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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sundance Sees a Russia of Memory




When he arrived in Moscow from New York seven years ago, independent director Tony Pemberton didn't expect that he would end up making a film here. Nor, he candidly admits today, did he know that the result, "Beyond the Ocean," would be among the 16 films chosen from more than 800 submitted for America's prestigious Sundance festival's drama competition, where it showed Jan. 22.


Even by Sundance's sometimes eclectic standards - the event, which is held every year in the Utah skiing resort under the patronage of Robert Redford, has established itself as the world's leading forum for independent film over the last decade - "Beyond the Ocean" has an unusual international pedigree. Pemberton made it with an Austrian producer and composer, a British art director, a Scottish cameraman and local Moscow professionals. A mixed Russian-foreign cast plays against a background that jumps between provincial Russia and contemporary New York.


Ohio-born Pemberton, 33, drifted into New York's independent film community in the mid-1980s, where he made a handful of experimental films and documentaries showing various influences, including those of early artistic heroes like director Luis Bunuel and artist Fernand Leger. (He also played the role of the young Genet in Todd Haynes' "Poison").


Interest in European cinema attracted him to the idea of making what he described as a "fake foreign film," originally aiming for a story set in an enclave of Hungarian coal miners in depressed eastern Ohio. Instead he landed up in more exotic Russian landscapes - never the easiest location, especially for shoestring projects - and in congenial professional company, and ended up staying to make a real foreign picture.


Its development was certainly eventful - from convincing cast and crew to work largely for deferred payment (the term was so unusual for locals that even translating it into Russian was a challenge), to sending his mother-in-law off to Ukraine to search for reasonably priced local black and white film stock. With shooting running periodically over three years, Pemberton doubled it with advertising work to earn funds to continue.


"It's a low-budget film, but in a format, 35mm Cinema-scope, which is an anomaly for low-budget cinema," he said. Ongoing funding came from foundation grants, rounded out by the director's credit cards. "As usual, when you plan a film and when you have no budget, something unexpected always happens."


Answering Moscow critics, who saw one press showing of "Beyond the Ocean" before Christmas, who asked what it actually cost, Pemberton joked: "Somewhere between 'Blair Witch Project' and [Nikita Mikhalkov's local blockbuster] 'Barber of Siberia'" - in other words, anywhere from $40,000 to $40 million.


The quality of the film's acting certainly belies such financial constraints, especially its central role of Pitsee, played by three actresses at different ages. The film's story sees her following her emigr? boyfriend to New York and attempting to get along in the weird diaspora world she finds there - atmospherically shot in soft, blurry colors - as well as make sense of traumas from her childhood, shown in black and white flashback. Its soundtrack, a captivating, offbeat mixture of what Pemberton calls "trip-hop vibes" with input from Austrian electronica wizard Christian Fennesz, is equally rich.


"I'm fascinated by the way in which people 'fictify' their pasts, especially in the case of an exile or immigrant, for whom a sort of Berlin Wall exists between their present and past incarnations," Pemberton said during shooting. "Often, like in this film that deals with a woman alienated in America, the past becomes a weapon to help both justify and explain the present."


Although Sundance audiences were the first to judge how well this cross-border melange works, the film's inclusion alone pleased Pemberton - not only for his own future, but also for what it says about the festival itself. "After reading the notes of the other films in competition, I was excited knowing that my film seemed to be from a completely different place," he said.


It remains to be seen if the film will return for theatrical release in Russia, but whatever the eventual international success of "Beyond the Ocean" may be, Russia looks like a long-term part of both Pemberton's creative and personal landscape. The project he's currently working on - a documentary, "The Children Met Lenin in the Spring," about contemporary Russian associations to communism's most revered figure - certainly couldn't be made anywhere else.


"I'm hoping to make many films that bring to light the complicated relationship of Russia to America, and between Russian aesthetics and American ones," he said.