Directors Natasha Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov join us on Close-up Culture to give insight into their ‘astonishing’ new film, The Man Who Surprised Everyone.
The film follows the story of Egor, a fearless state forest guard living in Siberia, as he is diagnosed with cancer and chooses to take the identity of a woman as a way of fighting the disease.
The Man Who Surprised Everyone will screen at the Raindance Film Festival in London (21 and 23 September). For ticket info
Q: I understand ‘The Man Who Surprised Everyone’ was partly inspired by Natalya’s upbringing in Siberia and an ancient parable. Can you tell us more about this and how they helped shape the film?
Natasha Merkulova: I grew up in Siberia in the small village of Yedogon, which is surrounded by a great forest called Taiga. The spirit of the setting and the people in the movie come from my childhood memories.
In my early years, I heard a local story about a man who decided to fight a terminal illness by trying to change his identity to a woman. I did not know whether it was true and how this ended for him. Many years later, living in Moscow, I told this story to my husband and co-author, Aleksey, and he shouted out: ‘What a story! We should bring it on screen.’
Aleksey Chupov: We decided to let the events of the movie happen in contemporary Russia and see what could come out of it.
Q: What does the film explore about Russian people’s outlook on gender roles and their relationship with death?
AC: It is no secret that the majority of people in our country are ultra-conservative and intolerant to what is considered ‘perverse’. The negative reaction to the protagonist’s behaviour was predictable. But we can find the same attitude not only in Russia but also in many other countries all over the world. Intolerance is a universal problem.
One of our ideas was that each man’s life is a battle with death. And we have to respect another man’s battle with death, even if we do not understand it. Maybe this could be some formula for tolerance: first you accept it and then maybe you’ll understand it.
NM: Another issue – considering the life-death topic of the movie – is the problem of control. Our protagonist Egor is a man of control. He tries to keep everything under control. This continuous psychological tension can become a reason for a fatal disease like cancer. And sometimes to overcome the disease you just have to let go of the control.
Considering the influence of the Shaman woman on Egor’s decisions, that’s a normal thing in modern Siberia. Shamans live among people and some Siberians turn to them for adviсe when it comes to fighting disease and death.
Q: I’ve seen a few reviewers question how you were allowed to make this film – given the Russian government’s approach LGBT rights. Did face any issues or barriers to making this film?
NM: We had been looking for a producer for this project for several years, but everybody rejected the script. Most producers told us: now is the wrong time to do this.
That is until we met Ekaterina Filippova.
Katya is a vigorous and daring Russian arthouse producer. She proposed us to bring this script to the official pitching at the Russian Ministry of Culture. We thought she was crazy. But she just said: ‘Don’t piss, just try.’ And surprisingly we won a state grant for making this movie and this gave us the opportunity to apply for a grant of Eurimages – the European Cinema Support Fund. The project became a Russian-French-Estonian co-production. Thanks to that we could afford to invite our favourite European D.O.P. – Mart Taniel – from Estonia to shoot the movie.
AC: We were afraid the movie would have problems with getting into theatres. Russian film distributors are usually very careful with this kind of stuff, trying to avoid scandals.
Fortunately, after the premiere, the movie was screened in selected theatres in more than 30 cities and there were no problems or massive negative reactions anywhere. At different Q&A sessions in Russia it came out that a lot of people understood the movie as a story of a challenge for a really strong man who had to become a woman to stay a man. We don’t reject this interpretation as well as all the other interpretations. We do not make movies to preach or to teach. We just cook some food for thought.
Q: Natalya Kudryashowa won best actress at the Venice Film Festival for her performance as Natalia. Can you tell us about your experience working with Natalya and Evgeniy Tsiganov (who plays Egor) to capture these characters?
NM: Natasha Kudryashova is not only one of the best modern Russian actresses but also an acclaimed Russian movie director. Her film Pionery-geroi (Pioneers-Heroes) was screened at Berlinale and many other festivals. But when it comes to acting, she is very disciplined and diligent.
Evgeniy Tsyganov is a big Russian movie and theatre star, one of the main big-screen tough guys. And he is also a theatre director.
AC: When these two outstanding actors and personalities met on set everyday it was a competition. Neither of them wanted to give in to the other and play it worse. It was interesting to watch how this competition grew into mutual respect and productive partnership.
Q: I’ve heard the film is provocative and has lots of twists and turns. Do you enjoy keeping audiences on their toes and challenging them?
NM: Vladimir Demchikov, a well-known Siberian internet blogger, once said that our movie is ‘a labyrinth with one entrance and an unknown number of exits’. While some say our movie is just pretending to be simple and it is more complex. However, some say it is simpler than it could be.
AC: One of our usual intentions is to surprise the audience. Because, in our opinion, people go to the movies with the intention to be surprised. Of course, there are different intellectual and emotional levels of surprise for different audiences. But the need for surprise is like a basic instinct for all movie lovers.
Q: What are your thoughts and feelings ahead of the film’s screening at the Raindance Film Festival in London?
NM: It is my first time in London. I still can’t believe that they are going to show our movie at the Raindance. It’s a great honour.
AC: The relations between our countries are far from good right now. We hope that Russian cinema can help this ice melt.
You can see ‘The Man Who Surprised Everyone’ at the Raindance Film Festival in London (21 and 23 September). For ticket info