Made by American-Portuguese filmmaker Olivia Ebertz in 2018, documentary Russian Windows presents Ebertz’s relationship with her Nizhny Novgorod-based tutor, Varya, focusing on two main themes: how language learning can create intimacy between strangers, and the limitations of online communication and digital maps.
“I was fascinated by my teacher and our relationship. It’s like how it’s almost romantic when you meet a new friend you’re excited about,” says Ebertz, who is based in New York. The film has gained new resonance in 2020, with the Covid-19 pandemic pushing much of our lives online. “The fact that our relationship was confined to the internet allowed intimacy to bloom in certain ways,” Ebertz says. “For example, she wasn’t really connected to the rest of my life in any way, so I felt like I could tell her pretty much anything (in very simple Russian) without fear of it getting around.”
One particularly honest conversation sees Ebertz ask her tutor about her three greatest wishes. “In life, there is nothing more important than the opportunity to do meaningful work, travelling, and, of course, love,” Varya answers. “Of course I want a good, peaceful family, of course I want to travel, and I already have work that I like,” she adds.
Ebertz was also interested in how the classes helped her overcome her own prejudices.
“When I was exploring [Varya’s Russian] surroundings on Google Street View, I was really trying to unlearn and challenge stereotypes about former Soviet countries that have been so ingrained in me as an American,” Ebertz says. “I’d see a row of large tower blocks, or broken-down factories, and be slightly repelled by them. Then, I’d think about it a little more, and realise we have such similar structures everywhere in the US, that I normally just breeze by.”