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Q&A: Sergei Loznitsa

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Sergei Loznitsa's road movie "My Joy" may seem like a Russian film, but appearances can be misleading. While the film is set in Russia and has Russian dialogue, it did not receive any funding from Russia and was actually filmed in Ukraine. "My Joy" is a 1.5 million euro Dutch-German-Ukrainian co-production with an international cast and crew -- Romanian actor Vlad Ivanov and Romanian cinematographer Oleg Mutu (both of Cristian Mungiu's Golden Palm-winner "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days"), Russian art director Kirill Shuvalov ("Schultes") and Belarusian sound recordist Vladimir Golovnitsky ("How I Ended This Summer"). Loznitsa himself was born in the city of Baranovichi, Belarus and later moved with his family to Kiev, Ukraine. In 1987, he graduated from Kiev Polytechnic Institute with a degree in engineering and applied mathematics. From 1987-1991, Loznitsa was employed at the Glushkov Institute of Cybernetics. He also worked as a Japanese-to-Russian technical translator. He became interested in film, and enrolled at Moscow's Russian State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) in 1991. He studied under Georgian director Nana Djordjadze ("27 Missing Kisses") and graduated in 1997. In 2000, he started working at the St. Petersburg Documentary Film Studio and made three feature-length and eight short documentaries. In 2001, he emigrated to Germany with his wife and two daughters. "My Joy" is Loznitsa's fictional feature debut, and it details the wanderings of the truck driver Georgy (Viktor Nemets) in the hinterlands of rural Russia. Loznitsa spoke with THR's Kirill Galetski about how his Russian screenplay fell through the cracks of the increasingly restricted Russian state financing system and ended up as a European co-production.

THR: How did you come up with a screenplay set in the Russian hinterlands?

Sergei Loznitsa: It came from the experience of traveling. I had been shooting documentaries in the Russian provinces since 1997. I shot only one film in Moscow. All the rest were shot in the Smolensk Region, Novgorod Region, Karelia, Pskov Region -- mainly the European part of Russia, so I know these places very well. While I traveled through them, I accumulated a number of stories that I wanted to tell. People I met told stories, and I was able to put them together. This includes a story of a man who drove somewhere, someone hit him on the head, and he ended up being stuck in one place. This is how I came to make the main character a driver.

THR: Why shoot the film in Ukraine?

Loznitsa: Ukraine offered funding, or more precisely, Ukrainian producer Oleg Kokhan did, through private sources. He counted on the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture supporting us, and it did, so we were obliged to film in Ukraine. I would have gladly filmed in the Novgorod Region, which I know very well, and I even know the places where I would film, but the Russian Ministry of Culture did not support this project. We applied for funding though the Russian ministry in 2007, but we were rejected. Since they had first dibs and weren't interested, we said "Spasibo, Dosvidanya." (Thank you and goodbye.)

THR: How specific is the film's setting?

Loznitsa: The story could happen practically anywhere, but not quite. It is after all, the European part of Russia. It is the land before you reach Moscow, the territory that saw the events of World War II. It is near the place where Belarus, Russia and Ukraine meet.

THR: Why did the main character make the trip?

Loznitsa: There are people who work as drivers. They have to drive freight from Point A to Point B. Why did the driver stray from his path? That's the real question. He's a kind-hearted person -- he pulled over to try and help a girl, but it turned out to be some kind of nonsense. You don't ever need to help anyone -- it will end badly. That's not really the moral of the story, but the situation turns out that way. But that's not the main thing. A road movie is a description of space, and I wanted to describe and show the space. So there are many characters -- about 38 of them -- and there are many episodic passages. Many episodes are two to four minutes long and they move on to different episodes with a different cast of characters. There are many situations that are very different from one another, but there is one thread that connects them - the main character. So we end up with a palette of Russian life.

THR: How do the films visuals reflect this?

Loznitsa: The cinematographer must lend a sense of harmony to the proceedings. The film is shot in mostly long takes of up to five minutes in length. We strove to keep cuts and different camera angles to a minimum in order to use frame montage as much as possible. There were only about 140 cuts, while your average film might have 1,000 or more. We may start with a close up, but each camera movement would be associated with the movement of a character. We used a handheld camera mounted on an Easyrig. The close up could turn into a medium and then a long shot, but it would be in a single camera movement.

THR: How did you come to employ cast and crew members from "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days"?

Loznitsa: Vlad Ivanov is from a village that is not far from the Ukrainian and Moldovan borders, but he's Romanian. He doesn't really speak Russian, so we had to dub him over. That doesn't matter, however. He's a very good actor, so that's why we engaged him. Oleg Mutu was born in Moldova, grew up and went to school in Chisinau. He studied film in Bucharest, became a cinematographer and he lives there now. He speaks Russian, but that's not the main thing. The main thing for this film was to be familiar with the local realities. How can you shoot if you can't get under the skin of this space? I mean the Soviet space. You had to have life experience in the Soviet Union. Above all, I think that Oleg Mutu is one of the best cinematographers working in Europe at the moment.

THR: Why did you emigrate to Germany?

Loznitsa: There were many reasons. If I didn't emigrate, I probably would not have been able to make "My Joy." Most of the funding for the film came from Germany. Before, I could live in Russia and be an independent filmmaker with budgets of $20,000-$25,000, but now things have become more difficult. I have a Ukrainian passport, and at a certain point in time, Russia stopped financing those who had the "wrong" passport. Around 2004, things started getting difficult for Ukrainians. It's politics -- some kind of shadow was cast. Perhaps no one issued any instructions or directives, but the bureaucrats at the Russian Ministry of Culture evidently felt which way the wind was blowing. In addition, the situation itself in Russian cinema is more and more difficult. In the last two years, documentary films have received practically no funding. The previous film I made, completed in January 2008, was a German co-production, and if it wasn't a co-production, it wouldn't have been made. It is called "Revue" and it was a very technically complex film. Most of funding was from Germany, and I have the best chance of receiving funding from Germany if I'm a German resident. Germany gives me the opportunity to work as an artist. The country to whose culture I belong still does not provide such opportunities on a widespread basis. There was never a time when Russian producers called me up and said, "Sergei, let's make something."

How do you feel about your film having been selected for the Competition at Cannes?

Loznitsa: The film's presence in the main competition at Cannes is a great honor for me and the entire international production team. Working on the film was a joy and the invitation to Cannes is a gift that I accept with keen humility. I do not look upon participation in the Cannes Film Festival as a contest. For me, it is primarily an opportunity to show my film to the most professional and sophisticated audience in the world. I hope that this audience will be partial to "My Joy."