Filming in Russia

By Hannah Collins


Heartland visions of place and people are held in an ambitious new work

Two years ago I showed La Mina, a film made with the gypsies of la Mina, a marginal barrio of Barcelona, at Rotterdam Film Festival. At the festival I met a Russian Romani, writer Edouard Chiline, who was responsible for a programme of Romani cinema at the festival. Edouard liked La Mina and invited me to visit his village in Central Russia.  

A year later, when I finally made the visit, the desire to make a film in deep winter was at the back of my mind. I was curious about the ways in which Russia is adapting to change. After a journey to Moscow, and an overnight train onwards, I found myself staying in a Romani household in the village of Beshencevo on the confluence of the Volga and Oka rivers beside Nizhny Novogorod.

Nizhny, renamed Gorky in Soviet times, is the ancient trading city that features in Arthur Ransome’s Old Peter’s Russian Tales. Geographically it is in the centre of Russia, an eight-hour train journey east from Moscow. Closed to Westerners for many years, Nizhny has no history of tourism, nor did I ever come across another foreigner there. 


A year later I returned to Russia to embark on the filming of a project to describe the life of Beshencevo, a kind of family movie about village and city life. The huge and spectacular landscape was to be the other dominant aspect of the film. I had written a provisional script with Edouard based on the relationship of village to city, filtered through the experiences of the villagers.

I could have formed a relationship with a Russian company, but my instincts told me it would prove a risky route. I brought a crew with me from Spain; we had just finished filming another project and as a group we felt ready for the challenge of a Russian winter, with temperatures falling below minus twenty. I was told that I was obliged to use Russian technicians and decided to take an actor friend who was to help the villagers with their acting as well as being an all-round helper. We made a team of four, plus three Russian technicians, and, Edouard, our host.


I was not permitted to rent cameras from Mosfilm, the National Film company whose massive, crumbling headquarters in Moscow resembles the old KGB buildings. Eventually another company offered to rent for cash – no discounts, no deals, and not much help either. When we arrived in Nizhny we discovered that the requested clapperboard was missing, whereupon I was informed that a clapperboard is without exception the property of a clapperboard person, nor may it ever be operated by anyone else. A camera technician would not focus a camera, a lighting technician did not operate a generator, a sound technician did not expect to do anything other than hold a boom. My Spanish team laughed at the miserable tyranny of the rules, but the Russian techs looked on in a detached way as we battled through the difficulties. When things took a long time, Russians simply shrugged their shoulders unemotionally, as if unable to imagine an easier world. In some other areas though, particularly when it came to money, there seemed to be no rules at all, except to exploit any source as far as possible.

I discovered why the sound equipment seemed very cheap when I went to collect it from a company situated in another crumbling Soviet-era building, the old National Animation Studios. It came close to my imagined picture of Soviet industry; with Miguel, my Spanish sound recordist, I trekked across acres of peeling parquet and up and down endless stairs and corridors, arriving at a tiny cupboard-like space in which six or seven people had been preparing the equipment. Old and taped together, it was thrown unceremoniously in an ancient holdall. A two-hour wait followed while a 15-page contract – which there was no risk of me understanding – was produced. My experience at the camera-hire company was entirely hard headed: I counted out cash in a side room as the equipment was loaded, the price going up and down as I was assessed for exactly how much I might be worth.


Arriving in Nizhny, we transferred to Beshencevo where we would be staying. Nobody in the village wanted foreigners in their home, so we arranged with Edouard’s family that we would rent their house and they would stay with numerous Rom relatives, returning to cook for us. The family, though, evidently had no intention of leaving, and the crew were given cushions on the floor to sleep on. All my efforts to persuade Edouard that we would have trouble later if the crew didn’t sleep properly met with no response apart from the increasingly familiar attitude that life is tough in Russia, and one simply has to put up with it. At least the unsatisfactory home situation meant that our subjects were always on hand, and this did prove valuable. They enjoyed every part of the filming process, endlessly playing through the video record of each day’s shoot at night.

We began filming in the village school, where time seemed to have stopped fifty years before. The strict and ageing village schoolmistress tried to disguise the fact that there were only eight children attending a two-classroom school with a teaching assistant. The school reflected the values of the Soviet age – the children, aged between six and nine, all knew poems by Pushkin by heart and were informed about the people’s library, language and architecture. They were Kurdish migrants – the villagers, even the Romanis, had moved their children to the bigger city schools. Edouard casually informed me that this schoolmistress had had four husbands, all of whom had committed suicide. This small nugget, like many others concerning the brutal aspects of village life, was passed on and accepted without comment.


In the city, in contrast, we had protection and support. Our connection was one of the only two credit-card manufacturers in Russia, and offered extensive help. Our film left every few days to be processed in Moscow, packed in his armoured cars alongside thousands of credit cards. Our city host modelled himself on Steve Jobs; he is one of the new bright Russians conquering the vast territory he sees before him. His factory has tight security and none of the vast and noisy manufacturing of older industry. Inside are hand-recognition security systems imported from the US, and modern printing equipment churning out thousands of credit and phone cards – anything with a chip and a magnetic strip. His PhD is in physics, and it is his scientific and analytical abilities that he is putting to work as he makes his fortune. Alik told me that his children would not remember the days of the Soviet Union: this part of the past is now completely irrelevant. Five miles away I had just finished filming Edouard’s father in the village – a great believer in the old order, now living penniless in the old rural economy.

Another day’s filming took us on a visit to a Romani cousin of Edouard’s who lived nearby in comfort and wealth. Anyone making money in Russia seems to be building a huge house. Many of these look finished and glamorous on the outside, while remaining half-completed within. Edouard’s rich cousin was obviously in control in the family. He had over a dozen large and beautiful horses kept in well-maintained stables. His henchmen were anxious not to be filmed, and we were told they were convicts – in the literal sense – though how or why they were not in jail I did not find out. Nor did ever I find out the source of the family wealth. We speculated – gun running? Drugs? Although it remained a mystery, we preferred being on the right side of this particular protector. As Edouard’s father commented admiringly, ‘He is very clever, he never gets caught.’


Halfway through our shoot the atmosphere could have been cut with a knife. The lighting technician seemed to be at the root of most discontent. At over 6’ 4”, he was physically intimidating, he occupied the best sleeping space, ate ceaselessly, had five mobile phones, which he used continually, and was influencing the camera tech towards trouble. Edoaurd said he didn’t like the situation much. Both Russian technicians were pressing for more money – saying, with some justification, that they had not been told of the conditions under which they would have to work. They raised the ante by constantly leaving crucial pieces of equipment back at the house at the beginning of the day, then pressing for overtime when we consequently overran. More “rules” began to appear: thirty dollars a day for operation of a generator (even on days when it was not needed or used), double time – never explained – on some specific days, and so on. Edouard felt that the sauna would solve our problems, and hauled the crew off there at night. He said that the heat-and-birch treatment would get rid of some tensions and, to a degree, he was successful.

Despite everything, we continued shooting successfully. Edouard’s experience as head of a Russian news programme, with plenty of time in war zones such as Chechnya, had given him an extraordinary ability to pull rabbits out of hats. Somehow he got us permission to shoot in the railway station, found an ancient truck to haul us around, laid on a vodka factory for another scene, and so on. Decisions might be made late, but the goal was invariably reached and, whatever the problems, work went on. Snowploughs were co-opted to haul us out of heavy drifts, locations continued to appear as if by magic, our film went off in its armour-plated trucks, and cars, often belonging to the wealthy cousin, turned up to take us to our locations.


We were becoming engaged in village life. Andrew, our actor, had become assistant director, clapperboard operator, and the subject of a crush held by Edouard’s sister, who was unused to the elegant style of the attentions he offered. He had become the confidante of Edouard’s father, a clever but utterly dysfunctional character, who had married a gypsy and had had to put up with her ruthless practicality in the face of poverty ever since. I became embroiled in the late-night drunken returns to the house in Beshencevo, in which Edouard’s father would beg me to stop Edouard’s brother Yosha, a gambling addict, from leaving. In the middle of planning the following day’s shoots, I would also find myself refereeing some utterly mysterious fights in which Zinaida, Edouard’s mother, tried to prevent his father from taking his meals in the house.

By the end of the shoot the tension had become nearly unworkable. The lighting tech was not talking to anyone else, but began to demand the hire of entire railway carriages to keep the camera safe on its return to Moscow. I waited for the expected trouble on the money side. Finally I sat down with Edouard to negotiate the final payments. The lighting technician presented me with an additional two-thousand-dollar bill; simultaneously he announced that he was keeping the film and would only give it back on payment of a further ransom. He was more ruthless and more of a gambler than I had guessed. The mental picture of the undeveloped film being opened in front of an audience of Romani family members made me cautious. In the end, after long negotiation, I had to agree that I would pay as far as I was able and get my film back. I fetched all the cash I had, and the cans of film were handed back to us.


The two Russian technicians left under a cloud. The sound assistant, who had played no part in the blackmail, allied as he was to the old regime, travelled back to Moscow in the van with the lights, an uncomfortable journey, but one he preferred to travelling with the other two techs, who he regarded as robbers. The two nefarious technicians arrived at Nizhny station with little time to spare and, in a particularly inept moment, loaded the camera onto the train but managed to get left behind themselves. As the train left the station without them, they were forced to pay a thousand of the dollars they had extorted for a ten-hour taxi journey to Moscow in a desperate rush to arrive before the camera on the train. Back in the village, as we got merrily drunk on the first alcohol I had allowed on the shoot, enough of this tale was relayed back to us from the lighting van in contact with the enemy technicians to leave us laughing.

After a mix-up over hotel reservations, arriving exhausted the next day in Moscow, I was planted on a friend of Edouard’s who took my unexpected stay with equanimity, and said that he would help with the film developing and export. I left the film with the largest official film lab in Moscow, by the time I returned the next day the price had already gone up by a third. Against the advice of my helper, I decided to stand my ground, figuring that they would prefer to get some money, and be rid of my film and me, than be left with the developed film. I waited, oblivious to the threats and demands, and very aware of the money-counting machines on the counter – a prominent feature of the cash-based economy of Russian film. Miraculously the technique worked, the film was handed over, cash payment agreed, and for the first time in three weeks I had saved some money.


The next day posed the final challenge – exporting twenty-five kilos of developed film out of Russia. After seeking advice I decided to ship through Swiss Air; the agent at the airport looked at me pityingly as she told me to allow at least five hours to get the film through Customs. At 7:30am I was there, with Edouard’s indefatigable friend, and began to collect the necessary stamps for export. In a moment of inspiration I described the film cans as home movies and, apart from one difficult moment at which all might have been lost to a uniformed Customs official (one of thirteen by whom papers must pass) my strategy worked fine. With a break for lunch we collected the stamps and finally deposited the film at 4pm in the cargo area, beside piles of imported slot machines. It had taken 7 hours to complete my final task in Russia.

One final departures procedure left me grinning all the way back to London. Throughout my stay I had ignored the requirement for foreigners to register in each and every location, so I did not have the necessary paperwork. I filled in the first page of the departures paper and turned it over to find it printed back to front, and therefore impossible to fill in. Any residual worry I had was needless – nobody collected the form and it was still in my bag on my return to London.

Hannah Collins is an acclaimed artist and film-maker.