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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Film Outsider Spurns Commercialism for Art

In Russia's close-knit film world, where who you know is often more important than what you can do, director Alexei Balabanov is something of an outsider. Nevertheless, when those in the know start to name the most interesting young filmmakers to watch, his name is one of the most frequently mentioned.


His promise was recognized at the Film Forum in Suzdal this spring, where his most recent picture "Zamok" (The Castle), an adaptation of Kafka's novel, took first prize.


At a time when many of Russia's directors are struggling to come to terms with the demands of the market, Balabanov stands out in his uncompromising determination to pursue his vision of filmmaking as an art.


We met in St. Petersburg outside the luxurious Europa Hotel on Nevsky Prospekt, but we didn't go inside. Instead, 36-year-old Balabanov, who, with his ponytail and denim jacket, looks like the roadie of some much-traveled rock band, suggested we find some less upscale place to conduct the interview. He said he had too much work and too little money to frequent Petersburg's plusher nightspots. So, after some searching, he found a dingy bar tucked away by the side of the Fontanka Canal where the beers cost less than a pensioner's weekly income. Balabanov's route into filmmaking was not a direct one. A native of the industrial Ural city of Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg), he comes from outside Moscow's often self-perpetuating cinematic elite. "Filmmaking was my dream. That's the usual thing," he said. "But I doubted that a stupid boy like me could become one [a director]."


Balabanov's first degree was in foreign languages, which gave him what was, in those times, a rare opportunity to go abroad. In 1980 he spent a term as an exchange student in Manchester, England. He and his compatriots were the favored sparring partners among local students, thanks to the presence of two KGB men, who ensured that the Soviet side would dutifully support the Afghanistan invasion in earnest discussions down at the student union bar.


After finishing college and military service in the air force, Balabanov returned to Sverdlovsk to work as an assistant director, shooting films about his friends in the city's lively underground rock scene, including the now famous band Nautilius Pompilius. In 1987 he entered graduate film school in Moscow.


After graduation in 1990 he moved to St. Petersburg, where he has lived since. Despite the city's distance from the heart of Russia's film industry in Moscow, he prefers to stay in Petersburg. "It's quiet. I don't like noisy places. I don't want to go to Moscow. I understand that filmmaking is in Moscow, that the money is in Moscow, that everything is in Moscow, but still I prefer it here." A further plus for him is that, as he put it, "All our strange, crazy films come from St. Petersburg, not Moscow."


In 1990, he shot his first feature, an adaptation of Samuel Beckett's "Happy Days." The film was well received at Cannes, and he was able to make his next film, "Zamok," largely with French and German financial backing. The film concerns the quest of its central character "K," the land surveyor, to win recognition from the impenetrable bureaucracy of the Castle, which rules the village where he has come to live.


Kafka's work is often thought to have a special appeal to Russians because it deals with the struggle of individuals against an absurd and tyrannical state. But Balabanov denied that he intended this theme to be central in his film: "When someone told me that I'd shown life here really well I was very surprised. But it's good they found that, even if it was unexpected."


The story is obviously a metaphor for something, but Balabanov refused to shed much light on what exactly. "I make films, I don't write prose or novels. It's not something I want to say, it's something I want to show. Different people see different things. It's open."


He was more forthcoming on the artistic choices he made in adapting the novel for film. "In 'The Castle,' I tried to take intellectual material and make a thriller." He did this because he thinks that filmmaking, even art filmmaking, has to adapt to the changing taste of today's audience. It has to become " ... emotional and energetic. The time of Bergman and Fellini and Tarkovsky is over, they're very boring now. People want to see real feelings and energy, they don't want to think. That's why we have Tarantino and Luc Besson."


Although confident of his own talent, Balabanov is highly self-critical and he considers that by his own standards, at least, he failed with "Zamok." However he has high hopes for his next project, the script for which is being considered for funding by the state film committee, Roskomkino. "It's a sado-masochistic film set at the beginning of the century. There are Siamese twins, a blind woman, a strange idiot like in Faulkner's 'Sanctuary.' It's very strange but very stylish. It's pathological but not naturalistic. People from our generation who read the script like it. But older people get shocked."


The script is so shocking, it seems, that Roskomkino is dragging its feet on funding the film, even though Balabanov's prize at the Film Forum carries with it a guarantee of state support. His project certainly stands out from the linen suits and refined small talk of the innumerable Chekhov adaptations which seem to soak up a rather disproportionate share of the state's limited movie budget.


But Balabanov says he will not compromise his work to adapt to the demands of either the state or the market.


"I shoot films that I feel," Balabanov said. "I'm not a commercial film director ... I can do it, because I know the profession, but I wouldn't be able to put something personal in, so it would be cold. Maybe five years later when I get older and lose this energy, I will make commercial films and maybe successful ones, but now I want to make art, I want to make art films ... When you feel it, you must shoot it."