsomol Prize, awarded by the ussr Young Communist League, for best documentary of 1978. If I had made the film at Ekran in Moscow, I wouldn't have gotten any awards.

But here we had Kazakhstan, the screenwriter was a Kazakh, the film was about a Kazakh and had a heroic plot, a success in the emerging Kazakh film industry, the close cooperation of Moscow and Kazakh filmmakers—everything the Party liked. I can't judge whether they gave the prize for the film itself or because it matched their expectations. But having the Lenin Komsomol Prize came in very handy in the future.

After this experiment, I was looking for an opportunity to work on my own again and made an unpretentious twenty-minute film called The Beginning (1979), about children again, this time future composers. Seven-year-old kids under the guidance of their teacher, Tatiana Kaluzhskaya, composed music. She had a magical system for developing children's creativity. Again Ekran could not make political hay from it, and so I again had to face the same problem: to find someplace where I could make my kind of film. Ekran's pre-approved list was still the same boring exaltation of socialism. The stagnation era of Brezhnev was at its peak. So I decided to run away from Ekran again— this time to the Literary and Drama Department of Central Television (Lit-drama, for short). I didn't have to run far—it was in the same Ostankino building as Ekran.

It was a great help to me in life that I started out as a cinematographer. I could work without getting into politics. I could earn a living without making serious compromises with my conscience and at the same time getting pleasure from my work. The Litdrama Department was a wonderful place to work. It produced cultural programs and attracted the cream of the Soviet intelligentsia: writers, directors, artists, and so on.

At Litdrama, I made several good films with director Dima Chukovsky of which I am still proud. Konstantin Simonov wrote the screenplays and narrated three of them. The first, What an Interesting Personality (1974), was about the artist Vladimir Tatlin, a master of the Russian avant-garde of the early twentieth century. The next film was Alexander Tvardovsky (1976), about the recently deceased poet and editor of the liberal journal Novy Mir (New World). It was very simple. Simonov talked about the poet, and the great actor Mikhail Ulyanov read Tvardovsky's poetry. We filmed it at Simonov's dacha in Peredel-kino, a writer's colony outside Moscow, in front of a huge window that opened onto the vista of snow-covered birches. But for all the simplicity, Simonov's restrained manner and profound narration, as well as Ulyanov's totally unpretentious reading, made it quite moving and very powerful. The film turned out to be a big success. It was highly appreciated by the press and got great responses from the audience.

Simonov was a special person during the Soviet years. Talented and smart, he wrote good poetry and serious, profound prose. He was accepted in Party and government circles and among writers. He had managed to preserve his human decency and yet serve the authorities. Simonov got away with many things that the Party leaders would not have permitted to anyone else. In 1980 we were working on another film; this one about Mikhail Bulgakov (18911940), a writer who was semi-banned; his works were printed in tiny editions, and writing about him was not exactly encouraged. Simonov and literary scholar Marietta Chudakova prepared the screenplay for Mikhail Bulgakov, which told Bulgakov's story through letters written by him and his wife, Elena Sergeyevna. The few people who remembered Bulgakov added to Simonov's story with their reminiscences.

Simonov wanted to continue this series of films with the writer Alexander Serafimovich (1863-1949), whose life and work were very little known, and the two great Russian female poets of the twentieth century, Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) and Marina Tsvetayeva (1892-1941), who were semi-banned then too. Alas, Simonov did not live long enough to make the films.

Among the other films I made at Litdrama were At Pushkin's Home (1982) and Russian Legends (1983), in collaboration with Dmitri Likhachev, another outstanding personality, literary scholar, and writer. We filmed the piece on Alexander Pushkin in Leningrad just when the poet's apartment-turned-museum was under reconstruction. It was a mess, with empty rooms and torn-up walls. Likhachev walked through the miserable interior, talking about the life and tragic death of the great poet. Nina Popova, the museum's director, also participated in the film; she too was a brilliant storyteller. The film created a sad and strange, but powerful, effect.

Together with Dima Chukovsky, Likhachev and I also made You're a Fiery Man (1979), about Dima's grandfather Kornei Chukovsky, the classic writer of children's literature, and Tvardovsky's Home (1982), with the talented liberal critic Vladimir Lakshin.

I think back on all those films with great love. It was such a pleasure to work as a cameraperson and not to do the work I didn't want to do at Ekran. I participated in exploring new history-related topics with the most respected and knowledgeable writers and scholars in the country. At the same time it gave me a profound professional experience as a cinematographer. It was very satisfying and serious, really creative work.

At Litdrama, I also directed one of my most favorite documentaries, Pushkin and Pushchin (1981), written by historian Natan Eidelman. His fame was at its zenith in the 1970s and 1980s, when everyone was reading his books on Pushkin and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century history. For a long time, Eidelman, the son of an ''enemy of the people'' (his father had been arrested in the 1940s during Stalin's purges), was not being published and was suspected of being a dissident. Then suddenly his books started to be printed, and they became instant best sellers.

I met Eidelman at a party, and it struck me that he was a born television personality. He was a great raconteur, enchanting me not only with his knowledge of the material, facts, and details but also with his extraordinary energy. I was dying to make a film with him. We discussed several themes and chose the least offensive to the authorities—the theme of the friendship of two lyceum students, the poet Alexander Pushkin and Ivan Pushchin, a Decembrist (member of the anti-tsarist rebellion of December 1812). Thanks to the support of the editor in chief at Litdrama, Konstantin Kuzakov, the topic was approved, and we started filming.

Let me tell you about Kuzakov. He was rumored to be Stalin's illegitimate son. (When Stalin had been exiled to Siberia in 1912, he lived in the house of a Cossack woman named Kuzakova.) Kuzakov was very well educated, incredibly smart, farseeing, and cautious. He of course appreciated Eidelman's talent. He also liked my films and wanted me to work for Litdrama.

I was euphoric throughout the whole period of filming Pushkin and Push-chin. While preparing for the film, I read everything possible about the lives of Pushkin and Pushchin and the history of the Decembrist uprising—I couldn't work with a coauthor of Eidelman's stature without serious preparation. It took almost six months. But what a half year it was—so much joy and satisfaction! Eidelman, I think, felt more comfortable in the nineteenth century than in the twentieth. He told me a lot of fascinating things that were extremely helpful.

When I was ready, we started to work on the screenplay, discussing every detail. Then we started filming, which went very quickly, because everything had been planned. We used the antiquated Soviet synchronous Moskva camera, which with all the bells and whistles weighed around 250 pounds, and the equally ancient nonsynchronous Soviet camera Konvas for outdoor scenes. I decided to film in 35 mm rather than 16 mm, as in my previous films, because I wanted to achieve a richly colorful picture. I wanted to complement the textual information with an emotional visual and musical atmosphere. We filmed in many places. Besides Moscow and Leningrad, we went to the Pushkin estate in Mikhailovskoe; to the Vyra train station, home of the hero of Pushkin's tale The Station Master; and to the tiny town of Petrovsky Zavod in Siberia, where the tsar exiled the Decembrist rebels after the uprising.

My friend, the artist Yura Ivanov, created marvelous paintings for title cards to introduce each chapter of the film. The actress Alla Demidova recited Pushkin's poetry. Marina Krutoyarskaya wrote beautiful music. And of course there were Eidelman's brilliant, dramatic, humorous, and touching stories. For the first time in my life, I was completely satisfied with my work.

Kuzakov liked the film too. He was melting with pleasure when he screened it. He loved Leningrad passionately, and I had captured the city in an emotional way. Powdered with wet white snow, vast empty vistas, the Fortress of Peter and Paul, the horses on Anichkov Bridge, the heavy cast-iron chains . . . I had a high fever when I was filming, which apparently added to the mood (I always catch a cold in Leningrad—its climate is not for me!), Kuzakov even shed a tear while watching the scenes in Siberia, where Pushchin had been exiled. This I shot when it was forty degrees below zero, with the izbas—little log houses—covered in ice and glistening in the sun. Kuzakov approved the film without requiring a single change and thanked us for our excellent work.

The next executive who needed to approve the film for a broadcast was Stella Zhdanova, who had been promoted to deputy minister in the culture area. She had always been well disposed toward me. I asked her if I needed to be at the screening. ''No, no,'' she said. ''I'll watch it when I have time.''

Well, the bosses may have their tricks, but directors had their own. There was no difficulty finding out when the screening would be. I dropped into the projection booth and looked through the window into the screening room. Stella Zhdanova was nervously pacing in the darkened room.

A few days of silence followed. I didn't call her; she didn't call me. Finally, I asked Kuzakov, ''Well, did the bosses like it?''

''To tell you the truth, Eidelman's Jewishness won't allow us to air the film in prime time—there will be too much mail from people asking why we couldn't find anyone else to do a show about the great Russian poet.''

The film was shown at ten in the morning, on June 6, Pushkin's birthday. It was shown once and never repeated. Who lost? Everyone—including those people whose angry letters and telephone calls the television bosses feared so much. We had no better raconteur and expert on the nineteenth century than Eidelman.

That ended the euphoric experience of my ''escape'' from Ekran. But there had been so much pleasure in the work! I still recall it as a gift from fate. Working on Pushkin and Pushchin, Eidelman and I became good friends. I saw a lot of him and his wife, Yulya, and we dreamed of filming Pushkin's History of Peter the Great. We never made it. Natan Eidelman died of a heart attack before he was sixty.

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