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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Made-for-Russia Film Roils Brighton BeachBy Susan Sachs

NEW YORK — The day begins calmly enough. An elegantly plump Russian grandmother strolls with her gentleman friend along the boardwalk in Brighton Beach, reminiscing about the old country.Then her daughter is attacked in the subway, after escaping from a blind date with a Russian emigre professor who displays a creepy penchant for metal-studded leather underwear.

Meanwhile, her Americanized granddaughter succumbs to the entreaties of her cocaine-snorting boyfriend and borrows money from an uncle, who happens to employ a pair of long-legged Russian prostitutes who happen to have just witnessed the murder of a Russian limousine driver.

Ah, the immigrant life in Brooklyn, U.S.A. It makes Moscow look invitingly tame — or it would if it were true. And there's the rub.

This story line does not come from a Hollywood caricature of Russian immigrants or, for that matter, an old Soviet one. It is a summary of the two-hour pilot for a Russian television series called "PMZh," or "Permanent Residence," which is written, produced and acted entirely by New York-area immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

American audiences would probably not be shocked at its portrayal of a modern urban neighborhood as a thicket of lonely hearts, slackers and thugs. But when the pilot was screened recently for audiences at a theater in Brighton Beach, the heart of the Russian-speaking community, it was as if a depth charge had been set off in a pond.

"It's the biggest topic of discussion out here," said Yana Levin, who plays the muddled young granddaughter, also named Yana. "People say, `How dare you show the community in such a light: the daughter does coke, the mother gets raped, the brother is a bandit! Why not show people who are successful?'

"And I tell them, listen people. In order to have a plot, you've got to have a problem. If the girl is good and doing her homework, you wouldn't watch it. And who knows?" added Levin, owner of the Blue Velvet Lounge in Brooklyn. "Maybe by the sixth episode, she will be a good girl."

The beleaguered producers keep telling everyone that "Permanent Residence" is, after all, just a story, not reality television. "This is a movie," insisted Georgy Gavrilov, the Russian-born director and producer.

The episode is the first in what Gavrilov hopes will be a series. He is searching for more financing and has been negotiating with television stations in Russia, where he said he has found substantial interest in the project.

For weeks, "Permanent Residence" has been the paramount topic of discussion in the Russian-language media. Hundreds of people have weighed in with opinions about the camera angles and the script. Talk show hosts have plumbed its images for deeper significance. Letter writers have argued at length about whether it is art or slander or simply commercial television.

The debate has all the passion and bruised feelings of a family quarrel. One faction complains that the community's imperfections are exaggerated. Another says the problems are real. The rest argue that, in any case, outsiders should not know the family secrets — especially when the outsiders are people back in Russia who would be pleased to think the immigrants' American life is worse than the one they left behind.

"I love America so much that any word said against it, I can't stand it," said Anna Levin, mother of Yana and author of a novel in Russian, "Marriage Immigrant Style," that was the basis for the characters in the pilot's all-female household.

"When I see everything bad on the screen, I feel bad," she said. "How come they didn't show something good, something bright?"

Levin, who came to New York from Russia in 1987 at the age of 41, has been one of the more outspoken critics of "Permanent Residence." She described her 1994 book as a realistic story of immigrant loneliness, based loosely on her personal experience as a newly arrived divorced woman who worked as a computer programmer by day and took her chances on nightmarish blind dates by night.

She is particularly dismayed at what the scriptwriters did with the character of the mother, who is called Anna and also works as a computer programmer. On the screen she is shown covering for the incompetence of another Russian programmer.

"This is not right and it gives a bad image," Levin said. "Look at the computer programming world here. It's all Russians. What do we see in the movie? That one person can do nothing and the other has to do the job. That's a fairy tale."

Gavrilov, the exasperated director, said he hears the same complaint over and over.

"I tell people, it's like a novel," he said. "You can't just pull out the first 20 pages and know how the story is. In 'Anna Karenina,' Anna dies. But you don't have to have her die in the first chapter."

After the initial shock, the tide has appeared to turn in favor of the pilot, or at least in sympathy with its makers. A call-in program on Russian radio last week featured dozens of people speaking out against the critics.

"The reaction in the beginning was predictable," said Oleg Sulkin, the talk show host and a columnist for the newspaper Novoye Russkoye Slovo. "The older Russian thinks film has to teach, to educate people. This is Soviet mentality, the so-called socialist realism, that says everything in art must show the dominance of good over evil."

Besides, Sulkin added, "Permanent Residence" is a commercial venture, made for sale to Russian audiences in Russia.

"If this film would show happy faces and everybody living good and in nice circumstances, it would have no chance to be shown in Russia," he said. "In Russia today there are a lot of anti-American sentiments flying around. If they see immigrants leading a miserable life, they will feel themselves much better off."

In many ways "Permanent Residence" was a family affair for Brighton Beach, which might explain the intense scrutiny it has received.

The neighborhood itself — the elderly Russians in their wheelchairs parked on the boardwalk, the surly livery car drivers, the cranky Russians who come from the suburbs to sit in the cafes — was a character. Some of the bit players were well-known doctors; others ended up in parts by serendipity.

One man was hired after a scriptwriter saw him spraying for cockroaches and decided he had the right look. A cast member's friend, who in real life flies advertising banners over the beach, was recruited to play a Chechen criminal who dies in the pilot. He proved so popular with audiences that the producers promised to bring him back, as the dead man's twin, in the future.

The stars were also practically family. Some were luminaries of the Soviet cinema who have had a hard time finding steady acting work in the United States but are still seen by fellow immigrants as celebrities.

The grandmother, for example, is played by Yelena Solovei, who played the lead in several films by the director Nikita Mikhalkov. The gentleman who courts her is played by Boris Sichkin, a well-known Soviet actor who is best remembered for his portrayal of a Red Army spy called Buba Kastorsky.

For these elders of the Russian arts scene, "Permanent Residence" provided a welcome spot at center stage again. And they have been some of its strongest supporters.

Sichkin, who has twice portrayed Leonid Brezhnev in American films, said no one should conclude from any film, even this one, that Russians in the United States are criminals.

"Americans are always talking about the Russian mafia," he said. "What is mafia? It's organized crime. You need 200 to 300 people for organized crime. Here you've got maybe two or three guys who sit around and drink vodka and talk like that." Still, he said, maybe Gavrilov, the director, could have spared viewers some of the violence in his Brighton Beach story.

"I told him, you don't need so much blood," Sichkin recalled.

"Here in the United States they're already doing plenty without you."