KinoKultura: Issue 31 (2011)

Interview with Iurii Shiller: Between document and prose? 

By Birgit Beumers (Bristol)

BB: You have a rich and long experience in documentary film. Why did you turn to fiction film?

shillerShiller: I graduated from the department of fiction films at the Film Institute (VGIK) where I studied with Grigorii Naumovich Chukhrai. Yet my diploma film was a documentary: I went to the Far East, to Khabarovsk, for work experience. I wanted to travel, and my profession gave me that opportunity. So I filmed the fishermen of the Pacific. This was my course work in the third year. I showed the film at the school and it was accepted as my diploma work by the chairman of the committee, Mark Donskoi. The committee decided that, although the film was a documentary, it followed the guidelines of a fiction film. Then I just continued making films, but I never thought about myself as a documentary filmmaker: I simply made films without actors. I always try to create my own world: a village, the provinces. For a long time I could not see the necessity to work with professional actors. I was fortunate enough to be able to choose scenes from the world around as it presented itself to me. But as the years went by, I gained more experience; and many things remained outside the frame, as it were.
I write a bit for myself, although I am usually reluctant to publish my texts. Two years ago I wrote a story which won the first prize in a scriptwriting competition. And it was mooted that I should turn the text into a film. I wrote it as a piece of prose and never thought it would become a film. When I began filming, I had to make a lot of changes, because—after all—the story had been written as a piece of prose rather than a film script. So I made the film not because I wanted to move into fiction film. I never had the impression that I had grown up enough to make a proper feature film. Indeed, when I had just graduated from the Film Institute, there was an opportunity to make a fiction film in Almaty. My teacher, Chukhrai, suggested I should go there. So I worked on a major fiction film project, but I don’t consider this is “my” film. It was a complex script and although—with the enthusiasm of youth—I thought I could make an impact, this was not the case. But I learnt a lot. Then I worked in Siberia and made documentaries; and here we are, forty years later, with Sparrow.

BB: You already mentioned the literary quality of the script, which indeed reads like Chekhovian prose of the highest level. I would like to ask a question about the boy, who speaks in an exquisite language and expresses himself in a most sophisticated manner, almost in fairy-tale style. Where does this language come from? And is this manner of speech realistic for a documentary filmmaker?

vorobeiShiller: If the spectator constantly thinks about me as a documentary filmmaker, then that will hamper his understanding of the film. I can already sense this in the reviews, where journalists have written about the documentary filmmaker who has made a fiction film and tried to bring a documentary approach to the film. I never attempted to bring a documentary approach to the film: I always work like this. I did not want to make a film in the style of “reality shows:” I don’t like this genre, which is so popular in Russia at the moment. A documentary approach is useful for film chronicles or newsreels, but archiving reality is not interesting for me. I like to find something interesting in the world around me and capture it: that is why I wrote the script with a certain degree of stylisation: there may be dialogues here that would not be spoken this way, but the musicality of the Russian language is there, and this is what I wanted to create. I deliberately made the opening of the film slow-moving. The story starts rather late in the film, but I don’t like plot-driven films. I like reading stories, following plot developments, but I don’t like creating plots in my own work. All my documentary films are plot-less, as it were; they tell no story and are “about nothing.” I try to capture the Russian land, its vastness and expanse. If there is plot, the viewer shifts his attention to the story and only wonders what will happen next. I want to force the viewer to enter my world. If you start off with a story, the viewer is gripped by it and forgets the rest. Some journalists have asked really stupid questions: whether the horses will be slaughtered or not. This made me really angry, because it does not matter for me. You can build a serial around the plot-lines: the life of the boy, the villagers— this could be another Forsyte Saga. I can sense that people—and critics—have forgotten today how to watch films: they follow the story and rely on the rhythm. If they are not gripped by the plot in the first ten minutes, they begin to criticize the lack of action. Yet not so long ago, prose—and cinema—was built on visuals and extreme long shots.

BB: You emphasize long shots of nature, of the horses; and yet when the myth of the herd is rendered in words and not through images. Why?

Shiller: In the beginning I thought about how to recreate the story visually: this would have been a film within the film, so I tried to find a different solution. It was a little difficult and I decided to use a long shot with the voiceover of the myth. In the script I had another version, where the old man tells the story of the horses, but the viewer would have been distracted by the situation of the narrator, so that’s why I devised the version we have in the film: so the viewer would focus on the horses and listen attentively to the legend.

BB: I’d like to return to the issue of the boy’s vivid imagination and his sophisticated language—where has the character acquired these skills? From his granddad? At school? From nature?

sparrowShiller: His mother says that he likes reading. He tells his story—indeed, we had another version here. We sat and talked a lot. I enquired about the stories he knows. And he told his granddad the story of Cain and Abel. We could hardly hold back our laughter, and his mother sat also in amazement. She had never told or read him this story. But the boy had read the bible: he is just interested in the world and remembers all the details. He had to learn the lines of the script, and he would often just glance at the text and say he’d remembered it all. He has a phenomenal memory. His openness towards the world is combined with a childlike manner. Maybe this is not obvious for a non native speaker: he speaks with a Perm accent, and his Russian is not quite correct; it is a local dialect which is very melodic, placing the stress on the last syllable. I liked this extraordinary manner of speech, when he takes a deep breath first before he speaks. He easily coped with the text that I had written: I often deliberately wanted to draw out the epic style inspired by nature, constructing a more melodic language. Although mostly I use everyday language in the script. 

BB: So the boy’s speech contains some improvisation?

Shiller: I omitted a lot of written dialogues when working with the boy. I could sense that the information in my text may be relevant, but the old world of that village, the Russian boy who still belongs to the tradition of the past, but who talks about cosmic space and lives in the modern world— this was also relevant. Many people think there are only drunkards and fools in the villages today, but this boy combines knowledge and tradition in an extraordinary manner. When we began to shoot, I made him sit with his father on a little bench. I had my text, but when we talked I was so fascinated that we filmed the boy and caught him unawares on camera as he talked about the world. He did not know we were shooting: I told neither him nor the actors.

BB: How did you find the boy?

Shiller: I spent about a month looking at boy actors at Mosfilm, where casting agencies presented boys from Moscow, but those were already little actors. So I watched and watched: they were all talented, but not what we needed. When we had just ten days left, I called my friends in Perm at the studio and asked them to scout for boys in the summer camps and schools, and do a screen test. I left earlier than the crew, and in Perm I looked around and inspected the screen tests, and this boy caught my attention as we talked. I thought that we would have to improvise a lot, because he is interesting not as an actor but as an individual. He finds it difficult to pronounce texts that are not his own. In the scene on the bridge he was almost hysterical when we had to do a second take: he had gone so far into his part that he was angry enough to fire a shot.

BB: It is quite rare that a child has such a lively imagination. He is indeed a very successful choice. According to your concept, could this boy have fired?

Shiller: I don’t think so. He’d probably have fainted rather than fired.

BB: When does the action of the film take place, and is this important for you?

Shiller: Probably in the 1990s, when there was more chaos. There was no money, nothing. Today things would be different: no horses would be sold, or cows. Many farms nowadays have stopped keeping livestock and grow grain instead. But such things like the bankruptcy of a state farm do still happen, even if the debts are not paid off with livestock, but tractors and so on. I am not so concerned about the time of the action, but I guess it is the end of the 1990s.

BB: There is a calendar in one frame showing the year 1994; in another frame there is a smaller calendar on the wall of 2000 or 2003. So why do we have calendars in the frame if the time is not important?

Shiller: We filmed in a real house, with all the images, posters and calendars on the wall, all the Gagarin portraits and that paraphernalia. I never paid attention—maybe I should have.

BB: Thank you very much.

Moscow, 25 June 2010

Birgit Beumers
University of Bristol

Birgit Beumers, Iurii Shiller © 2011

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Updated: 12 Jan 11