Director Ksenia Okhapkina Talks ‘Immortal’ And Mechanisms Of Control In Russian Society

Director Ksenia Okhapkina joins us on Close-up Culture to discuss her documentary, Immortal. The film observes life in the small Russian town of Apatity, which first came into being as a Gulag.

Q: What factors drew you to Apatity?

A: I think that if I left the name of the town incognito, nothing would radically change because the film is not about particular people, living in particular place, but about the process, which goes far beyond such things. There are hundreds of towns in post-Soviet territories like Apatity and Kirovsk, where we filmed Immortal. They look very alike, they have similar Gulag or military backgrounds. The name of the town is not really important.

The moon-like landscape, beautiful but harsh; the industry, swallowing the human lifetime; the people, aiming to survive this life through finding at least some dream that could become a substitute for real life. Such things were important for me when I chose the place to shoot. 

Q: The people in the film are nameless and sometimes faceless as well (the camera is often positioned behind them). Why did you want to place a focus on the system that propagates Soviet ideology rather than the individual people who are subject to it?

A: The approach to the characters and the visual language, for me, are the body and the soul of the story as far as we tell it through the moving image. When we started to film with my DOP Alexander Demianenko, we were looking for the points and general approach, which would transmit to the screen our vision of the reality. It was very intuitive and spontaneous to put the camera behind the characters.

We were filming the propagandistic show, which you can see in the end of the film and understand that if we put the camera in front of the stage, the picture will work in propagandistic way as well. It was quite an emotional decision to place the camera to the back point, but when we made it, the cinema started to happen.

Later I analysed this very first footage and understood that this is the only way to tell the story, existing in the propagandistic context. In such context, like in posters and advertising, the human face is often used to involve the viewer in the show. If you put the camera behind, when you film some show, you start to see how the show is made. And this was our goal to find out how the reality we observed is being made.


Q: You frequently return to the image of trains in motion. Do you see much separation between the trains and the people within this system? Are they both just rigidly structured and ordered forces of this system?

A: I believe that any system can’t exist at all without the people. For me, propagandistic structures and ideas made by the state are just an illusion similar to cinema. The reality is that a very small amount of people get enriched by the natural resources, which are dug up by other people, dedicating their lives to this process. That sounds absurd, but the propagandistic ideas, involving the people in this process sound quite logical if you take away the fact that the human life is limited.

I think that the real force belongs to nature and to the people living in harmony with themselves and with the world around them. The system, which is an illusion from my point of view, starts to be part of the reality and even produce the reality only when the people get involved in it. And it’s a big question, why do the people take part in this strange and dangerous show. I went on making this film to get at least some answers… 

Q: There are behaviours and mechanisms that this film looks at which are universal and could be found elsewhere in the world. What did you observe that is distinctively Russian in the way this system operates and the way the people respond to it?

A: Big corporations and the state systems all over the world strive to involve people in the social and economic mechanism, which we aimed to show in the film. In many countries this doesn’t work on the ‘Russian scale’ only because the people are constantly standing up for their rights. In Russia, inheriting the USSR and Russian Empire means there has never been a functional dialogue between the people and the power.

Today in nearly every family there are witnesses of the events when people got killed, imprisoned or repressed in different ways for the public expression of their opinion or fighting for their rights. This constant pressure and frightening lasts for centuries. The current situation with the protests in Russia now continues working for same abusive system, existing between the fear and the fairytale. There was a small but important event with the medics’ strike. Except this nobody has any particular demands to the state. The people are just waiting for somebody from above to come and solve all the problems.

From my point of view, people in Russia are lost and scared like children and the power can manipulate them by suggesting a recipe for happiness. 

Q: The grey and fierce Arctic landscape can be felt throughout the film. What role does the harshness of this landscape have in maintaining this system? 

A: The idea of bringing life to the polar circle, which is not made for living, was at first quite complex in the USSR. Together with the labour camp there was a science institute, working on the ways to make this place suitable for living. It still exists, yet it doesn’t help the locals much.

Very quickly the dream to bring happiness to this place in the world was lost in the thirst for profit and imperialistic ambitions. The dream to make a blooming garden out of the cold polar desert turned out to be another promise of immortality. What we see is a moon-like landscape and freezing living creatures, cheated and left to survive the polar night. This is probably the most dramatic situation, to which can lead to the dream of paradise based on sacrificing human lives.


Q: ‘Immortal’ has no narration or talking heads. How did you find the challenge of capturing this town and commenting on these wider issues with this purely visual approach?

A: Cinema is a language of moving images. We first learn to see things before we learn to speak and understand words. In this sense the visual language can be very powerful and reach as far as every person in the world is able to read this text. With the images we can tell quite a lot and cinema is the best form to make it.

I like to observe things and I was lucky to write this visual text together with the people who believe in visual language as much as I do. I think that when I make a film I need to tell as much of it as possible through the images. Our subject was very visual, though it wouldn’t work without this special approach. 

Q: ‘Immortal’ shows young girls taking part in ballet sessions and young boys undertaking military training. I found it interesting given the way the UK, US and other Western countries seem to be trying to blur the lines on gender and gender expectations. What did you notice about the differences in the way young girls and young boys are indoctrinated in Russia? 

A: I’ve noticed that the girls and boys classes look quite alike actually. You can see that in Russia the gender line is getting blurred in some sense as well, when it comes to marching. Yet, there are quite certain expectations on how the boys and girls should look.

We tried to play with this gender matrix a little as far as it is part of the idea of immortality. This shape is so concrete and these young people are open to becoming anything just to feel themselves beloved and safe, that I could easily imagine boys in the ballet class and girls in the patriotic class – in the situation of different public opinion.

Actually this film doesn’t tell much about the gender issue in Russia, which is much more complicated than you can see in the film. There are some girls doing military training and much less dancing boys. The public opinion is more loyal to the girl with a gun than to the dancing boy. 

Q: The film closes on the image of a room full of babies. Do you see any way for – or any likelihood of – young people in Russia breaking free from this ideological cycle?

A: I believe that we come to this world absolutely free and full of power to make any reality around ourselves. The circumstances are definitely not friendly for personal charismatic development. But it’s a personal choice to follow this ideology or to change something. I think that people don’t really believe strongly in this ideology, they just don’t believe that they can change things. I can’t say this for the children in kindergarten. It’s an open question for me because any change can come together through personal choice.

Q: ‘Immortal’ won Grand Prix for Best Documentary at Karlovy Vary IFF, which means it is now under consideration for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. What does it mean to see the film being so successful on the festival circuit and receiving this recognition?

A: It means that the film will get more viewers and more discussion around it, which I like a lot. And it also means that we made something that interests not only our crew, but some other people as well. We could be less lucky in a different situation. 

Q: What is next for you? 

A: I am developing the story, which I have been thinking about for few years already. This is about women in Caucasus. It’s quite a popular topic now, but the art really lacks female stories and I think it’s good to bring some balance back.

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