October 23 – 28, 2017 hosted the second meeting out of the three Ex Oriente Film international workshop sessions. The 15th year offered the visitors of MFDF Ji.hlava a cornucopia of associated program items. The guest invitations included the young Russian director, Dmitrii Kalashnikov, who introduced his latest document The Road Movie consisting of collected dashboard camera shots from cars driven by Russians. We used the opportunity to ask Dmitrii a few questions.
Initially, you studied Law and only transferred to the Film and TV University at Saint Petersburg later. How did you find your way into filmmaking?
I lived in Arkhangelsk, Northern Russia, and after graduating from school I entered the University to study law. I wanted to study History actually, but failed the entrance exams to the department. Anyway, for about the first two years it was quite interesting to learn different things about law and Russia’s political system, but after that I just realized that I don't want to be a lawyer or judge or part of the police system - it was just not interesting for me. I felt that I'm not that kind of person who can be in that system.
So I just considered what I want to be for some time, and decided that it's fun to be a filmmaker. So, I started to watch different "arthouse" films, bought a small digital camera and experimented with what I could do with that.
I didn't want to disturb my relatives who thought that first and foremost, I need to have a university degree, so I finished the Law program and only moved to St. Petersburg to study at the University of Cinema and TV afterwards.
Do you think that these two fields have anything in common – does the knowledge of law help you in your filmmaking?
I think I have very short-term memory and I can hardly memorize anything that I've studied at the Department of Law. It certainly influenced me in a way, but I’m afraid I’m unable to figure out how exactly. I have one project in mind where the topic relates to the Russian judicial system. Maybe that will be a good opportunity for me to use the remaining knowledge of Law.
How did the idea to make something like The Road Movie appear?
There were several reasons why I started to work on this film.
Once I was just searching the web and I found an episode recorded on the dashboard camera that literally hit me. It was a car accident in winter – two cars crashed badly just in front of the car with the dashboard camera. Nothing else happened for a long time – people were walking in front of the camera from one place to another and it was unclear if everyone was alive in that cars. But during the whole episode, a woman and her mother were speaking and commenting the situation. And what they were telling was becoming reality to me. The mother said that an old man was taken from the car and covered with a sheet. She said that he was dead. And he died for me at that moment. But in a minute or so her daughter said that he was alive and the people were putting a sheet under his head. And he became alive for me. I was thrilled by this effect. The tension of this episode was so intense, I'm not sure if I've seen anything like that before. I mean I've seen this kind of video, there is a lot of them on the web, but at that moment I realized that these videos are not just funny or entertaining. They have absolutely unique qualities in the sense of documentary cinema. They present the pure "fly on the wall" concept. No one controls the camera. There's no cameraman, no director. Everything happens purely by chance, even though sometimes it looks like a scripted masterpiece. And when you have this idea in mind, watching all these videos it gives another angle. Moreover, the way video and sound work in these videos fascinates me. It is not a common situation for cinema. We see what is happening outside of the car and hear people behind the camera (driver and passengers). So video and sound exist almost separately and that creates an awesome effect in my opinion. But I think I would never come with an idea to use videos from the web to do a film if I haven't seen some of Dominic Gagnon films (mostly made of youtube videos). I suppose his work opened some new perspectives for me.
Where did you collect all the material for your film?
I was just searching the web. It's full of amazing things. There is a lot of trash there, but also some diamonds. At first I thought that maybe I'll need to re-enact something or stage some episodes, but then it became obvious for me that I won't be able to do anything better than already exists. And also this small cheat could ruin the whole "reality" of what is happening in the other episodes. At least for me it would.
How long was the process of finding videos and putting them together?
I was making this documentary for about a year - searching for material and editing. Most of the time these two processes were closely connected. And till the very end of the editing process I went back and searched for new stuff. But at a point I just told to myself - "Enough, or I'll never finish this film otherwise".
Did you have any script before you started editing?
No, I didn't have any script. The whole process was kind of an experiment for me. At first I just wanted to share the cool stuff that I'd found with others. And then I started to search for a form, a structure. The most important thing for me in this work was not to ruin the "purity" of the material, that's why I've decided not to do any narration and avoid any interference with the separate episodes. I tried to work more with the emotions which the videos create, I tried to navigate the spectator through all these strange videos being on the edge of funny and tragic. I tried to show other people what amazing things I've seen in the material.
Did you plan to make a movie for international audience? Did you intend to show the Russian mentality through your film right from the start?
Yes, in a way.
I've seen several US Late Night shows where dashboardcam videos from Russia were discussed. I think it was after the meteorite fell in Chelyabinsk in 2013. And there I learnt that for example American audience likes that kind of "crazy Russian" videos.
But actually I didn't think a lot about the audience in a broad sense of the word during the editing process. I mean I thought about the way to navigate the emotions of a person who would watch this film, but I didn't think about any specific audience. I was not even sure that the film would be interesting for a wide audience.
As I was working with the material that was shot in Russia and by Russian people, I thought that it could be kind of a collective portrait of my country. I've realized that the most interesting and important thing for me is not what is happening on the road, but the way people behind the cameras react to that. It was quite a surprise for me that people in crazy, absurd and tragic situations are quite calm. It looks like they can adapt to anything and just try to live in new conditions. I'm not sure that this is a special Russian character trait. Maybe not. In that sense, I suppose dashboard cam videos can be really interesting to anthropologists and maybe sociologists. It would be great to analyze dashboard cam videos from other parts of the world but, unfortunately, dashboard cameras are mostly used in Russia and other Post-Soviet countries, not world-wide.
Your film The Road Movie has had great international success - and is even distributed in the USA. How do you take it? Is the feedback different in Russia and abroad?
The Road Movie will be distributed in the US in the beginning of 2018. And I hope we'll have theatrical distribution in other countries.
I think the film is quite successful because of the material I've used. It's entertaining and shocking at the same time. It gives a lot of emotions to the audience, the whole range of it. Maybe the combination of cinema and "youtube videos" also matters. To my mind this film is better watched in a theatre, it gives a totally different level of feelings.
The film was shown at different festivals around the world and I think the reaction of the audience was almost the same in all of the places.
Although some things are lost in translation that's why maybe the experience of watching this film will be a bit different for the Russian-speaking audience, but still - it's not too significant, I feel. I believe that the main difference is that the audience in Russia will watch it as a kind of a self-portrait, and internationally it'll be more like an exotic thing. But anyway, I think this film deals with universal themes and emotions and that's why it can work well for any country.
In the past, you also graduated from IDFA Academy. This year at Ji.hlava, it´s you who has been sharing your experience like a tutor with filmmakers. Did you enjoy that?
It was very exciting and made me really nervous at the same time. When I received the invitation to do the masterclass, or I prefer it to be called extended Q&A, I thought that it might be a mistake. It was my first experience of the kind and I liked it.