In 1991, college freshman Robin Hessman traveled to what was then called Leningrad, to spend a semester abroad in a country that had fascinated her since childhood. She ended up living in Russia for the bulk of the 90s, eventually produced the country's version of Sesame Street. Her Sundance competition documentary My Perestroika chronicles not her own experience as an expat during the barely-post Cold War era, but the experience of five thirtysomething Russians who attended Soviet school together, and are now living very different lives in a post-Communist world for which they had no preparation.
The great hallmark of Hessman's film is its intimacy; her subjects, ranging from husband and wife school teachers to a punk-turned-subway busker to an international businessman, casually tell their own stories over vodka and home movies, with no top-down narration or intervention. I interviewed Hessman here at Sundance, and following the form of the film, below the jump she tells her own story of coming to make a film about the "Russian Pepsi generation." __________________
I had been curious about the Soviet Union for a long time growing up. They were the big bad Evil Empire, we were constantly told their one wish was to destroy the world with nuclear weapons. As a little kid, that didn't make a lot of sense to me. I subscribed to Soviet Life magazine when I was 10. I remember getting in these big fights with my parents -- my mom said I would get blacklisted and would never get a job when I grew up. It came to the house in this brown paper wrapper, and the articles were really dry and technical, but the pictures were amazing. I remember poring over them, and I was especially fascinated by the pictures of kids, because they were somewhat like me, and somewhat not.
Then Gorbachev came when I was in high school, and it was really exciting that this giant cold war was thawing. And I started taking the language senior year of high school. Things were happening so fast, I really just wanted to go and see what it was like for myself. It had been built up as this mythical place. And it was really cultural curiosity. My parents like to joke that it was just me being contrarian -- they like the jkbe that if Belgium had been our enemy, I would be speaking Flemish right now.
When everything started happening so rapidly, I went my freshman year, second semester, with my best friend, James Longley. We went to Leningrad in 1991 -- the last year it was called Leningrad, the last year of the Soviet Union.
Politics interferes in your personal life in ways you don't expect. I was supposed to be in London that summer studying Shakespeare at a University program, but in February they announced for the first time in 30 years they were canceling the program, because it was during the first Persian Gulf War and they thought American students would attract terrorists. So there I was in Leningrad, all of a sudden my summer plans were canceled, so I got a job at the Leningrad film studios. I worked on an American horror movie, starring Robert Englund, the guy who played Freddy Krueger.
Russia and film come together for me at this unique point. I remember landing in Leningrad, January 1991, and out the window it was all white and there were these guys in their fur hats, and they handed us a sheet of ration coupons, because there was no food in the city at all. And you could stand on the street corner, and because there were no ads, you wouldn't know what century you were in. Everything I had read, all the photographs I had pored over, hadn't really prepared me for what it was like. And I remember thinking, "Why have I never seen films of this?"
The kinds of documentary films that we see now certainly weren't being made there at all. There was an official studio system, and films had an ideological purpose. I program a film festival in Moscow, and one of the things I always agitate for is breaking the tradition of using the words "artistic" and "non-artistic" for "fiction" and "documentary."
Because I lived there for eight years in the 90s, and I speak fluent Russian, my subjects like to joke that I'm not an American. So we had a shared language literally, but also a shared language of experience. None of them had in their head what this film would look like; they haven't seen a lot of the kinds of independent documentary films that are coming out of the US and Europe.
They are getting a lot of American pop culture now. All of the DVDs they watch at home are of American movies: Pirates of the Caribbean, all the Star Wars movies, The Matrix. I think Borat never made it there, and I know Charlie Wilson's War never made it there, because it was anti-Soviet about the invasion of Afghanistan. I don't feel there's an idea in general that Western culture is harmful and decadent and will spoil the people, but if there is an anti-Russian message...
See, this is the difference between Putin and the Soviets: there's not going to be an official decree. It will be made clear, and no distributor will take it because they want to watch out for their back. It's not like there's a memo sent out from the Kremlin, but somehow the message will get out. There's a lot of self-censorship; people don't want to get in trouble.
Will it go back to the way it was completely? I don't think so. There is the internet, there is freedom of information. As long as people are traveling, and the internet is not blocked...even if the internet is blocked, the thing that was successfully able to isolate the Soviet people was the lack of travel.
[Part of the film covers a movement to take textbooks critical of the Soviet era out of circulation, in the name of instilling "national pride" in young students.] Wanting to build patriotism -- for me, and for the subjects, all of that is really insidious and scary. And I've showed the film to American friends who say, "What's wrong with having young patriots? What's wrong with presenting history in a way that makes children proud of their country?" And they don't find those words as chilling and threatening as I do. Of course, every country writes their own history in a way that's favorable in some way, but Russia has such a tradition of erasing its past.
It is a slippery slope.
Tags: documentary, interview, my perestroika, putin, robin hessman, russia, russian censorship, soviet, ussr