Interview with Aleksandr Mindadze: From Scriptwriter to Director

By Giulia Marcucci (U of Pisa)

Venice, 7 September 2007

To take part in the International Week of Film Critics at the Venice Mostra, a film has to be the director's first full-length feature. Among other entires this year was Aleksandr Mindadze's enigmatic film Soar (Otryv), screened in Russia at the 2007 edition of the Kinotavr festival.

Of course, it is a little strange to consider Mindadze a “beginner.” Although it is true that Soar is his first film as a director, Mindadze is well-known as a screenwriter of films, in which he develops celebral plots investigating moral and social problems, mainly in a surreal and magical manner. Nearly all of his scripts have been directed by Vadim Abdrashitov, beginning with Speech for the Defence (Slovo dlia zashchity, 1976) through Parade of the Planets (Parad planet, 1984) and The Manservant (Sluga, 1988) to their last film together, Magnetic Storms (Magnitnye buri, 2003). Mindadze's scripts have received prestigious awards not only in Russia, but also abroad: The Train Stopped (Ostanovilsia poezd, 1982) won the award for best screenplay in the San Remo Film Festival; Play for a Passenger (P'esa dlia passazhira, 1995) won the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. In addition, in 1986 the Italian Academy of Culture awarded Mindadze the Ennio Flaiano Silver Pegasus for literary contribution to cinematography.

I met Mindadze in Venice during one of the last hot days of the international festival. I had a special reason for asking to interview him. During the Soviet period, when it was necessesary “to read” and “review” film scripts before production could begin, screenplays played a significant role in the film industry. Today in Russia, collections of screenplays appear with striking regularity. Since 2006, the journal Seans, together with the publisher Amphora, has published collections of scripts by Iurii Arabov, Aleksei German and Svetlana Karmalita, Dunia Smirnova, Evgenii Shvarts, Renata Litvinova, Nadezhda Kozhushanaia, Aleksei Balabanov, Rustam Ibragimbekov, and—most recently—Mindadze. Consequently, it would be “useful” to film scholarship and fascinating for readers to hear from such a major representative of what is usually considered a “transitory genre,” a filmmaker who was also a witness of the crucial historical and social changes from the period of Stagnation through today, and who was now making his debut as director.

GM: Aleksandr, I would like to begin our conversation from the very “beginning,” when you made your debut as scriptwriter in the 1970s. How did you approach this profession, which boasts such a unique tradition in the Soviet Union?

AM: You're right when you speak of a Russian school of scriptwriting, one that has no equals. As far as I'm concerned, I was at first undecided whether to embark on a career as a scriptwriter for the cinema or to study at the Faculty of Literature. In the end I decided on the State Film Institute (VGIK) because at that time there was a real burst of scriptwriters and it seemed interesting to pursue such a career. After a period with a substantial lack of freedom, the Thaw brought new names to the forefront, new people who approached literature from the point of view of the cinema, writing scenarios in prose. I think that this was a very dynamic solution to my dilemma. When I began to study, I found myself surrounded by great writers, and there was an invaluable school of cinematographic dramaturgy at VGIK in those years, a real circle of “writers for the cinema.”

GM: To whom were you particularly close?

AM: My supervisor was Gennadii Shpalikov, a screenwriter for some of the most significant films of the 1960s, such as Walking the Streets of Moscow (Ia shagaiu po Moskve; dir. Georgii Daneliia, 1963; released 1964) and I'm Twenty (Mne dvadtsat' let; dir. Marlen Khutsiev, 1964), and who subsequently directed A Long Happy Life (Dolgaia schastlivaia zhizn', 1966). Then there was Evgenii Gabrilovich, the founder of the school of Italian neo-realism in Russia, who had written scenarios for Mikhail Romm and Vsevolod Pudovkin in the 1950s, and then for the young Il'ia Averbakh and Gleb Panfilov.

GM: A leksandr, in the 1970s, when your career began, the more relaxed climate of the late 1950s and early 1960s had disappeared, and the number of films with unlucky destinies was increasing, as films were banned and forgotten on the shelves of Goskino. Are there examples of screenplays that had problems with censorship among your films?

AM: We [that is, together with Vadim Abdrashitov] had problems of this nature, starting with Fox Hunt (Okhota na lis, 1980), but not with the scripts, rather with the completed films. I was not concerned with open journalism, but I have always tried to write with a hidden meaning, a “subtext”; my screenplays were conventional and encoded. Those who had to approve them in order to proceed into film production did not understand them and could not see any danger in them. The problems started once the film was finished. On the whole, my screenplays were passed at the various stages for approval, although with difficulty. By difficulty I mean that the people in charge shrugged their shoulders, one after the other, without understanding; they couldn't see any imminent dangers that threatened their own positions. We had the most serious problems with censorship with Fox Hunt, The Train Stopped and Parade of the Planets. As regards Pliumbum (1986) by comparison, I think that in 1986 there were greater obstacles with screenplays. It was really a matter of knowing how to play their game, to make alterations to one part and to restore the lost meaning elsewhere in the text, for example. In this case we had no problems with the film because in 1986 a new era was beginning in our country. Moreover, the “witnesses for the chiefs” (“svideteli nachal'nikov”) were not such bad people: they were mostly cynics. They could have been your friends with whom you were playing a game: you had to imitate, pretend to agree with their comments and make corrections to the text. The important thing was not to refuse, and then you could get on with things at other points. They knew that we “were imitating” and we knew that they knew. It was a sort of contract—a continuous barter. This was the general rule, but there were certainly some exceptions with really bad people. The censorship of the 1970s was not more aggressive, except if you tended towards journalism, for example. The films that were banned were films of little value, while you could count the banned masterpieces on one hand.

GM: Let's move on to Soar. What led you to direct precisely this film based on such an intricate screenplay?

AM: I have always been very close to the profession of director. From a practical point of view, I know everything. So I decided to make the film myself, based on my own screenplay; also because the idea seemed to me so radical that it would have been difficult for another person to interpret it.

GM: What was the greatest difficulty you faced when passing from the script to the filming?

AM: To tell the truth, the writing phase was much more difficult, with a blank sheet of paper in front of you. Perhaps this is because I was writing it as if I was already seeing and filming it. I didn't have any problems with the pace, with the visual representations, with the kinds of shots. The difficulties were due solely to the need to carry through one's idea professionally, to be a perfectionist in the positive sense of the word, and to understand oneself fully and find satisfaction in one's work. In the transition from screenplay to film, I made some slight alterations: I shortened some things. But there were no substantial changes.

GM: I would like to ask about the original narrative structure of your film. Why did you choose a plot where the sequences follow one another without external motives linking them according to a principle of cause and effect, above all in the middle part of the film?

AM: This is connected to the fact that the idea, the plot is unpredictable. It is a dramatic story, connected in the end through the deaths of some people, and for this reason it seemed to me that it should not be told in a linear manner. If you tell a story of that kind in a linear way, you tell it more realistically, causing more tears, more suffering. It seemed to me a sacrilege to make cinema in this way, to bring it closer to life. I wanted to create a story that was an equivalent of life. When events occur, we do not understand immediately what has happened, and we need time to see clearly. Therefore, I chose such a narrative structure. Another thing is that my film requires a certain effort on the part of the audience; it certainly isn't for people who go to the cinema to relax after spending time at the beach in Sochi, maybe even a bit drunk. It is not for a festival of that kind; it requires participation on the part of the audience. Yesterday, during the film's screening here in Venice—and I say this not because we are here—the hall was full and nobody left, even though I had been warned that the opposite might happen. This is indicative of the fact that the atmospheres at festivals vary and that certain films are more suited for one festival than for another.

GM: If I have understood correctly, your films are made not to entertain, but to develop the cinema audience. Is that so?

AM: I make films for myself, not because I'm an egoist. I have never taken the audience into account. I have always thought that if I am satisfied, then there will be people like me who will be able to understand and be interested as well. In the Soviet era there were many such people—Pliumbum was watched by 20 million people. Now times have changed, and with the social and political break-up that has taken place in Russia, the audience has changed, too. Eighty per cent of the population is still in the dark about this and about the mass culture that has submerged us. My audience is still there, it has decreased, but it exists. It has hidden and I don't know exactly where to look for it.

GM: Is it possible to interpret the last frames of Soar as a metaphor for nostalgia for the past? I'm referring to the scene where the main character implores the old man, lost at the beginning by the river, not to leave him alone because he is the only person left for whom he feels affection.

AM: You know, it isn't nostalgia. Although in a broad sense you're right, it can be read in that way. From the point of view of subject-matter, the old man is the only person linking Viktor to what happened at the moment of the disaster, when he found himself forced to be a pilot. The old man represents a thread that links the moments of change to the new self-identification of the main character and in this sense he is the only person dear to him. The ending can be considered in this way and, in a more general sense as you have suggested, although there are no explicit references to the theme of nostalgia.

GM: The subject-matter of Soar is not traditional: the characters often pass from tears to euphoria; dialogues sometimes resemble monologues; at a certain point Taganrog, Anton Chekhov's native town, is mentioned. How close is Chekhov to you and to what extent have his works influenced you?

AM: Chekhov has influenced all of us Russians. Even if someone does not define himself as an admirer of Chekhov and has always preferred Dostoevskii, he still has been influenced by Chekhov. We all co-exist with this great writer.

GM: I have read that you have been jury chairman at some film festivals in Russia. What are the main trends that you see in today's cinema?

AM: Contemporary Russian cinema is in the same transitional period of crisis that the whole of our country is going through. Our cinema has always articulated an author's intonation, it has always paid attention to man. Today it is trying to be commercial without having developed an adequate language for this intention and without having the industrial potential comparable to that of America. We have moved away from man and no longer say anything about the simple people, although I believe this is a temporary trend. We are indebted to a large number of people. The Europeans and even the Americans are turning their interest to social themes, and we too must go back to making worthy films about the individual.

GM: Do you hope for a return to the themes of the Thaw in contemporary cinema?

AM: Yes, that too. Above all, I hope that there will be an evolution not only along the lines of “money-merchandise-money.”

GM: What are your plans for the future?

AM: I am working on a new screenplay and then I'll see—depending on the result, on my perception of it, and how I see myself in this theme—whether I shall direct it myself or not.

GM: Is there a particular director for whom you would like to write a screenplay?

AM: That is a difficult question. I am so busy writing that at this stage of my life I am the only director, but that does not mean that there are no directors whom I regard highly and have regarded highly in the past.

GM: Aleksandr, many of the central figures of Russian culture have lived here in Venice, leaving their impressions for eternity. We need only recall Aleksandr Blok, Anna Akhmatova, or Iosif Brodskii and Evgenii Shvarts—to mention just a few names. I would like to conclude this conversation with your “Venetian impressions.”

AM: My impressions are linked precisely to the traces left by the names you have mentioned, and not only theirs, which I can perceive here. They lived, worked, and exhibited here, and this can be felt even if it is not visible. Life in general arouses feelings, it excites me, and Venice is intriguing and exciting. The festival in particular is a fantastic event where you can always find something new in the development of cinema.

Giulia Marcucci
University of Pisa

Giulia Marcucci© 2008

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Updated: 10 Jan 08