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Meet the Filmmakers: Robin Hessman--'My Perestroika'

By IDA Editorial Staff

Editor's Note: My Perestroika opens Friday, April 15, in Los Angeles at the the Laemmle Sunset 5. The following interview with filmmaker Robin Hessman was published last summer in conjunction with IDA's DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase.

Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which runs from July 30 through August 19 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Robin Hessman, director/producer of My Perestroika.

Synopsis: My Perestroika follows five ordinary Russians living in extraordinary times--from their sheltered Soviet childhood, to the collapse of the Soviet Union during their teenage years, to the constantly shifting political landscape of post-Soviet Russia. Using a wealth of footage rarely seen outside of Russia--including home movies from the USSR in the 1970s--the film combines an intimate view of the past with the contemporary lives of these former schoolmates, painting a complex picture of the dreams and disillusionment of those raised behind the Iron Curtain.




IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Robin Hessman: I was very active in theater and music throughout my childhood, and in my teens I became very serious about photography. I suppose documentary film integrated many aspects of visual storytelling that I had always been interested in.
In my freshman year of college, I went abroad to Leningrad (that was the year they voted to re-name it St. Petersburg). I vividly remember landing on the snowy tarmac in January, and being greeted by men in giant fur hats who handed us our sheets of ration coupons (since there was little food in the city.) I think I realized, being there, that no matter how much I had read in advance and how much I intellectually knew about Leningrad and the Soviet Union, it hadn't prepared me for what it would viscerally feel like to experience it. I realized that I had never seen a film set there, and I wondered how different it would have felt if I had.
The very first film I made was a 16mm short. I shot it in the summer of 1991 in Leningrad after the end of my semester studying there. (I was also working at the Leningrad film studio--Lenfilm--that summer on an American horror movie that starred the actor who played Freddy Kreuger in Nightmare on Elm Street.) When I left the USSR to go back to school a few weeks after the August 1991 coup, my film and all the cans of outtakes were taken away from me at the border, since I had no official papers or stamps giving explicit permission to export so many kilometers of film out of the USSR. 
My junior year abroad was spent at VGIK, the All-Russian State Institute of Cinematography in Moscow, together with one of my best friends from high school, James Longley (Iraq in Fragments; Sari's Mother). We made a 27-minute documentary that year called Portrait of Boy with Dog. We shot on 35mm black and white cinemascope, and edited on flatbeds from the 1930s. That year at VGIK was such an incredible experience, I decided to stay with my film school class and complete the five-year film directing program.


IDA: What inspired you to make My Perestroika?

RH: I began to think about this film 10 years ago. After I graduated from film school in Moscow, I spent several more years living in Russia producing the Russian Sesame Street, Ulitsa Sezam. By the time I returned to live in the States again, I had spent most of the decade--all of my early adult years--living in Russia. Back in the US, the questions I was asked made me think about the fact that despite the end of the Cold War so many years earlier, there was still a wall when it came to information and understanding about what life was like in the former USSR. Stereotypes and misconceptions prevailed.
So I wanted to make a film about my generation of Russians--the generation that I joined, in a sense, when I went to live there at age 18. They had normal Soviet childhoods behind the Iron Curtain, never dreaming that their society could change. Just coming of age when Gorbachev appeared, they were figuring out their own identities as the very foundations of their society were being questioned for the first time. And then, they graduated from college just as the USSR collapsed, and they had to figure out how to survive in a new world where there were no models to follow. Although I didn't grow up there and I have no Russian family history, I certainly shared their journey throughout the 1990s, adjusting to the evolving post-Soviet Russia. So I was an insider and outsider at the same time, which is a helpful position to be in as a documentary filmmaker.


IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

RH: Raising money was the biggest challenge, but I imagine that's true for all documentary filmmakers. I had anticipated that it would take me two to three years to make the film, not the five plus years that it actually did take. But I think I got through it because in my mind it never was a question of if I would finish the film, only a question of how long it would take me. Having no doubt that I would finish someday kept me going steadily forward.
Another challenge for me was actually shooting the film myself. I started out convinced that I would work with a cinematographer. However, it soon became apparent that it would be difficult. First of all, it wasn't easy to find someone with the right eye and experience. In Russia, shooting styles usually vary between two extremes--either elaborative feature films with lighting and cranes, or journalism, where the main point is coverage, with little attention to composition or sensitivity to the subjects you are filming. And I certainly couldn't afford to bring someone to Moscow for months at a time over several years.
The very first day of shooting with a proper camera was with someone I hired...and it was a disaster for so many reasons. Spatially, one couple's kitchen was so small, I had to sit on the floor under the table and call things up to them. More troubling, the atmosphere was totally different. Whereas the couple had been completely at ease with me when I was shooting for research, once the cameraman was there, they stiffened up and became shy. So I really had no choice but to grit my teeth and take the camera in hand.
In the end, however, it was the best thing that could have happened. As the shooting progressed, I realized the extent that working with a cinematographer would have also been a logistical nightmare, as it was never clear in advance when I would be able to film any of the subjects. As a rule, they were not likely to make a plan more than a day in advance, and often it was completely spur of the moment: I would get a phone call and 15 minutes later I'd be trudging off to the metro with gear slung over me every which way. (I was often compared to a Christmas tree with enormous black padded ornaments.) I would never have been able to book time with a cinematographer that way. But more important was the extremely intimate setting that working alone allowed, where it was just me, the camera and the person I was filming. The predicament that filled me with despair when I was beginning proved itself a real gift in the end. And I also found out how much I enjoy shooting.


IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

RH: During pre-production, a lot of the ideas were already in place. I knew that I wanted to film several people who had been childhood classmates and had grown up together. (In Russia, a class of about 20 people is together from first grade through the end of high school, so they really know each other well and have an entire shared history.)  I figured that once I found the anchor of the film, I'd meet his or her classmates from there. I interviewed dozens of people during my first trip back to Moscow, and I spent time in several different archives, as well as searching for 8mm home movies. From the very beginning, home movies also were an integral part of my vision for the film, as they provide a privileged and personal view into everyday life of the past, with no agenda other than preserving memories.
And it was also during pre-production that I began thinking about Russia's "unpredictable past" and began to seek out the perspective of history teachers in their 30s. They had been taught one version of the past as children and today are teaching a completely different interpretation of those same events (to students who were born after the collapse of the USSR, and are living in a completely different world.) I began speaking with dozens of history teachers and eventually was lucky enough to meet Borya and Lyuba Meyerson, a married couple who both teach history in the same Moscow grade school. Through them I met childhood classmates Olga, Andrei and Ruslan.
So the film does have all of the elements of the first early proposals I wrote back in 2004 and 2005: childhood classmates telling stories from their Soviet childhoods through their youth during Perestroika and their adult lives in a newly democratic Russia. It interweaves their stories with Soviet archival footage and home movies that show a more intimate view of the past. But there are certainly things I couldn't have predicted at the beginning. For example, I expected the home movies would be of the era and of the age cohort of the subjects, but I never dreamed I'd be lucky enough to have actual home movies of the characters when they were children. (Cameras were relatively rare.) It was a wonderful gift to find out that Borya's father had constantly filmed not only his son, but the entire class. So that was something that came as a total surprise to me.
And most importantly, in the end, no matter how much I might have imagined all of the elements that would go into the film in advance, it is really the characters--Borya, Lyuba, Olga, Ruslan and Andrei--and their stories and generosity and honesty that make My Perestroika what it is. And those specifics were all completely impossible to imagine before I met them.


IDA:  As you've screened My Perestroika--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

RH: I have been so happy with the reactions to the film. The people who did not grow up in the USSR, and remember the Cold War from the West's side, either as children or as adults, have found it eye-opening and fascinating to see how similar "They" were to us. Western Gen X'ers, who are the same age as the characters in the film, have especially connected to seeing what our counterparts' lives were like then and are like today. People who have never been to Russia have expressed the sense that they had an hour and a half of getting to really know these people--sitting in their kitchens and learning about their lives. The way audiences connect with the characters has been really rewarding for me. But it is the audience members who grew up in the USSR who have had the most emotional responses. In Q&As,a few times, people have been moved to tears. Russian-American parents have thanked me for making something that they can show their children to help them understand the world they grew up in. So that was certainly what I had hoped for, but I was surprised by just how powerfully they react to the film.

IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

RH: Alan Berliner's film Nobody's Business is always inspirational to me. Other films I looked at in thinking about My Perestroika were the films of Peter Forgascs. He often uses home movies in his films in a way that the personal aspects of life are in the foreground, while "history" takes a backseat. I always watch Fred Wiseman's films whenever possible, too.

My Perestroika will be screening August 6 through 12 at the the ArcLight Hollywood in Los Angeles and August 13 through 19 the IFC Center in New York City.

To download the DocuWeeksTM program, click here.

To purchase tickets for My Perestroika  in Los Angeles, click here.

To purchase tickets for My Perestroika  in New York, click here.