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About Success Builder

How do you find your place in life? How do you find something to do that both comes naturally to you and makes you happy? The answer is that you have to apply the knowledge you’ve gained from university and from life itself correctly. The Success Builder Project features HSE University graduates who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences and lessons learnt and talk about how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.

In November 2014 the film The Son about the problems of choice in a typical life and death existential situation went on general release in Russia. It is independent filmmaker Arseny Gonchukov’s third full-length feature film. In the Success Builder series he talks about how to shoot and promote auteur cinema on a minimal budget and win film festival prizes.

What knowledge helped you as a director? Things you learnt in the languages department, journalism, work experience in TV or further studies at HSE?

In fact it’s thanks to my parents that I became who I am today. I used to write poetry when I was a boy which is why I studied philology, but there was such an amazing number of languages which I had no desire to learn that things didn’t go so well. I went into journalism because there’s nowhere for philologists to earn a living these days, but I gained a huge amount of first hand experience of real life. I worked in war zones and filmed underwater. In eight years I gathered so much material that I wanted to tell stories myself. And TV seemed to suit me best — it is bright and fast-moving although there are reasons for criticising it now.

Work has given me the impulse as a director and auteur cinema has become a kind of formulated dispatch to the viewer.

Why did such an experienced person as you suddenly decide to go to the HSE film school?

I quit journalism — it began to stultify me. I wanted to express myself independently and I thought of directing as a way of combining my organisational and journalistic experience with my creative ambitions. Now studying cinema is wildly popular but in those days Moscow had very few film schools. I chose HSE for the very important reason that I liked the teachers.

One cult-status Russian director said to me, ‘They’ve turned off the tap, soon I’ll be asking you to teach me how to make a film without a budget’.

They were all from VGIK and VKSR (the All-Russian State University of Cinematography and the Higher School for Screenwriters and Directors — ed.), а the two top film schools in Russia. My first year was when V. A. Fenchenko left and his daughter came on trial. It was very complicated. There was [Nikolay] Khomeriki, Kotty, Klebanov, Fatakhov - they were teaching seriously and the most amazing thing about the school was the HSE courses were a kind of mini VGIK but in some ways even better.

The teachers had experience and highly regarded work — that determines the quality of the teaching. It’s a shame that my course was only one year, but it’s hard to find anything that compares with the enjoyment I got from it. It has a kind of drama of it’s own and a special high when at the age of 28 you can study the thing you really love.

How do you get into filmmaking and make a living?

The film business in Russia is a peculiar sphere with people working on a lot of clueless and lousy films.

I didn’t go into the film industry, which I see as strictly different from being a director - being a director is a vocation, art, profession, a way of life, state of mind while the film industry is about market relations. If you are going to film, you have to accept that our film industry doesn’t give money to [Valeri Gai] Germanik or Khomeriki, or to any independent directors. In this instance success and making money don’t go hand in hand.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev

How do you get state funding for an independent production, after all, they are the films that represent the country, often at international festivals?

One cult-status Russian director said the me, ‘They’ve turned off the tap, soon I’ll be asking you to teach me how to make a film without a budget’. I have to admit, earlier they gave money to individuals - to Khlebnikov, Zvyagintsev, Serebrennikov, Germanik - and with great difficulty. Balabanov made Brat (Brother) with 100,000 USD in his pocket and it clearly wasn’t from the government. The entire golden storehouse of auteur cinema was made that way. There are a few dozen amazing directors who really make cinema and no one is interested in them as far as funding is concerned. Watch Gemanik’s film Da i Da (Yes and yes) which I love - Bondarchuk gave him the money for it. You can sell auteur films abroad but not in Russia - particularly since the new law banning swearing on the screen came in. What authenticity can a film have without swearing?

How do you do everything yourself and not ask for anything from anyone?

You just have to be a genius (laughs). As well as the Grand-prix at the Okno v Europu (Eye on Europe Festival) for The Son, I have 14 other awards, but it’s impossible to give a recipe for success. When I go to the provinces to give master classes, the first thing I advise young filmmakers to do is to get into VGIK or read for 10 years and watch Godard films, and generally to watch a lot of classic movies.



was the budget for The Son.


Second is practice. The 100 shifts I worked on the most hellish job in filmmaking (second director) was experience of the industry I was very lucky to get.

Third is don’t be afraid — take your camera and get on with it, find enthusiastic people who will pay for filming themselves. Money is far from the most important thing in cinema if people are motivated. Do you need a specialist who wants to be paid 150 thousand when young Masha would be only too glad to work for free? I have twenty volunteers at the moment and they do amazing things because they’re interested. So from education something appears that you want to say on the screen, from experience - optimising expenses, from desires - energy.

Ok, so you’ve made your film, how are you going to show it?

I was the distributor of my first two films. Mechanisms to distribute non-commercial films in Russia just don’t exist. There’s no one and no where to distribute them. The only person who did it successfully was [Alexei] German because he worked by chance with someone who understood marketing. I haven’t heard anything about him since. Maybe he is sitting in a deep hole for his debts (laughs). Distributing independent films is simultaneously very simple and impossible. Impossible because there is no system of rules or cinemas where films can be shown. Simple because you can just take a film and show it in Astrakhan, where you’ll be welcomed with open arms and viewers will come by themselves and the media will review it although you haven’t spent a penny on advertising.

So I took my film and travelled around with it at my own expense. We even held showings for free. People on the outskirts are very poor and even 50 roubles will be too much for them. It sounds straightforward but it was a colossal amount of work. I felt I had a moral obligation towards the film I’d made because I can’t just leave good work on the shelf.

I’m against media figures in indie films. Imagine you are reading Paustovsky and suddenly Grishkovets pops up.

Which film did you try out for DIY distribution?

«1210». It was screened in about 50 cities - where didn’t I go? Screenings, meetings, interviews. In Dnipropetrovsk 300 people came to watch. It was an amazing audience. They argued for an hour and a half after the film. Lots of famous Russian films have been shown on the same scale and I didn’t pay a penny. If you can be bothered - all kinds of things are possible.

Are you planning to promote your latest film The Son the same way?

I’m not standing still, I’m growing up, getting older, my strength is waning (laughs). When I shot my second full-length feature Polyot (Flight), I already had a reputation and it was shown at a lot of festivals and seen by the public without me lifting a finger. Now its being broadcast on a US TV channel.

The Son has had a different fate because the producer who appeared when I was finishing it made sure that it had ‘grown up’ distribution. It won the prize at Vyborg and was shown at the WFF Montreal, at Kinoshok 2014 [Estonia] in St Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod and Moscow and at the end of November it went onto the big screen in Russia. For a film like The Son — an hour and a half in black and white without any music or stars — it’s a major breakthrough. For me it’s very personal, strange, unusual and wrenching cinema — does the general public need it?

Isn’t that snobbery on your part to make films not for general consumption? A lot of filmgoers have a prejudice against the genre thinking, if it’s art house it must be turgid.

Yes, our films are not for everybody, but we say that, not because we have a select group in mind but because not everyone wants to watch them. I’m not interested in the general cinema goer, I have a particular viewer and I am very fond of him.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev

МA lot of social film projects have been shown on TV (Russian Public Television [a viewer supported channel] ran a whole series of programmes Social Network.doc, which included social documentaries like Kleimo (Stigma), and In-Aut about a mute girl with Autism). You offered your work to TV, how much interest is there in films about real life?

You are talking as though it was 1996. It’s obvious that television today is not disposed to showing the work of independent filmmakers. If there was one programme which showed good cinema — ‘Closed screening’ it has actually been closed and [its presenter Alexander] Gordon has nothing to do but quietly get drunk at the Taganka and moan about his life. TV only broadcasts its own commissioning, its a format. It sounds absurd but our TV is the absurd.

Have you had dealings with sponsors or patrons?

I was approached once by a guy who offered me a million to make a film. I took it, but he said, ‘I have two requests — don’t tell anyone I gave you the money and don’t give me any of it back.’ That’s charity for you. But we don’t need a lot of money — film is my way of giving charity to the poor viewer who has been cowed by TV. So I don’t really need producers and budgets, but I can’t manage without help.

Why don’t you work with stars? Surely Chulpan Khamatova for example and other people who are involved with charity work wouldn’t turn down the chance to work on a film for posterity.

I’m against media stars in auteur cinema full stop. They ruin the texture of the film. Imagine you are reading Paustovsky and Grishkovets suddenly pops up. Auteur cinema is a conversation about life in which Svetlakov can’t suddenly appear and start marketing.


$7 million

was spent on Alexei German’s It’s hard to be a God. It won the White Elephant film critics and film press prize but it only collected 1.3 million USD.


What is the situation in Russian cinema with screenplays?

There is a myth among producers that we don’t have any good screenplays. It’s not true. I’ll tell you about my best film script for example - there was a magazine The Art of Cinema which ran a competition for the best film script. They received 500 entries. Balabanov was on the jury. My script was shortlisted and was printed in the journal in a column with Krzysztof Zanussi and the editor said, ‘I read your script all night and wept’. And what do you think? Did even one producer pay attention to it? There are lots of good scripts but where are they? In writers’ desk drawers.

What’s the reason?

There’s no infrastructure. Why don’t we film like in Hollywood? Because a Swiss knife is good when its made for 10 generations. It’s tradition, technology, experience. So Hollywood is an industry where people are trained and cultivated to work in it. The Soviet film industry tradition died in the 1990s and as it collapsed, it gave up a whole pleiad of outstanding directors and significant films. You could reproach me, ‘Gonchukov, you write and shoot films and express yourself. Zvyagintsev does the same and so does Konchalovsky. But no one wants an auteur cinema which works as an industry.

Do you want to start teaching people how to make films with no money?

I already give master classes in directing and in this respect the regions are a rich source of people who want to make films. I tell these kids how to understand what it is they want to say, how to formulate it, how not to jump too high, how to get themselves out of the mire of the regions where there is only television but no cinema. I have some really promising students who make amazing films. I come to teach them and at the same time get new ideas for my own work. As such, the subject of making a film without a budget is particularly apt in Moscow, the city of the absurd. If you take three fashionable Moscow restaurants, one says, we never allow people to film in the restaurant, a second charges 300,000 per day and a third, not less cool, wants 20,000. But if you spend two months looking, you’ll find somewhere in the centre that will let you film for free. To be honest, you compensate for lack of money with your own time and that’s worth talking about.