We met with Russian filmmaker Dmitry Bogolyubov during his visit in Prague in September 2020 when he introduced his film Town on Glory to the Czech audience at the series of screenings. In this interview, he discusses the origins of making this film, his creative process, as well as longtime traumas in Russian society and their connection to Putin’s propaganda.
How did the idea to make Town of Glory originate?
Originally we were planning to make a film about the war based on the memories of the witnesses, people living in the town, who have experienced them. Maybe 10 years ago, there were still many witnesses, not only veterans, but also people who survived Nazi occupation and the hunger which came after the war. The memories were not black and white, which was a very interesting and unique part for me. There were many stories of how Germans helped people, not only suppressed them. One man told me that not all the Germans were fascists and for me that was very important, because we used to have a picture of bad Germans and good Russians. But in reality, everything was mixed up. There were many bad Russians who stole food from each other and good Germans who helped hungry people, helped them with cultivating the land, dealing with cattle and so on. It was not an excuse or justification of Nazi invasion but the picture of that times was not black and white. I have known this town since my childhood and those stories were a constant background when living there.
When I finally decided to start filming, it turned out that these memories were almost gone… and what came instead was manipulative propaganda which plays with this deep fear, deep trauma still living in the Russian society. Now Putin's regime is telling people that fascists are again approaching from the West. Our idea immediately changed because we realized we have to tell the story about this manipulation and about these deep feelings of people and about the methods which the authorities use to manipulate and to implement the ideas that they need. The feelings that are buried deep inside human beings. They are saying: “We are good, everybody is an enemy. If you are not like me, if you are different in any way, you are not a proper man. In some cases you should probably be destroyed.”
How the regime worked in terms of propaganda with “the freeing of Yelnya”?
Everybody in Yelnya knew how many victims were there but nobody is talking about if those victims were really necessary. Official data says there were about 40 000 Russian soldiers killed during a week. Unofficial rumors were about 70 000. “What for?” That is a question that nobody is actually asking. In reality, it was done only for propaganda. The Soviet army and the people were demoralized because Nazis were rapidly approaching. In less than a month they approached this region with almost no resistance. Soviet army was in panic. There were people who remember women in Moscow starting to do their hair in German style - they were awaiting Germans. Many people thought it would be all over in a few months. Nobody is, of course, talking about this now.
Stalin needed to have any victory at any cost to raise army morale. They liberated Yelnya but that victory has no result in terms of strategy. Germans had their reinforcements and after a month they pushed towards. Soon they approached Moscow. Those victims were just for nothing. This is the usual method of Stalin's authority - not to count victims. Because “women will give birth to more people”. That was his phrase. Why did we have a victory in May? Because Stalin wanted to give a present to Soviet people for the 1st of May, which was one of the most important celebrations in Soviet Union, the Labor Day. He slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people to conquer Berlin. He could do the same with less victims later, in a month or two, but he wanted to do it close to this particular day, to give a present to Soviet people. What can we see now? Putin's regime inherits this filosofy. Putin's official statement is: “We want to help everybody, we want to save the world, we help Syria, we invent the vaccine against COVID and so on…” Yet 20 millions of Russians today live below the poverty line. Again, nobody actually cares about human beings.
You are also the director of The Wall, a film where you are observing Stalin’s “fan club”, the people who follow the cult of the person. How important is this cult following in Russian society today?
Unfortunately, this is a very actual topic. You know, you said the “fan club”, but the problem is not in defence of Stalin. Many people, after Soviet Union collapsed, lost their purpose of living, because this regime was very religious. It was not just a society which was doing something. It was a religious thing, after the October Revolution they replaced one faith with another. The Orthodox with Communist faith. We have three saints, Marx, Engels and Lenin. Then the fourth, Stalin, appeared, then he was replaced by Chruscov. And now he is still alive. This is the pantheon of saints, of gods.
These people in my previous film, they need to believe in something. Not in Stalin himself, but in some idea that was actually ruined with the collapse of a Soviet Union. There was a vacuum in this mentality. The ideology was put away, but nothing replaced it. So there is a vacuum and this vacuum sucks everything inside and that's how Putin became so popular. Because he filled this vacuum with things which were in demand in post-Soviet society: antons, tank parades, patriotism, everything that Russion people desired. Funny thing is that many members of this Stalin's “fan club” are in opposition to Putin’s reality. They do not believe in Putin because of oligarchs, corruption and disorder in public administration and army, and they believe that back then in Stalin's times things were much better. They are only victims with a trauma that was not healed.
What are your memories of the East Doc Platform 2017?
East Doc Platform was an incredible experience. We had absolutely no idea how it looks from the other side. We only had an experience from the film school VGIK and when we came here we realised we were absolutely on the right path in our creative approach. We probably just had to be more brave. Everybody here was speaking in the same language. We were absolutely in a big team of people talking about the same things, solving the same problems. It was not a competition, but a teamwork of many different projects. We were one big team and it was the most exciting experience. Me and my wife, we still remember the first pitching at the East Doc Forum as an incredible experience in our careers.
You received three awards (including two money prizes) at the East Doc Platform. How did it help you?
In Russia we cannot get any financing for such a project, not even from the private sector. Even Andrei Zviagintsev, the most notable Russian director, could not get any funding in Russia for his new film. So it really helped and it told us we are on the right track. And all the feedback we received stimulated us to move forward, because we were a bit lost. We were not sure if the story was interesting. When we were awarded, we understood that we were doing the right thing.
How much material did you have?
We were shooting much more characters than we actually have in the film. And it was a big struggle to decide who should stay in the film. For example, we had a very strong, but short story of a refugee family from Donbass, who by themselves lived through the modern days conflict. They said the battle down there on Donbass started when let’s say Western minded Ukrainians came to demolish Lenin's statue in the center of the town and local people went to protect it. It is very symptomatic that because of this ninety year’s old idol people are still fighting. And the family then moved to Yelnya, which is not a typical place for Donbass refugees in Russia.
Also, in the early version of the film there were pioneers we have met in Yelna. In our first trailer, which we have presented here in Prague at the East Doc Platform, there were many pioneers and everything was about them. We thought it could be a very strong theme about nostalgia, about how older people try to live a better life through their kids, inside Soviet symbols, like pioneers. But then we decided to get rid of this line, because it is too complicated for the Western audience to differentiate Youth Army from Pioneers. It’s a pity but maybe we could make other two films with the rest of the material.
It must have been difficult in the editing room...
The constant feeling during the editing was a fight between my own ambitions and the commissioning editor from ARTE. Russians fighting against Germans (laugh). We had completely different approaches and we had a Canadian editor [Phil Jandaly] who could not understand neither mine nor German approach and had his own. But at some point we became allies.
After the German side was satisfied, we strongly reduced the amount of voiceovers and cut out some minor scenes that were just explaining things. Then it became much better in my opinion. But still, it is a compromise. If I could be free in what I am doing, I would have no voiceover, longer shots, more observation, maybe closer to my previous The Wall style, because I don't like to tell the viewer what to think, I just hate it. I don't want to insist on my own point of view, because we have a cinematic language which can narrate by itself instead of the author’s voice.
I have to admit this particular film is rooted very deeply within Russian context. The western audience cannot understand many things because of the context. That might be something I have learnt. I have to be understandable. The question is: How to do that? Should I rethink the approach in general? Maybe the next film will be made in a completely different way. I do not know… I am currently helping my wife Anna Shishova-Bogolyubova with her project The New Imperium and I am not developing my own yet. But after that, maybe I will think about how to make what I want with a language understandable worldwide.
Listen to the True Story podcast with Dmitry Bogolyubov
See the photos from the screening of Town of Glory by Soňa Pokorná