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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Young Filmmaker Finds Opportunities in Russia

Characteristically, Robin Hessman's involvement with Russia started when she was a double agent in the second grade.


"The boys were the U.S.S.R. and the girls were the U.S.A.," she said. "I spent the year running back and forth across the political border between the jungle gym and the sandbox."


Oddly enough, this game turned out to be almost like real life, she said.


Hessman has been working for the last two years as resident producer for the children's television program "Ulitsa Sezam," the Russian version of "Sesame Street." She steers the show creatively and acts as a liaison between the Russian production team and the head office back in New York.


"I often find myself between the two groups, the Americans and the Russians, helping them understand each other," she said.


But it took coming to Russia for Hessman to discover her true love -- filmmaking. Having started studying Russian in high school, Hessman jumped at a chance to step up the pace by traveling to Leningrad on an academic program in spring 1991. Enamored with the city's visual characteristics, she sought a creative outlet for her impressions. With a free summer after her academic program ended, Hessman said she got a job at the Leningrad Film Studios.


She was supposed to work on a film by a Russian director but she said she was prevented from doing so at the last minute because they were filming in the KGB building. Instead, Hessman wound up as assistant director of an American slasher film starring Robert Englund, better known as Freddie from the "Nightmare on Elm Street" movies.


"That was a crazy experience," Hessman said, laughing. "It was a terrible movie and a lot of fun. It was nuts!"


The movie "was about an international ballet school in Leningrad where the ballerinas were being murdered, one by one. You can imagine it: lots of ballerinas and stunt people falling off the Usupov Palace -- where Rasputin was killed in the basement -- onto piles of cardboard boxes," she said.


Film, Hessman discovered, combined everything she loved. During her junior year at Brown University, she participated in an exchange program at the All-Russia State Institute of Cinematography, or VGIK, Moscow's film institute. VGIK has brought forth the talents of Russia's most famous directors and actors, including Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky and "Burnt by the Sun" director Nikita Mikhalkov. Studying in VGIK's directing department under Nana Djordjadze (nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film in this year's Academy Awards), Hessman realized her filmmaking aspirations by co-directing a 27-minute documentary called "Portrait of Boy With Dog" about the life of a 13-year-old boy living in a Moscow orphanage.


This film went on to win more than 30 awards for student and short films in the United States and abroad, including the 1994 Academy Award for Student Documentary Film.


Victory did not come easily. To finish editing the film before returning to the United States, "I had to sneak into the VGIK editing suite every night and turn on the electricity for the building," she said.


Then, due to a disagreement over payment to the studio, which had printed the film, Hessman and her Russian crew found themselves stealing their own negative two days before her flight.


"We had to take hundreds of pounds of 35-millimeter negatives and magnetic soundtrack through a hole in the studio fence. I was very sick at the time and passed out at one point," she said.


But Hessman said she got the film, and she and the studio have since resolved their differences.


Graduating with honors in both her majors -- Russian language and literature and modern culture and media, which is essentially film studies -- from Brown University in 1994, Hessman was granted a fellowship for graduate study and returned to Moscow to complete the VGIK program, receiving a master's degree in fine art, while simultaneously starting to work for "Ulitsa Sezam."


Producing the Russian version of "Sesame Street" has harvested its own share of adventure, like the time former presidential candidate Vladimir Bryntsalov's wife, Natalya, showed up demanding to be filmed on the show.


She was "saying things like: 'I've just come back from Japan, my husband's going to be president and I'm a very busy person.'" Hessman said. "Nobody was sure how she got into the Ostankino studios or what to do with her, and eventually she left in a huff with her manicured children, governesses and bodyguards trailing behind. It was all very surreal."


Now, between working on her own projects, Hessman is gearing up to start "Ulitsa Sezam's" second season.


In the future, she said, "I would ideally like to make films for children. I don't think that necessarily means I'm not going to work in television, but you have to remember that film is a very unpredictable profession."


Russia, she said, "will always be a part of me. I don't know if I'll be living here for the rest of my life, but I'll always be coming back. As everybody knows who's been here long enough, you can never really leave."