Set in a former Russian labour camp, IMMORTAL observes various youth groups in the town of Apatity preparing for a national holiday; Heroes of Fatherland Day. Director Ksenia Okhapkina poetically captures the harsh, industrial landscape of the town, echoing the dominance of state actors disciplining young participants at military and dance rehearsals. The foundations of rigidity and conformity rooted in the culture become apparent as we see stringent gender boundaries enforced, a proud sense of nationalism imposed and a community constantly connected to its history almost as if it were still living in it. Okhapkina wants us to look at how systems of oppression cloaked in tradition take hold from a young age, challenging our own sense of agency.
Documentary film-maker Oana Tenter (The Pastor's Women) interviewed Okhapkina ahead of the Russian premiere of IMMORTAL about her film-making process, the sincerity of dogs, “public psychoanalysis” sessions in a former gulag (labour camp) town and her beliefs on the functions of documentary-making.
Oana Tenter: The setting of your documentary is so interesting and other-worldly. Can you tell us a bit about how you found this place?
Ksenia Okhapkina: I was actually looking for a new Soviet town built in a landscape without previous settlement or local culture. My advisor who consulted me on my research on the topic of “gulags” suggested I should check out the town Apatity, which is a former labour camp. I went and I found it perfect because it has a totally cosmic landscape, Soviet culture, and a prison-like spirit... a dark appeal that seemed to comply with eternal beauty. That’s why I decided to stick to this place.
OT: Your cinematography is very beautiful and very thoughtfully constructed. Did you have a clear vision of how you wanted the film to look like when you went there or is it an aesthetic that developed alongside the filming process?
KO: It was a process of arriving at these stylistics. My friend, co-author and the cinematographer of the film, Aleksandr Demyanenko suggested many of the stylistic ideas. It was his decision to film in the polar night as well. On our first “expedition”, we went and shot some footage of the patriotic show, that you can see at the end of the film. At that moment we decided that we would try to film people with their backs turned against the camera. We put the camera at the back of the stage and showed this sort of “making of” propaganda show. For me, it worked and then we developed this style and filmed the bus stops and other scenes this way too.
OT: Can you talk a bit about the process of filming - for how long were you there, what was your routine and your approach?
KO: Before we started filming, I was there twice, for about a month, and I checked out different communities, different clubs. I was explaining to people that I wanted to make a film about Soviet culture. At first, they were surprised and asked what I was filming, claiming that there was nothing special there. When I explained that I was trying to capture Soviet culture they said “OK, we understand it” (laughs) “Yes, we have Soviet culture here”. I was there observing. I knew that I would need a bus stop so I woke up at 6 in the morning and went to bus stops to see how it goes. I walked around the town a lot to find the perfect one. There are a lot of bus stops which take people to the factory and I found the one that we ended up using in the film. It looks like it is in a cave, like a box, so we could capture the state of being trapped, of being locked in a place that has been prepared for you.
I checked out different clubs too. At the factory, they organized public psycho-analysis sessions where people deal with their feelings. It was very interesting and I wanted to film there. At first, I wanted to make the psychoanalysis sessions the main narrative but then I decided that maybe the thing I want to explore in the film is not about personal choice but more about circumstances. That’s why we decided to skip psychoanalysis - it’s too private and it’s people’s biographies, which is unique and quite traumatic and doesn’t completely relate to our topic. We checked out different clubs and we stuck to what was connected to the state.
OT: The “public psychoanalysis” sessions sound fascinating. Can you talk a bit about what you witnessed?
KO: I read about it online, it is called public psychoanalysis which is interesting because how can psychoanalysis be public. I found that in general, without going into private stories, people are really afraid to leave and create spontaneity in their life. It’s not because they have no willpower or because there is something wrong with them. They are oppressed by the system from kindergarten to their working life at the factory. When something spontaneous happens they don’t know what to do and feel lost. There was a girl who got pregnant and her boyfriend was happy about it and suggested they get married and keep the baby. She said “no, I’m so scared”, and she cried. She was scared because she doesn’t know how this creature will live here, in this world. She doesn’t like it and doesn’t have a recipe for fighting it. There were a number of such stories. When we have been oppressed for a long time it’s hard to make spontaneous decisions and do what we really want to do.
OT: Is there something that surprised you while you were filming?
KO: The number of fences surprised me a lot. You don’t need such a large number of fences, which you can see in the second part of the film. It is psychological, these prison-like fences. They don’t protect anything from anybody, they just divide. They have many fences even at the cemetery, which seemed full of meaning. It was interesting to think that you’re never free, even if you’re dead (laughs). I think the way space is organized also influences the behaviour of people.
OT: People would be able to move away from this place, right?
KO: Yes, and a lot of people have done so. But a lot of people have stayed too. And a lot of new people come. It’s how the industry works. Russia’s economy is based on such towns and industries. There are a lot of poor places and coming to this place in order to work at the factory can increase people’s standard of living.
OT: We don’t really get close to your characters. I understand that you do this to highlight the fact that the state functions best with non-individual beings, everyone is part of this machine…
KO: In the film we tried to reproduce how the State looks at its people. I think that people who make important decisions in Moscow about the lives of these people really don’t see the citizens as individuals with personalities. that’s why I filmed them like this, not because I think people have no willpower.
OT: Going back to the idea of state as a machine that works best when people don’t question it too much... do you feel like to a certain extent the authoritarian regime manages to erase the individuality of people?
KO: It’s about fear and having no support from your family. I believe all people are born free but it depends what we get in life. When parents have to work at the factory all day, they leave the children in the hands of state structures. The system definitely kills some readiness for spontaneity because oppression is traumatic. And as long as state oppression continues, it will be this way.
OT: In the film, there is not much display of human emotion and you explained why. The glimmer of emotion that really touched me was the dog, I found it very moving. Can you talk a bit about the dog’s presence in the film?
KO: Thank you for asking this because it’s the most important thing for me in the film. I was looking for something really spontaneous and free, which is hard to find there. Everything is a little faceless and not free. I was desperate because it was the end of the shooting period. I went at night to film some factory shots and we just met this dog. He came to us and started to “talk.” We were shooting him and then we chose a location and he followed us. I started to “talk” to him and he answered back. It was just a very sincere moment . I feel that we really lack this in society, sincerity. When dogs are fighting for survival, they become very tough and aggressive and they are able to “talk,” to communicate.
OT: This film is very political in its own way. Do you feel documentary should have a social mission? Does it come from a place of activism for you or is it a space for personal reflection?
KO: It is not activism for me but of course it reflects my way of seeing things, not only in Russia. I just had questions about what it means to be free. Recently we had some protests in Russia but usually this happens at the weekend. When the government makes important decisions during the week there is nobody on the streets to really go into conversation with the people in power. It is so easy to come together and take the streets when people in government take important decisions about your life - why doesn’t it happen more? I think it’s fear that doesn’t let people act in a rational way, which is connected to the history of Russia very tightly. For at least one hundred years people were oppressed, put in prison killed for expressing their opinion on politics publicly. Even my Granny remembers the times when you could be imprisoned just because of your looks, not even protesting against anything. I didn’t want to manifest anything, I wanted to find reasons and some connections for myself and for the viewers also.
OT: Have you screened the film in Russia? Do you think you are going to get into any trouble for it?
KO: I don’t know, we are going to have our premiere in December at Artdocfest. They only asked me to get some of the swear words out. I am very curious about what will happen.
OT: I listened to an interview where you talked about your next project, which I think is very relevant for our Dispatch audience. Can you talk a bit about your next project?
KO: I am about to do a film about women in the Caucasus area. I think it is quite the logical film for me to do next because I noticed quite a special reality when we filmed my previous film in Chechnya (Come Back Free). There are some scenes with the women communities but I was with a male crew then and when my boys came the mood completely changed and the stories of the women stayed invisible. In these traditional communities when the girls reach puberty they are divided from the boys and they spend all their lives in communication with people of the same gender. Women always belong to somebody, they are either someone’s daughter, wife, mother. The appearance of men becomes uncomfortable and a threat, like it happened when the male crew arrived.
I definitely want to film them as I feel their stories should be shown. I feel that love and a lot of power are locked behind the fences where women spend all their lives. It is important to do something with it. This is a place full of conflicts based on geopolitical reasons but also because people are used to a degree of aggression and male domination. These women are part of this power dynamic and are abused a lot but they create different realities which I want to explore in my next film.
The film was screened at IDFA this year as part of Best of Fests section. It also received GRAND PRIX for Best Documentary at the 54th Karlovy Vary IFF, Best Film in the International Competition at Astra Film Festival Romania and Grand Prix at ARTDOCFEST RIGA: Grand Prix. Look out for screenings of IMMORTAL in the UK next year.