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Tuesday, 22 February 2011 21:00

Building a Bridge to Russia and Mongolia

Written by  Bob Fisher
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Profile_Chressanthis_Moscow_Interview_IMG_02Cinematographer James Chressanthis, ASC recently spent four weeks at film festivals, schools and other venues in Russia and Mongolia to present No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos, his documentary about acclaimed DPs Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC and the late Laszlo Kovacs, ASC. Chressanthis also conducted cinematography workshops and seminars and had conversations with current and future Russian and Mongolian filmmakers as a part of the American Documentary Showcase, which makes U.S. nonfiction films accessible around the world.

A relatively new program, the American Documentary Showcase is administered by the University Film and Video Association and funded by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Some 60 independently produced documentaries have been made available to audiences worldwide during the past several years. “People around the world have enthusiastically responded to documentaries in the Showcase because film speaks a universal language,” says Project Director Betsy McLane, Ph.D. “These films offer a broad, diversified look at life in the United States as seen through the lenses of independent filmmakers.”

Profile_Chressanthis_Mongolia_Master_Class_IMG_01No Subtitles Necessary spans 50 years in the lives of Kovacs and Zsigmond after they left Hungary in the wake of the brutal suppression of an uprising against the communist regime in October 1956. The documentary blends interviews with Kovacs, Zsigmond and some 40 actors, directors, critics and others who crossed the cinematographers’ paths with scenes from their films and other archival footage.

Chressanthis was an American Film Institute student when Kovacs visited the school as a guest lecturer in 1985. He apprenticed with Zsigmond in 1986 on the film The Witches of Eastwick, and Kovacs visited their set on the 30th anniversary of the 1956 uprising in Hungary. Kovacs and Zsigmond then invited the cast and crew to join them in a memorable celebration at lunch. Chressanthis says that’s when the seed of his idea for the documentary took root. In 2007, he put that idea into motion on the 50th anniversary of Kovacs and Zsigmond’s arrival in the U.S.

Chressanthis’ long list of credits includes the Academy Award-winning film Chicago, the hit TV series “Ghost Whisperer” and TV movies Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, Four Minutes, The Reagans and 3: The Dale Earnhardt Story. No Subtitles Necessary has been featured at some 25 film festivals on four continents and earned a 2010 Emmy nomination after airing as part of the Independent Lens Series on PBS. I recently spoke with Chressanthis and McLane about their unique documentary project.

What was the first leg on your journey?

JC: We traveled to Vladivostok in the far eastern region of the Soviet Union for the Pacific Meridian International Film Festival. There were filmmakers from around the world. Thousands of people turned out on the streets next to a huge cinema on a beautiful, warm September evening. All of the filmmakers arrived in classic cars. We were led to the blue carpet which was surrounded by a massive crowd, including television cameramen, news photographers and paparazzi.

What was your impression about the films featured?

JC: There was a broad diversity of fiction film and documentaries from around the world. The grand prize was won by an American independent film about Muslim punks bands in America. It’s a drama that is based on reality.

What was the audience’s reaction to your documentary?

JC: We got a wonderful response, especially from younger people who were both emotionally touched and surprised by the story. I think it filled in a gap in their knowledge about the history of the Soviet era. The younger Russians seemed very optimistic. They defied the stereotype of Soviet pessimism. They really want to be free of that baggage. I believe they were particularly inspired by the stories of how Laszlo and Vilmos succeeded in achieving the freedom necessary to pursue their dreams. Throughout their lives, Vilmos and Laszlo demonstrated that art can change the way we feel about the world and how we act.

What were the reactions to the opening scene documenting Russian tanks and soldiers violently smashing a revolt against the communist regime?

JC: It was pretty hard sledding for this audience. They were sitting on the edges of their seats during the opening scenes of the fighting in Budapest. The Russian soldiers considered the camera a weapon. Laszlo and Vilmos literally risked their lives shooting that film and carrying it out of the country. It was hard on audiences seeing their grandparents’ generation murdering civilians whose crime was wanting freedom. The thing that came through to audiences in both Vladivostok and Moscow was how Laszlo and Vilmos overcame overwhelming odds and became global artists. After the screenings, I had discussions with Russian filmmakers about the global language we share and why we make films.

Were there other screenings?

JC: Yuri Neyman, [ASC], a Russian expatriate who lives in Los Angeles, arranged a special screening with members of the Russian [Guild] of Cinematographers and the Russian [Filmmakers Union].

Share some memories about the workshops and seminars.

JC: There were a number of workshops and seminars, including one at Far Eastern State Technical University that was about the basic grammar of using the camera and film for visual storytelling. I showed them clips of shots from some of my films. The students were bright, friendly and optimistic. They defied the stereotypes I had of dour Russian pessimism. I got the feeling they want to throw the dead weight of their past overboard. They asked me to come back and do a master lighting seminar. I did that and a couple of other seminars. Betsy McLane and I also spoke with students in a journalism class.
BM: One of the messages James and I brought to students at the journalism and film schools in Vladivostok was that their family histories, including their experiences during the Soviet era are potential fodder for future narrative and documentary films. Vladivostok was one of the last hold-outs for the White Russian army that supported the Czar against the Red army. There are stories to be told. There are Soviet newsreels and documentaries from that period that can be repurposed to help tell the stories about that time in history.    


JC: I shot a short documentary about the reception the Russian Special Forces veterans gave to Stuart Wilf, who is an American Iraq war veteran and the subject of [Petra Epperlein and] Michael Tucker’s  documentary How to Fold a Flag. Michael wasn’t able to make the journey to Russia. He asked Stuart to pinch-hit for him. That documentary is about how Stuart and other veterans were treated by the Veteran’s Administration after they were discharged. In addition to the screening, Stuart met with his Russian veteran counterparts. They had a lot in common. We also attended ceremonies memorializing veterans of World War II and the wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya. There was also a roundtable discussion with members of a veterans group. They were very much like Americans who are trying to get better treatment, benefits, recognition and support for problems created by their time in service of their countries. It was clear veterans in both nations share the same problems.

How did you shoot film of Stuart Wilf and the Russian war veterans?    

JC: In cinema vérité style, beginning with a very formal ceremony at a World War II memorial where there is a giant Russian submarine on the seashore beside an eternal flame. As the Russian veterans got to know Stuart better throughout the day, they became brothers. I filmed their interactions –– interviews weren’t necessary.

What were your experiences in Moscow?

JC: Moscow is obviously a much larger community. There were larger crowds at screenings and everyplace else. We were at the Show US! Film Festival with a lot of other American documentaries. People in audiences were amazed that independently produced documentaries shown on U.S. television are often very critical of government and corporate policies. Freedom of expression was a common topic at both workshops and screenings. The main complaint was that the only American films Russian audiences get to see are Hollywood blockbusters. They rarely see American independent films and documentaries.

What else did you do during your week in Moscow?

JC: We had workshops at Moscow State University. I also spoke at the American [Center] Library and gave presentations to various groups.

Did you get a sense that they were aware of the history of filmmaking outside of Russia? And did they know about Laszlo and Vilmos?

JC: I got a sense that they were aware of some of the history but not all of the details. They had seen very few of the classic films shot by Vilmos and Laszlo.

It sounds like language barriers weren’t an obstacle.

JC: They were showing a film from Thailand with subtitles in Mongolia when the power went out. The theater went black. The movie came back on after about five minutes, but the power failure destroyed the computer that was running the subtitles. The audience responded to the rest of the movie without words. There is a hunger to be connected to the outside world. Film is a universal language that connects people around the world.

Please share some of your experiences in Mongolia.

JC: We went to the capital Ulaanbaatar for two weeks. We did workshops and screenings for well over 700 people, which was pretty much all of the film and video professionals and students at the two main film schools. I held six master classes.

Do you think Russia and Mongolia would welcome American filmmakers using locations in those countries?

JC: My impression is they would be welcomed. In Moscow, I visited the set of the 20th Century Fox science-fiction film The Darkest Hour. The American director and camera crew were working closely with Russian crew members on the giant production.

Betsy, you get the final words.

BM: Vladivostok, like every Soviet city, had its own major documentary production studio, so there is a wealth of footage to draw on. Esfir Shub directed history-based political films in Russia during the 1920s using footage that was produced during the first two decades of the new century. James’s use of archival footage [in No Subtitles Necessary] made a deep impression. I believe we succeeded in getting this message across, and hopefully we inspired young journalists and documentarians to look to the past as well as to the present. One potential problem is that the condition of film archives in the former Soviet bloc countries is tragic. The archives have been plundered by commercial interests and copyright ownership issues are in a muddle.

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