Cinema beyond borders: actor Justine Waddell on why cultural ties count

Cinema beyond borders: actor Justine Waddell on why cultural ties count

25 September 2018

Actor Justine Waddell fell in love with Russian cinema after learning Russian on the set of sci-fi Anna Karenina update,Target. Now she works to preserve and share classic Russian, Soviet and eastern European cinema as the head and founder of the Kino Klassika Foundation, spreading understanding and appreciation for the region’s rich visual history with screenings, exhibitions, restorations and publications.

The Calvert Journal talked to her about visual heritage, Soviet-style tea leadies, and why she’s proud to be an ambassador of the Saint-Petersburg International Cultural Forum.

Learning to speak Russian was the most remarkable gift. Like most people, I’d gotten to know Russia through books and music; I read Dostoevsky as a teenager. Then, about 10 years ago, I was offered the lead in a Russian film out of the blue. It was a sci-fi film based on Anna Karenina: an ambitious project with a flamboyant screenplay. It was a very special moment in Moscow’s cultural life and I fell into this circle of artists and intellectuals. My character was a native Russian so I had to speak the language. I started learning Russian by watching Russian films. Speaking a language opens doors and emotions and a shared understanding that you wouldn’t otherwise have.

Russia’s cinema industry is a clash of the modern and the traditional. Some things are the same as in any film studio anywhere in the world. The call time is a killer. You’re up early to spend hours in make up every morning. But Russian studios have their own personality. The Mosfilm Studios [in Moscow] have world-class facilities, but you’ll still find these quite old-fashioned tea ladies selling pastries in the corridors and stairwells. There’s nothing about your film or the studio that those ladies don’t know.

Russian films have this sheer scale of ambition. It took four years to film Target. In Russia, that’s quite a regular occurence. The Russian studio system evolved in a different way [to the American studio system]. The American system was commercially driven, but the goal of the first Soviet directors such as Eisenstein was to educate, to ask questions, to provoke, to politicise. Russian cinema hasn’t lost that birthright. Directors get much more time to create.

We can lose a film in one of two ways: when the physical film disintegrates, or just because no one knows about it. At the heart of Kino Klassika is the idea that films aren’t just entertainment or propaganda, but works of art that should be protected, restored and shared across the world. We’ve just embarked on our first restoration programme with Daniel Bird and Fixafilm Poland as our partners. The pilot project, Sergei Parajanov’s short film Hakob Hovnatanyan, is premiering at the Telluride Film Festival in September.

But it can’t only be about preservation of the film itself: it’s also got to be about making the films accessible and bringing them to people on the big screen. Watching a film in its original format is a completely different experience to watching a digital restoration. We support new formats too. We worked with Mosfilm to prepare new subtitles for [perestroika-era classic] ASSA before screening it in May this year. There were people there who’d never seen the film on the big screen and certainly never seen it with fluent English subtitles. It was the highlight of the season and the film looked gorgeous.

Relations are now so fractured between Russia and the UK. Politics is a challenge, especially the kind of politics which is presently rolling above our heads. We receive the majority of our support as donations from private individuals, but corporate sponsorship is now difficult. We have had to put programmes aside, for example Nevaland, a programme about the history of St Petersburg on film, with Catriona Kelly.

We are absolutely committed to providing a free space where people can enjoy cinema without politics, without any national or political agenda. In terms of nationalities at our screenings, I’d say we’re split down the middle: 50 percent English speakers, and 50 percent or so from the New East area. The English speakers tend to be experience-seekers: people who come along to our events because they want to see something new and unfamiliar, they want an opportunity to think a little differently about the world.

Our cinematic language has become so expansive that it’s hard to be heard above the noise. That’s why we try to craft real, curated experiences at our screenings, exhibitions, publications and events. It’s also why the connections that we’ve been able to build internationally are so important to us. They mean that we can find and share knowledge and content that we wouldn’t otherwise know about. A classic example of this is the book we produced with Thames & Hudson, on Sergei Eisenstein’s drawing legacy, which is written by the great Russian Eisenstein scholar, Naum Kleiman.

Forums are so powerful in terms of connecting people. Last year, I became an ambassador of the Saint-Petersburg International Cultural Forum. Forums like festivals are so powerful in terms of connecting people. You can be exposed to ways of thinking about art or cinema that you hadn’t considered before. They are spaces for exchange: you come and you agree and you disagree with all sorts of people. You connect, and you don’t know where those connections will lead to in the future.

Konstantin Shavlovsky, who is Film Editor of Weekend Kommersant, curated our last season of screenings Youth on the March! The Rise of the Soviet New Wave, and that was because we met at the forum. I know our film season would have looked so different if we’d asked a British film historian to curate. I feel that UK academics tend to stick more to an established cannon of 20 to 30 Soviet and Russian films. Konstantin threw in a couple of gorgeous films that had never really been screened here, like Dinara Asanova’s Woodpeckers Don’t Get Headaches. It’s a beautiful little film and it gave us an opportunity to champion her work as a female filmmaker in Soviet history. There’s a whole tradition of female filmmaking in Soviet film which we are determined to make more visible.

The Calvert Journal is a media partner at this year’s St Petersburg Cultural Forum, taking place between 15-17 November 2018. For more information, click here.