Yelena Nusamovitch’s first feature film, “Offski”, is self-described as a “Semi-autobiographical unimpressionistic demise-en-scene Russki kink-n-kill-filled chilling, thrilling educational, streetwalker vodkatalker digital video kaleidoscope travelogue of the seedy deathdreamy, underbelly of the brave new post-Glasnost Russian world”. It’s a portrait of young lovers Sasha & Irina, and their struggle to survive. I had the fortunate opportunity to talk to this up & coming, 28-year-old filmmaker during the 2004 Chicago Underground Film Fest.
Hi Yelena, How are you liking Chicago and the response to your film? ^ Chicago is a great city, so vibrant & full of culture, with many ethnicities. It’s really different from the Ukraine, obviously, and so far the response to my film has been good (I think). If anyone has really disliked it, they haven’t told me, but it’s always a possibility. I don’t mind strong reactions to my work, whether they are positive or negative. To me the most important thing is that there is a response.
What inspired you to do this film? ^ My main inspiration was the tremendous change that Russia has gone through in the last 15 years. Imagine going from a Communist set up, where everything was taken care of by the government, to a more open, free society, where class divisions & capitalism becomes the new way of life. With the change in social status & economic status, your entire mindset gets turned upside down virtually overnight. For the older generation, it was really difficult, but I think the younger people have really embraced it, sometimes with devastating consequences. The influence of the West has been massive, so imagine going from only wearing gray, drab clothing to being able to wear designer clothes & makeup… doors that were never there, suddenly opened up. Of course, having choices is a wonderful thing, but it also brings a sense of being overwhelmed, and a free market economy allows for more corruption. Especially with young people in their 20s, who can become easily influenced by Western culture, music & fashion, or sometimes pulled into a life of drugs, crime and prostitution, because it seems “glamorous”.
Were you influenced by any particular directors, or cinematic style? ^ I think as far as American cinema, I’ve been really influenced by Oliver Stone, Tarantino, Sam Peckinpah, Spike Lee, Jane Campion, Penelope Spheeris & Martha Coolidge, because they all push the envelope, and create films that are visually interesting, a bit raw & make you think. You may not even like their work, but you will walk away from one of their films either loving it, or hating it. A passionate response is guaranteed! I also like a lot of the French directors like Goddard, Jean-Pierre Junet & Luc Besson. They have a more stylish, quirky & artistic method, which is both inspiring, yet there is a dark side there too… a lot like life!
In your film, you used friends, relatives and basically anyone you could recruit for the cast & crew, and although many of your actors had no formal training, they gave great performances. You also took 3 years to complete the film & come up with the creative ways to finance it. How did you manage to keep the inspiration going & stay focused on finishing the film? ^ Ha, ha, ha! Yes, it was a long process, and at times I had to beg, borrow & steal. I also had to constantly bribe people to stay committed to my film, but I think that they saw my passion for it, and despite thinking I was crazy, or very foolish, they wanted to be part of the project, and give their best efforts to it. There really aren’t any formal Russian film schools, or government grants, so I had to rely on my skills as a “bullshit artist” sometimes. A few of the scenes were actually quite improvised, like the scene of Sasha on the balcony. The actor Yevgeny Ormalov was quite drunk, so as he’s teetering on the edge, that was REAL, and luckily for us it worked, and he didn’t kill or injure himself in the process (which might have been interesting)! In another scene, involving Sasha’s love interest, Irina, we were filming at 4 A.M. in what we thought was a deserted alleyway, and some of the residents of the building got fed up with us shooting below them, so someone dumped a bucket of water all over the actress, Daniela Petrovsky. Needless to say, she was not very amused, since it was bitterly cold, and she threatened to quit. It’s funny to think of now, but it wasn’t then!
As far as financing, I worked a lot of different angles & jobs, even getting involved with some shady characters, to finish the film (and that whole process could be a documentary in itself!). I had virtually no money, which is why I had to recruit friends & family, and use digital video…I couldn’t even afford to use real film. Interestingly, my grandparents had a summer house near the Black Sea in Odessa, and they believed so much in my artistic pursuits, that they sold the house & the land it was on, and gave me the money to help me complete the project. So, in a strange way, this film is really my inheritance, and I owe it to my grandparents to see that it is a success.
Were you ever worried that the explicitness, or the very “real” portrayals of modern Russian life would be hard for Western audiences to connect with? ^ Not really, because this is real-life for many Russian people. All I did was try to faithfully capture that, and give my audience a glimpse into what that looks like. It’s not always pretty, but I tried to tone down some of the violent, desperate images, with ones of hope & beauty. Again, like life, there’s always a bright side, with a dark side, good people & bad people, positive choices & negative ones… very yin & yang. I think anyone, in any culture can recognize that dichotomy, and hopefully relate to the joy & pain.
Was it hard to wear the hats of writer, director & actor? ^ Absolutely not, in fact, I found it quite exhilarating to be so totally involved in all of the different areas of my film. It was great training, and a learning experience for me, and really helped me bond with the other actors & crew. I think it’s very demanding, and not for everyone, but if you have the vision, it can be the ultimate experience of a lifetime. Nobody can teach you how to express an emotion, capture it on film & make sure it’s properly lit, especially if it’s your own vision that you’re trying to express. I don’t think I could have done “Offski” any other way.
I know this is a “cliché” question, but can you offer any advice to young, upcoming filmmakers? ^ My basic advice would be to “Go for it!”. If you have an idea or vision that you are compelled to create, then, find people to help you, and do whatever you have to do (within reason) to make it a reality. I wish that I had known 3 years ago, what (and who) I know now, but that’s all part of the learning experience. I also think Chris Gore’s book on how to get a film made is a valuable resource, and should be the bible for anyone trying to make a film.
So, where do you go from here? ^ I’m hoping to get my film out there on the festival circuit, make some good contacts & get distribution. People think getting the film made is the biggest thing, but that’s just half the battle. There’s no point in devoting 3 plus years of your life to a project, if people aren’t going to see it. There has to be a payoff in your vision (and for getting on your knees for your “questionable” investors & your crew guys), and I think I’m well on the way there! As for future projects, I have a lot of ideas, and I’m thinking about forming a Russian production company, so hopefully, this will become a reality for me, and will help other Russian filmmakers to achieve their goals.
Yelena, thanks so much for talking to me & good luck! We’ll definitely keep an eye on your brilliant career! ^ Many thanks to you & to Film Threat…”Spasiba” & “Dos vidanya”!