The unlikely story of a pickles ad that became an award-winning film

The unlikely story of a pickles ad that became an award-winning film

Ivan Sosnin took home The Golden Unicorn for Best Debut at the 2021 Russian Film Week in London. His first feature is an ode to happiness and human connection that span across the long kilometres of Russian railways.

20 January 2022
Text: Lara Olszowska

Born and raised in the small town of Nevyansk in the Ural Mountains, Ivan Sosnin took a less than predictable route into filmmaking. Hungry for the opportunities that big city life offered, he initially moved to the regional hub of Yekaterinburg to study metallurgy. Yet although the course was a popular and practical choice (thanks to the Urals’ rich supply of minerals), it wasn’t where Sosnin’s heart lay. He spent his time in the city pursuing other, more creative interests — which eventually led him into the world of advertising videos. The production company he now runs together with his wife, Yana Shmaylova, boasts a large portfolio of music videos, short films, and collaborations with established Russian artists, from Oxxymiron to Delfin. But the project that directly led Sosnin to his debut feature was somewhat less expected: an ad campaign for pickles.

Sosnin’s team was asked to shoot footage on the concept of homeland, family, and returning home by Uncle Vanya, a canned and pickled goods brand that shares nothing with the art world aside from its name, borrowed from a famous Chekhov play. Sosnin ended up shooting a few short films, which were edited into adverts — but his intuition told him that all of these clips could be turned into a larger artistic project. “I realised on the third short film that this concept [of travelling by train] could tie the shorts into one,” the filmmaker says.

Train travel would eventually make it into Sosnin’s debut feature, Next Station: Russia (2021), along with the anthology structure. The film is narrated by Ivan, whose stoic, weather-beaten appearance conceals the energised, philosophy-prone soul of a poet. We follow Ivan as he makes his way home by train from Vladivostok, Russia’s easternmost Russian city, to Moscow, as he meets new people and soaks in their stories. This structure delivers five different narratives that all share the same narrator, the name of their central characters (it is always Ivan), and the theme of travel.

“We have a huge country and when you travel by train, you can feel it straight away,” reflects Sosnin. “You see how people from different regions of the country live, and that is inspiring.” Next Station: Russia is a skillful attempt at showing this diversity, as its stories span from a heart-warming tale of a deaf sailor in Sochi, to comic misunderstandings between a of Cuban man and the locals in the Urals, to a painful interaction between an estranged father and daughter in Moscow.

Still from Next Station: Russia

Still from Next Station: Russia

The film’s original title translates directly as “Ivan’s Happiness” — and even though Sosnin’s feature does not shy away from sadness or melancholy, the director hoped to explore and portray brighter, more positive emotions. The filmmaker consciously wanted to depart from what he calls the “quite depressing stories” that draw some contemporary Russian directors. Life in Russia, like anywhere else, can be full of hardships that make for successful brooding dramas — but Sosnin, thanks to his background, has a different perspective. “I think that even people who maybe don’t have enough money, or live in the countryside without electricity, still have their happiness, and will always want a good life. I have a grandmother who has lived in the country her whole life, so I also know how people are [living] there,” argues the director.

Still from Next Station: Russia

Still from Next Station: Russia

Next Station: Russia stars the likes of Kirill Käro (Better than Us, To the Lake) and Aleksei Serebryakov (Cargo 200, Leviathan) — an impressive cast for a first-time director. But Sosnin already has a number of successful short films under his belt — even if shorts don’t always get the same recognition as features among critics, viewers, or industry professionals. “In Russia, everyone treats short films like a starting point for a feature film, like it’s a trampoline to the full-length film. But I would like shorts to live as a genre, to exist on their own and not as a launchpad,” says Sosnin. For the time being, the director has to rely on sponsors and streaming platforms to distribute his previous works. He laments that in the future, shorts will be available predominantly online, as it is increasingly harder to find a place for them on big screens.

Still from Next Station: Russia

Still from Next Station: Russia

Sosnin’s upcoming second feature, Dalekie Blizkie (“Distant Loved Ones”), is also a road movie, just like its predecessor. This time, the director abandons the railway in favour of a freeway — but his focus remains on human relationships and communication, despite distance, language barriers, or past conflicts. Filming is now complete, and Sosnin hopes to see the finished product in cinemas later this year. In the meantime, he is writing a TV series and thinking up synopses for new films, both short and full-length.

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